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Torah On the Grow, a periodic blog by Rav Shai Cherry

01/31/2020 12:00:46 PM


Not everyone has the luxury, or patience, to learn Torah every week. Torah on the Grow is for that audience. The goal is to bring a Jewish perspective to topics that surround us in our non-Jewish environment. The hope is to grow in our Jewish knowledge, in our appreciation of Jewish wisdom, and in our desire to learn more.  – Rav Shai Cherry

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Pro-Woman: Judaism's Posture Towards Abortion

05/13/2022 12:40:45 PM


The categories that animate America’s struggle over abortion rights do not fit Judaism’s perspective on ending fetal life. Judaism is both pro-life and pro-choice; but Judaism is neither “pro-life” nor “pro-choice.” These policy labels get abused to the point where opponents caricature one another as being exclusively in favor of the fetus’ right to be born or the woman’s right to abort. Life is messier than slogans. 

As a Rabbi, I can speak to Jewish law better than Supreme Court decisions. But consider this. If states prevent abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, that will be a problem for Jews in those states. Judaism permits abortion in cases where the fetus has a severe abnormality. Among the diseases to which Ashkenazi Jews are disproportionately predisposed is Tay-Sacks, a degenerative disease affecting the brain and spine. Average life expectancy for sufferers is between two and five years.

With advances in medical technology, Tay-Sacks can be established as soon as the tenth week of gestation. That might be four weeks too late for an abortion in certain states. Here’s an American legal question: can a state prohibit the free exercise of religion? Will I be able to write a note to a doctor, on my Rabbinic note pad, exempting my congregant from the state’s anti-abortion law that infringes on her religious practice?

The differences between Jewish and Christian attitudes toward feticide are rooted in the biblical languages of the two faith communities. The Hebrew of Exodus 21:22-23 distinguishes between the penalties for accidental feticide and accidental homicide. Although both are crimes, the death penalty is reserved for perpetrators of homicide. The Greek Septuagint distinguishes between the penalties for the feticide of an unformed fetus and a formed fetus. Before the fetus is recognizably human, the offender pays a fine; once the product of the inadvertently caused miscarriage has the form of a baby, the penalty for the negligent offender is death.

Perhaps the penalty would be different had there been intent to commit feticide. The foundation document of the Talmud, known as the Mishnah (c. 200), considers this question. The scene occurs on the birthing stool of a woman having difficulty in labor. The midwife determines that the only way to save the mother’s life is by extracting the fetus, if need be, limb by limb. But once the head and shoulders of the baby have emerged, then the midwife is obligated to do her best to save both patients. “One may not set aside one life for another.”

The image is graphic, and the point is clear. There is certainty that the woman is alive, but the same cannot be said of the unborn child. If a decision must be made, certain life has a higher priority than uncertain life. At any point during pregnancy or labor, there is a chance that the life inside the woman will fail to come to fruition. Only when the majority of the baby has been birthed are their two lives considered equal under Jewish law. Later rabbis understood from the Mishnah that if a woman feels her life threatened by bringing her fetus into the world, there is license to commit the crime of feticide.  

Over the centuries, the rabbis recognized that some women feel threatened at the thought of carrying their fetus to term. Perhaps she can’t imagine mothering a child destined to die within five years, or a child who is the product of rape, incest, or adultery. Perhaps the woman is in an abusive relationship and is terrified of adding another soul to the family dynamic. The rabbis were pro-woman—they wanted what was best for her mental and physical health.

Life is messy, and there are very few rules that the rabbis believed should never, under any circumstances, be broken. Feticide can be criminal, but when an abortion is deemed to be the better option, the rabbis see it not as a crime but as an act of self-preservation. Therefore, access must be available. And who decides if it is the better option? “The heart knows its own bitterness” (Prov. 14:10).

The Rhetoric of Race and Amnesty International's Antisemitism

02/03/2022 01:16:13 PM


In South Africa, apartheid was the racist ideology that justified minority, white rule over non-white populations. Supporters of apartheid were white supremacists.

Amnesty International issued a report earlier this week labeling Israel an apartheid state and advocated the dismantling of its apartheid system. By deploying the rhetoric of apartheid and race, Amnesty International accused Israel of that which is considered most diabolical in contemporary society. It’s no longer the Jew who is of the devil, but the Jewish state.

The great irony of their twisted accusation is that Jews and Palestinians are both considered to be of the semitic “race.” To mislabel the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians as racial—so that the libel of “apartheid” might be appropriate—willfully ignores history, both ancient and contemporary.

We Jews, like Palestinians, are native to the land of Israel. But we were the only people, ever, to form a nation in that land. “Palestine” was never a nation, nor were there any people who identified as “Palestinian” until the twentieth century. There were Palestinian Arabs—Arabs who lived in Palestine. The name “Palestine” was a punitive Roman substitution for Judea after two Jewish rebellions against Roman colonial rule in 66 and 132. The Romans chose the name “Palestine” to echo the Israelites’ biblical enemy, the Philistines.

