The Rabbi Writes: Abortion

The Jewish Humanist, September 1989, Vol. XXVI, Number 2

Human rights in America received a serious blow from the Supreme Court on July 3 when five justices upheld a Missouri law restricting abortion freedom.  Ever since January, when the Court announced that it would consider the controversial case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the pros and cons of the abortion world have been waiting with bated breath to hear the decision.  Liberals were somewhat prepared for an unsatisfactory outcome.  They knew that the Reagan appointments of O’Connor, Scalia and Kennedy would have conservative consequences.  But they were hoping against hope. 

Rehnquist, speaking for the majority, stated that there was presently no necessity to overthrow Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision of 1973 that defined abortion choice as a constitutional right.  But he saw no constitutional reason why appropriate restrictions could not be placed on the exercise of this freedom, especially since the state had a vested interest in the preservation of individual life.  He found no difficulty with the state of Missouri’s decision to prevent abortion in public hospitals and clinics.  It was under no obligation to assist people in the exercise of their rights.  Nor was the required 20 week check on the viability of the fetus an illegal intrusion.  The independence of the fetus was a medical decision which could not be replaced by arbitrary court standards. 

Scalia joined the Court majority but dissented from the Rehnquist opinion.  He regretted that the Court had not been told enough to repudiate what was constitutionally wrong.  He believed that dismantling Roe v. Wade piece by piece was an act of judicial cowardice. 

On the other hand, Blackmun, the author of the 1973 majority statement, said that he heard the death knell of abortion freedom in the Rehnquist opinion and feared further assaults on the constitutional rights of American citizens. 

Following the decision anti-abortionists in virtually all the state legislatures framed new laws to place public restrictions on personal choice and to deny all forms of state aid and state support for women seeking abortion.  Liberal forces, angry and defiant, mobilized to resist this new legislative onslaught.  But, having lost the battle of the courts, they were not quite sure what new strategy to adopt.  They had invested so much energy in the motion that judges were ultimately the best defenders of abortion freedom.  The Rehnquist opinion dramatized certain realities for both conservative and liberal. 

1.  Ronald Reagan has won his battle to change the character of the Supreme Court.  The liberal Warren Court that drove conservatives to campaigns for impeachment no longer exists.  The liberals are now an old and somewhat feeble minority, desperately clinging to office out of fear of who would replace them.  The conservatives are young and vigorous.  And their public supporters, who at one time denounced the Court as a Communist cabal and sought to restrict its power, are now full of praise for the authority of the Court. 

2.  The Constitution, like the Bible, is not a document with an independent meaning all its own.  It ultimately means what its official interpreters make it mean.  They do not discover their opinions in the Constitution.  They impose their opinions on the Constitution, whether those judicial interpreters are liberals or conservatives.  The Constitution is a set of ‘kosherizing’ words.  But what these words mean is up to the judges.  And the judges, in the end, respond to changing political realities and to changing public opinion.   

3.  American public opinion has been deeply influenced by the persistent campaigns of the anti-abortionists.  In fact, the propaganda of the “pro-life” people has been far more effective than the educational campaigns of the “pro-choice’ advocates.  Anti-abortionists have been successful in seizing the moral high ground and in sowing doubts among ambivalent voters.  The Court, to some degree, is a reflection of the new public opinion. 

4.  Relying on the courts for ultimate protection is a misguided strategy in a democratic society.  Judges, in the end, are agents of political agenda and political parties.  In the higher courts they are political appointees, reflecting the political struggles of their time and deeply responsive to constituencies that favor their appointment.  Liberal courts can easily turn into conservative courts and vice-versa.  In the end, the defense of human rights must be won at the polls and not in the courts. 

Herein lies the challenge for all of us who believe in abortion freedom.  We have to convince the masses of the justice of our cause-not the judges. 

Ironically, many liberals who claim to be egalitarian have very elitist political convictions.  They do not trust the masses and are very pessimistic about the possibility of reversing conservative public opinion.  They are much more comfortable turning to small judicial bodies to impose their enlightened opinions on people who appear to be less enlightened.  They do not really trust the democratic process.  The reality is that, over the past decade, social conservatives have been far more successful in mobilizing the masses than liberals. 

