Jonathan Muskat

Good Chinuch: Learning to Balance Tzedakah and Mishpat

Besides being a shul rabbi, I am a high school rebbe. This year I am fortunate to teach a medical ethics course to a select group of twelfth graders.  This year I hope to cover topics ranging from abortion to fertility treatments, organ donation, brain death, DNR’s, autopsies, triage and risky medical treatments.

On the first day of class, I began our discussion about abortion with a fact pattern about a pregnant woman who discovered that her child would have a certain disability and this mother is absolutely devastated and depressed and desperately wants to have an abortion.  I asked the students what they thought the halacha would be under these circumstances and why.

The initial reaction of most of my students was that abortion would be forbidden because it is considered murder and then I asked them if they would say the same thing if the woman got pregnant because of rape and some of them had a different reaction.  Then we examined the halachic sources and discovered that there is a very real dispute as to whether abortion is halachically viewed as murder or as something less severe, like wounding oneself or destroying potential life.  Then we studied whether the prohibition might be more or less severe depending on the stage of fetal development and then we examined some responsa that dealt with this issue.

For my summative assessment of the topic, I divided the class into four different groups and provided them with four different fact patterns.  I asked them to discuss the issues involved and then write both an argument supporting abortion in their particular case and an argument opposing abortion in this case, followed by each person’s own view as to which argument is more compelling and why.

One student asked me how it’s possible to take a position because there’s no final answer.  Some Rabbis will say that abortion is permitted under some circumstances and others will say that it’s forbidden.  We are leaving this topic without clarity on a definitive halachic position in many instances.  I answered her that sometimes the goal is not to gain definitive clarity on the correct answer, but the goal is to understand and to be able to talk about the topic in a substantive and coherent manner.  When dealing with very sensitive, cutting-edge topics, some of us may have a knee-jerk reaction to respond emotionally without nuance.  And that is not the goal of chinuch.

In fact, Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explained that the source of the mitzvah of chinuch, of educating our children, can be found in this week’s Parsha.  God asserts that Avraham Avinu is someone “asher yetzaveh et banav v’et baito acharav v’shamru derech Hashem la’asot tzedakah u’mishpat.”  He is someone who will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of God by engaging in charitable acts and justice.  The mitzvah of chinuch is to educate our children in the way of God to engage in a combination of charitable acts and justice.  We believe in going above and beyond to help others who are in need, who are vulnerable, who are downtrodden, and who are all alone.  We also believe that we need to have a just and functioning society where we respect each other’s rights and hold others accountable for failure to do so in order to maintain a stable and effective society.  This is the derech Hashem, the way of God.

God specifically refers to this mission of chinuch in the context of His decision to destroy Sodom, which is an act of strict justice, in order to convey that the derech Hashem is not merely to engage in both tzedakah and mishpat, but to find the proper balance between them.  We must live a life where, on the one hand, we hold people accountable for failing to live a life of justice, and, on the other hand, we are emphatic to those who are struggling and perhaps we cut them some slack because of their particular situation.  Sometimes, as in the case of Sodom, mishpat wins out over tzedakah.

This is the mission of chinuch, to teach our children complexity and the fact that we are often trying to balance tzedakah and mishpat, kindness with strict justice, and life is not black and white.  When we teach sensitive issues like abortion or other complex ethical issues, the greatest gift of chinuch that we can give our students is to teach more than tzedakah and mishpat.  The greatest gift of chinuch is to teach how often these values can conflict and how we must grapple with this conflict in a sensitive and nuanced manner.  This is the derech Hashem that Avraham Avinu taught us all.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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