I don’t begrudge the Palestinians for their relatively recent nationalism. Nor do most Israelis who are, in theory, supportive of a two-state solution. These are the same Israelis, nearly twenty years later, who supported the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to preview an independent Palestinian state adjoining Israel. Hamas’ political ascendancy and refusal to live at peace has undermined Israeli confidence.

It would not be inaccurate to describe the Israeli-Arab conflict as having religious roots. Muslims controlled that piece of real estate for a thousand years, on and off. It was part of the Islamic world, dar al-Islam, and to have a non-Islamic sovereign state there is an affront to some.

More accurately, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, is political. The Jews returned to their historical homeland and established a sovereign state. They paid for it in money and blood, repeatedly. Israelis have been, and continue to be, receptive to negotiating for peace. Both Egypt and Jordan are signatories to peace treaties with Israel, and while the peace with Israel’s neighbors may not yet be warm, the borders have not been hot. Equally importantly, the Abraham Accords are bringing increasing numbers of Arab countries to recognize the reality of Israel’s presence in the Middle East.

What is wildly inaccurate is to describe Israel’s conflict as racial! Israel’s discriminatory practices and laws have never been justified by any sense of “Jewish supremacy” over Arabs as the apartheid label would suggest. The purported objectivity of Amnesty’s report is undermined by its use of such terms. And its demand to dismantle the apartheid system wreaks of the same antisemitic stench.

Race is fuzzy. The majority of Israel’s population is not even of “white” European Ashkenazi ancestry. (European Ashkenazis were not ascribed “whiteness” by Americans until after World War II.) In the years surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948, more than 600,00 Jews were forced out of Arab countries and immigrated to Israel. How would Amnesty International characterize Arab Muslims expelling Arab Jews?

Amnesty International’s calumny distracts from the progress being made by Israel’s new government, which includes an Arab party for the first time, to achieve greater equity for the Palestinians living both in Israel and the West Bank. More insidiously, less sophisticated antisemites are bolstered by such reports to confirm their beliefs that the Jews, like the Jewish state, are singularly evil. The writers at Amnesty International might not walk into a synagogue with a gun, but when the FBI searches the computers of the next temple terrorists, they’re like to find Amnesty’s report on their hard drives.

Rabbinic Genesis

10/01/2021 01:14:30 PM


Rav Shai periodically provides commentary for the week's Torah portion for the Jewish Exponent. The article below appears in this week's issue.

Parshat Bereishit

More than 20 years ago, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Jewish responses to Darwinism. What I discovered is how little Judaism needed to adjust to accommodate biological evolution.

Given the blatant contradictions between Genesis and evolution, that’s fascinating. The later innovations by our rabbis, for reasons of theology, not science, created such compatibility.

Let’s begin with divine providence — the claim that God controls all events.

Pirkei Avot asks the question, “Who is mighty?” Their answer is “the one who controls his impulses.” Since God is almighty, God exercises maximal restraint. The Talmud makes this argument in the context of the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile (Yoma 69b). God “allows” power politics to unfold without divine intervention.

By the Middle Ages, what earlier rabbis had seen as the virtue of divine self-restraint was understood by both philosophers and mystics as a necessary byproduct of creation.

In the refrain of Genesis, God reviews each day’s products and pronounces them ki tov. The 17th-century commentator Shlomo Ephraim of Lunschitz (Kli Yakar) translates ki tov as “potentially good.” “Had human beings not been created, all previous creation would have been in vain.” There was no guarantee we humans would be created — Stephen Jay Gould called this radical contingency.

The Talmud’s story about a mistaken invitation to a banquet that resulted in the Temple’s destruction pointedly omits any mention of God. The consequences of innocently confusing Kamtza and Bar Kamtza were catastrophic. The rabbis, too, acknowledged how easily history might have turned out differently.

Another aspect of Darwinism is that creation is ongoing. Genesis, however, says that on the seventh day God ceased from all work of creation (Genesis 2:2). Nevertheless, our prayer book, which is as close to Jewish theological doctrine as we get, has God renewing creation daily.

The commitment to continuous creation is the rabbinic counterpart to continuous revelation through Torah study. God operates in earth’s history parallel to how God operates in Jewish history.

Evolution is called the transmutation of species. Genesis, however, could not be more explicit that each species was created “according to its kind.” Rather than accept the plain sense of the text, the rabbis imagine that each day’s creation is like the ripening fruit of a seed planted “in the beginning.”

In other words, for the rabbis, creation was instantaneous — just like the giving of both the written Torah and the oral Torah at Mount Sinai that subsequently unfurled throughout Jewish history. For the rabbis, instantaneous revelation at Sinai justified their distinctive interpretations of the written Torah through the oral Torah which they exclusively possessed.

