This week brings us another double Torah portion, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim ( Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27). The first of these two portions begins with the words, “God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron” and lays out a series of laws. The first set explains how the priests of the Temple are to establish boundaries in order that no more of them shall die while serving God in the Temple, especially in the Holy of Holies. There follows a short set of rules for sacrificing animals, and for eating meat in other instances, and the largest part of the chapter then deals with forbidden sexual relationships.
At the beginning of this last section comes a verse, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, which, if a person does, he shall live by them.” (Lev. 18:5). The phrase “and live by them” is used in the Talmud as a prooftext to uphold the principle of pekuach nefesh, saving a human life. In the words of Rabbi Pinchas Peli, author of Torah Today, “The laws of Torah are to be life-giving and are abrogated when they result in the opposite or are endangering life.” With a very few notable exceptions, Jews are not expected to die for our faith.
Jewish laws should be broken when keeping them would endanger human life. We are to live by them, says the Talmud, not die by them.