Posted by Roger Price
The first of the two annual migrations of North American Jews began a couple of weeks ago, with thousands and thousands of young Jews heading to colleges across the continent. (See The annual migration of North American Jews to college.) The second seasonal migration of North American Jews is quite different. The population is generally older, sometimes much older, than the college bound migrants. Often, but not always, these relatively older adults are accompanied by young children.
This second migration, which begins soon, amounts to a pilgrimage. The distances travelled are generally shorter than the trips to college, sometimes much shorter. The older adults, whether singly, in pairs or in family groups, will go to some synagogue or temple, maybe even a hotel, a movie theatre or a church, but in any event to some location where other Jews are gathering to participate in High Holy Days services. For many, this will be the only time or two in the year in which they will engage in any religious or Jewish communal activity.
The 2012 Jewish Values Survey of the Public Religion Research Institute found that “slightly more than one-third (35%) of American Jews report being a member of a local synagogue . . . .” Self-identifying Conservative Jews appear to do so about twenty-five percent (25%) more often than self-identified Reform Jews. Among those who are “just Jewish,” only one in twenty is a member of a congregation.
Whether affiliated or not, only about a fifth (21%) of American Jews attend religious services once or twice a month. Just over a quarter (26%) never attend. That leaves slightly more than half of the adult Jewish population (52%) who say they attend “seldom” or “a few times a year.” (See http://publicreligion.org/research/2012/04/jewish-values-survey/. (At 27.)) If they are going to participate at all in Jewish communal activity, High Holidays are the likely time.
What will they see and what will they hear? When they arrive at their destination, they may see family or old friends, or not. But there will be crowds, dense crowds, generally dressed well, as if attending an important business meeting. For some, that will be joyous. For others, it will accentuate feelings of anomy or alienation from the community.
Relatively few will understand whatever is said in the ancient tongue that dominates the occasion. For most, the service will be inaccessible, even opaque. That will be a cause of restlessness for some, and a source of white noise for others.
The service style may be dominated by what appears to be mumbling or by choirs with flowing robes and operatic soloists, depending on the custom of the congregation. The participants may stand or sit, more or less on cue, but a good number will not be able to penetrate through the mysterious activities to figure out whether there is any substance there.
Switching from the old language to the current one may not help the annual migrants. Indeed, discomfort for them often sets in when some message is communicated in English. Not comfortable with God-talk to begin with, here they are confronted with God-talk on steroids. This is not the relatively soft creation and rest theology of the Sabbath. Nor is this the time for some namby-pamby, sugar-coated, feel-good spirituality. These holy days are the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, beginning with one day at once joyous as it is Hayom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world, and solemn, for it is also Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. It is time for seriousness about how we behave -- a purely confrontational experience with the God as King, as Judge, and, most significantly, as Decreer not only of life and death, but if one is to die, how that person shall die, whether by fire or by water, whether by sword or by beast, whether by hunger or by thirst.
Most of the words are of ancient origin, quotations from ancient texts, collected over time and arranged in a particular order. Many of the passages are poetic. All are metaphors, depicting the God of the ancient ones in terms to which those in communities far, far away in space and time could relate.
By training and experience, some will understand the references and the symbolism. They will transvalue the words and phrases into messages that work for them. However, most of those annual migrants in attendance will not relate well to the old language. They will hear about God as Malkenu, Our King, but they are citizens of a democratic republic and do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as the subject of any King (even if corrected politically to Sovereign or Ruler). If history is any guide, they will likely not return for another year.
They will hear about God as Avinu, Our Father, but they know too much about DNA and evolution and, in any event, are too independent to warm to this kind of paternalism. They do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as the children of this distant and invisible Father (again, even if gender neutered to Parent or Ancestor). They will likely not return for another year.
They will hear about God as Roeh, the Shepherd, but they are now urban, or maybe suburban, certainly not rural. They do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as members of a flock to be herded even protected. They will likely not return for another year.
Of course, some in attendance will be like the father who while at services in a recent year with his pre-teen child and was asked, “Do you believe in God?” The father replied softly that he did not, prompting the next question: “Then why are we here?” Responded the father, even more softly, “I’ve been wrong before.”
When not inundated with metaphors or other mythic poetry to which they cannot relate, or simply hedging their theological bets, some will hear descriptions of ritual practices in two temples destroyed thousands and more years ago. Most of those annual migrants in attendance will not relate to these words either. They are not familiar with a theocratic world, with animal sacrifices and special words only invoked by a priest in a special room at a special time. They have no desire to rebuild the long gone temples, and, if possible, less desire to hear about them. They will likely not return for another year.
Some will hear a seeming internal inconsistency in the holiday message. First they will hear that their fate is written and soon to be sealed. Then they will hear that the severe decree can be averted by teshuvah, tzedakah and t’filah, i.e., by repentance, charity and prayer. Well, they might ask, “Is my fate sealed or isn’t it?” As the service progresses, they will not have much time, even if they have the inclination, to resolve the apparent conflict or contemplate how much needs to be done and by when.
Unless something is done to change the pattern, once they have satisfied whatever urge or obligation they felt which drew them to congregate, most of the annual migrants will not return to a pilgrimage site for another year. Not understanding much of what has just occurred, many will feel (perhaps paradoxically) smugly satisfied that they have done their duty and yet are so much superior to the regulars who were singing their hearts out, beating the chests at the mention of community foibles and, on that last day, cranky with hunger.
Most rabbis who conduct High Holy Day services are not stupid. They know that a good number of annual migrants will not come back for another year. And they even know that berating them for their lack of attendance throughout the year will be counter-productive. Nevertheless, many of these rabbis will still be tempted to win over the migrants with a clever sermon or some cute gambit they think might hold appeal. The wise ones will resist that temptation, and remember that these holidays are not about them, nor even about God. The holidays are about the people who come to celebrate them, many of whom do so despite their distaste for theology and ritual, trying to balance a desire to approach with a desire to avoid.
The wise rabbis will, therefore, reduce and maybe eliminate their sermons. Here less can truly be more. Some wise rabbis will use the time saved to insert teaching moments throughout the service. For instance, when the time comes for a communal confession which is traditionally accompanied by breast beating, rather than just read and beat, they will take the time to explain the practice, and even provide alternatives like heart stroking. Encouraging physical movement will at minimum serve as a useful break from the sitting and standing routine. Properly done, changes of tone and pace will be memorable.
Rather than reading the English portions of the prayer book rapidly and in a “responsive” manner, some wise rabbis will also inject moments of silence and refer congregants to the commentaries that now line mahzorim such as Lev Shalem and Kol Haneshamah. If the books presently used do not contain such lessons, the wise rabbis will provide them. The annual migrants think that they are smart. The wise rabbis will give them times to think. On occasion, the way to the heart travels through the head. The wise rabbis will provide the occasions.
Of course, the notion that these services are problematic for many is not a novel insight. And others have also offered hope that wise rabbis will actually try to engage their congregants as active participants. See, for instance, the challenge of writer Abigail Pogrebin. But the lack of novelty does not mean that the problem should not be addressed. Rather, it speaks to its pervasive and persistent nature. The inconvenient truth is that many of the annual migrants think that the services they attend are repetitious and boring. The wise rabbis will try to prove them wrong, not with lectures, but with leadership. And that leadership cannot come too soon.
* * * * *
The annual migration of the North American Jews to shul is approaching. It is a time for reflection and growth. For a portion of the minority of North American Jews who still affiliate with a synagogue or temple, the ancient words may yet resonate. Maybe these individuals take these words literally and believe the statements to be true. Maybe they are able to understand the textual references and the symbolism and accept the lesson taught. Maybe the words are unimportant, but they are moved by the music either because of its inherent worthiness or because of its ability to evoke fond memories. Regardless, their continued attendance and engagement must be respected. But the data suggests that they are a minority and a diminishing one at that.
Here’s the thing. The Jewish population in North America is shrinking. Synagogue membership is shrinking. Attendance of those who are members is shrinking. And every year, we lose Jews who had ties directly or through close relationships to an older world, maybe based in a distant land. And every year, we gain, or at least have the potential to gain, highly educated Jews who see the world differently than did their ancestors. As a result of all these trends, the remaining population of Jews, not entirely for sure, but increasingly, does not accept that which is being offered. More crassly, they are not buying what is being sold.
If we were merchants or goods or services and we saw our customer base change, if we saw that the new customer base was not coming into the store as much, not buying as much when it came in, what would we do? For starters, we might take a hard look at whether the problem is the merchandise or the packaging. We might try to figure out what our customers want and whether we can provide it. Especially difficult will be the question about how to attract new customers without alienating the remaining ones who are quite content with the familiar product.
To be clear, Judaism is not a good or service to be sold and bought in the marketplace. And the inventory should not be changed to meet any and all demands. But two things are for sure. First, as the old adage has it, if we keep going the way we are going, we are going to get where we are headed. The returning herds in each annual High Holy Day migration will be thinner and thinner, the annual meeting grounds will be fewer and less inviting, and at some tipping point there will be an absence of critical mass. Second, this path is not immutable and that destination is not inevitable.
Averting the severe decline will, however, require more than teshuvah, tzedakah and t’filah. It will require some tachlis, too, that is, some frank, reality based substantive talk. It will require that seminaries and rabbis start talking sense to, and talking sensibly with, the American Jewish community. It will require recognition that saying the same things that have been said before at the migration celebrations, only louder or more slowly or with bigger typeface and more transliterations, will not cause anyone to hear or understand them better.
All God-talk is metaphorical, but some metaphors may be better than others. It is well past time to find the better ones and use them. Now we must turn a worrisome trend into an opportunity, as with the other annual migration of North American Jews, to build a vibrant, positive Judaism for the adults of Israel.
A version of this article was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.
