February 22, 2012
Not of One Cloth
An item posted yesterday (2/21) on JTA quoted political commentator Alan Steinberg as asserting that “[Sen. Rick Santorum’s] stance on social issues will be a plus, particularly in the Orthodox community.” This is a markedly glib assessment however, reflecting both an ignorance of and disrespect for the sophistication and nuance of Jewish law. There may be other reasons that Orthodox Jews may prefer Santorum, but his positions on several social issues stand in stark opposition to deeply entrenched Jewish legal tradition.
Jewish law does prohibit abortion on demand. Not because it regards a fetus as a human being, rather because it sees a fetus as representing potential life. Though this distinction may seem subtle, it carries enormous legal implications. Jewish Law not only permits but actually mandates abortion in a situation in which a fetus is (unwittingly of course) threatening the life of its mother. This is directed by the same principle that mandates that Shabbat be violated when life is in in danger. In Maimonides’ words, “the laws of the Torah were not given to inflict vengeance on the world, rather [to bring] compassion, kindness and peace to the world. (Laws of Shabbat 2:3)”. Nor is the halachik discussion about abortion limited to cases in which the threat to a mother’s life is physical, with numerous authorities also regarding the prospect of severe emotional or psychological trauma as grounds for abortion.
And the issue is actually bigger than abortion per se. Jewish law bestows virtually no legal status at all upon fertilized embryos that are not implanted in a mother’s womb. This is why the Orthodox community has always been vocally in favor utilizing such embryos for stem cell research (See for example the statement of the Rabbinical Council of America’s statement). While stem cell research is not as hot an issue as it was a few years ago, its return to research prominence – or the emergence of another, similar technology – is not at all unlikely.
Jewish Law also stands at odds with Senator Santorum’s anti-regulation approach to the relationship between humankind and the Earth. Judaism’s legal approach is defined by the tension between the Torah’s dueling directives that we subdue the Earth (Genesis, Chapter 1) and simultaneously guard over it (Chapter 2). We are thus directed for example, to take full advantage of the earth’s fertility, and are simultaneously prohibited to needlessly destroy fruit-bearing trees. We are permitted to use animals for purposes of work and food, but we are prohibited to cause them physical or emotional distress (even muzzling an animal while it is threshing grain is prohibited by the Torah), or to drive a species toward extinction (see Nachmanides to Deuteronomy 22:6, regarding the requirement to shoo away a mother bird before taking its young). The Talmud (Brachot 35a) charges us with the obligation to navigate the tension between “the Earth and it fullness are God’s” and “the Earth He gave to the sons of man”. We strive for balance, recognizing that we are at all times both “subduers” and “guardians”. In the words of the Midrash, “At the time when G-d created Adam, He took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and He said to him, ‘Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you; take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards! (Kohellet Rabbah 7)
On issues like feminism and even homosexuality Judaism’s worldview is more sophisticated, nuanced and wiser than Senator Santorum’s is. The two should never be confused for one another.