Making the choice of whose blood is redder

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 23 July 2019

Most of us are familiar with the ethical dilemma known as the trolley problem. You see a runaway tram moving toward five incapacitated people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected, and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track who would have otherwise survived. You have two options: Do nothing and kill the five people on the track ahead. Or pull the lever to divert the trolley, killing the single person on the side track.

Problems analogous to the trolley problem have arisen in the design of driverless cars which will need to be programmed with an algorithm to choose between various courses of action in a crash scenario. The car will need to make decisions that can cause harm, either to the cars occupants or to people outside it. A machine will be left to decide who is worth more.

A platform called the Moral Machine was invented, to allow the public to weigh in on the decisions these autonomous vehicles should make. Observers taking part in the experiment were forced to choose, between the lesser of two evils. What is the more acceptable outcome for the driverless car in an unavoidable crash?

Should the passengers in the vehicle be sacrificed to save a pedestrian? On should the pedestrian be killed to save a family of four? What if the pedestrian is a pregnant woman? Or the young bright person with the highest earning potential of their peer group?

Researchers have analysed over 40 million responses to the Moral Machine since its launch in 2014. The results suggested that people prefer to save humans rather than animals, spare as many lives as possible, and tended to save the young over elderly people. Smaller trends showed a preference for saving females over males, pedestrians over passengers, and those of higher status over those who were poorer.

The research showed cultural differences as well. People in France were more likely to weigh up the number of people killed, those in Taiwan placed least emphasis on sparing the young, and those in Japan were most concerned with saving pedestrians.

Never before has a machine been allowed to play ‘God’ and independantly decide who should live and who should die. Yet we are about to cross that bridge. Our lives will be decided in a fraction of a second, without real time supervision. Soon our worth will be decided by an algorithm. A series of statistics will decide whose blood is more red, whose life adds more value.


The Sages of the Talmud struggled with their own version of the Trolley Problem. They assess various times when a Jews life could be in danger and decide when or if one should act. They decide in all circumstances one must allow themselves to be killed rather than kill another, for how can you judge between their life and yours? In their opinion it is impossible for a human to judge if one person is worthier than another for we will never know the deeds that a person has done, or the struggles they have faced. In any situation, we must allow the circumstances to play out naturally, for humans are not able to decide whose blood is redder.

So how can we hold their rulings alongside the events of this week’s Torah portion when Pinchas makes the decision to kill two people with a single spear thrust. 20th century Torah scholar and biblical commentator, Nehama Leibowitz, describes Pinchas’s violent deed as having been ‘on the spur of the moment, without trial, or offering previous warning, without legal testimony being heard, and in defiance of all the procedures of judicial examination prescribed in Torah.’

Pinchas is held in high regard in our narrative and is even rewarded for his actions with a covenant of peace granted by God. The chaos and anarchy that has ensued by the Israelites coming into contact with other nations is threatening  God’s plan for the Israelites. The sexual promiscuity, and movement towards other Gods, is the final straw for our deity. Pinchas believes he is enacting God’s work with his actions, which put a stop to the digressions and end the plague that has afflicted the Israelites that has already killed twenty-four thousand. God enforces this belief by rewarding him after the event.

Many commentators struggle with Pinchas’s actions, his ability to play ‘God’ and take life and death into his own hands. They grapple with the reasoning behind his reward and question the merits of his actions. The Jerusalem Talmud states outright that Pinchas acted against the will of the Sages. These Palestinian rabbis go as far as to say that Moses and the elders wanted to excommunicate Pinchas for his actions, but God stepped in to save him.  The Babylonian Sages say that Zimri had the right to turn and kill Pinchas in a mode of self-defence, as he was being pursued.

It has been argued that the narrative is so challenging that it is broken over two parashiot, so that we can get some distance from the violence over the week. In the Ha’amek Davar, a Torah commentary by the 19th Century Rabbi known as the Netziv, it states that Pinchas is given a blessing for the attribute of peace, so that he would not be strict and intemperate. The nature of the deed that Pinchas committed—to kill a soul by his own hand—would leave intense emotion in the heart afterwards. So, because the deed was for the sake of heaven, he is given a blessing that gentleness and the attribute of peace will always be with him.


However this view does not go far enough to justify Pinchas’s actions for many. Pinchas is given divine protection, both for himself and for future generations. Commentators reason that this Divine promise is not for physical safety, but instead guarantees instead a protection against the inner enemy, lurking inside the zealot. It is a hope that Pinchas will be protected from these urges in the future. The covenant of peace is a preventive act, in which God ensures that Pinchas will no longer continue to act murderously. Because of his reward and blessing, the zealot is forced to become a man of peace.

The Hebrew words for this covenant of peace as written in our Torah scroll have an interesting addition, as if the scribe is trying to draw our attention to this phrase. The vav in the word ‘shalom’ has a break in it as if to recognise that the covenant of peace is not yet complete or whole. It is a two sided bargain, God has done one part and it is now up to Pinchas to work to complete the vav and create peace.

There are still people in the world that would act like Pinchas, deciding who should live and who should die, and believing their actions are the work of God. Yet who lives and who dies is not just an ethical dilemma, waiting to be solved. Every human life is significant and holy, no one’s blood runs more red than another.

May we help the world move towards a covenant of internal peace, where we are able to find within ourselves the strength needed to create peace in the world. May we surround ourselves with others, so that when we cannot find our own peace they can help us work to find it, and together we can promote healing in the world. Ultimately, may we always honour the sanctity of human life, knowing that all are created equal, and it is not up to us, or to a machinery algorithm, to play God and decide who lives and who dies.