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July 12, 2013 | 8:48 am
Posted by Roger Price
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the renowned 20th century philosopher, understood that gaining “control of the world of space” is one of the main tasks of humankind. The result of the conquest of space is “technical civilization.” But, Heschel argued, “(l)ife goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.” For Heschel, time, not space, “is the heart of existence.” (See Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Young 1951) at 3.)
Judaism, according to Heschel, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” (Id. at 8.) Recognizing that a different sensitivity is involved in creating holiness in time, rather than space, he urged that we cultivate that sensitivity in order to achieve the goal of being, rather than having.
If Abraham saw Judaism as a religion of time, Isaac did not. Isaac Asimov, the renowned 20th century writer, had a rather cramped view of religion. Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Russia, he came to America in 1923 as a young child. As he related in his third autobiography (no misprint), however, his parents never made “any effort” to teach any religion to him, even to have him participate in a bar mitzvah ceremony. (Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir (Doubleday 1994) at 12.) Not surprisingly, throughout his adult life, Asimov was strictly non-observant with respect to any known religious practice. At the same time, Isaac Asimov never changed his name as did others to hide his Jewishness, always acknowledged that he was Jewish and seems to have absorbed some Jewish values if not Jewish practices or sense of peoplehood. (See Id. at 13, 15-18, 322.)
Philosophically Asimov considered himself a rationalist and an atheist. Echoing George Bernard Shaw (see I. Asimov, above, at 333), he reportedly once said, “I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” From 1985 to his death in 1992, Asimov served as the president of the American Humanist Association.
Best known for his science fiction and fantasy writings, Asimov authored or edited about 200 works of fiction, including a smattering of mysteries. But as a chemist by training and a general scientist at heart he wrote or edited even more non-fiction, including over 60 books on astronomy, over 30 on chemistry, bio-chemistry and biology, and over 20 on physics. All in all, he authored or edited over 500 works , mostly for adults, including a two volume guide to Shakespeare, annotated versions of Lord Byron’s Don Juan and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, six volumes of limericks and six books on the Hebrew Bible, a subject to which he came relatively late in life.
By the time he reviewed the Bible seriously, Asimov was well familiar with ancient mythologies of all stripes. That, and his scientific orientation, naturally led him to a conclusion that the Hebrew Bible was not supernaturally guided, but written by men in particular contexts over time. He accepted, for instance, and without critical commentary, the Documentary Hypothesis of the formulation of the Biblical text. (See Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (Doubleday 1968) Vol. 1, at 19-21.)
Asimov’s recognition that the Bible was not a “history book in [the] modern sense” (Id. at 9) did not lead him, as it has for more recent militant atheists, to denigrate the text. To the contrary, he praised the biblical writers and editors for succeeding “wonderfully” at producing a text both “reasonable” and “useful.” He continued: “There is no version of primeval history, preceding the discoveries of modern science, that is as rational and as inspiring as that of the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis. . . . If the primeval history of the Book of Genesis falls short of what science now believes to be the truth, the fault cannot lie with the Biblical writers, who did the best they could with the material available to them.” (Asimov, In the Beginning . . . (Crown 1981), at 3.)
Despite his immense range and prodigious work ethic, with rare exceptions, Asimov never consciously wrote about Jews or Jewish themes. It wasn’t that he denied his Jewishness. As he explained in his introduction to Wandering Stars (Pocket Book 1975), a small but worthy anthology of Jewish fantasy and science fiction, while many great American novels dealt with Jewish themes, science fiction was different. “(B)attles with space pirates, outer-world monsters and evil wizards . . . . What kind of place was that for Jewish boys?” (Id. at 16.) He said that he just “didn’t think of Jews, particularly, in connection with robots, wrecked spaceships, strange worlds with six suns, and Galactic Empires.” (Id. at 17.) Asimov’s own contribution to Wandering Stars, a short essay titled “Unto the Fourth Generation,” addressed assimilation.
Asimov claimed genuine surprise when he learned that Jack Dann was putting together that anthology, and once more when Dann followed the first volume with a second, More Wandering Stars (Doubleday 1981), for which Asimov again wrote an introduction. With the publication of that second volume, Asimov had reached the conclusion that “the Holy Writings lead the way to science fiction.” He finally saw “why there are so many Jewish writers of science fiction and fantasy, and why so many Jewish themes are used.” (Id., at viii, x.)
His original protestations notwithstanding, Asimov conceded that even in his writings sometimes Jewish references “popped up.” (Wandering Stars, at 17.) For instance, Asimov’s first novel, Pebble in the Sky (Robert Bentley 1950) is about one Joseph Schwartz, a retired tailor, whose home planet (Earth), eleven thousand years into the future, is populated by “an obstinate and stiff-necked race” who are despised by the 500 quadrillion people living on some 200 million inhabited planets in the Galactic Empire. Sound familiar--name, occupation, group stereotype and predicament? If these clues were not enough, Asimov makes clear that the future Earthlings were facing “the nearly insoluble problem of anti-Terrestrianism” in significant part because of their “blasted customs and traditions.” (Id. at 155, 198.) Similarly, as Asimov acknowledged in his introduction to Wandering Stars (at 18), he had some characters use a Yiddish dialect in the first volumes of his early and award winning Foundation Series.
The intriguing question is whether the Jewishness of the Foundation Series runs deeper than familiar references and the occasional usage of Yiddish. The Series was formed from stories published in the 1940s, initially fashioned into a trilogy published in the 1950s and later expanded to include two prequels and two sequels.
The core trilogy is set another eleven thousand years beyond Pebble in the Sky. At the outer edge of the galaxy, a social scientist named Hari Seldon, having applied mathematical equations to behavioral patterns of large groups (over 75 billion!), has developed psychohistory, a model which can predict aggregate group behavior over extended periods. (Here Asimov seems to have anticipated the work of Professor Peter Turchin who promotes “cliodynamics,” the statistical analysis of huge amounts of historical data aimed at discovering social patterns or cycles and predicting future events.)
Seldon’s grand scale, no, galactic scale exercise predicts the decline of the Empire into an extended thirty thousand year period of barbarism, but also sees a way to limit the dark times to a single millennium. Under Seldon’s leadership, a group of Encyclopedists (the Foundation) seeks both to preserve human knowledge and cultural values and covertly guide the Empire through its difficult future. As matters unfold –spoiler alert—the Foundation’s plans are disrupted and we learn of the existence of a previously hidden Second Foundation, located “at the other end of the Galaxy” which Seldon has also created as a contingency plan.
The Foundation Series has enchanted and challenged generations of readers, each with his or her own understanding of the real meaning of the collection. Various readers will find within the Series somewhat disparate themes such as the importance of intellectualism and scholarship, the triumph of rationalism over mysticism and emotion, the challenges to and value of individuals acting within the framework of historical currents, and the notion that our destiny is not predetermined by the stars, but by ourselves.
Nobel award winning economist and political columnist Paul Krugman, for instance, in an introduction to a new edition of the Foundation Series, has written rapturously about what was for him life shaping fiction, characterizing the trilogy as a “unique masterpiece.” He sees in it a “thrilling tale” about how “self-knowledge –an understanding of how our own society works – can change history for the better.” (At ix, xvi.)
Asimov intended to use Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a model for his commentary on the evolution of society (Asimov, Gold (HarperPrism 1995) at 186.) Still, some have wondered whether the Foundation Series has a Jewish core.
In his book Superman is Jewish?, Harry Brod digresses for a bit to discuss the Foundation Series. He finds what he considers Jewish themes permeating the works: the notion that history is intelligible, with a trajectory discernible amidst the “seeming chaos and unpredictability,” the “commitment to rationality, embodied for modern consciousness in science” and the idea of messianism. (See Brod, Superman is Jewish? (Free Press 2012) at 51.)
Without accepting most of these themes as “particularly Jewish,” Orthodox Rabbi Gil Student offers his own view. He sees the Foundation, the cultural outpost in an otherwise barbaric community, as a “rough metaphor for the Jewish people in exile.”
Over the centuries of widespread pagan and barbaric beliefs and practices, we Jews kept to ourselves as much as possible and maintained our ancient truths and attitudes. We served as outposts of culture and literacy throughout the Dark Ages, maintaining God’s truths despite the widespread decadence. Even today, in a technologically advanced world, we maintain morality and belief while society descends into hedonism. We are a light among the nations, even when they live in the dark and even when they try to extinguish our flame.
Rabbi Student wisely does not believe that Asimov consciously used that purported metaphor, but he considers it viable, even if unintended. The greater problems with the metaphor are not Asimov’s conscious or subconscious usage, however. They are that the metaphor is overly romanticized in the claim of Jewish moral superiority and not necessarily applicable today in any event when half of the world’s Jews are not in geographic exile.
Besides, both Brod and Student miss a key factor in Hari Seldon’s plan: the necessity of two Foundations. Seldon realized that for all the sophistication of his psychohistorical equations, and the probability that history writ large would unfold as predicted, there was always the possibility for interference, for error, for disruption. Consequently, as a precaution, as a safeguard, Seldon made sure that a Second Foundation would be placed “at the other end of the Galaxy,” available to fulfill the mission should something adverse happen to the First Foundation.
Perhaps here, and perhaps unconsciously, Asimov had Jewish history rather than Jewish ethics and beliefs in mind. The Kingdom of Israel could fall, but there was a Kingdom in Judah to absorb the immigrants and maintain the culture. Jerusalem could fall, but the prophets and priests, if not the royal family, in exile in Babylon would be instrumental in the restoration. The Second Temple could be destroyed, but Yavneh would live and then creatively change the very structure and thought of the Jewish world. Parallel communities would develop in the Iberian Peninsula and in northwest Europe, and if Sepharad were to be destroyed, yet Ashkenaz could flower. Later, America would be established as a homeland for Jews, among others, before European Jewry was decimated. And, after the devastation of World War II, a State of Israel would be born.
