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Jewish World Review
April 5, 2005
/ 25 Adar II, 5765
The difference between Jews and Judaism
Rabbi Avi Shafran
The Schiavo tragedy highlighted an unfortunately little known and often misunderstood aspect about Jewry
The phone began ringing here at Agudath Israel of America mere hours after we released a statement asking Michael Schiavo
to spare his wife's life.
We asked the late Terri Schiavo's husband to "recognize that what a court may consider legal can still constitute a grave
violation of a higher law," and pointed out that "none of us can claim to know what constitutes a meaningful existence," and that
"all of us have a responsibility to preserve even severely compromised life."
Our statement appeared in some media, primarily newspapers servicing the Orthodox Jewish community, like the weekly
Yated Ne'eman and the daily Hamodia. But it also found its way onto the popular website JewishWorldReview.com as well
as one maintained by supporters of Mrs. Schiavo's parents' struggle to save their daughter's life. Thence ensued the flood of
Some were from observant Jews, gratified that we had articulated a straightforward Jewish take on the matter. But many in
fact, many more came from non-Jewish Americans, clear across the country.
The callers' accents testified to their geographical diversity; the voices comprised a musical medley of northeastern enunciation,
western drawl, mid-west mannerisms and southern comfort. And all were Christians, calling a Jewish organization just to say
More striking still, though, was something else, the single sentiment voiced, in different words, by a good number of the callers.
As one succinctly put it: "You know, I never realized there were Jewish people who cared about 'life' issues."
What those callers meant, of course, was that their impression of Jews likely culled from the media, as most had probably
never met a member of the tribe in person was of the stereotypical social liberal. And in fact, while most Jewish
representatives quoted in the press expressed, properly, the Jewish view that even severely compromised lives may not be
regarded as less worthy for their deficits, there were other voices.
Like that of Reconstructionist Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton, who cited Ecclesiastes that "there is a time to be born and a time to die";
her colleague Rabbi David Teutsch equated the food and water sought for Mrs. Schiavo with a respirator, about which, he
contended, one can act on "what is in the patient's best interest." Conservative Rabbi Elliott Dorf also characterized a feeding
tube as an "extraordinary measure."
And then there were displays of Jewish ambivalence on the issue like the one witnessed by writer David Klinghoffer, who
recounted in National Review how, during a talk at a Conservative synagogue, he lauded Christian support for Mrs. Schiavo's
continued nutrition and "the crowd reacted with a sharp intake of breath, shocked murmurs as if I'd said a kind word about the
Maybe my callers had such reactions in mind. But I think their assumption that Jews, G-d forbid, do not adequately value life
owed less to any reaction to the Schiavo case than to many Jewish organizations' attitude toward the termination of fetal life as
a "woman's right." And for that, unfortunately, there is ample evidence. Jewish clergy and organizations regularly fall over one
another to see who might more loudly champion the preservation of Roe v. Wade, the hallowed "right" to an act that Jewish
law forbids in no uncertain terms in all but rare circumstances.
All the same, I explained to the callers as I did to a national talk-show host when he expressed a similar sentiment to theirs that the Jewish community is more variegated than is often assumed, and that, in any event, more important than what any Jews
may think about a particular "life" issue is what Judaism does.
There may still be perfectly sound reasons for some Jews to take liberal positions on social matters, even on end-of-life issues
or abortion. But if they do, their reasons are personal, social, economic or political, not Jewish not, that is, reflective of the
Jewish religious heritage.
And that distinction is all the more vital in light of something that is occurring with increasing and disturbing frequency: the active
misrepresentation, even by ostensible representatives of the Jewish community, of Judaism's teachings on vital issues. Whether
through the portrayal of the Torah's attitude toward homosexual relations as flexible; or of its position on intermarriage as
tentative; or of its stance on killing the unborn as benign, political correctness in Jewish clothing abounds, and it does violence
to the integrity of all Jews' religious heritage.
Reflecting on my fleeting telephone acquaintances makes me want to plead with all the Jewish clergy, columnists, organizations
and pundits who have strong feelings about social issues: Advocate to your hearts' content. Make whatever case you see fit
for whatever you feel is the wisest public policy. But please don't mischaracterize our mutual religious tradition. Have the
courage, whatever your personal convictions, to show respect for the timeless Torah to which all we Jews are heir.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington and the media consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. Comment by clicking here.
© 2005 Am Echad Resources