Monday, March 31, 2014

Tazria :Life before Birth

Life before Birth     Tazria  

            Some years ago, I had to sit down with our son to help him review for a test in a high school class on contemporary Jewish issues. The first word he had to define was "bioethics", and he had trouble breaking the word down into its components. Ethics, he knew, was the theory of right and wrong behavior, but the bi-part confused him.
            He was, after all, an excellent math student, and knew that ,in math, the prefix "bi" always means two. I straightened him out--this is not a discussion of math, but a discussion of life. The prefix is not bi, but bio, as in biology, that is life. We are talking about what is right and wrong in regards to life itself.
            The right and wrong of life itself is fast becoming the crucial moral and legal issue of our society. When does life itself begin, and when does it end? May I prevent a life; may I hasten its end? May I tamper with the way in which we begin life? Can I change my genes, so that my descendents will all have blond hair and blue eyes and be six-feet tall?
            Surely a whole list of names come to our mind with these thoughts: Thalidomide babies, to Terry Schiavo, to Dr. Kevorkian, names and cases that were undreamed of a century ago.
            Can we find guidance in Jewish sources, sources going back two, three thousand years, for issues that face people today, in our Jewish 58th century, the gentile' s 21st century?
            There is a basic premise of classic Jewish thinking, Hafoch bah ve hafoch ba--Examine the Torah over and over, for all is in it.
            This weeks Torah portion begins with the discussion of birth" Ishah, ki tazria,--A woman at childbirth, who delivers a son, shall bring such and such an offering, shall be impure for such and such a time." We deal here, with the question of the start of life, and based on the words  "ishah ki tazria", according to the Talmud, we can choose the sex of the child in advance.
            ( The secret, according to the ancient Sages, was that the husband must see to it that his wife is satisfied in bed first. It is considered to actually  be effective in increasing the likelihood of a boy being born if the father was anxious to host a bris. The converse could be said as well, then; if the mother wanted to have a baby girl like herself, then she would need to be considerate of her husband first!)
            Let us then, look at this question, of birth, of the beginning of life itself. It is question that is constantly bounced around ever since the famous ( or infamous, depending on which side of the argument you may be on)  Roe vs Wade case--does life begin at conception--or at a certain point in the growth of an embryo-or at birth itself? Is a women who determines that she is incapable of going through with a birth to be considered a murderer, or is a women the sole proprietor of herself and of any part of her body?
            Clearly , the most vocal answers, the ones that get in the press, are either the complete “pro-life”anti-abortionists, for whom all abortion, no matter the reason, is murder, or the very abstract “pro-choice” for whom it is , very simply, a matter of a woman’s choice.
            For the Catholic Church, as for many evangelical Protestant groups, abortion is a sin, and to many, murder.
            In classic Christian doctrine, unique to the Christian fathers, and borrowed from Greek mystic movements, the moment the infant is conceived, the soul, the eternal, individual soul, enters the egg, and from that moment on, we have a full fledge human being, with all rights and safeguards. It is backed up, by a translation of a verse in the portion of Mishpatim ( Exodus 21:22) , in the Greek text( Septuagint)  but not  in ours, which we see to be a mistake and error in translation.
            The Torah speaks only of a miscarriage, caused in a fight. If the fetus is killed, the aggressor pays only a penalty. He has not committed murder, nor has he caused an accidental death. By implication, in Jewish law, the fetus is not yet a living independent human being.
            In later Jewish law, also, in the Mishnah and the Talmud, the embryo is not yet a living entity. The fetus has no legal rights; it can not inherit property, nor can any purchase be made in its name, for one can make no legal transactions on behalf of someone who does not yet exist. In Jewish law, the fetus is ubar yerech emo--the fetus is a part of the mother, just as her thigh is, or any other organ, stomach, heart, bones.
            The Talmud explicitly calls for abortion, up to the moment of birth, for the sake of the mother's life, because clearly, as Rashi explains, before physical birth, it is not considered alive. Only after birth is it alive." Clearly, terminating a pregnancy is not in and of itself an act of murder.
            From this perspective, Rabbis actually required abortion in the case of physical danger to the mother, or even mental danger to the mother even up to the moment of birth. The Rabbis actually considered the fetus to be the equivalent of a “ rodef”, a very harsh term, a word used to indicate one intent upon killing another—the fetus, in this case is the “hunter”. Other rabbis used it to indicate “ rodef” as, even though Heaven itself is pursuing the mother, as if to kill her, we must perform an abortion. There are those Rabbis who justified fear of pain, or mental anguish or shame as legitimate grounds for abortion in earlier stages. In all cases, the operative concept is that the active( mother) takes precedent over the  potential ( fetus). However, the moment, any part of the fetus emerges, whether naturally or by Caesarian, it is at that moment, considered a full human being who must now be brought to full birth.
            It would seem, from this, that the Catholic and Jewish positions are worlds apart. Yet even here, there may be grounds for a meeting place. The new Pope, Francis, while still declaring abortion ‘horrific”, has suggested that the opposition to abortion should not be seen as the Church’s “obsession”.
            Even the Christian church in history did not define abortion as murder in all cases. Medieval Church codes for example, accepted abortion before the 40th day of pregnancy. It was not until 1869 that the Catholic Church officially defined the moment of conception as the moment of the beginning of human life.
            Does this mean then that we stand eagerly with NOW and NARAL on this?
Not yet.
            Perhaps  instead there needs to be a greater general principal between the ends.
            Abortion is not murder, nor is the unborn fetus yet a full human being, yet on the other hand we also are concerned, lest we lose our sensitivity to the potential of life in each pregnancy.
            Jews were very well known in antiquity for an exceptional trait. You well know the Spartan practice of abandoning deformed babies to the wolves. Only fully healthy children were allowed to be raised to serve as warriors. Here is the law as it was recorded in The Twelve Tables of Roman Law: "Deformed infants shall be killed" (De Legibus 3.8). It was clear in Roman law that any baby less than fully desirable could be disposed of freely , and that applied, very often to baby girls who could be exposed to the beasts. Roman law gave the father “ius paterfamilias”, absolute power of authority over life and death of any of his children . The Roman historian, Tacitus condemned Jews for their opposition to infanticide; it was another proof of the  "sinister and revolting practices" of the Jews.( Histories 5.5.)
            As Jews, we recognize that we must confront moral responsibility from both ends of the equation, never form an abstract absolute.
            When we close down clinics and muzzle doctors do we really save lives, or create greater anguish. Since the woman, in pregnancy, risks her health and life in the process of birth, we cannot mandate birth by force any more than we can force someone to donate an organ, even to save another's life.
            On the other hand, where possible, we need to encourage the birth, and again, the key word is “where possible” because ultimately, the final decision rests with the woman carrying the child. Can we help the woman raise the child, can we support her to be a responsible mother, can we find the father, encourage him to be a responsible father? Can we encourage and help the mother give the child up for adoption to the many parents who are incapable of adopting? What are the tools that we can apply, whether through government agencies, or through community and faith based organizations, to see to it that every child born is wanted and loved and cared for. .