It would be way too much to argue that Jewish history was the product of two foundations changing over time, and changing pursuant to some master plan, whether supernatural or human design. And yet, today there are essentially two foundations of Jewish life. Today, the Jewish population of the world is just under 14,000,000, largely, but not entirely, concentrated in two centers, Israel with just over and the United States with just under six million Jews. France, Canada, United Kingdom and Russia collectively do not quite account for another ten percent of world Jewry.
These two current foundations of Jewish life are not like Hari Seldon’s Foundations. They are not hidden from view, and do not appear to function in any coordinated way. Yet one does not have to be either very frum or a psychohistorian to see that the fate of the entire Jewish People seems to be linked inextricably with the survival and of its two current foundational communities.
When he wrote the Foundation Series, was Asimov (even subconsciously) thinking descriptively about the pendulum swings in Jewish history or perhaps prescriptively about a Jewish future? Could Asimov have stumbled inadvertently on the previously secret model of Jewish survival? Or, writing around the time of the decimation of European Jewry, could Asimov have been warning about the need for a secretive guiding organization?
There are clues about an undercurrent of Jewishness in the Foundation Series, and they extend beyond the use of Yiddishisms noted above. Consider the title of the first book in the original trilogy: The Foundation. One Hebrew word for foundation is mossad, which happens to be the name of Israel’s national intelligence agency, HaMossad or the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. Talk about hiding in plain sight. And what about Hari Seldon’s name? Perhaps we should ask using the barely concealed Hebrew version, Ari Elyon, Lion Most High.
For some, these may be slim reeds upon which to build a case, much less a Foundation or two. And, if we are to dig a bit deeper, we must ask whether the Jewish People, during the present period of significant transition, really needs a Seldon-like Foundation. Would it be sufficient if a modern day Hilkiah were to find a hidden scroll with revelations and guidelines sufficient to revitalize Jewish life here and now? (See II Kings 22:8.)
Asimov can tantalize us with stories about strange civilizations in the heavens above. Heschel can inspire us with lessons about holiness in time, visions of heaven on Earth. But long ago the authors of D’varim (Deuteronomy), writing in an age of wrenching change, taught in the name of Moses himself that the answers to the challenges face were not in heaven. (See Deut. 30:12.) Centuries later, the Sages reinforced the point in their now famous story of Rabbi Eliezer and the carob tree. So it is today. If we are to meet current challenges, among which are science, technology, disbelief, demographics, economics, freedom, diluted ethnicity, illiteracy, assimilation, isolation and communal polarization, we must do so, not with our heads in the clouds, but with our feet planted firmly on the ground. A good place to start would be with Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Sidney Schwarz (Jewish Lights 2013)).
Another version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.
June 13, 2013 | 6:50 pm
Posted by Roger Price
Sportin’ Life, the dope peddling conman who lived on Catfish Row in 1930s Charleston, South Carolina -- at least in the musings of George and Ira Gershwin and writers DuBose and Dorothy Heyward -- never did delve deeply into higher Biblical criticism. He probably never even heard about seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, or late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century scholar Julius Wellhausen, for that matter. And yet, he hit the nail on the head, didn’t he?
Singing “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the most famous tune in Porgy and Bess after “Summertime,” Sportin’ Life chided, even taunted, the more reverent and traditionally minded folks on Catfish Row about some familiar but not so credible Biblical stories such as “li’l David” slaying big Goliath, Jonah making his home in a whale’s abdomen, and Methuselah living nine hundred years (actually 969, but who’s counting). And to underscore his point, Sportin’ Life would sing:
"It ain’t necessarily so. It ain't necessarily so. De t’ings dat yo li’ble/ To read in de Bible/ It ain’t necessarily so."
Now Sportin’ Life could have gone further. Putting aside for the moment the stories about divine beings mating with human females (see Genesis 6:1-4) and winged creatures with multiple faces and a single leg (see Ezekiel 1:4-9), each of which can be forgiven as fanciful excesses in the name of literary license, the Bible contains a number of statements which are not factually accurate or at least are anachronisms. Two examples illustrate the situation:
Obviously if Sportin’ Life really got into it, Porgy and Bess would be an even longer production than it is, and considerably duller. So Sportin’ Life stuck to a few of the better known and easier to understand stories.
And then he did something quite amazing. To convey his point that the Bible was not error free, Sportin’ Life sang his famous refrain to what sounds like a Jewish melody -- and not just any melody at that. The melody that Sportin’ Life seems to have used is essentially the same as that commonly invoked for the blessing before the reading of the Torah portion: Bar’chu et Adonai Ham’vorach (Bless Adonai the blessed One).
Of course, George and Ira Gershwin, who wrote the music and lyrics, respectively, for Sportin’ Life, were familiar with Jewish musical themes and motifs. The Gershwins were products of, if not a religious family, at least an intensely Jewish community on the lower east side of New York City at the turn into the twentieth century. And while George may not have had a bar mitzvah, older brother Ira did, and George, as well as Ira must have been familiar with the melody for the Torah blessing.
According to two Gershwin biographers, the music of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” came before the lyrics. (See Howard Pollack, George Gershwin His Life and Work (2006) at 576; Walter Rimler, George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait (2009) at 145.) So how and why did the melody for the Torah blessing get paired with the subversive lyrics about the errancy of the Bible? Even given the musical melting pot that boiled in New York City in the first third of the twentieth century in America, surely this conflation could not be mere coincidence. Song writing at the Gershwin level was too precise an art to allow for that possibility.
Were the Gershwins taking another, more subtle stab, at tradition by using sacred music for sacrilegious thought? Or were they saying quite the opposite? That while we can poke fun at the myths of our heritage, we still know our roots, we still understand the core values of our people and we still remember their practices.
Biographies of George Gershwin and at least one seems to be published every year, typically spend very little, if any, time talking about his use of Jewish melodies. And at least one writer discounts the Jewish elements in George Gershwin’s melodies. In response to the evidence some see in the use of minor 3rds, Rodney Greenberg argues that “to be really Jewish” a song would need augmented 2ds, as, for instance, in Fiddler on the Roof’s “If I Were a Rich Man.” Greenberg contends that some are just hearing what they want to hear. (See Rodney Greenberg, George Gershwin (1998) at 191.)
More recently, University of Houston music professor Howard Pollack has published the most extensive and thorough George Gershwin biography to date. Among its over 700 pages of text and over 100 pages of endnotes is what appears to be a robust, if not exhaustive, catalog of Gershwin’s use of liturgical and other Jewish themes. (See Pollack, above, at 42-47.) A decade before Porgy, George Gershwin acknowledged that “traditional Hebrew religious melodies have had a marked influence upon modern music . . . .” (Id. at 42; see also Larry Starr, George Gershwin (2011) at 179 n.2.) The continued use of such melodies over time strongly suggests that we are not simply hearing what we want to hear. (See Joan Peyser, The Memory of All That (1993) at 236-37, 248.)
Barely a handful of years before Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera Company to write an opera based on Szymon Ansky’s The Dybbuk (a wandering disembodied spirit), itself derived from an old folk tale. He even began to create some music for the work. (See Rimler, above, at 40.) The effort failed because certain rights could not be obtained.
It is possible, then, that George Gershwin just wanted to include in his American opera a melody that he had planned to use on the aborted Dybbuk project. After all, both Catfish Row and the old country shtetl were communities that were financially poor, politically oppressed and rooted in cultural and religious traditions. And yet, it is one thing to use Jewish ritual music in a work about a fictionalized Jewish community and quite another to collaborate with a descendant of Southern aristocracy and slave holders like DuBose Heyward to write about a black community and incorporate a sacred Jewish melody into that work.
Mordecai Kaplan, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the last century, reportedly tried to dispense with the rendition of Kol Nidre which immediately precedes the evening service for Yom Kippur, but ultimately failed to do so in large part because of the emotional power of the melody that accompanies the reading. Perhaps the same was true of the Gershwins, creators of quintessentially American music. Perhaps something like that musical pull was at work here, in the sense that while the Gershwins could stay out of shul, the shul still stayed in the Gershwins. Perhaps their use of the Torah blessing theme was their homage to their heritage. Unfortunately, unless someone discovers a letter to one of their contemporaries like Yip Harburg, Harold Arlen or Oscar Levant or, perhaps, an entry in a diary, we may never know what the Gershwins had in mind.
We do know, however, that “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was an enormously powerful piece. In 1943, with the second World War raging, Porgy and Bess made its European debut in Copenhagen at the Royal Danish Opera. Not surprisingly, the Nazis were not enamored with the production of a show written by Jews and about blacks. (Apparently, they did not give much credit to the DuBoses.) Despite the efforts of Hitler’s thugs to shut the show, it was successful in Denmark, and ran in repertory into the Spring of 1944. By then, though, the Nazis had had enough, and the Luftwaffe was threatening to bomb the Royal Opera unless production ended, which it then did.
Though George had died in July, 1937, the Gershwins would not be silenced. In response to Goebbel’s propaganda, the Danish resistance, bless ‘em, would interrupt enemy broadcasts with those wonderful words (in Danish) to that very special tune: It Ain’t Necessarily So! It Ain’t Necessarily So! It Ain’t Necessary So! (See Robin Thompson, The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (2006) at 160; Rimler, above, at 171.)
Some may consider this conveyance of truth to power, by way of a sacred chant in a most unconventional manor and setting, to be a minor proof of the existence of God. And some may not.
Regardless, we should all be able to agree: S’Wonderful. S’Marvelous.
Who could ask for anything more?
Another version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.
May 3, 2013 | 9:29 am
Posted by Roger Price
The psalmist and the skeptic and the prophet and the professor look at the universe in which we find ourselves, see the same stars, feel the warmth of the same sun, hear thunder pealing from the same sky, understand the processes by which nature unfolds in spring, retreats in fall only to regenerate again the following year, and yet often draw different conclusions from the same observable data. So, for instance, in response to the emergence of humankind, a non-theist might merely record the evolutionary data or might marvel at the improbability, the mystery, and the grandeur of our existence. The traditional Jewish believer, by contrast, might offer a prayer to the Supreme Being: Blessed are You, sovereign of the universe, who has fashioned us from the dust of the Earth in Your image and breathed our soul into us.
