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Jewish Values and Personal Beliefs

11/05/2021 10:24:35 AM


Shabbat Shalom!

This past week I was invited to speak at the Methodist church at one of their Bible study groups.  During my talk I explained that what they call “the Old Testament” and we call “the Hebrew “Bible” is not “the Jewish Bible” and their New Testament the “Christian Bible”.  Rather the Hebrew Bible are our (Christians, Jews, and Muslims) shared stories and history.  Judaism (with the Talmud, Mishnah, Midrash, and commentaries) is the filter we as Jews interpret the Hebrew bible through, just as “the New Testament” is the filter Christians use to process the Hebrew bible.

We need to understand that Christian and Jewish values are not necessarily biblical values.  Last week as a community we discussed what the bible says about abortion which turned out to be very little.  (I hope you will join me tonight as I discuss “what Judaism has to say about abortion”).  While the values of our religions are not always aligned with the values of the bible, it is also true that our personal values are not always reflective of what our religions hold as their values.

Sometimes our religions have little to say or outright contradict our personal values.  One of the big issues we encounter, especially around abortion, is that when people invoke biblical or religious values to decry abortion they are actually articulating personal values or beliefs, not biblical values.    

In truth the bible says almost nothing about the status of the fetus.  What does seem true is that in the biblical worldview there seems to be a point when the fetus is not the sum of its parts.  The fetus does not take on personhood in the bible right away.  Psalm 139 illustrates this point very well:

Psalm 139

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.

The idea that we are being knitted inside the womb reflects this idea that we do not take on personhood in the biblical view right away.  This means the bible directly contradicts the idea that life begins at conception. One may have a personal value or belief that life starts at conception, but that belief is not present in classic Jewish or biblical belief.  As we will explore tonight in classic Judaism, the fetus has rights but they are subordinate to the living mother. 

Therefore, when one quotes Biblical verse that says, “thou shall not murder” as a reason to be anti-abortion they are using a biblical statute to justify a personal belief.  This in and of itself is fine, but it must be recognized that the bible does not view abortion as murder. 

Where Judaism and religion should really be involved in this conversation is how to help the woman who has decided to either get an abortion or see her pregnancy through to fruition.  The main purpose of religion, as I told the Methodists, is to help us be calibrated and in sync with God.

It is the act of deciding, whatever that decision is, that takes us out of alignment with God.  It is like the moment you drive your car for the first time, it becomes slightly out of sync and eventually will need to be recalibrated.  Choices, whatever they are, take us out of spiritual alignment.  This is because choices usually deal with this mortal plane, the chol, the mundane, and take us away from the kodesh, the holy, spiritual plane. Religion should be a part of our life to help us find our tether to the spiritual again and come back in tune with the holy.

Jewish tradition and the bible are rarely about the product or cause of a choice, but rather about the act of choosing.  Life would be easy if we had all the answers.  Some people would really like a book to tell them what to do in every situation.  Our book, the Tanakh, the bible, is not that book.  The bible does not tell us what to do as much as it shows us people who make choices and the consequences of those choices.  Those choices shape their reality just as our choices shape our world.  There are so few absolute rights or wrongs, black or white, choices in a lifetime.  Most decisions live in a gray area and are just decisions that will make us who we are to become.  One thing is true, however, once we take away choice, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to grow and shape our world.  When this happens, we block ourselves from connecting to the divine image in which we were all created.

Mon, December 5 2022 11 Kislev 5783