            In our tradition, every child born is a special event. May we make every effort possible, so that, when life begins, at birth, that life is a blessing, a joy, and a comfort for all. Amen.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Coming soon from IndieGo Publishing

Contact: Rabbi Norbert Weinberg
(323) 969-8430

Courage of the Spirit tells of one man’s victory over the Nazis

Rabbi Dr. William Weinberg becomes the first State Rabbi of the community of Holocaust survivors in the German State of Hesse
Many books have been written of the spiritual heroism of the Jewish people as they rebuilt their lives after the devastation wrought by Hitler’s attempt to wipe out every last Jew, but some books stand out as unique because they are written by family members who were told those stories of heroism firsthand. Courage of the Spirit (paperback ISBN 978-0-9846685-6-4; ebook ISBN 978-0-9887048-9-3) is such a book. It portrays the spiritual struggle of one man during the first half of the twentieth century—the author’s father, Rabbi Dr. William Weinberg, who survived under Nazi and Communist tyranny to become the first State Rabbi of the community of Holocaust survivors in the German State of Hesse.
Rabbi Weinberg’s saga serves as a tour of the ideologies and principles of the contemporary world, but it also encompasses the movements that shape Judaism today: Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative, as well as political Zionism. It is a story that spans thousands of physical miles, by freight train and on foot, from the Galician Shtetl to cosmopolitan Vienna and Berlin, and to Stalingrad and central Asia and back as Rabbi Weinberg kept one step ahead of the Nazi armies. It is a story that spans the mental and emotional journey from the medieval Shtetl, the great empires, and the weak democracies and totalitarian regimes that followed, and finally, to freedom.
Along the way, we meet significant figures in Rabbi Weinberg’s life: Martin Buber and Mannes Sperber, the founders of Israel’s Marxist-Socialist party, Rabbi Leo Baeck, and Albert Einstein. We are shown a window into life in a Nazi prison and concentration camp, the day-to-day life of Jews in Nazi Berlin, and the vagaries of survival under Stalin’s totalitarian shelter.
“This book reconstructs these events from conversations with my father, from family notes, and from historical documentation,” says the author, Rabbi Norbert Weinberg.
Courage of the Spirit is the first part of a trilogy. The second part will follow the account of Irene Gottdenker, the author’s mother, who openly survived the Holocaust in the guise of a Pole of German descent and witnessed the destruction of the Jews in Lwow and Warsaw. The third part will examine the rebirth of Jewish life in the refugee camps in Austria and then in the city of Frankfurt, Germany, and the environs. 
IndieGo Publishing is an independent publishing firm that believes in supporting authors as the world’s primary source in promoting freedom of expression through the written word. Retailers may order Courage of the Spirit through Lightning Source/Ingram.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Shabbat Shekalim Love Expressed in a Silver Coin

