Most characteristic of Western religions today are the proscribed “religious rules” imposed upon adherents. Sacred texts represent the source of these rules and boundaries that serve to guide religious rhetoric. For many Christians, if “the Bible says so,” then all other arguments fail. The sacred text becomes the final word.
Yet, situated in a long stream of regulations, detailing what one may or may not do on Yom Kippur, lies a profound mishnayot, or verse in the Jewish rabbinic text of the Mishnah. It says,
“Wherever there is doubt whether life is in danger this overrides the Sabbath” M. Yoma 8:6
To the framers of the Mishnah, this assertion opens the doors for possibilities beyond the religious legal stipulations. If a person is sick, one may “drop medicine into his/her throat.” If a building falls upon a person, they may “clear away the ruin from above him.” This principle of pikuach nefesh asserts that almost any mitzvah, or commandment, may be broken in order to save a human life.
This moment in a string of legal stipulations provides a glimpse at “real life” for a religious community. It is easy to cite the Bible and compose a religious framework that insists how a community must act, saying stipulations such as “She may not work on the Sabbath because the Bible says so,” to larger moral grounds, “He may not marry him because the Bible says so.” But in real life, religious frameworks come face to face with real people and real circumstances. Sometimes religious frameworks are not life giving but pose a threat, and in those cases, life must override our religious rules.
This concept goes back to the fundamental understanding of Lev 18:5 “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one will live: I am the Lord.” The assertion that the law brings life governs the entire religious framework of the rabbinic community. Yes, there are precise religious practices spanning many volumes in Judaism and in the statements of faith and conduct in Christianity, but at their fundamental core is the instance by God that they should bring life.
If what “the Bible says” ever inhibits a person from experiencing a life-affirming existence, we must consider life first. We must consider how our religious frameworks sustain and affirm life. Our religious texts should not be elevated to a prestige which trumps the ever-burning spark of life within us all. If religious law does not bring life, then let life override religion.