Is there another way, a way to attempt to understand one’s place in the cosmos that is consistent with current scientific knowledge, and yet recognizes the miracle of our presence without dependence on some supernatural being? Is there an approach to the cosmos which might be attractive to many, perhaps most, American Jews who do not believe in the traditional personal God who dominates the Torah, but nevertheless accept the existence of (and may even yearn for) some extraordinary power, force or spirit which pervades all that is? And, if so, is that path kosher?
Pantheism is one possibility. The term comes from two Greek words, pan meaning all and theos meaning God. Literally, then, pantheism is the belief that all is God, that God and the universe are coextensive. This formulation also means that there is no God but the universe.
Pantheism is a word first used just over three hundred years ago to express the philosophy developed by Baruch Spinoza (1632-77 CE), a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish descent who many consider one of the foremost thinkers of the Enlightenment in seventeenth century Europe. Spinoza himself did not use the term pantheism, and there is some debate about whether his philosophy was pantheistic. But Spinoza surely did not understand God in the traditional sense of an omniscient, wise or comforting personality, or as a judge who rewards and punishes.
Rather, for Spinoza, all things in nature were in God, and God was “the active, eternal, and immutable dimension of nature.” (See Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge University Press 1999), at 187.) Consequently, God did not perform miracles, if by that term one meant events in violation of natural laws. There could be no miracles in that sense, as there was no distinction between nature and God. Nevertheless, Spinoza was not an atheist. His God was, for him, existing and real, the infinite substance and infinitely perfect.
Of course, Spinoza, at the tender age of 23, was also ex-communicated by the leaders of his Jewish community. The precise reasons for this action are not known, as the order placing Spinoza in cherem, i.e., cursing him and expelling him, did not detail his purported offenses. But it is certainly plausible that his alleged heresies included a rejection of an anthropomorphic God, the divinity of the precepts of the Hebrew Bible and the attribution of the authorship of the text to Moses, each and all of which positions, among others, Spinoza ultimately held and discussed in his writings.
Today, pantheism comes in various forms, and pantheists debate whether and how to use God language. In general, though, pantheism is characterized by several key concepts including (1) the acceptance and utilization of science and the scientific method and (2) a strong sense, even a spiritual one, of an integrated relationship of all things in the Universe, unencumbered or unenhanced, depending on your view, by a supernatural deity.
Pantheists, moreover, take a broad view of the universe, and attempt to synthesize logic and reason with awe and wonder. Their cathedral is not a building, but the universe itself. The universe, they say “creates us, preserves us, destroys us. It is deep and old beyond our ability to reach with our senses. It is beautiful beyond our ability to describe in words. It is complex beyond our ability to fully grasp in science.”
But how exactly does a pantheist relate to the universe? According to the World Pantheist Movement, “with humility, awe, reverence, celebration and the search for deeper understanding,” ways which are and are recognized to be similar to the ways those who believe in a traditional God relate to God. Except, as a pantheist would say, “minus the grovelling (sic) worship or the expectation that there is some being out there who can answer our prayers.”
If much of this sounds familiar to Jews, apart from the reference to groveling, it should. Jews know a thing or three about oneness.
According to the Torah, as Moshe (Moses) is recapitulating the law for the emerging Israelite nation, he asks the people to pay attention to his words with these: “Sh’ma Yisrael” or “Listen, Israel” (more conventionally, “Hear, O Israel”). “יהוה Eloheinu” (“HaShem/Adonai (is) our God”), he continued, “יהוה echad” (“HaShem/Adonai (is) one”). (See Deut. 6:4.) This call to take heed is, perhaps, not intended to be much more than an interjection in an otherwise dense legal oration, similar to the request to listen immediately prior to the recapitulation. (See Deut. 5:1). Over the centuries, though, the Sh’ma has assumed prime theological importance. We may disagree about what God is, even whether God is, but if God is, then God is one.
But what does that mean? Was Moshe asserting that the Israelite God was Number 1, first among many, or was he saying something else? Certainly, the statement can and has been understood to mean that the Israelite God was a single entity, in contrast to two gods or the multiple gods of nature. In this view, the Sh’ma is an affirmation of monotheism, a pronouncement that the Israelite God was the one and only god, and, conversely, a rejection of polytheism. But, if so, the Sh’ma was redundant, as at least two nearby passages which precede it explicitly state that יהוה (HaShem/Adonai) alone is God, that there is no other. (See Deut. 4:35, 39.)
Judith Plaskow, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, has suggested that this view of the “one God who was creator and ruler of the universe” is insufficient, for while it “defines ‘one’ in opposition to ‘many’, . . . it never really specifies what it means to say that God/Adonai/the One who is and will be is one.” (See Hoffman ed., My People’s Prayer Book, Vol. 1 -- The Sh’ma and its Blessings, (Jewish Lights 1997) at 98.)
Referencing Judaic scholar Marcia Falk’s understanding of an inclusive and not merely numerical monotheism, Plaskow argues that “Rather than being the chief deity in the pantheon, God includes the qualities and characteristics of the whole pantheon, with nothing remaining outside. God is all in all.” (Id. at 99.) Monotheism, she adds, is about “the capacity to glimpse the One in and through the changing forms of the many, to see the whole in and through its infinite images.” Here she finds “a unity that embraces and contains our diversity and that connects all things to each other.” There is precedent for this encompassing vision. Some scholars have argued that “early Hasidism had profound pantheistic tendencies and that many of its teachers saw God as the vital divine force that suffused every corner of the universe.” (See Nelson, Judaism, Physics and God (Jewish Lights 2005), at 262.) But the record is not clear.
Some modern commentators appear to share those tendencies. For instance, in a recent essay, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, of American Jewish University, talks about the “reality of an evolving, emergent, dynamic creation” in which “every natural event is related to every other natural event and to all natural events.” In his creation theology, “it is not God alone who is one. All is one. We are related to each and to all, as is the Creator.” (See Artson, “Revisiting Creation, Natural Events, and Their Emergent Patterns” in The CCAR Journal, The Reform Jewish Quarterly (Winter 2012), at 76.) “We are stardust -- we are all stardust,” he writes.
Similarly, in his search for new metaphors in an age of science, Reform Rabbi David Nelson, currently assistant professor of religion at Bard College, reaches to the Big Bang. He says that “The oneness of God can now be understood as indicating that everything, the totality of being itself, is, in a sense, God. ‘God is one’ may now be taken to mean the ‘God’ is a term that signifies the unity of all existence, a unity rooted in the common origin of all existence in a single point of time, space, and nascent matter.” (See Nelson, above, at 19.)
“The very term singularity,” he argues, “which has become a common place of contemporary physics, might be seen as a modern Jewish metaphor for the traditional Jewish idea of oneness.” (Id.) By singularity, Nelson is referring to the earliest moment in the history of the universe when, according to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the universe must have been incredibly small, compact and hot.
Metaphors are tricky things, however. They are, by their very nature, comparisons to and therefore dependent on an unrelated object. Consequently, if the referenced object changes, then the strength of the metaphor must change as well, and, in some cases, so too must the validity of the metaphor.
Professor Stephen Hawking has been a dominant astrophysicist for over forty years. His work in 1970 (with Roger Penrose) convinced the scientific community about there being a Big Bang singularity. Subsequently, however, Hawking recanted. Today Hawking does not dispute the description of our universe at a very young age as small, perhaps a billion-trillion-trillionth of a centimeter, and therefore unimaginably compact and hot, but argues that the predictive value of Einstein’s theory breaks down at the earliest moment of the origin of our universe, when t= 0. Indeed, Hawking’s consideration of quantum theory leads him to claim that there was “a vast landscape of possible universes.” Alluding to one of Einstein’s famous phrases, Hawking writes: “If one were religious, one could say that God really does play dice.” (The Grand Design (Bantam 2010), at 139, 144.)
The point here is not that Nelson’s metaphor fails, but that it (1) demonstrates the risk in appealing to science, especially astrophysics, that is in flux and (2) takes us only so far. Nelson himself has recognized its limits. All this does not mean that the metaphor is not useful. To the contrary, it is very useful. Nelson’s Big Bang metaphor may not take us to the original quantum event which initiated the universe as we know it, but it takes us to within a split second of that event, and to a moment before we were stardust, before there were stars. It underscores the common source of all beings, of all things. And, to the extent it does, it is of a piece with the tapestry being woven by Plaskow, Falk and Artson, with material supplied by Einstein, Spinoza and, in some ways, the biblical authors of the Sh’ma.
Moreover, the intent here is certainly not to label either Nelson, Plaskow, Falk or Artson as pantheists, but, rather, to note that some of what each contemporary Jewish scholar has written is consistent with classic pantheistic expressions on the interconnectedness of the universe and the notion of the equivalence of God and nature.
Contemporary pantheism, however, often rejects its Spinozan origins, effectively favoring pan over theism and resembling, in the end, a paganism against which Judaism has historically stood. There is, though, a related approach, panentheism, which avoids this problem.
Panentheism does not argue that God is everything, but, rather, that God is in everything. That is, it allows for a God that is, in one or some ways, more than merely the sum of the parts of the universe. This orientation also permits new language to be written by poets about the interconnected unity of energy and matter and life, about humanity’s unique role in the natural scheme of things, yet with room for that unknown force or power or energy or field or whatever it was that preceded inflation in the Big Bang model and all that followed and will follow from that first inflation and then subsequent expansion as our universe continues its journey of evolution.