One of the oddities of Genesis is that the sun does not break through until day four — calling into question how long those non-solar days were! On the sixth day, for the first time, God partners up. “Let us make …”

Although the early rabbis offered several interpretations for the plural, by the Middle Ages it was largely accepted that God spoke to what had already been created. Thus, as early as the Midrash of Genesis Rabbah (fifth century), rabbis understood that we humans were a coproduction of the animal kingdom and God.

Genesis did not scoop Darwin. Genesis is not interested in what we call science.

Nevertheless, the theologies that emerged after the destruction of the Temple to address our suffering despite our conviction of God’s ongoing concern are compatible with God’s presence in evolutionary history. That’s not how Young Earth Creationists read Genesis, but it is more honest and more inspiring.

It's Not Antisemitic. It's Unreal.

08/17/2021 01:30:10 PM


Torah on the Grow: Holocaust Analogies and COVID Vaccinations

At the University of San Diego, the Holocaust course is among the most popular. Students hope to understand how it could have been perpetrated by European Christians. It's a crucial question that also touches upon some of the political rhetoric surrounding COVID vaccinations.

Even if you were assigned The Diary of Anne Frank in high school, that's not the image most of us associate with the Holocaust. We are more likely to think of Elie Wiesel's Night, "Schindler's List," or some other grisly concentration camp movie. In other words, we tend to cut to the chase: six million Jews massacred.

Because the University of San Diego is a Catholic university, I began my Holocaust course with the New Testament and the long history of Christian antisemitism which scholars agree was a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for the Holocaust. It is critical for the students to understand that at the time of Adolph Hitler's electoral victories in the early 1930s, the Nazi Party was not dedicated to the genocide of the Jewish people.  

Identifying the Nazis with Auschwitz is not unfair, it is unhistorical. Auschwitz was built in 1940 as part of the "final" solution. The Nazis began their anti-Jewish laws in 1933 upon achieving political power. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their German citizenship and imposed upon them what historians call "social death." They were increasingly excluded from public affairs and confined to a social ghetto.

The Germans forced Polish Jews to wear armbands with the Star of David after the invasion of Poland in 1939. Not until 1941 were German Jews forced to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing when outdoors. Auschwitz began using poisonous gas, Zyklon B, the same year. The Nazis deprived Jews of their rights, incrementally, until finally denying them the right to live. We think in images, but live by steps.

This May, a proprietor of a hat shop in Nashville starting selling Star of David patches with the words "not vaccinated" on them. Last month at a protest in Paris against the government's vaccination policies, yellow arm bands were seen among the crowd. Most recently, the Chairman of the Republican Party in Oklahoma, John Bennet, defended the meme he posted on social media comparing vaccine passports to the yellow badges imposed by the Nazis.  

His defense was that the yellow badges restricted Jewish access to public venues as would the COVID passports for the unvaccinated. His example and logic could not be more perverse! He was, he insists, comparing COVID health measures to the Nazi policy of 1939 not 1941! How silly for us to imagine Bennet was comparing restriction of access, or ostracism, to genocide, which would be ludicrous. He was merely comparing ostracism to protection, which is only surreal. (There is also the difference of badges which precluded access and passports that allow access. But, I quibble.)

Anticipating the FDA's approval, arguments against mandating vaccines have shifted from health concerns to individual liberties. Individuals should be able to decide whether or not to vaccinate themselves without government interference, so the argument goes.

How disingenuous! Personal liberties are infringed upon whenever the government determines those liberties to be in conflict with the public welfare. We take people's money through taxes; we take people's bodies through conscription during war; we take children's time through compulsory education; and every state requires children to be vaccinated to attend public school.  

The Nazis legally deprived German Jews of their rights and convinced non-Jewish Germans that it was for the general welfare. How? In March of 1933, the Nazis began putting political opponents in the Dachau prison camp. By the end of the year, Jews could no longer serve as newspaper editors. The Nazis controlled all forms of communication.

Social media, largely unregulated and unaccountable, is a minefield of misinformation and disinformation. Thus, emblazoned beneath the statue "Guardianship," overseeing the values of our National Archives, we read: "Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty." Liberty must be guarded as history unfolds, step by step.

Torah on the Grow: The King and the Law

01/14/2021 02:18:00 PM


Torah on the Grow: Insurrection Edition

01/07/2021 12:43:25 PM


Torah on the Grow: New Year's Edition

12/29/2020 12:40:18 PM


Torah on the Grow: Hanukkah Edition

12/10/2020 01:39:24 PM


Torah on the Grow: Thanksgiving Edition

11/25/2020 10:43:24 AM


Torah on the Grow, High Holiday Edition

09/14/2020 11:23:50 AM


Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784