Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike 5/6

Before we move on let me respond to the issue of judging and to the larger question you raised earlier about articulating an ethical position of our own.

I find Jesus’ teaching to “judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven (Luke 6:37) very important. We have an innate desire to judge others, and Jesus challenges us to overcome it. I am not sure this is possible or even wise. But if we make a distinction between judging and being judgmental then I think it is both.

I judge all the time, and right living requires that I do so. But I have to recognize that I often base my judgments on flimsy evidence and limited if not faulty data. So I have to be humble about the judgments I make, and to be willing to reconsider them when the facts warrant it. In this I avoid becoming rigid in my thinking, and judgmental in my personality.

This is where I would separate Jesus from the church, and almost every prophet from the institution that grows up around him or her. Institutions by their very nature, not only judge, but condemn; and in doing so they pervert the teachings of their founders. This is why the Hebrew prophets are forever attacking the Jewish establishment; and why I find it so difficult to align with any religious institution any longer. I was a congregational rabbi for over twenty years, and you have been a pastor even longer. My hat (yarmulke) is off to you. Now on to your point about articulating our own ethical stances.

I am always looking to identify some essential teaching from which to derive a viable global ethics. I suspect the Golden Rule is the most universal teaching humankind has ever articulated. To quote the rabbinic version, “Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you” (Shabbat 31a). This, its author Rabbi Hillel said, is the whole of Torah.

Not one to argue with Hillel, I would nevertheless suggest that there is an assumption even more basic that provides the foundation for his ethic: “Let us create humankind in our image after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Or, as the modern Jewish sage, mystic, and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, the human being is “a disclosure of the divine, and all men are one in God’s care for man. Many things on earth are precious, some are holy, humanity is the holy of holies… To meet a human being is an opportunity to sense the image of God, the presence of God.” This mystical core energizes Heschel’s and Hillel’s ethics. Each and every person is sacred.

If I begin with this premise, the irreducible sacredness of every human person, I must be against all human exploitation, oppression, injustice, war, murder, torture, and capital punishment. But what about abortion and euthanasia?

Regarding abortion the question is not “When does human life begin?” but “When does human personhood begin?” I take “human life” every time I cut my hair, as each follicle contains my DNA. No, the issue isn’t life but personhood, and the fact is we cannot say for certain when human personhood begins.
I am no more comfortable with assigning personhood to a zygote than I am withholding it from a baby until it has exited its mother’s body. The answer lies somewhere in between, but precisely where we don’t know. And because we don’t know we ought to be conservative in our thinking.

On the face of it I would argue that abortion after the first-trimester (or certainly the second), accept in the case of saving the life of the mother, is wrong. Prior to that the decision should be left up to the mother, her physician, and anyone else she chooses to consult.

Euthanasia is more challenging. If I focus on personhood, what do I do with someone in a vegetative state? Personhood is gone, so is euthanasia permissible? I would say “yes”. But do I have to be reduced to a vegetative state to be relieved of my suffering? What if I am dying and in terrible and unremitting pain? Can I not choose my own fate? Certainly I don’t want the state to decide for me, but what about deciding for myself? Or, if that is no longer possible, letting those who love me and would only act in accordance with my desire?

Here I would argue that the sacredness of human life includes respect for the choices a person makes regarding her or his own death. I would accept euthanasia and suicide as just, compassionate, and even holy decisions in certain cases. Denying me the freedom to end my life with dignity when that life is irreversibly fated for a protracted, painful, and ignoble death would be an insult to the divine image that manifests as me.

These are just preliminary thoughts, , and more than happy to reconsider all of it, though a detailed exploration of ethics will most likely take us far from our stated goal of dealing with the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

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