The opinions I am about to express are very much my own and, by no means, constitute an absolute viewpoint. I have no doubt that many, if perhaps not most, people reading this blog post will challenge my interpretations. As always I welcome constructive comments.
I have been incredibly fortunate in my life in countless ways. I have a wife and children who are beautiful inside and out. I have had the great honor to know magnificent people and I continue to be involved in the practice of medicine in a way that, I would like to believe, truly benefits the greater Israeli population. My present work allows me to participate in the health care of young soldiers, something that I take tremendous pride in. During my years, I have also had the tremendous opportunity to study one complete cycle of the Talmud. Although by no means an intensive study, I feel it’s fair to say that every concept went in one ear and at least partially was absorbed before leaving the other.
For many years, even in discussions with my late brother, I had always wondered about certain topics that the old testament focused on. I found it fascinating that the Talmud also focused on such topics. To name just one example, there is the case of the child who is considered a “rebellious” child to the point that the parents present him to the grand Court in order to have him judged and put to death. Despite the seemingly endless list of infractions that merit capital punishment in the Bible, in practice, it was extremely rare, and I do mean extremely rare, for a supreme Jewish court to order the death of a person. The obvious question then is, why have such time and ink spent on a topic that is for all intents and purposes, theoretical.
I can’t say at what point my answer to this question struck me, but it definitely satisfied my confusion. One of my regrets is that I never had a chance to share it with my brother. Imagine a scenario where parents are dealing with a child who is distant, inattentive, acting out … i.e., an average teenager [although I must say that I was blessed with children who seemed to skip over this phase]. Without a biblical edict to clearly define what a truly rebellious child is, one could easily imagine a situation where child after child was brought before the courts with the demand to have the child literally executed. In many other cultures, even infanticide is not considered extreme. But clearly, within Jewish lore, there was a clear need to establish a set of laws that would force the parents of such a child to seek out any other solution than simply delivering the child to the courts. To summarize, the purpose of having what appears to be theoretical laws is in fact to establish very real life behavior that excludes extremes of punishment that were acceptable in other societies.
It is my impression that the foundation of Jewish law is to establish moral norms. I will already say that morality is fluid and that these norms shift over time. Not that long ago, marrying off a 14-year-old woman/child to a 25-year-old man was totally acceptable. Today, is not only a jail sentence, but also the permanent label as a sex offender. And this applies in the today’s Jewish community as well. Nevertheless, certain basic elements of morality stand and it is these basics that decide how we will progress into a future that seems to be changing the rules of natural law on a daily basis.
This long introduction is intended to explain how Jewish law will still have any pertinence in a future, a rapidly approaching future, where technology will challenge almost everything we presently know. For example, my personal prediction is that by 2030, paper will no longer be used for printing. We will all be using paperlike specialized plastics that contain all of the electronics for a complete computer interface. This is even assuming that holographic projections will not totally replace most physical objects. In this reality, what happens to an individual who wishes to learn from the Bible or the Talmud on the Sabbath, or other holiday when the use of electricity is forbidden. I have my personal opinion on this issue, but my point here is that Jewish law will not suddenly become relegated to a museum. The Jewish law interpreters of the time will have to deal with this issue and will propose a practical solution. How do I know that such a solution will be found? Because if it is not, many Jews will use these electronic holy books regardless. There will be no choice but to deal with this issue in order to avoid having all Jews being considered transgressors of Sabbath law.
Ethical issues in regards to the basics of fertility have been a major topic of discussion for decades. But they will extend farther. We recently have read of new reproductive technologies, intended to cure certain congenital disorders, where a child can be said to have three parents. With this particular technology, the child in fact has two mothers. One of the steadfast rules in Jewish law is that the Jewish standing of the child is decided on the basis of the mother, because statistically, you are almost always sure who the mother is. What happens when cellular components and fractions of DNA from Jewish and non-Jewish women are mixed. Does this change the status of the child? Is the child considered Jewish in any case? Some of these issues are already being discussed because of the whole issue of surrogacy. But when such genetic salads become far more standard, such Jewish law issues may apply to most children.
What happens if a 13-year-old girl, having been genetically and technologically modified, manifests the intelligence and maturity of the average 21-year-old woman? What then happens when this 13-year-old demands the right to marry a gentlemen who is 25 years old? I have no doubt that the first such case will take years to sort out and will involve countless specialists in psychology, gynecology, sociology, ethics and more. But imagine if the final verdict is that chronological age can no longer be considered a limiting factor in choosing to be married. Jewish law still holds that a marriage contract cannot be considered binding for a woman under the age of 12. And whether one feels that this number should be 11 or 13, the law is quite clear on this particular point and would most likely hold, if for no other reason than the gynecological health of the woman.
I strongly suspect that Jewish law experts will discover discussions on biblical themes that are at least 2000 years old but are incredibly pertinent to today. These legal experts will argue that these points of law were theoretical for millennia, but have now suddenly become extremely pertinent given certain advances in technology. There are, in fact, already certain Talmudic discussions that deal with the apparently unrealistic possibility of a daughter becoming impregnated ex vivo by her father. For thousands of years, I have no doubt that there were Jewish legal students who considered this issue a flight of fancy by the great rabbis of old. However, ever since the introduction of IVF and all other forms of artificial impregnation, this millennia-old discussion suddenly became critical to the establishment of the appropriate Jewish law.
I am obviously biased in my opinions in regards to the universality, as well as the lack of temporality, of Jewish law. There are the four laws of thermodynamics that are universal and have existed, as far as we presently know, since the Big Bang.. I personally believe the same holds true for Jewish law. It was there in the beginning and it will be there in the end. It is not a fossil. It is not a cute idea that required major revisions to stay relevant. It continues to personally amaze me as to how valid it remains.
Without daring to broach a specific topic related to marriage and divorce, I wholly admit that present-day Jewish law still has its own major issues. But I personally believe that these issues could be easily overcome given a change in perspective by those who interpret the law. I dare not say any more about this, at this point.
No human system is perfect. That I am willing to say. As we deal with unimaginable new halachic issues, I trust that Jewish law will find an answer. When the first bionic limb that is permanently attached to a man, acts and looks entirely human, will that man be required to place phylacteries upon it? Personally, the answer is clear. But I suspect that there will be many discussions on the topic.
Maybe that was the intent from the beginning. As technology does more and more for us and we have less and less to do, perhaps this will be the manifestation of the messianic imagery of Jews sitting and learning all day long while robots and AI machines deal with day-to-day chores. This might go so far as to require a sequel to the famous Asimov’s science fiction novel ,”I Robot”, which would be appropriately called “Do sick robots eat their Jewish mother’s chicken soup?”.
Thanks for listening