Friday, May 2, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike 5/1

I am not sure I have more to say about “murder” versus “killing.” I was just looking at the Hebrew. The Torah uses the word retzach, to murder, rather than the more generic harog, to kill. I think what the Torah has in mind is extreme cases of premeditative murder.

The Ten Commandments tend to deal with those acts that, if committed, would undermine the very foundation of civilization. It is one thing if people lie; it is another if they lie under oath. I may have to accept the fact that people can’t always be trusted to tell the truth, but if I cannot rely on the justice of the courts, then society itself if threatened.

Similarly, it is one thing if people kill, it is another if they kill premeditatively, if they murder. Our secular legal code makes the same distinction. We distinguish between first and second-degree murder, manslaughter, crimes of passion, etc. None of these is positive, but one is more threatening to civil order than the others.

Since the Torah has an additional six hundred and three commandments to work with, these Ten are not meant to be the only laws in society but to highlight the breakpoints where the very existence of civilized society is threatened.

Your argument that murder is “an attempt to take the place of God” is central to the argument against capital punishment and euthanasia, and leads directly into the need to articulate a consistent life-affirming ethic.

There is a part of me that would rather not tackle the abortion issue, not because I have any doubts as to my position, but because it may take us too far a field, so let me be as succinct as possible.

Let’s start with the issue of when personhood begins. Notice I want to talk about personhood rather than life. Life isn’t the issue, human personhood is. A zygote, the cell that results from the fertilization of a human egg by human sperm, is life, but is it a person?

The Babylonian Talmud, the rabbinic code of law, states “an embryo is considered to be mere water until the fortieth day” (Yevamot 69b). After that it is more than water but not yet human. Rashi, a 12th century rabbi and one of the most authoritative voices in Judaism argues that a fetus is not a person (lav nefesh hu, “it has no soul”), and references the Talmud’s position that a fetus is ubar yerech imo, “like the thigh of its mother,” that is a part of her body and not a separate person in its own right. The baby becomes a person only when its head, or in the case of a feet first birth, most of its body has exited the mother’s body.

The Torah text used to back this up is Exodus 21:22 which speaks of a case where a man causes a woman to miscarry. He is not charged with murder unless the woman herself dies. He simply pays a fine for the death of the unborn baby, thus indicating that the baby is not a person until it exists the mother’s body.

Judaism mandates abortion when the life of the mother is in danger, though a baby whose head (or most of its body in the case of breech birth) has exited the mother cannot be aborted since it is already a person. Up until that point, if the unborn threatens the life of the mother it is called a rodef, a pursuer, and is thought of in terms of a murderer who pursues you to take your life. Killing a rodef to save the life of another (in this case the mother) is a moral act.

All rabbis would agree with this. The differences among us arise when we begin to expand what we mean by saving the mother’s life. Can we include psychological wellness? What about economic health?

As it was explained to me the issue in Christianity is one of the soul. A mother who has been baptized has the chance to go to heaven, but an unbaptized baby does not. This is a mute point in Judaism, as the unborn are not thought to be ensouled. For us the issue is one of relationships. The mother may have a spouse, other children, and/or elderly parents all of whom rely on her. Their needs outweigh the needs of the unborn, so if an abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother it is lawful.
Let me stop here and get your take on all of this. And let’s carry this through to other issues like capital punishment, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.


AaronHerschel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AaronHerschel said...

A couple comments here.

1. Expanding the definition of "endangering life" to include economic or emotional hardship is, while understandable, an ambiguous precedent. Does this then mean that I can apply deadly force to defend myself from, say, corporate downsizing? Maybe. If this seems absurd, consider that the American Revolution was about tax and trade rights before it was about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

2. I often fear that our abhorrence of abortion is merely a kind of sentimentality. The position is not that "life" is sacred, but that babies are too cute to kill. Adults, on the other hand, can be slaughtered wholesale. How else can we have a pro-life president whose hawkishness, according to the IBC, has constributed to over 80,000 civilian deaths in Iraq?

AaronHerschel said...

In reply to my question of what value system is implied by being pro-war and anti-abortion, perhaps I can say we are again looking at an issue of the survival of civilizations.

After all, war doesn't necessarily endanger the life of the community. While the death toll can be shocking, it is balanced by the chance of victory and a rapid expansion of influence, territory, and resources. Additionally, there's the esprit de corps, the patriotism (and jingoism and tribalism) conjured by a common enemy. Economically too, we see that war drives booms in parts of the market. In this sense, war is good for community.

Even if a war is lost, or the community is overrun, conquered by this or that would-be-Ceasar, 5000 plus years of Jewish history proves that there is a palpable difference between being conquered and being destroyed, and that the sense of shared hardship among subject peoples can itself strengthen communal identity.

Killing a communities' children, however, destroys that communities' genetic future, dooming them to slow extinction. Further, birth rate is an accurate measure of the health and strength of a community not only for genetic reasons , but also because a high-ish (though not too high) birth rate can fuel economic and political expansion by simultaneously increasing the demand for resources and creating the labor or military force necessary to meet that demand. Note, for example, how Abraham's convenant with God yokes the strength of the Jewish nation to its fertility.

In the sense of real politick then, the seemingly dispropportionate value we place on the life of a child is not sentimental, nor hypocritical, but an accurate assessment of their potential as a form of capital.

Read this way, children are our "futures," and abortion is, not murder per se, but theft, or at least currency devaluation. It is worse than war (except in the case of massive overpopulation) because where war procures other kinds of capital in exchange for the loss in life, abortion generates very little. It's simply bad business.