In the cosmic drama that we have only recently begun to understand, Conservative Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky sees “no religious response to the scope of space and time other than worshipping the Name of Existence—the sacred reality in which we participate, but that utterly transcends our place in the cosmos.” In short, accordingly to Kalmanovsky: “Finding God inhering naturalistically in all things -- a theory usually called panentheism -- is the only adequate religious response to science.” (See Kalmanofsky, “Cosmic Theology and Earthly Religion,” in Jewish Theology in Our Time (Jewish Lights 2011), at 25-26.) Note that Kalmanovsky is not saying that there is only one response to science. He is saying that there is only one response which is both religious, that is, which includes some concept of (a) God, and adequate, by which he seems to mean serious in its acceptance of modern science.
Pantheism, maybe, and panentheism, more certainly, seem to provide approaches which not only have authentic Jewish connections, but may also appeal to what a substantial number of American Jews claim to believe, even if they do not know the names of the philosophies they have intuitively adopted. If this is so, why haven’t the seminaries and synagogues responded?
Carl Sagan, an astronomer and writer who died too young in 1996, wrote that “(a) religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.” (Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Random House 1994), at 52.) What are we waiting for?
A version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.
April 12, 2013 | 9:46 am
Posted by Roger Price
American Judaism has a God problem. Actually, and paradoxically, it seems to have two God problems. One is Jewish atheism. The other is Jewish theism. Here we will look at the data and the dilemma.
At the outset, we have to recognize that there is something odd about the concept of Jewish atheism. Is there really such a thing? Can there be a Judaism without God, however you want to define it. What are the People of the Book without the Hero of the story? How can there be commandments without a Commander? Doesn’t a Covenant with God require a Party of the First Part as well as a party of the second part? What do you do with prayer? Can there even be a place for atheism within Judaism?
The questions recall the story about President Harry Truman being asked whether he believed in baptism. “Believe in it?” the crusty president responded, “Hell, I’ve seen it done!”
And so it is with atheism and Judaism. Most of us have “seen it done.” We have seen Jews who are atheists, that is, Jews who do not believe in any god, much less God, but who do social work and philanthropy in and through Jewish federations and community organizations. We have seen them performing what we and they can fairly call mitzvot in the real world. And we have even seen them participating in synagogue life.
Atheists in shul? An old story tells of two gentlemen, Hersh and Maish, who went to their synagogue every Shabbes , Shabbes after Shabbes, year after year. And why did they go? Hersh went to talk to God. And Maish? He went to talk to Hersh. There are, as we know, a lot of reasons, apart from God, to participate in synagogue life. Some seek a connection to history and heritage, others yearn for community and camaraderie, and still others seek to engage in text study or social action. No doubt some just go for the cookies.
In shul or out, there seems to be truth to the notion that some of our best friends are Jewish atheists. Is the evidence for this phenomenon more than fiction, more than anecdotal? Let’s look at the data, starting with a brief review of American religious orientation for purposes of context.
Over the course of almost 70 years, the Gallup organization has surveyed Americans numerous times with respect to their belief in God, a term generally left undefined in the surveys. In 1944, 1947, 1953, 1954, 1965 and 1967, the question was simply put as follows: “Do you believe in God?” the affirmative responses ranged between 94% and 98%, the negatives between 1% and 3%, with 1% or 2% having no opinion.
In 1976, the question was modified to ask: “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” In 1976, 1978, 1983, 1988 and 1994, the answers again fell in a very tight range with 94%-96% answering affirmatively, 3-5% answering negatively and 1-2% having no opinion.
In the late 1990s, Gallup offered respondents choices about their belief in God. On at least one occasion, the respondents had a choice of God, universal spirit, neither and other, in addition to no opinion. Another time, respondents could choose whether they believed in God, were not sure, or did not believe. Still another variation asked whether respondents were convinced God exists, thought God probably existed, had a lot of doubts, thought God probably did not exist, or were convinced God did not exist. The worst God did in the 2006, 2007 and 2010 surveys was a 73% for convinced in the 2006 survey. Add in the 14% who had just a little doubt, however, and God received an 87% vote of confidence.
In 2011, Gallup asked the question two different ways, inquiring both about a belief in God and about a belief in God or a universal spirit. It received similar responses to each variation, but a somewhat different result compared to all prior years. In the 2011 survey, only 91-92% answered affirmatively, while 7-8% answered negatively, and 1% had no opinion. Not surprisingly, there were differences reported in different demographic categories. Those who were less likely to assert a belief in God were men (at 90%) to women (at 94%), young adults aged 18 to 29 (at 84%) compared to all other age groups (at 94%), and those with post graduate education (at 87%) compared to those with less formal education (at 92-94%). People living in the East answered affirmatively 86% of the time, while those in the South asserted a belief in God or a universal spirit 98% of the time. Midwesterners and Westerners responded affirmatively 91% and 92% of the time respectively.
Surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and by Harris are fairly consistent with the main findings of Gallup. A survey of over 35,000 individuals published in 2008 by the Pew Forum, and called the U. S. Religious Landscape Survey, found that 92% believed in God. A considerably smaller survey of religious beliefs by Harris in 2009 found that only 82% of American adults believe in God, while 9% do not and 9% were not sure.
Given the amount and consistency of the data available, it seems reasonably clear that an overwhelming majority of Americans profess a belief in some concept of God. Those who deny the existence of God do not, in national polling, appear to exceed 10% of the general population. When one drills down into the survey results, though, the picture becomes less monochromatic. For instance, in the Landscape Survey, while 92% expressed a belief in God, only 60% believed in a personal God, while 25 % believed in an impersonal force and 7% either did not know or held another belief.
What about the Jews? In 2001, the Center for Jewish Studies, a part of The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, published a report titled the American Jewish Identity Survey (“AJIS,2001”). AJIS estimated the Jewish population of the United States at that time to be 5,497,000. Of these, about half were absolutely unaffiliated with any Jewish organization, religious or secular. Forty-four percent (44%) claimed to belong to a synagogue, temple, congregation or havurah. Twenty-five per cent (25%) said that they were involved in a secular Jewish organization. Obviously, there was some overlap in the latter two groups.
The denominational breakdown reported was as follows: Those who identified with Reform totaled 30%, followed by Conservative at 24% and Orthodox at 8%. The Reconstructionist movement was mentioned by 1% as was Secular-Humanist. Those describing themselves as “None” or “just Jewish” were 20% with “Other” coming in at 6%. (These figures do not add to 100% because the survey excluded “Don’t Know” and “Refusals”.) Formal denominations aside, those describing themselves as secular or somewhat secular were 34% and 15% respectively in the survey. Those describing themselves as religious or somewhat religious were 9% and 35% of the survey. Seven percent (7%) were uncertain as to their outlook. In short, the outlook of American Jews surveyed was more secular than religious.
And what did AJIS, 2001 find with respect to the beliefs of American Jews? In response to the question of whether God exists, 48% agreed strongly, 25% agreed somewhat, 8% disagreed somewhat, 8% disagreed strongly and 11% were uncertain.
A similar result appeared in the Pew Landscape Survey. Where the percentage of mainline Protestants and Catholics who were absolutely certain about the existence of God was between 72% and 73%, only 41% of Jews had such firm convictions. Based on their analysis (although without some attribution), Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of an expansive study of religious attitudes and practices in the United States, have concluded that “half of all self-identified Jews are not so sure they believe in God.” (See American Grace (Simon & Schuster 2010) at 23.)
The situation is even starker when one looks at Jewish scientists. In 2005-08, Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund surveyed scientists at twenty-one elite research universities to determine their religious beliefs. In general, fewer scientists (36%) expressed a belief in God than did the population as a whole (over 90%). Jewish scientists did not even reach that low threshold, with almost 75% of them reporting that they were atheists. (See Ecklund, Science vs. Religion (Oxford 2010), at 32-36.)
Even when Jews, as a group, do hold a belief in some sort of deity, they conceive of God differently than others do. According to the Pew Landscape Survey, while Protestants and Catholics believe in a personal God at the respective rates of 72% and 60%, only 25% of Jews do. Conversely, while only 19% of Protestants and 29% of Catholics believe that God is an impersonal force, fully 50% of Jews hold that view.
While there may be problems with sampling and the precision or lack of it in the questioning, among other issues, what data exist consistently suggest that across the American Jewish spectrum there is no widespread belief in a traditional, personal God. A significant number of Jews do believe in some sort of spirit or impersonal force, but it is not at all clear what the respondents may have meant by those terms. Finally, there is another group of Jews, some affiliated and some not, who appear to be atheists in the pure sense of the term, i.e., individuals who deny the existence of God.
So Judaism, American Judaism at least, has two God problems. One is that many Jews affirmatively do not believe in any kind of god. The other is that many Jews who do believe in God do not believe in the traditional, personal God.
The first problem challenges the stability of the classical formulation of the three supporting pillars of the Jewish civilization: God, Torah and Israel (the people, not the state). And this problem, and the questions with which we began this piece, are not just academic as indicated by the polling data.
Discussing whether there can be Judaism without belief in God, some commentators have characterized the idea as “ridiculous” and the result “a fraud, an illusion” because the Jewish narrative depends on God, and without God “cannot reproduce itself.” Others perceive a historical “march of Judaism from religion toward secularity.”
How Judaism will evolve is unclear, but the reality is, as AJIS, 2001 recognized, “(s)ecularism is a serious conviction for some Jews, as well as an existential condition for a great many more.” (AJIS, 2001, above, at 5.) We do not know whether this secularism has emerged in response to science, to the Shoah or to one or more other factors. We can be sure, though, that the American Jewish community can ill afford to alienate further this large component of itself.
The second problem challenges non-Orthodox congregations in particular, or perhaps helps explains their lack of attractiveness to so many Jews today. The God language that one encounters in a Jewish faith setting, regardless of denomination, is for the most part traditional God language that the overwhelming majority of contemporary American Jews reportedly rejects.
