True Religion Is Caring Deeply for All Human Beings
Earlier today, I read a report about a “Pro-Life Congress” last week in Santa Ana. Before I delve into what caught my eye about the report, let me say that Orthodox Judaism does not fit into any of the “camps” when it comes to the abortion debate — as halacha neither bans abortion completely nor allows arbitrary abortion as a method of birth control. R. Yaakov Emden — about whom I have been writing so much recently — went on the record to say that abortion is permitted “not only in an instance where there is a need to save the mother’s life, but even if it is only to save her from the harassment and great pain that her fetus is causing” — which, according to many modern interpretations, would include extreme psychological or emotional distress.
R. Emden also permits the abortion of a child conceived by adultery to prevent the birth of a mamzer, a genetically transmitted stigmatic halachic impediment that lasts 10 generations. And although his leniencies are certainly at the extreme end of the spectrum of rabbinic opinion, even those who disagree do not suggest or even hint that his rulings are beyond the pale of normative halacha.
But let’s get back to last week’s conference in Santa Ana. The keynote speaker was Catholic Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, and what he said was profound. To be clear, it was not the details of his address that I found significant, but rather a fundamentally important general point.
“Abortion and euthanasia raise basic questions of human rights and social justice in our society — questions of what kind of society we are and what kind of people we want to be,” he began. “Never before has there been so much talk about human freedom and dignity and self-realization, and yet we find ourselves more and more indifferent to the cruelty and injustice that we see all around us.” The archbishop did not limit himself to abortion and euthanasia. He also mentioned racial discrimination, unemployment, homelessness and environmental pollution as examples of how a society that claims to care about human rights in reality does not care at all.
And he ended his address by saying, “If we really believed that God is our Father and that every person is a child of God made in his image, the world could be changed overnight.”
The essence of his message is extremely powerful, and — as you will see in a moment — it is embedded in Jewish tradition as far back back as the revelation at Mount Sinai 3,500 years ago.
We are all familiar with the concept of Humanism, an ideal that governs much of the social policies prevalent in modern-day Western society. Humanists define their beliefs as an outlook that attaches prime importance to the human rather than the Divine, or supernatural matters. In other words, a humanist believes that if one focuses on God, this will distract us from creating a caring society where there is justice for all, and due consideration for the needs of others, After all, they argue, if it is only God’s word that counts, how would it be possible to put the needs of humanity before the needs of God? Humanism posits that only by taking God out of the equation can one truly focus on improving society, and ensuring no one falls through the cracks.
The archbishop articulated something that we all know to be true: that, actually, if you take God out of the equation, not only will it not help society, but society will ultimately disintegrate completely. Hundreds of years after atheism entered into the mainstream, there is, if anything, more suffering, not less — and no amount of grandstanding can hide the fact that while a religious system demands true concern for those around us and the world we live in, humanism often results in moral relativism and a self-indulgent “morality” that discriminates against more people than it defends.
Which is why in this week’s Torah portion, a portion that discusses seemingly mundane civil law — respect for fellow man, respect for parents, financial crime, capital crime, etc. — we begin with the words: “And these are the laws you should place before them.” The connecting Hebrew letter vav at the beginning of the sentence connects the previous narrative about the Mount Sinai encounter with God to laws governing civil society. This demonstrates that ensuring a moral and caring society is a prerequisite for any relationship with God. Without one you will not have the other. I would add that the word “these,”which follows the vav, stresses the fact that it is this particular set of civil laws, those mandated by the Torah, that lay the groundwork for the relationship.
R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, the saintly Chafetz Chaim of Radun, was once at the mikva on a Friday afternoon and saw a man come out of the ritual bath and use someone else’s towel without permission. The rabbi immediately challenged him: “How can you possibly believe you are cleansed from sin if you have just dried yourself with a stolen towel?”
Our society is ostensibly focused on social justice and the rights of the individual, but in the headlong rush to form such a society without the guidance of a divine map, humanists have lost their moral compass and created a morality that is both hollow and corrupt. I don’t often find myself looking to an archbishop for inspiration, but we would all do well to heed Archbishop Gomez’s message. God has created a world where we must care for others as He cares for us, or as the archbishop put it so well: “God is our Father and he sees only his children — and when one of God’s children is suffering or in danger, he calls the rest of us to love and compassion.”