Shabbat Shekalim    Love Expressed in a Silver Coin

            I will start with a little side account on Israeli money. The official coin of the state of Israel is the shekel, actually,  the Shekel Hadash, or the New Shekel. It came to replace the Israeli Lira, which was originally based on the British pound, at a rate about $3 and a quarter. Then, it inflated over time to  20 or 30 to the dollar, so the government switched the currency to the Shekel.
            Back when they were trying to fix the old shekel, they told a story of a great Hasidic Rabbi, however, who went for a walk on Shabbos in Jerusalem, He spied 100 Shekel note lying on the street in front of him, picked it up, and promptly put it in his pocket.
            His followers were astounded; Rabbi--this is mukseh ( untouchable)! You know your are forbidden to pick up money on Shabbos!
            He looked at them: You call this money, and went ahead.
            He was right—the shekel hit 1500 to the dollar three years later, because of inflation, it was reissued as the New Israeli Shekel, and brought down to 1.50 a dollar. Now, it has been stable for about 30 years at about 3 and a half, not far from where it was in 1948 at 3.25! The British are the ones who took a monetary bath however, as their pound is now about half what it was compared to the dollar in 1948!.
            Israelis used to value contracts in US dollars. Now, over the last few years, they went back to valuing contracts in Israeli Shekels. After all, the head of the Israeli National Bank, Stanley Fisher, was the mentor to the head of the Fed, Ben Bernanke. He is now back at the Fed to help shore up the US dollar.
            This story of the modern shekel brings us to the story of the ancient shekel.
            This Shabbat, we have a special reading-shekalim, named for  the real shekel, not the modern printed version, but a silver coin, unclipped, about the weight, in silver of the pre-1960’’s US silver dollar.
             We added the opening verses of Ki Tisa, which we read a few weeks ago, as our Maftir this week..
            We recall the ancient task of collecting one-half shekel from everyone, in addition to all other collections-for establishment of the sanctuary, later for annual maintenance of the Temple.
            The special Haftarah reading reflects the same theme, of an event in later history, the collection of funds for repair of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was added for the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar, just one month and a half before Pesah, to remind the public to bring contributions that would prepare ancient Jerusalem for the myriads of visitors who would come for the Pesah offering at the Temple.
            Our sages express astonishment at our people’s response to our requests for funds. They paid, it shows, not only the half-shekel, but added generously out of their own pocket, as we read last Shabbat in Vaykhel and on this Shabbat of Pekudei.
            “What a strange  people! Last week, they raised funds for the Golden Calf, this week, they raise funds for the Holy Sanctuary?  Whatever you ask them for, they give!” (Yerushalmi)
            Of course it was not always easy to raise funds either for Golden Calves or for Temples.
            Our literature is filled with exhortations to give generously, which means that the people had to be prompted and prodded.
 Thus our sages insisted
"No one ever became poor by giving Zedakah"
Or, they promised, as in the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, some 2200 years ago, “As Water  douses a flame, so zedakah atones for sins.”
            Those who pled poverty, and thus unable to give,   were assured,:
“Whoever pursues the giving of zedakah, God gives him the means.”(Baba batra)
            Nothing ever changes. Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose! .The more the change, the more things remain as they were. Jews have been trying to raise funds ever since. We didn't have the power of taxation to maintain our institutions so we had to rely on the power of the community to persuade and encourage.
            Jews also loved their synagogues-it goes back a long time. In the opening of the prayer book, there is a prayer for entering the synagogue
            “Ma Tovu ohalecha”--How goodly are your tents
It goes on" Oh Lord, I love the habitation of your house, the place where your glory dwells.”
            Look at the 23rd Psalm,”The Lord is my shepherd”. We use it for funerals but that is not its purpose. Sefardic Jews use it as a table song to celebrate and it declares, in celebration "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. You only seek to dwell forever  in a place you love.