At the same time, if American Jews could be enticed to affiliate with a synagogue, temple, congregation or havurah simply because it adopted a non-traditional theology or philosophy then one would expect Reconstructionist and Humanist groups to be larger than they are and growing, but they are neither large nor growing, remaining relegated to just 1% each of affiliated Jews. Is that because the Reform and Conservative movements have older, more established brands or have more “stores” or offer more programming? Does the current situation result from inertia on the part of potential congregants or the failure of the Reconstructionists and the Humanists to promote themselves effectively? Or is a non-traditional theological approach really not as attractive in practice as the surveys suggest it should be? Or, perhaps, not a decisive factor determining affiliation? We don’t really know the answers to any of these questions, but the data nevertheless suggest that Jewish religious institutions might be more attractive to a significant portion of the Jewish community if they were more creative and bold, with new liturgies that talk to their congregants’ sensibilities, even as they appeal to their hearts and provide a link the past.
The data developed in the surveys cited above also suggest the high degree of difficulty the major denominations will have addressing Judaism’s twin God problems. If the organized Jewish community does not address these two problems, however, they will lose the future. And not only the future, because without a viable and committed American Jewish community in the future, there will be no recollection of, much regard for, the past either.
Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.
March 24, 2013 | 8:04 am
Posted by Roger Price
The Hebrew Bible, thanks in large part to the often literal translation of it in the King James Version, is a source of scores of English idiomatic expressions. We may not know much about biology and history, but we do know, for instance, that a “leopard cannot change its spots” and that there is “nothing new under the Sun.” (See Jer. 13:23; Eccles. 1:9.)
Someday, no doubt, if it hasn’t already, Google will track the frequency with which we use these expressions and determine the rank order of their popularity. Surely high on the list will be “written in stone.” The phrase comes from the Book of Exodus where we are told that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai and received from God two stone tablets which were engraved by God with God’s teachings and commandments. The initial set of tablets was then smashed by Moses when he saw that the Israelites had fashioned an idol, a golden calf, when he was away up the mountain. God then met with Moses a second time, resulting in the production of a second set of stone tablets with the laws.
From these references comes the notion that something written in stone is fixed for all time, immutable. The writing is a statement from and by authority, possibly even sacred, but certainly to be followed without modification. Conversely, something “not written in stone” is a statement of lesser seriousness, one subject to challenge and change.
But “written in stone” may be more than a mere connotation of substantiality, firmness and durability. Sometimes words and pictures set in stone may be evidentiary. The probative value of such evidence depends on a lot of factors, of course. In some cases, though, because the availability of similar evidence is so limited and the potential significance of it so extraordinary, the determination of what is written in stone assumes unusual importance. That is exactly the situation with respect to the issue of the historicity of the Exodus and the origin, or ethnogenesis, of the Israelite people.
The timeline for these events is obviously crucial and it is in some dispute. Recognizing that there is no “assurance of certainty” in dating, a generation ago, Nahum Sarna, then professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University, concluded that various “lines of evidence converge to make a very good case for placing the events of the Exodus within the thirteenth century B.C.E.,” that is, toward the end of the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BCE). (See Sarna, Exploring Exodus (Schocken 1987), at 7, 14.) The settlement of the Israelites in Canaan, and the period described in the Biblical book of Judges would then come at the beginning of the Iron Age I (1200-1000 BCE). The reported reigns of Saul, David and Solomon would follow at around 1020/1025-928/931 BCE. (See Silberman, Secrets of the Bible (Hatherleigh 2004), at xiv-xv.)
Others, like Biblical archeologist Dr. Bryant Wood, place the Exodus much farther back in time, at around 1446 BCE, with the conquest of Canaan set in 1406-1400 BCE. Some even suggest that the Exodus was related to the expulsion of the Hyskos around 1570-1550 BCE.
What evidence is there that during the Late Bronze Age a substantial population or even some Western Semitic Asiatics traveled from Egypt to Palestine? Not much, actually. As one scholar has put it, “the simple fact remains: archeology can neither confirm not disconfirm the deliverance of a band of Asiatic slaves from Pharaoh’s mighty hand.” (William Brown, “An Update in the Search of Israel’s History,” in Bright, A History of Israel (Westminster John Knox 2000, 4th ed.) at 469-70.)
A ten foot high black granite slab known as the Merneptah Stele provides one clue, though. Currently housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the stele is engraved with a poem that celebrates a victory by Merneptah, once pharaoh of Egypt, over a group of invaders around the fifth year of his rule. Toward the end of the poem, while bragging of his military conquest and the destruction of his enemies, Merneptah says, in part: “Plundered is the Canaan with every evil; Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer, Yanoam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not; . . . .” (See Sarna, above, at 11(emphasis supplied).) According to Sarna, Merneptah reigned over Egypt between 1224 and 1211 BCE. (Id.) All of this suggests that the purported events occurred around 1219 BCE, though some place Merneptah and the reported events ten to fifteen years nearer to our time.
The Merneptah stele contains the Egyptian determinative sign for people as well as for Israel suggesting that the reference is to Israel as a people rather than a nation or a settled land, but even that issue is not closed. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Israel along with the territories purportedly conquered by Merneptah suggests not only that Israel as a people existed, but also that Israel was sizable and strong enough to be considered worthy of mentioning as a defeated opponent. That, in turn, implies that Israel’s presence was not new, but extended over some meaningful duration.
All of that is less than precise, unfortunately, but the real importance of the Merneptah Stele to scholars was twofold: first, the stone marker was the earliest known non-Biblical reference to Israel and, second, its existence put a maximum end date to the Biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt.
In 2001, Manfred Gorg, recently deceased but then a professor of Old Testament Theology and Egyptology at the University of Munich, published in German an analysis of a grey granite slab fragment he had recently found in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Designated item no. 21687, the slab is 18 inches high and 16 inches wide and appears to be a broken portion of statue pedestal. The slab contains a legend in hieroglyphics that Gorg has translated as saying : “one, who is falling on his feet . . . .” (van der Veen et al., “Israel in Canaan (Long) Before Pharaoh Merenptah(sic)? . . .”)
Below the legend are the images of three individuals. With shoulder length hair, pointed beards, and headbands, the three individuals appear to be Western Semites. (See Biblical Archeology Review, “When Did Ancient Israel Begin?” January/February 2012 (at 60.))
A name ring appears at chest level and below on each individual. Two of the three name rings appear to be clear and identify Ashkelon and Canaan. The third name ring is broken, but Gorg claimed to have reconstructed it, read it as sounding similar to Yishrael (or perhaps Yasharel) and interpreted the name as that of “Israel.” (See van der Veen, above, at 15.) Egyptologists split on Gorg’s analysis. For instance, Bryant Wood accepted this interpretation, but James Hoffmeier, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, did not. (See Id.)
Recently Peter van der Veen of the University of Mainz and Christopher Theis of the University of Heidelberg reviewed the Berlin Relief no. 21687 and, with Gorg, published their enhanced analysis in English. (See generally, van der Veen, above.) After a detailed inspection utilizing special lighting and other techniques, they believe that they are able to “safely” reconstruct the writing on the damaged slab. Moreover, they conclude that the name in the third ring is a name “that undoubtedly resembles the biblical name ‘Israel’ . . . .” (See Id. at 17-18.)
Having considered and dispensed with each of Hoffmeier’s several objections to this reading, including the difference between “s” and “sh,” what may or may not be a lamed or resh and whether the sculptor was consistent in his spelling, they then address whether the name found could refer to Biblical Israel. Noting the references to Ashkelon and Canaan, and their geographic proximity, van der Veen et al. ask rhetorically “what other name in the same general region would be so strikingly reminiscent of that of biblical Israel?” (Id. at 19.) Their answer is that there is “no linguistically feasible name” in any other known texts, so “‘Israel’ remains the most logical candidate.” (Id.)
But how old is the Berlin pedestal relief? van der Veen et al. tentatively ascribe a date for the slab to Ramesses II (around 1279-1212 BCE), a later date being deemed unlikely on linguistic grounds. (Id. at 20.) At the same time, they acknowledge that such a date “is by no means certain.” (Id.) Perhaps even more intriguing, they suggest that based on certain “archaic elements,” the names on the pedestal could have been “copied from an earlier source that could have had its origin during the first half of the Eighteenth Dynasty or perhaps earlier still . . . .” (Id. at 17.) Parenthetically, Sarna dates Ramesses (Rameses) II to 1290-1224 BCE. He puts the 18th Dynasty at 1552-1306 BCE. (See Sarna, above, at 8, 10.)
van der Veen et al. recognize that many scholars will have difficulty believing that Biblical Israel arrived in Palestine prior to Merneptah, especially as far back as the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty. (van der Veen, above, at 20.) Yet a migration “nearer the middle of the second millennium BCE” is what they say the evidence suggests. (Id. at 21.)
There is, of course, a lively debate about whether one or more actual migrations from Egypt might have occurred, when it or they might have occurred and how many individuals participated. What cannot be denied, however, is that the writing on the stone known as Berlin no. 21687 is more than a phrase. It is evidence. It may or may not be reliable evidence of the claimed military victories, but if van der Veen et al. are correct, it appears to be rock solid evidence of the existence of a people known as Israel and at a time earlier, possibly even 200 years earlier, than any other hard evidence had indicated.
Does this new information prove that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt over an extended period and left as Torah tells? No. It says nothing about whether one or more migrations occurred or who or how many participated in any such event. Nor does it say anything about whether any exodus was due to natural or supernatural causes. Does this new information prove that the Israelites emerged in Canaan by way of a military invasion and conquest from the desert, a relatively peaceful immigration perhaps reuniting formerly separated families, a rebellion among indigenous groups, a combination of the foregoing or in some other fashion? It does not do that either. So the Berlin artifact probably will not quell the dispute between the archeological minimalists and the maximalists, between those who would deny any exodus event because it did not occur precisely as the Bible says it did and those who would see the entire Biblical account vindicated if one buckle of one Bronze age shoe were ever found in the Wilderness of Zin.
