America In Freefall

For years, we Torah adherents have struggled with varying degrees of success to respond to the vexing social developments around us.  Because Jewish law is built on nuance – weighing priorities, defining exceptions, adjudicating each case on its own particulars – and commands rejecting the sin but not the sinner, we have, more than other major faith groups, been able to find common ground with fellow Americans on some of the most contentious issues:  abortion, gay rights, surrogacy, racial and gender equality.  Our greatest sages, those of this era and those guiding us from the past, are masters at finding paths through the thicket.

But when there comes a point that nothing is sacred, no truth beyond refashioning, no more fences or red lines – then even a semblance of moral harmony becomes illusory.

Teaching preschoolers about gender identity as a menu to choose from; painting race as a measure of social value; denying the difference between men and women; legalizing abortion on demand right up to the point of delivery; allowing kids to access experimental medical treatments without parental consent; giving irreversible “gender-affirming” treatments to developing youngsters; dictating acceptable lines of psychotherapy; lionizing criminals and incentivizing crime; censoring debate and discussion – except, that is, when it comes to the open peddling of antisemitism – and tearing down anyone deemed oppositive:  These are just a few of the things found at the bottom of the slippery slope.

That these “woke” ideas are in play in the public square at all, let alone have passed into law in some places, marks a seismic shift in American culture that is being deliberately downplayed.

What’s an observant Jew to do?

The current frenzy over the U.S. Supreme Court’s potential overturn of Roe v. Wade, with states moving frantically to either increase or curtail abortion rights depending on their political drift, has brought this dilemma to the fore.  The tendency to focus on whether abortion is murder (a question which depends on the legal status assigned to the fetus) makes it seem as if any designation short of that makes the practice unassailable per se.  The reality, as the halachic literature acknowledges, is much more complex.

Halacha, broadly speaking, does not equate abortion with murder and allows pregnancy to be terminated in certain circumstances, chiefly to protect the life of the mother, which takes precedence.  Thus, our community has never been perfectly aligned with the anti-abortion movement.  Our need for a middle path – access with an asterisk, you might call it – favors the fight to keep abortion legal, as some Orthodox organizations have pointed out, but the pro-choice camp’s championing of unfettered access to even late-stage termination puts us at odds with that movement as well.  The more polarized the issue becomes, the harder it is for us to find our place.

We are indeed the people that dwells alone.  That is not merely a description of Israel’s international isolation.  It is our destiny to live by different rules than everyone else.  Thousands of years ago, the other nations rejected G-d’s gift of the Torah, but we accepted – embraced – it, a commitment we reaffirm daily in Shema and will celebrate soon on Shavuot, Z’man Matan Torateinu.  So we should hardly be surprised that our worldview is not reflected among the masses.

A wise person, Pirkei Avot tells us, is one who sees what lies ahead. Perhaps we should have foreseen this maelstrom.  Perhaps it was beyond imagining.  But now that the “new abnormal” is here, we have to be not woke but awake.

While the desire for amity is a worthy goal, we must choose our allies and arguments carefully.  The principles of our faith may not carry the day, but they will always carry us.



About the Author
Ziona Greenwald, J.D., a contributing editor for The Jewish Press, is a writer and editor and the author of two children's books, Kalman's Big Questions and Tzippi Inside/Out. She lives with her family in Jerusalem.
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