Wednesday, August 16, 2006

It's Judaism, But Not As We Know It. Or is it?

I just returned from a very pleasant three day vacation with my wife to Niagara Falls – the children stayed home with their grandparents. Suffice it to say that a short term, adult-only vacation is a great stress buster; I highly recommend it. That is not what I am posting about, however.

Our hotel, like many hotels, passes out free newspapers at your door every morning, in this case a popular newspaper called USA TODAY. I’ve seen that paper in prior business travels, and it seems to be popular because it gives you a quick overview of national issues, business, weather etc.

As I was perusing our free paper over breakfast, I could not help but be drawn to an op-ed about abortion. Here is the link:

This was an unusual op-ed because it was written by a professor of “moral theology” at a rather obscure university, whom the footnote indicated had authored a book with the tendentious title “The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions.” I immediately skipped down to the section on Judaism, and sure enough, was treated to this blurb:


Because of the survival challenges Jews have faced historically,
Judaism places great stress on children as a blessing. Nonetheless, as Orthodox
theologian Laurie Zoloth says, “Abortion appears as an option for Jewish women
from the earliest sources of the Bible and Mishnaic commentary.” According to
most Jewish authorities, the fetus does not have the status of a nefesh, a
person, until the head emerges in the birthing process. This does not mean,
however, that late-term abortions would be deemed acceptable in all
circumstances. In some cases, performing an abortion is even considered a
mitzvah, a sacred duty, not a “lesser evil.”

My first reaction was: Aaaargh!!!!! My second was: Who are they kidding?

Now I am well aware that there is a dispute in the sources, of the Mishna in Ohalos, the Gemaras in Sanhedrin, the views of Rashi and the Rambam. Still, I think that among modern day poskim – say in the last 200 years – there is a consensus, more or less, that abortion is (1) generally forbidden; (2) mandated for pikuach nefesh (to save the life of the mother) and (3) may be permitted in other, narrow circumstances not quite pikuach nefesh but still rather severe. I think it would be fair to say that one would be hard pressed to find respected, mainstream Orthodox poskim who would permit an abortion in all but the narrowest non-pikuach nefesh circumstance and even harder pressed to find any Orthodox authority who would advocate abortion as an “option” for Jewish women. (Indeed, if anything the two most prominent Orthodox “theologians” of recent times – Rav Soloveichik and Rav Moshe Feinstein – were, to my knowledge, rather strict on the issue.)

Apart from the substantive deficiency, my next issue is the only authority cited is “Orthodox theologian Laurie Zoloth.” Who? I have never heard the name even in the negative sense (e.g. bloggers ranting about the near kefirah that goes on in some left-wing Orthodox circles) and certainly never quoted as an authority. A quick Google search indicates that Ms. Zoloth is a Professor of Ethics who considers herself Orthodox and writes and lectures about ethical issues, primarily medical ethics.

Then there are the downright misleading portions:

Because of the survival challenges Jews have faced historically, Judaism places great stress on children as a blessing. This is academic Judaism at its worst, IMO. Children have been considered a blessing ever since HKBH blessed Adam and Eve and commanded them to be fruitful and multiply. The Torah tells us that Hashem picked Avraham Avinu as the father of the Jewish people precisely because he would perpetuate the tradition of the way of Hashem to his offspring. Hence Avraham prayed mightily for children to continue his mission.

Abortion appears as an option for Jewish women from the earliest sources of the Bible and Mishnaic commentary. – Really? Where? The sources I know about are the pesukim in Mishpatim (Shemos 21:22) which talks about an unintentional abortion and the Mishna Ohalos 7:6, which talks about a women having labor problems. Option? Where?

In some cases, performing an abortion is even considered a mitzvah, a sacred duty, not a "lesser evil.” And what circumstances might those be, hmmm? Why pikuach nefesh, that’s when. Kind of let’s the air out of the rhetorical tire, no?

So, to put it mildly, the blurb is highly misleading. Yes, I know I could write in to the editor, but frankly I doubt it do much good in this case. Still, I think we can derive several lessons from this little event:
  • Don’t believe everything you read, especially about religion. The same article talks about religious views of abortion in such varied religions as Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism. I haven’t a clue as to whether they are accurate or not. But having seen how the “Jewish” view was completely butchered, I would read the rest with several pounds of salt.

  • People who know better will slant things to fit their agenda. I find it hard to believe that the author of the article, if he was really interested in finding out the Orthodox Jewish position on abortion, could not come a lot closer than what he did. Rabbi J.D. Bleich, for one, has easily accessible, English reviews of such “contemporary” halakhic issues. Even your average LOR would realize that the above blurb, whatever it is, is not Judaism as we know it, and could point the good Professor to the pertinent sources. So where there is an axe to grind, there will be a grinding stone to grind it.

  • Academic theology commands more respect in the non-Orthodox and non-Jewish world than we are used to. In the world of Orthodoxy, the position of the Jewish academic – by wish I mean those engaged in study of some aspect of Judaism, such as history, theology, religion, etc. in the context of secular academia – is marginal at best. In the Orthodox world, the religious leaders are poskim, Roshei Yeshiva, and prominent rabbonim. A “Professor of Jewish Theology” is viewed as, at best, a curiosity and at worst a suspect heretic. An authority on the position of “Judaism” on controversial issues like abortion, certainly not.
    My impression is that this is emphatically not the case in Reform and Conservative circles, not to mention in non-Jewish circles.
    This has to be kept in mind when discussing Jewish issues with those outside the Orthodox fold. The fact that “Professor X at Bar Ilan” thinks that there is no reason for us to observe Tisha Be Av is interesting, but frankly has no impact whatsoever on the practice of Orthodox Judaism in just about any circle I know of, be it, MO, RZ or Charedi. But those outside the Orthodox world may not be aware of that reality.

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