The Texas law practically outlawing abortion that the U.S. Supreme Court permitted to go into effect, contrary to the half century constitutional precedent of Roe v. Wade, has sent shockwaves through our nation. What is so stunning about this turn of events, and the other current challenges Roe v. Wade faces, is how Republican arguments against the decision have changed over the years.
God is now part of the conversation. Republicans used to leave God out of the argument, but this has changed because… well, presumably because they know what God wants. But, in America, it’s not supposed to be that way.
Linda Greenhouse, a contributing opinion writer for New York Times, documents the shift in Republican argumentation in a piece published on Sept. 9, “God Has No Place in Supreme Court Opinions.” She writes: “…sensing the wind at their backs and the Supreme Court on their side, Republican officeholders are no longer coy about their religion-driven mission to stop abortion.”
The Jewish tradition kicked God out of the business of human legislation over a thousand years ago. In a discussion about an obscure law having to do with ovens, Rabbi Eliezer argues with all the other rabbis. He is so certain of his position that he invokes miracles to prove he’s right.
Each miracle is rejected as having nothing to do with the discussion, until, after a heavenly voice announces that Rabbi Eliezer is right, we read: “Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: ‘It is written: “It is not in heaven!”’ With that, God was banished from the discussion.
Rabbi Joshua is quoting Deuteronomy 30:11-12, “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’”
The point is, human beings have the intelligence to figure things out. They don’t need God telling them what to do.
Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Eliezer and the rest of the rabbis were engaged in an epic debate and a clash between biblical and rabbinic Judaism. It was a discussion that our debate about the separation between “church and state” echoes.
Rabbi Eliezer is like a biblical prophet. He is preaching from his gut; he knows he’s right and that God is on his side. He represents the biblical tradition that God let’s known His will through direct revelation. Rabbi Joshua and the others were arguing from rationality; from the keen use of argumentation and reason.
Following the biblical period, the Jewish rabbis believed that God had turned over the responsibility for legislation to humans. We no longer rely on what people think God wants, but rather, on the careful use of the human mind to discern what’s right.
How did the rabbis come to this conclusion? Through reason! And through the belief that it was God’s intention all along to turn over the responsibility for discovering truth to humans, who would use the gift of the mind to arrive at truths that reflect the experience of human beings.
One can interpret the Hebrew Bible as a story of God’s withdrawal from earthly affairs and turning matters of judgement and morality over to us. In Genesis God is all over the place. By the end of the Bible He’s hardly to be found.
How did the rabbis come to believe that God wanted us to discover truth by using human reason and rationality instead of relying on voices from heaven? In a rabbinic story that takes place before creation, the rabbis imagine that in heaven God was contemplating creating Adam. The beings that made up God’s court, we might call them angels, were debating about whether or not that was a good idea.
The debate is described in this way: “…the ministering angels formed themselves into groups, some of them saying, ‘Let him be created,’ while others urged, ‘let him not be created.’” Some argued Adam should be created because he will do good deeds and acts of justice. Others argued against humanity’s creation because people will wage war. “Truth” argues against the creation of humanity because people will be “full of lies…”
And the story goes on: “What did God do? God took hold of Truth and cast it to the ground, as it is written, “and truth will be sent to the earth.”
When the ministering angels ask God why he did that, God replies, “Let Truth arise from the earth!” That’s why Scripture says, “Let truth spring up from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12)
The rabbis are telling us that God understands that “truth” and the human condition cannot exist side by side. God’s truth alone cannot be the criterion for human law, which must be discerned through the experience of real human life. God chooses humans and their ability to reason over His “truth.”
God casts truth to the ground and says that the truth that informs human life will not come from the heaven down to earth, but will sprout from the ground. Truth doesn’t come from heaven; but from earth as humans can best understand it.
Contrary to the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, we don’t know what happened to the first tablets that God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai. According to tradition the shards of those broken tablets, written by the “finger of God,” were locked up in the ark never to be seen again. Why? One scholar, Daniel Taub, suggests it’s because those shards were very dangerous. If one came into their possession, one might think they owned The Truth.
Hardly anything is more dangerous than those who think they know God’s mind and God’s truth. The Texas anti-abortion law is proof of that truth.
Michael Berk is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, the largest Jewish congregation in San Diego and the oldest in Southern California.