            Archaeologist in Israel and the Middle East have uncovered countless plaques with the names of one donor or another, in Hebrew and in Greek, naming the president of a congregation, the donor of a doorway, even the name of a women who was president of her congregation. This is a precedent which every charitable institution has followed down to this day.
            Why do people go out of their way to do this? People in general, not just Jews.
            .One reporters described the aftermath of fighting in an Italian village.
            An artillery shell fell through the top of a church, ruined the church, but spared its famous mural by Bellini. This was seen as a miracle. The people began to raise the money to rebuild the Church; people who didn't have shoes came up and put money in the box. It was cold and they didn't even have enough to eat.
            “I asked one man, ‘Why do you do this?’ He hesitated a moment and said, ‘Signor, what I give is only a little, but in giving it, I become a part of something beautiful.’ (Stanley Andrews)
            We all, Jews and non-Jews, want to be part of something beautiful.
            I have my share of stories of how people care for their synagogues
            I will start with an  example from a non-Jew!
            I recall being my youth in a small town in West Virginia, My father had been the Rabbi. You  didn't know there were Jews in the heart of West Virginia?
            At every Jewish holiday, in would walk a Christian lady from the neighboring town with an armload of first fruits from her yard. She brought it to the synagogue because she took it seriously--God has asked for the first fruits, and she has given it.
            I was Rabbi once in Newport News , Virginia, where they just celebrated 100 years of the congregation. The entire Jewish community, of two thousand, was for the most part descended from three main families; everyone was either a descendent of, married to, a cousin of, or best friend of. Board members were all relatives. If someone was upset with the president, it was "Cousin Ralph" or "Uncle Bob". Since the synagogue was a family affair, everyone took care of it as if it were his own house-- and it was. (By the way, the head of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, Rabbi David Ellison is a product of the town’s Orthodox synagogue! His brother taught in our Hebrew School. Small world, then, for his son and our son were in school together here, in this building, many years later, downstairs in what was the Herzl school. Small world, the granddaughter of our Hebrew school program is friends with our granddaughter here in LA.)
            In yet another congregation where I served, in Whittier,I recall one member, the wife of a prominent lawyer and judge, who lived in an elegant house in the best part of the city. She had her maid to do her house, of course. But when it came to the synagogue, no cleaning lady was good enough. Time and again, I would find her in the sanctuary scrubbing the stains on the carpet on the Bimah-- because no else could do the job the right way! That's care.
            .Every Jewish community had its" sheva tovei ha'ir"--its seven good men of the town, the executive committee, which undertook the responsibilities of the synagogue, and every community had its asarah batlanim-its minyan of batlanim--a batlan is not a lazy man, just the opposite, a batlan meant a wealthy man, who was batel--he was free from the burden of employment so he could dedicate himself to the needs of the synagogue.
            (.Here too, we have our tovei ha-ir.our goodly people of the city. We have our core of people who give and have given of themselves constantly. I look here at Carmen, Marcello and Lillian, Simon, Rosa and others, for example.
            But they alone cannot lift up this great institution. Leaders are of no avail without followers to give fullest support.)
            Finally, people may ask with a practical approach: In times like these, what does this synagogue mean to me?
            I close with the words of a noted Rabbi, Solomon Goldman
"Why go to the Synagogue?"
            I come to the synagogue to probe my weakness and my strength
            I come to lift myself by my bootstraps, I come to quiet the turbulence in my heart, restrain its mad impulsiveness and check the itching eagerness of my every muscle to outsmart and outdistance my neighbor.       I come for self-renewal and regeneration I come to behold the beauty of the Lord, to find him  who put an upward reach in the heart of man. "
            That is what this synagogue can do for each of us. That is why we have the reminder, before we make merry with Purim and celebrate Pesah with family and friends, to give our half-shekels worth, and more, to make our Sanctuaries  and congregations flourish.