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Kingdom of Priests

A reader, Joyce, comments poignantly on my post about Newsweek‘s rabbis list, which is topped by liberal activist Rabbi David Saperstein. I had noted that the organization Saperstein heads up, the Religious Action Center, takes a firm stance against tobacco. Joyce wrote, “I guess I am ignorant and in the wrong religion. I thought preservation of life and health was about Judaism. I also thought that Judaism taught that we had an obligation to protect the weak. I guess I will have to find a religion which does value life.”

What I didn’t say is that the RAC takes a no less firm a stance in favor of “reproductive rights” and “reproductive freedom” — i.e., abortion. See Saperstein’s letter of congratulation to President Obama on the occasion of Obama’s Inauguration, which touches twice on the matter. The RAC also has a position paper giving “The Jewish Perspective” on abortion. In a nutshell, that perspective is said to be, “Women are commanded to care for their own health and well-being above all else. Therefore, there are several instances when Judaism not only condones abortions, but they are mandated.”
This is the kind of distortion that I referred to in my opening blog post here at Kingdom of Priests. When it comes to Judaism’s actual views on sensitive matters like abortion, we Jews are always reassuring ourselves with half-truths and distortions. We mostly refuse to “Look there.”
Let’s put this out in the open, shall we? As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 57b) sees things, citing the authoritative view of Rabbi Yishmael, abortion specifically in the context of a gentile society like ours is nothing less than a capital crime

Rabbi Yishmael gives as his Biblical reference Genesis 9:6, which literally reads, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human [who is] inside a human, his blood shall be shed.” Maimonides in his definitive law code, the Mishneh Torah, gives this as Judaism’s legal standard. There are, fascinatingly, more liberal laws for Jews, but we are very firm, ferociously so, about protecting unborn life when it is the life of a non-Jew. You’ll find the citation from Maimonides, in Hebrew, on the Mechon-Mamre website; Hilchot Melachim 9:4.
A further law among the Talmud’s Noachide Code — the legal code parallel to the Mosaic Code, but for non-Jews — is that non-Jews should set up courts to enforce the rest of the Noachide laws, including this piece of extraordinarily pro-life legislation. By contrast, there is no way to seriously construe Jewish tradition as mandating a government role in discouraging tobacco use. 
When I noted this recently in a speech at the Jewish Community Center in Austin, a young guy came up to me afterward and ask in horror, “So you’re in favor of executing abortion doctors?” Of course not. My only point here is that in determining the values of the Hebrew Bible, of Judaism and of Jewish tradition, we should not shy away from confronting what our sources actually say. 
This tradition embodies not practical legislation to be enacted in Congress but a worldview, a set of values, that is distinctively Jewish, anchored in the Torah. Yes, let’s at least look there.

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