“Why should an intelligent person believe in God?” That was the first question posed to Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks at a dinner for religion journalists sponsored last night by the Templeton Foundation, by the Washington Post’s Sally Quinn. Rabbi Sacks, the author of eighteen books and a philosopher of note, responded (I paraphrase) that the universe cannot provide its own meaning, just as a logical system cannot prove its own premises (according to the Gödel incompleteness theorem). This meaning of the universe that lies outside the universe we call God, he added. Morality is not written in nature: you can’t read ethics off the world. Judaism has a dual epistemology, he continued, Torah (revelation) and Hokhma (wisdom).
The interesting question is: If we cannot derive morality from nature, then why is revelational morality not arbitrary? The answer, Rabbi Sacks said, is to be found in the concept of covenant: it is based on the bonds of mutual obligation. He cited Exodus 19, just before the giving of the Ten Commandments, in which the people of Israel agree to accept what YHWH offers. But because this covenant was offered to people wandering in the desert in desperate circumstances, it is renewed in Joshua 24, in which the next generation of Israel has the opportunity to freely choose to accept it.
Rabbi Sacks had the opportunity to expound the application of the Jewish view of science and revelation in the matter of abortion later in the evening. One of the participants brought up the Notre Dame controversy over President Obama’s honorary law degree. Obama, one of the journalists offered, had defused the confrontation in statesmanlike fashion by changing the subject: Pro-life and pro-choice advocates could engage in rational and civilized debate. “Some people want Jews to walk into gas chambers,” I offered, “and we can have a rational and civilized debate with them.” That did not go over well. Sam Friedman, a Columbia Journalism professor and New York Times contributor, muttered something about intellectual dishonesty.
Rabbi Sacks rescued the conversation by stressing that the Jewish position regarding abortion is quite close to the Catholic position. His exposition is worth a detailed summary, as it is a close to an official Orthodox Jewish view as we will hear in the English-speaking world. Only in the case of danger to the life of the mother, and only after extensive investigation by competent Jewish authorities, would Orthodox Judaism ever permit abortion. Abortion on demand is inconceivable. As to the question of where the human person begins, Judaism makes a distinction between human life, which is everywhere and always sacred, and the human person. The mother is a person; the fetus is human life. In the exceptional event of a conflict the person takes precedence. Physis (nature) is gradual, but nomos (law) is discrete. Precisely because we cannot say with precision where life begins we cannot allow that abortion is permissible at any stage of pregnancy. Unlike the Catholic position, which proceeds from natural theology, the Jewish position emerges from the legal consideration of the human person, which requires the community to establish a distinction—and that distinction is the event of birth, the physical separation of the baby from its mother’s body. Rabbi Sacks emphasized that the Jewish and Catholic positions converge on nearly the same result, with the only distinction being abortion to save the mother’s life.
On other life issues, Rabbi Sacks added, the British Rabbinate cooperates closely with the Catholic Church, most visibly in opposition to so-called assisted suicide.