Therefore, the traumatizing Rehnquist opinion is both a challenge and an opportunity for us.  We can no longer rely on the courts for our victories. We have to turn to the polls.  We will have to lobby legislators.  We will have to convince voters.  We will have to mobilize workers.  We will have to appeal to the ears and minds of the American people. 

This may sound like more work than we are prepared to do.  But there is no alternative.  In the end, the security of our freedoms cannot rely on the fickle loyalty of the courts.  It must depend on the support of the people and of public opinion. 

The judicial “setback” of the Webster decision may be the beginning of the revitalization of the feminist movement and of liberal political forces that need the challenge of an important political battle.  And we will not have won our fight until we convince a clear majority of the American voters that reproductive rights are human rights. 

The Triumph of Science: From Darwin to Einstein

Recorded April 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

The 19th Century featured an explosion of scientific thinking and scientific exploration. The vision of the universe which traditional religion had championed was overthrown by the discoveries of science. From the age and history of the universe to the development of life, the old ideology yielded to a powerful assault of empirical evidence. Both Darwin and Einstein transformed the images of reality which guided human thinking. These scientists became the ‘prophets’ of the new secularism. Millions of people became their disciples.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

The New Atheists

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 2003/Winter 2004

This is the season for atheism. Three intellectuals have ridden the train of fame to the top of the bestseller list with three atheist books. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have clearly proclaimed that atheism is the only path for honest, consistent, rational thinkers.

Atheists are usually more discreet. They are reluctant to publicly acknowledge their lack of faith. They often hide behind more ambiguous designations like “agnostic,” “free thinker,” or “skeptic.” They often plead their respect for religion and religious values and express regret for not believing. Atheists are always on the defensive. They never feel really comfortable in a society that places such a high value on religious faith. They never feel really safe in a society that still equates atheism with immorality.

Our three writers are bold and fearless. Two of them, Dawkins and Harris, describe religious belief as ridiculous and without a stitch of evidence. They also denounce the religious penchant to distinguish between scientific truth and religious truth. For them there is only one kind of truth. It is the truth that is supported by the evidence of controlled investigation. Faith and intuition are the beginning of the truth process. They are “hunches” and hypotheses that require future verification. Knowledge demands more than internal conviction. It insists on external evidence. Truth is responsible to fact. Whether one is talking about Bible stories or about transcendent deities, the same criterion applies. Whether one is describing angels or atomic particles, the same test for reality is relevant. Feeling that something is true is never enough.

Dawkins, who is a biological scientist and the world’s most famous science writer, dismisses religion as a useless and often dangerous evolutionary accident. “Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of any underlying psychological propensity which . . . once was useful.” [The God Delusion, p. 65] In other words, religion cannot help us. It may even harm us. It may be the cause of intense hatred and violence.

Capitalism and the Jews

“Capitalism and the Jews”  from The Jewish Humanist March-April 1976

Hester Street. Eighty years ago.

They came by the thousands. The greatest mass migration in the history of the Jewish people.

They came from Minsk and Pinsk. They came from Zhitomir and Berdichev. They came from Lodz and Bialystok.

Most of them were pious and Orthodox, obsessed by the rituals of shtetl life. Many of them were secular and socialist, impatient with poverty and dreamers of the proletarian revolution.

Eastern Europe was the homeland of the Ashkenazic Jew. Eighty percent of world Jewry was squeezed into the ghetto of Western Russia, Galicia, Slovakia and Transylvania.

By 1945 the “homeland” was ten thousand miles away. Emigration and holocaust were the movers. America became the new center of Ashkenazic life. English replaced Yiddish as the major language of Western Jews. Six million Americans represented half of world Jewry.

Collins Avenue. The faded focus of a new migration. An internal migration.

They came from New York and Pittsburgh. They go to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They come from Detroit and Chicago. They go to Los Angeles and San Diego. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland are old Jewish words. Houston, Phoenix and Aspen are new Jewish words.

The second migration is different from the first one. The Jews are different. In a short span of eighty years the Western Jew was transformed by the most dramatic revolution in Jewish history. Never before had any Jew been changed so much so quickly.

Secular capitalism did it. It undermined traditional Christianity. It undermined the Jewish life style. It “destroyed” —not by being mean. It subverted—by being so very nice.

All the characteristics of the historic Jew, which feudal society deplored and condemned, applauded and rewarded.

