With the recent nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, there has been a lot of discussion in the media about whether Roe v. Wade will be overturned or chipped away in the future. And I wonder, should we care? Should Torah Jews care about abortion laws in the United States? Do we have a responsibility to weigh in on these and other issues where we feel that Torah values are in conflict with Western values? Do we have a responsibility to educate non-Jews about Torah values?
On a technical halachic level, it seems that we have no such responsibility. After all, the Torah’s commandment of tochacha, of rebuking a sinner, only applies if the object of your rebuke is a Jew. Therefore, for example, even if we see a non-Jew having an abortion that violates a Noahide law, the mainstream halachic view seems to be that there is no technical obligation to stop her.
That being said, I think that there are two reasons why we may want to weigh in on these issues. First, the Ritva writes that even if the masses will not listen to your rebuke, you must still rebuke them once to clarify to everyone where you stand on the issue, even if you will not be able to persuade others to listen to you. The philosophy underlying this ruling is that sometimes it’s important to reiterate and clarify the Torah’s values for yourself, and perhaps for your own community. It is very difficult for many of us, and especially our youth, to understand and appreciate certain Torah values that run counter to prevailing western values. Therefore, we often need to weigh in on these issues, not to preach to the broader society, but to reiterate these values to our own community.
But I would argue that we have an additional responsibility to weigh in on these issues for the benefit of our broader society. Indeed, God’s mission to Avraham Avinu in Parshat Lech Lecha was that all the families of the world will be blessed through him. How will they be blessed through him? In Parshat Vayera, God said that He knows that Avraham will instruct his children who will observe the way of God to perform righteousness and justice. The Netziv explained God’s message that Avraham’s descendants will guide other nations about how to behave and they will be the moral arbiters for society. In fact, this mission that God issued to Avraham is repeated by Moshe to Bnei Yisrael in Parshat Va’etchanan (4:5-8).
And we have dutifully fulfilled this mission for thousands of years. Paul Johnson, a popular Christian historian who has written a well-known book on the history of the Jews, wrote in the epilogue of the book: “One way of summing up four thousand years of Jewish history is to ask ourselves what would have happened to the human race if Abraham had not been a man of great sagacity, or if he stayed in Ur and kept his higher notions to himself, and no specific Jewish people had come into being. Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they are revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them, we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items that constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, the world might have been a much emptier place.”
Now the question, perhaps, is how should we influence the rest of the world. In Parshat Va’etchanan, the formula for impacting the world is through observing the mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael and other nations hearing about us and saying, “rak am chacham v’navon hagoi hagadol hazeh,” or “surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” In short, we can influence the world by being role models without necessarily engaging in outside society. However, there is another way to influence the broader society, through engagement with the outside world and spreading the wisdom of Torah and Torah values for their benefit. Indeed, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke about this mission in an address at an OU West Coast Convention over twenty years ago when he charged that “Jewish History is a journey through three destinations: the destination of Jewish land, the destination of Jewish children, and the destination of changing the world.”
Perhaps these two different approaches reflect worldviews of the Haredi and the Modern Orthodox communities. A Haredi or more separatist approach would assert that we influence the world not by engagement, but by observing mitzvot, and the rest of society will learn by example. According to this approach, we only need to weigh in on western values that are alien to Torah values to clarify our values to our own constituency. However, a Modern Orthodox approach, an approach of engagement, would assert that we absorb the best that the world has to offer through the prism of Torah and we also actively share the Torah’s wisdom with the rest of the world.
Some of us may have a natural tendency to only wish to weigh in on issues that could be harmful to others, like immigration or gun control (in either direction, depending on your point of view), but we may say that it shouldn’t be our place to tell other Americans where to draw the line on abortion rights. My response is that if we believe that our responsibility as Torah Jews is to share Torah values with the rest of society, both those halachot that apply to non-Jews and those values that emanate from halacha, then there should be no difference whether those values are aimed at preventing harm or limiting one’s personal rights, because we believe that in both instances, those values are Divine.
In next week’s blog, I will address the practical concern of bringing religion into American values. I will examine the concern that once we do so, other religions may want to sway American values in ways that are to our detriment as Jews, and may ultimately infringe on our religious practices, for example, by banning circumcision or shechita.