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Rabbi, get thy head out of their tents

A blanket abortion policy flies in the face of Jewish law, which is rarely 'one size fits all'; rather, rabbis must address each individual's need, with dignity
source: pxhere.com

The chutzpadik gall of Orthodox leaders cheering the US Supreme Court’s rejection of Roe v. Wade subverts Torah’s values, while doing great lasting damage to women. What do these rabbis think they are doing? Don’t they understand the sublime blessing of a civil society? We need to understand how to apply a true Torah approach.

In Israel and a week later in the Diaspora, we are immersed in the Torah reading relaying the prophesy of the non-Jewish seer Balaam, engaged by Balak, the Amorite king, to curse the Israelites as they travel by. In a riveting tale Balaam employs omens and sorceries to do his evil intention, but God consistently drags him over to the good side. From Balaam’s lips flow blessings. In the final scene, Balaam dispenses with black magic and decides to see for himself the nature of this people. Perhaps a clear mountain top view would reveal Israel’s sins, justifying their eradication. The opposite occurs – seeing Biblical Israel’s worth, “dwelling tribe by tribe” [Numbers 24:2], exclaims, “Mah Tovu! How goodly are thy tents, O’ Jacob, your dwelling places, O’ Israel!” [ibid. 24:5]. Rashi explains that “For he [Balaam] saw that their tent openings were not situated one opposite the other.”

Rashi, the Bible’s greatest commentator, extols the value of privacy. We would expect a small people with a complicated legal system to be tempted to peek in and view what their neighbors are up to – who is doing what to whom – all in the name of sacred mission. From such motives emerge “Modesty Patrols” peeking in and informing “authorities” about all sorts of “infractions.”

The principle of privacy as a human right to dignity, which women have endlessly been deprived of, was a core principle of the Roe v. Wade decision to allow abortion for a woman who demands it. Would I, as an Orthodox rabbi, argue for great moral caution in employing abortion to women who would seek my counsel? I would, and I have, but then I have shut up, as women must make their own moral decisions. I would and have kept my head and eyes out of their tents. I have not met a woman who “delighted” in abortion. Issues assuming dignity definitionally cannot be made by others, especially when obliterating women’s own dignities. Terminating Roe v. Wade additionally threatens women with being the subjects of voyeurs, informants, and all sorts of callous nudniks who have opinions of how they should live their lives.

If religious men are anxious to see something, they should consider an incident as reported by a Gadol [a “Great” sage]. After receiving semikhah [ordination] in New York, I spent a few months in a modest Jerusalem neighborhood in the mornings, sitting at the study table of Rabbi Yitzchak Arieli to listen to how he decided issues of Jewish law, as a stream of questioners came for rulings. The rabbi’s responses were quick, succinct, and to the point. When the individuals left, he would invite my own reflections. Sometimes, I had something.

One Friday, a woman came in with a chicken with an abnormality and questioned its status. The rabbi looked and simply said: “Kosher.” I hardly contained my disapproval. Rabbi Arieli shushed me, saying: “I know the problem. When I was a young man, about your age, I sat at the study table of the luminary Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, Rav of Jerusalem, your great-grandfather.” To this table, he continued, came many weighty questions, but on Fridays, preparing for Shabbat, women came with food issues. Rabbi Arieli related that once a woman came with a chicken that had a certain problem with how it had been slaughtered. Rav Frank ruled it unkosher. Minutes later, a second woman came with a second chicken but with the identical problem, which is rare. Rav Frank ruled: “Kosher.” Rabbi Arieli remembered being astonished. Before he could say more than a shout of protest, Rav Frank said: “Di Flegel ir gezen; dos froy’s pnim hostu nit gezen.” “The chicken you saw, the women’s face you did not see.” Rav Frank saw the desperation of an impoverished woman facing Friday night without being able to feed her family.

Religious leaders and their minions (and minyans), to be truly on the path of our Torah, must keep their eyes out of the tents of others, as women make excruciating decisions. If they must gaze, they should look up from the Talmud for a moment and imagine peering into the face of a pregnant and alone 15-year-old girl; or a 45-year-old woman whose doctor says that the probability of her giving birth to a child with multiple defects who, in the end, won’t survive is high. Legitimate, compelling moral pronouncements can only emerge from those who can see such faces and then allow for a civil society that assures privacy and respects individual agency.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Landes is founder and director of Yashrut, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. Yashrut includes a semikhah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders.
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