Jews had a head start for survival in a capitalistic society. They had skills that other people lacked.

Capitalism sponsors a mobile society. Rooted peasant people find moving traumatic. Jews are addicted to wandering. Because of antisemitism, they had to defend themselves against a heavy emotional investment in any place (except the fantasy land of Israel). Long before the bourgeoisie made a distinction between ancestral land and real estate, the Jews had experienced the difference. Feudal society condemned them for their rootlessness. The industrial world rewards their mobile skills with wealth.

Capitalism admires verbal abilities. Language is the intellectual vehicle for science and technology. Language is the way you educate workers in schools for new professions and jobs. Language is the tool of salesmanship—the art of convincing consumers to consume. If Jews are anything, they are verbal. They had to be. Deprived of all physical means of self-defense, they had, to train their mouth to do what weapons do for most people. The Jewish mouth became a formidable instrument of war and protection. Hostile, non-verbal peasants find this characteristic frightening and unattractive. The\urban bourgeoisie pay a lot of money to acquire it. Lawyers, writers and academicians become the conspicuous edge of an industrial culture. Jews take to these professions like birds to air.

Capitalism adores aggressiveness. How else can you sell? How else can you promote new ideas and sponsor new products? Peasants and feudal lords hate pushiness. It is so inconsistent with the tranquil and stable life of village and manor. But urban survival demands aggressiveness. The passive waiter is a winner in the eternal scheme of the feudal world. He is a guaranteed loser in the urban scene. Jews are pushy because they were never able to relax. Antisemitism produced a continuous state of alert. Jews were never safe enough to be less than nervous. Now nervous pushiness may not be the most attractive aggressive style. But, in a capitalistic world, it is better than dull passivity.

Capitalism was the first environment to reward the very Jewish characteristics which the feudal antisemite found intolerable.

No Jewish community, in the long history of the Jewish people, has been as wealthy, educated and politically powerful as the American Jewish community.

The radical changes in contemporary Judaism, whether conservative, liberal or humanistic—which make it a distinct religion from traditional Judaism—are the results of a revolutionary adjustment. Secular capitalism has created a new Jewish religion. What is it? What is it becoming?

Judaism in America.

It is unlike any Judaism that ever came before

It is a radical break with the past and with the life style of the Jewish tradition.

It is a product of western capitalism and the urban industrial society which capitalism spawned.

Western capitalism presented the Jew with social realities that violated the essence of Jewish piety.

It sponsored female liberation. An expanding industrial economy provided women with options other than motherhood and wifehood. Female freedom is the consequence of money power and financial alternatives

Western capitalism sponsored secularism. The industrial state was built on the premise that the most readily available power for economic expansion was natural— not supernatural. Divine power was so secondary that it could be relegated to private choice. The state could not be bothered with religious controversy because no essential power was being provided anymore by religious institutions and by clerical professionals.

Western capitalism sponsored the right to happiness. Divine justice had decreed that, given Jewish behavior and Jewish disobedience, suffering and death were deserved. If the Messiah came, it would be an act of divine mercy, a gracious Yom Kippur style act of a sentimental deity. But the capitalist consumer culture cannot be built on the right to suffer.

The growing industrial state needs the citizen conviction that pleasure is appropriate and that happiness is deserved. The early stages of development can use masochistic thrift. But the later stages require massive spending.

Western capitalism sponsored individualism. The traditional family unit makes sense in an agrarian environment where children are free labor and protectors of the aged. In an urban culture the most efficient labor unit is the mobile individual. Individualism is the social product of this economic reality.

Judaism in America cannot survive unless it affirms these four realities of an industrial economy. It does not have the power to repudiate the social reality.

It must reject male chauvinism and affirm female liberation.

It must reject the primary significance of supernatural power and affirm that the essential available energies are secular, human and natural.

It must reject the ethics of sacrifice and suffering and affirm the right of men and women to personal fulfillment now.

It must reject the primacy of the family unit and affirm the significance of individual identity in all relationships—whether marriage or work. The revolutionary consequence is the endorsement of temporary relations as kosher.

The life style of this new Judaism is not a gradual evolution of the old life style. It is a radical and traumatic break with the past.

When the majority of American Jews will be able to accept this reality, official Judaism will stop playing around with the nostalgia and will be able to use its creative energies to celebrate the new life style.