But evidence matters, especially hard evidence. And this new evidence is more than a “drop in the bucket.” (See Is. 40:15.) Rather, than a “fly in the ointment” (see Eccles. 10:1), this Berlin pedestal should at the least cause everyone to reconsider when and how Israel as a people came to be. Maybe someday, we’ll even “see eye to eye.” (See Is. 52:8.)
Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.
February 19, 2013 | 3:21 pm
Posted by Roger Price
We are blessed to live in an age of great discoveries. Prior to 1992, astronomers had not been able to identify with certainty any planet in orbit around a star outside of our solar system. But these planets, known as extra solar planets or exoplanets, have now been found. In fact, in the first decade or so from the discovery of the first exoplanet, hundreds of such planets were located in diverse areas of the known universe.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) launched the Kepler space mission in 2009 in order to find Earth sized planets within the habitable zone of a star. The mission focused on a relatively small star field in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, perhaps the extent of the sky obscured by an average extended fist. The discoveries have been phenomenal, and the pace seems to be accelerating.
Most of the exoplanets first found by the Kepler mission were large, Jupiter sized planets. Thanks to advances in technology, however, in December 2011 Kepler astronomers announced the discovery of several Earth sized exoplanets. One, called Kepler-20e, is somewhat smaller than Earth and the other, called Kepler 20-f, is somewhat larger. Neither seemed suitable for life, however. The smaller of the two exoplanets orbits so close to its parent star that its surface temperature approaches 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. The other, by comparison, is relatively cooler, but still registers around 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Last month NASA announced the discovery of 461 new planet candidates. This brings the total number of potential planets to 2,740, singly or in groups in orbit around 2,036 stars. Of the new planet candidates, four are found in the region where liquid water might exist, i.e., the habitable zone of their solar system. One of the four, designated KOI-172.02, is similar to Earth in at least two respects: its radius is about 1.5 the radius of Earth and its year is about 242 days. NASA has not yet confirmed that KOI-172.02 is in fact a planet, but as science writer Timothy Ferris has said, “We live in a changing universe, and few things are changing faster than our conception of it.” (Ferris, The Whole Shebang (Simon & Schuster 1997), at 11.)
For sure, it is much too soon to claim that we are close to discovering life on other planets, especially intelligent life with which (or whom) we could communicate. Primitive life forms emerged relatively soon after our own planet coalesced and water formed, but well over 4 billion years had to pass before our species evolved. And even if there is life, and intelligent life at that, communication with it is problematical. Our own language skills have been developed only recently, by the cosmic clock, and our ability to utilize electromagnetic waves for communication is barely more than a century old.
It is not too soon, though, to contemplate the implications of a discovery of life on other planets. People have speculated about other worlds for centuries, of course, even millennia. The Jewish commentary is rather sparse, but still provocative.
There are psalms, one of which, depending on the translation, has been read to refer to thousands of worlds (see Ps. 68:18) and another of which, again by some translations, speaks of a kingdom of God that encompasses “all worlds” (see Ps. 145:13). The Talmud includes a discussion about what God has done since the destruction of the Temple in which there is the suggestion that “he rides a light cherub and floats in 18,000 worlds.” (Avodah Zarah 3b.) The number 18,000 may be derived from a perceived allusion in Ezekiel (at 48:35) to a circumference of 18,000. In any event, the Tikunei Zohar (c. 13th Century C.E.?) continues the theme, contending that the 18,000 worlds are to be presided over by 18,000 Tzaddikim (righteous men). We do not know, though, whether these references are to physical worlds or spiritual worlds.
Subsequently, different rabbis considered the issue of extraterrestrial life and produced, don’t be shocked, different results. In the 14th Century C.E., the Spanish Rabbi Chadai Crescas wrote in Or HaAdonai (HaShem) that nothing in Torah precluded the existence of life on other worlds. (At 4:2.) His student, Rabbi Yosef Albo (d. 1444?), on the other hand, held a different view. He reasoned in Sefer HaIkarrim that such creatures would have no free will, and therefore there would be no reason for them to exist. For him, as a theological matter, they could not and did not exist.
Some four hundred years later, the Vilna kaballist Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz took a position between Crescas and Albo. In Sefer HaBris, he agreed that extraterrestrial beings would have no free will and no moral responsibility, but thought that they might still exist. Concluding his review of the literature, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan said: "We therefore have a most fascinating reason why the stars were created, and why they contain intelligent life. Since an overcrowded Earth will not give the Tzaddikim the breadth they require, each one will be given his own planet, with its entire population to enhance his spiritual growth.” (See The Aryeh Kaplan Reader, (Mesorah, 1983), at 173; see also, Aryeh Kaplan, “Extraterrestrial life.”)
Writing shortly after Neil Armstrong placed the first human foot on the Moon, Rabbi Norman Lamm, who was to become and still is Chancellor of Yeshiva University in New York, considered at length man’s place in the universe and the religious implications of extraterrestrial life. He feared neither technological advances nor mankind’s changing role in the universe. He saw “no need to exaggerate man’s importance” or “to exercise a kind of racial or global arrogance, in order to discover the sources of man’s significance and uniqueness.”(Lamm, Faith and Doubt (KTAV 1971), at 99.) Moreover, while recognizing the difference between conjecture and proof, Lamm acknowledged that “(n)o religious position is loyally served by refusing to consider annoying theories which may well turn out to be facts.” (Id. at 124.)
Judaism has seen mankind as the purpose of creation, and man as made in the image of God, but Lamm asserts that “there is nothing in . . . the Biblical doctrine per se . . . that insists upon man’s singularity.” (Id. at 128.) “Judaism . . . can very well accept a scientific finding that man is not the only intelligent and bio-spiritual resident in God’s world.” (Id. at 133.)
Forty years after Lamm wrote his comments, exoplanets are more than a theoretical possibility to be considered by philosophers. If the astrobiologists actually found life elsewhere, a second genesis event, if you will, the discovery would be stunning, maybe literally so. Whether everyone would be as sensitive and humble as Lamm is an open question.
No doubt there will be those who will welcome the development with open arms. For instance, Father Jose Funes, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, believes that there would be no conflict with his faith, because the creative freedom of God cannot be limited: “As there exist many creatures on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God.”
Others are not so sure. For Christians who hold that humanity was initially subjected to original sin and that a Savior, in the form of God incarnate, came to save it, what does extraterrestrial life say about sin, about saving and about the Savior? At the recent 100 Year Starship Symposium, sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Christian Weidemann, a philosophy professor, asked, presumably in all seriousness: “Did Jesus die for Klingons too?”
Jews don’t have to answer those questions. But they will have some of their own dilemmas to confront. That there really are – not just theoretically, but really are – actual planets out there that may serve as the hosts for extraterrestrial life is a fact that colors a question Christopher Hitchens asked some years ago in an essay for The Templeton Foundation. The essay was in response to a general question that Templeton posed to over a dozen scientists and non-scientists: Does science make belief in God obsolete? Hitchens answer was “No, but it should.” In his fuller response, he was, well, Hitchens, which is to say unsubtle, impolitic and acerbic. He asked what planner would design a doomed galaxy like our own, subject our species to near extinction, and then just 3,000 years ago disclose a saving revelation “to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?” (At 15-16.)
It is easy to dismiss Hitchens because his tone is so off-putting. But Rabbi Arthur Green, current rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College in Boston and a man who is as devoted to Judaism and the Jewish people as anyone, has asked essentially the same question. Using similar words, but in a different context and no doubt with a different purpose, Green has asked “Can we imagine a God so arbitrary as to choose one nation, one place, and one moment in human history in which the eternal divine will was to be manifest for all time? Why should the ongoing traditions, institutions, and prejudices of the Western Semitic tribes of that era be visited on humanity as the basis for fulfilling the will of God?” (Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name (Jason Aronson 1992), at 105.)
Of course, Hitchens and Green provide different responses to their independent recognition of the origin and nature of Biblical stories. One sees myth, the other Myth. One finds at best nothing special, while the other sees the basis for a morality applicable to all humanity. But, if the underlying question being raised by both Green and Hitchens, is a good one, why isn’t it a better one when raised to the cosmic level? Can the God which once spoke sparingly to selected individuals, and then became the God of a family, of a tribe and, ultimately, a people and a nation, now expand its reach not just around our globe and to everything that lives in this biosphere but beyond, to other star systems, even other galaxies? Can we on Earth accommodate such a God?
Even without the benefit of the discoveries of the Kepler mission, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky has addressed the issue. “Theology that cannot face brute facts about cosmology and evolutionary biology is hopeless,” he has written. “Contemporary Judaism needs a faith befitting a cosmos . . . .” (Kalmanofsky, “Cosmic Theology and Earthly Religion,” in Jewish Theology In Our Time (Jewish Lights 2010), at 24-25.)
Thinking about the existence of extraterrestrial life, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the prospect is staggering.” True enough. Now though, we have some good evidence that there are exoplanets in a position to host life forms. Shouldn’t we be engaged in developing a theology for the cosmos, an exotheology for this new reality? And won’t we need a new liturgy as well, one that is universal in the fullest sense of that word?
Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.
February 1, 2013 | 11:09 am
Posted by Roger Price
That different Jews have disparate views is not news. What is news is when most Jews agree on a particular idea or approach. And so it is with the curious consensus of Jews on abortion.
In mid-2012, the Public Religion Research Institute (“PRRI”) published its findings from a 2012 survey of Jewish values (the “Jewish Values Survey”). The survey sought to measure the opinions of American Jews on a wide variety of political and economic issues, as well as with respect to certain religious beliefs and practices.
While Jews varied considerably in their views of a wide range of topics, on one – abortion – they were not only reasonably cohesive in their attitude, but strikingly different from other groups. Given the emphasis in the Jewish tradition on valuing life, on equating the preservation of one life with the preservation of a world and, conversely, the destruction of one life as the destruction of the world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5), this result, on its face, seems as anomalous as it is clear.
