An Edah Editorial By Rabbi Eliyahu Stern
Rabbi Eliyahu Stern is Scholar-in-Residence at Park East Synagogue and is finishing
a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
Masters of Reconcilliation
The first half of the twentieth-century saw Americans locked
in a fierce ideological debate surrounding economic class and the distribution
of wealth. In the second half of the century, the cultural wars addressed issues
of race and gender. As we stand at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a perhaps
even more fundamental issue divides the American body politic. From stem cells,
abortion and human cloning to the Schiavo case and physician assisted suicides,
the question of life has become this generation's great ideological battleground.
Jewish tradition certainly sees life as a primary value. Rosh
Hashana is so significant in the Jewish calendar precisely because it celebrates
the birth of the world. Life is God' s first gift to humanity. The liturgy of
the High Holidays constantly celebrates life and, as Rabbi Irving Greenberg
has suggested, in the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana God tells
Abraham that Divine service does not mean sacrificing human life for the Divine
but rather living a life devoted to bringing the Divine into the world.
However, Judaism's emphasis on life is matched by its emphasis
on choice. Human freedom to choose is incorporated within Maimonides thirteen
primary theological principles. Maimonides in his Mishnah Torah (Laws of Repentance
2:1) suggests that the essence of repentance is rooted in choice "What
is complete repentance?" he asks, "It is the case of someone who has
the opportunity to commit a sin he or she has committed, and has the ability
to commit it [again], and yet separates from it and does not commit it because
of having done repentance, not because of fear or because of lack of power
a man is a master of complete repentance." Such a conception of law highlights
the unique choice-centered nature of Jewish law and repentance.
But in today's American society, the complementary qualities
of life and choice have come to represent opposing worldviews. Both sides have
taken absolute positions, demanding that human beings live either by the credo
"the sanctity of life" or the motto "life without choice is not
worth living." So blinded are those who express such ideologies that in
their talk radio extremes they refer to the other position as the equivalent
of Communism or Nazism.
Both these noisy sides ignore the silent majority who stand
in the very gray, murky and complex terrain called living. Those who stand in
the world of the living realize each of us chooses life: "ubacharta bachaim".
Living means recognizing that though dogmatic, absolutist and all-encompassing
world views might make for good media headlines, tenure at a University or electablity
at the voting booth, they fail to make any sense in the real world. In the real
world, people are not rational computers who make every decision based on a-priori
theoretical doctrines. In some cases we are more open to the pain and suffering
of the present. In other cases we feel more the weight of history and text.
Jewish tradition recognizes that each decision involving human
life is a world unto itself. To be sure, the Jewish tradition is not unprincipled.
It states unambiguously that never one, but a number of competing factors exist
in every bio-ethical decision. It stands in opposition to both extremes of the
debate and offers a sober worldview that gives dignity to the often conflicting
rhythms of life.
While the tradition worries about partial birth or late term
abortions, there are times that even under such circumstances the most stringent
of rabbis would allow for terminating a pregnancy. Likewise, almost all rabbinic
authorities acknowledge the importance of stem cell research; and while the
vast majority of the tradition opposes physician assisted suicide, much debate
and legal room exists around the status of those who are brain dead. These rulings
might seem contradictory, but on closer examination they give testimony to a
theology not of life or choice per-se, but rather a theology of the Living.
The word repentance, teshuva so commonly heard over the High
Holy days has many meanings: among them is reconciliation. As we sit and watch
the political and religious absolutism infecting the American body-politic threaten
to irreversibly rend our national soul, we as Americans and Jews must become
baalei teshuvah, masters of reconciliation. We need to help in healing and reconciling
this divided country and remind our fellow citizens there is more to living
than life or choice.