One of our most beloved ideals is the value we place on human life. What do we do when we have to choose between two innocent lives? Let me set out an example: Someone is driving along a narrow cliff road. That person is coming around a bend at a reasonable speed. At the same moment a bicycle rider is rounding the same bend from the opposite direction. Then, at the worst possible time, the cycler loses control and heads straight into the path of the car. The driver’s only two options are a) attempt to brake (but will still hit the cycler with deadly force), or b) navigate the car off the cliff (which will cause certain death). Neither party meant to harm the other. Whose life should the driver choose?
Murder is one of the three cardinal sins for which one must forfeit one’s own life before taking the life of another. If someone holds a gun to your head and instructs you to kill another person or he’ll take your life, you must choose your own death over killing another. The Talmud explains the reason for this law: “Who says your own ‘blood is thicker’ than the other person’s blood, perhaps his ‘blood is thicker’ than yours?” This means you have no way of knowing who is more important in the eyes of God and therefore do not have the right to take another’s life for the sake of your own. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 74a).
The commentators explain that this Talmudic ruling applies only if you are told to perform an action to kill the other person. If, however, the gunman tells you to not move while he throws you on another person in a way in which the other will be killed (if you don’t obey the gunman you’ll be killed), you need not forfeit your life to prevent that occurrence. Since you will be taking no action, you are like the ax in the hand of the chopper. The chopper is committing the action, with the ax considered an extension of his hand. In that case, since you are committing no action, you may apply the opposite reasoning: Who says the other’s blood is thicker; maybe your blood is thicker! (Tosefos and Ra’n loc cit; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 157:1).
A similar ruling is found in reference to the question of two Jews walking in the desert, one with a flask of water and one with nothing. There’s only enough water for one of them to make it to the village; if they both drink they both will die before they arrive. One opinion is that the man with the flask should let his friend drink, so both will die. The final ruling is like the opinion of Rabbi Akiva who learns from the verse “your brother should live with you” (Lev. 25), which teaches that your own life precedes the life of another; you have the right to drink your own water and live though the other person will die. In this case, you are not performing an act to kill the other; you are only passively doing so by saving yourself. (Talmud, Bava Metzia 62:a).
In your theoretical case, the driver of the car performed no action to bring the car onto the other to save himself. Even braking would not stop the car in time to save him. He therefore would not be obligated to drive off the cliff to save the cycler who put himself in the path of danger.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.