First, let’s look at the PRRI data. Essentially regardless of denominational affiliation or demographics, American Jews think abortion should be legal in all (49%) or almost all (44%) cases. That is, fully 93% of all American Jews support legalized abortion in some fashion. Even political leanings, while influential, are not determinative. Among Jewish Democrats support is 95%, but 77% of Jewish Republicans also favor legalized abortion in all or most cases, far exceeding the rate of other groups studied.
The comparable numbers for other faith groups is quite different not only in their overall support or opposition to legalized abortion, but in the internal differences within each group. Jews are the only group surveyed in which a plurality support abortion in all cases. While about half of all Jews support abortion in all cases, in no other faith group does such support exceed 25% of the population. Moreover, in comparison to the 93% total of Jews who support legalized abortion in all or most cases, the only other group surveyed that showed clear majority support for legalized abortion was white mainline Protestants (59%). The comparable numbers for black Protestants and Catholics are 50% and 48%. Just one-third of white evangelicals support abortion in all or most situations.
Moreover, while the survey found that just 6% of Jews oppose legalized abortion in most cases and 1% did in all cases, the other groups surveyed were much more diverse in their views. For instance, while 19% of Catholics thought abortion should be illegal in all cases, 31% said only in most cases. Similarly, 21% of white evangelicals opposed legal abortion in all cases, but 44% only opposed it in most cases.
So, why are Jews so much different from others on this issue? Is there something in the Jewish tradition which leads inexorably to the overwhelming consensus most Jews have reached?
The Torah itself, indeed the entire Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), is silent on the topic of abortion. A passage in the Torah, however, does reflect a biblical view of a fetus. The passage concerns an injury to a pregnant woman which causes a miscarriage of her fetus. The Torah states that such conduct warrants financial compensation but nothing greater, specifically not the same penalty that would be imposed for murder. (See Ex. 21:22-23.) In other words, this passage considers the fetus as not fully a nefesh, a person, and more akin to personal property.
When the ancient sages talked about abortion, they did so in the context of the knowledge of their day and with at least one eye on the Bible. Consequently, as a matter of principle, abortion was generally prohibited because, for example, it destroyed something created in God’s image (see Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6), and that destruction was also contrary to the first commandment, to populate the world (see Gen. 1:28).
At the same time, the sages’ understanding of fetal development was quite limited. Within the first forty days of pregnancy, they thought the mother to be carrying “mere fluid.” (See BT Yevamot 69b.) In later stages of pregnancy, they viewed the fetus as a part of the mother like a limb or appendage of the mother. (See, e.g., BT Gittin 23b.)
By the middle ages, essentially two positions existed. The great commentator Rashi (1040-1105 CE) accepted the principle that the fetus was not a person. The philosopher and physician Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), took a different view, though. When considering a threat to the mother’s life from a fetus, Rambam analogized the fetus to a rodef, or pursuer, for whom one was not to have pity. Abortion was justified, even though the fetus was of high value, because the fetus was characterized an active endangerment to the mother.
The position of contemporary American Jewish leaders is remarkably, although not entirely, uniform. In responsa, resolutions and other literature and statements, non-orthodox rabbis express a reverence for the sanctity of life, reaffirm the traditional Jewish belief that personhood, and the rights attendant to it, begin at birth, not conception, and support the “right” of a woman to choose an abortion, not on demand or for trivial reasons, but in cases where, for instance, continuation of a pregnancy might cause the mother severe physical or psychological harm.
The issue of abortion in the Orthodox community is hotly debated, indeed seen by some almost as a litmus test of one’s commitment to Modern Orthodoxy or, alternatively, to a pre-modern, culturally conservative orthodoxy. The latter tends to hold that abortion is permissible only where the danger to the mother’s life is clear and direct and generally forbidden otherwise. But there are exceptions. And one can even find rulings of respected Orthodox rabbis permitting abortions in cases of substantial emotional difficulty such as when the expectant mother becomes suicidal or when pregnancy is the result of adultery.
Consequently, while it is clear that for over two thousand years, Judaism has understood (1) personhood begins at birth and not conception and (2) that the life of a mother supersedes that of a fetus which threatens that mother, the notion reportedly expressed by roughly half of American Jews that abortion should be permissible in all cases is absolutely unwarranted by Jewish tradition and values, whether filtered through an Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Reform lens. For instance, and without limitation, abortion for purposes of gender selection, convenience or purely economic reasons, especially at any time in gestation, is not defensible Jewishly.
To be clear, the 2012 Jewish Values Survey did not describe the reason(s) for the hypothetical abortion being considered. Consequently, it is not even clear that a majority of American Jews really do approve of abortion in “most” cases, though they surely do in many cases. To the extent the view of American Jews on abortion is premised on the argument that abortions are not properly the subject of criminal laws, that view finds stronger support in the Jewish tradition.
At the same time, we have knowledge and tools and insights today that the ancient sages surely lacked. We know how a fertilized human egg develops from zygote to embryo to fetus and then, on birth, to a baby. We know, for instance, that by the fourth week of pregnancy, in an embryo barely one-twenty-fifth of an inch long, the embryo’s brain and spinal cord and its heart have begun to form, and arm and leg buds have appeared. Within two weeks, the heart starts to beat, blood to flow, and the embryo is the size of a lentil, maybe a quarter of an inch long. Brain activity commences. By the end of the eighth week, all essential organs and external body structures, including eyes and eyelids, have begun to form. The embryo is about an inch long, but still weighs less than one-eighth of an ounce.
The fetal stage begins after week eight. In an uneventful pregnancy, the fetus will grow to about three inches and almost an ounce at week twelve and to four to five inches and almost three ounces at week sixteen. A translucent skin begins to form and the fetus can make sucking motions. If you want to read detailed descriptions or see images of fetal development, they are readily available.
Moreover, we also know today, and really only recently, that while only one-fifth to one-third of babies born at 23 weeks of gestation survive, by week 24 fifty percent or more do. By week 26, over ninety percent of babies born prematurely can survive.
Science can and should inform the discussion in the Jewish community way more than it does. Among other things, science teaches that an embryo in its first forty days is more than “mere fluid.” No, the embryo is not at all viable at that stage, but to deny that it is alive and might, without interference, emerge someday is at best disingenuous.
Similarly, science teaches that a fetus throughout pregnancy is neither a “mere limb” of its mother nor a pursuer. Through sonograms in the first trimester of pregnancy we can literally see the shape and specific features of a fetus. We can see its head, monitor its heart beating. What we cannot do – or ought not do – is deny its essence. Assuming viability, an abortion not related to saving a mother’s life cannot fairly be analogized to ridding one’s self of personal property or amputating one’s limb. Nor, although a fetus may well be the direct or indirect cause of a mother’s life-threatening condition, is it accurate to say that the fetus is a “pursuer.” There is no evidence, and really never was in Rambam’s day either, that the fetus possessed the capacity to form an intention to kill its mother or, indeed, do any harm.
Yet, to acknowledge that life is present and that Jewish tradition is based on archaic concepts is not to conclude the inquiry. Science cannot, for example, extinguish the rape or incest that may have caused the pregnancy. In short, medical science is informative, but not dispositive of the questions to be considered with respect to abortion.
In fact, modern medical science perhaps raises more questions than it answers. For instance, just as it can provide information that make the fetus appear to look more like a baby, today medical science can also tell us if that potential child is afflicted with a serious defect or disease. Today the human genome has been mapped, and many of us can get tested for genetic anomalies at relatively nominal cost. What do we do with the information we learn? If we find that a female fetus has a mutation on either gene BRCA 1 on chromosome 17 or on BRCA 2 on chromosome 13, and therefore has a statistically significantly greater likelihood of developing breast cancer than a mutation free female, what then? What about a finding of a mutation of the ApoE gene on chromosome 19, which suggests an increased chance of Alzheimer’s after age sixty? What of the literally dozens of diseases that affect groups of Jews disproportionately, from ataxia-telangiectasia to Werner syndrome? We have only just begun to have a discussion about the need to have a discussion about these issues.
Dennis Prager sees the approach of American Jews to abortion as a matter of “moral disappointment,” but also as part of the substitution of “leftism” for Judaism. Prager’s frustration with American Jewry on abortion is understandable, but his argument is not persuasive. Whatever he may mean by “leftism,” it seems hard to sustain that assertion when the statistics indicate that 93% of the group is on one side of the issue. That is, if almost everyone is on the “left,” then there is no “left” anymore, or “right” for that matter. Invoking the left/right dichotomy is generally not very helpful or productive on political matters. On issues as knotty as abortion, it is next to useless.
And Prager’s suggestion that one can be pro-choice, i.e., anti-criminalization of abortion, and still recognize that “many abortions have no moral defense” is not on much firmer ground. He wants pro-choice Jews, “especially rabbis,” to say that they regard “most abortions” as “immoral.” But, to be polite, this approach lacks precision. How can “most abortions” be immoral if only “many abortions” have no moral defense? Exactly which cases is he referencing and what is the source of his data? What precisely does he mean by “moral” and “immoral” in this context? And why “especially” rabbis, as if (1) they have an impeccable track record on moral issues and (2) the rest of us are too obtuse to understand what’s at stake?
The difficult challenge here is not whether to be pro-choice or pro-life. Those are false and incomplete options, especially in Judaism which is neither really pro-choice nor pro-life as those terms are commonly used today. Moreover, while American Jews are not in sync with Jewish tradition, Jewish tradition is not in sync with modern medical science. Instead of knee jerk reactions, we need nuanced reflections. We all do, rabbis and laity, physicians and patients.
Fortunately, the biblical view on the status of the fetus is not one of those rules literally or figuratively written in stone.Nor is the tradition that developed subsequently. We remain free to struggle over how and where to draw the line we inevitably must draw when faced with situations about which we would rather not know much less contemplate and resolve. The true challenge, when considering matters of life and death, is to be cautious when others are certain, to be sensitive when others are strident, and to exercise humility when others exhibit hubris.
Note: Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.