05/01/2012 11:05 am ET | Updated Jul 01, 2012

Leviticus 19: To Stand or Not to Stand Your Ground

A national conversation is taking place about the "stand-your-ground" laws that a number of States have passed in recent years. The controversy generated by the case of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was killed by a gun (allegedly) fired by George Zimmerman, a volunteer community watch coordinator for a gated community in Sanford, Fla., has caused many to question whether those laws encourage unjustified violence in threatening situations.

While the right to self-defense is a principle deeply rooted in Jewish biblical and rabbinic sources, this week's Torah portion actually calls on us to think about how not to stand our ground as we respond to the needs of others.

In the famous Holiness Code found in the portion of Kedoshim (the second of our two Torah readings this week, Leviticus 16:1-20:27), we find a far-reaching commandment in Leviticus 19:16: Lo ta'amod al dam re'ekha, "you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor."

The rabbis of the Talmud understand this verse to obligate Jews to save people from mortal danger (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a). There are different opinions in the Jewish legal tradition about how much risk one is obligated to take in order to save the life of another in distress. Some require the bystander to put him/herself in uncertain danger to save the life of someone in certain danger; others do not require any risk of one's own life. This issue is at the center of Jewish legal debates on the permissibility of kidney donation in situations where there is risk to the donor.

A famous case in the Talmud records a story of two men traveling in the desert. Only one of them has enough water to survive. The sage Ben Petura argues that the water should be shared so that one does not witness the death of the other. However, Rabbi Akiba contends that the one who possess the water should drink it since one's own life takes precedence over the life of another. The rabbis adopt Akiba's latter position as normative practice. But what about cases in which it is not certain that you will die? Should you take a risk to save your fellow human being? How much risk? There is much disagreement in the tradition on these questions.

There is also a lively discussion among rabbinic authorities about how much money one is obligated to spend in order to save the life of a person in distress. According to Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (popularly known as the Chafetz Chaim), a great rabbinic authority of the early part of the 20th century, one is obligated to spend all one's money if necessary to save another's life (Ahavat Chesed 2:20).

While most authorities consider 20 percent of one's wealth the upper limit for charitable giving, this case might be an exception to the normal limits of charity since the obligation derives from the commandment not to "stand idly by the blood of your neighbor," which demands the use of all of our resources. Indeed, this biblical injunction may be the most far-reaching command obligating us to assist those whose lives are in jeopardy because of disease, hunger, abuse or war.

The Israeli Knesset actually passed a Lo ta'amod al dam re'ekha Law in 1998. It requires a citizen "to proffer assistance, when able to do so without endangering himself or his fellow, to a person who, in close proximity, and following a sudden event, is subject to a serious and immediate danger to his life, his person, or his health." This piece of modern Israeli legislation requiring a citizen to assist another in danger is a direct outgrowth of the biblical verse from our Torah portion. In general, U.S. law does not mandate a similar obligation to intercede on behalf of another citizen.

The debate about "Stand your ground" laws encourages us to think about the limits of individual rights when we are confronted by danger. Important as this discussion may be, we must also be attentive to the obligations we have to preserve and protect the lives of our fellow citizens.

Those involved in the national conversation about health care reform, poverty and unemployment would do well to listen to the words of this week's Holiness Code. If life is sacred, then our society must take the obligation to save life with utmost seriousness.

Washington seems filled with people willing to stand their ground, to take a stand and defend sacred principles. Saving the lives of our most vulnerable citizens may require a different stance, one that calls on us not to stand firmly but to act boldly on behalf of those in need.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.