I came across this Torah from Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“Basic to human existence is a sense of indebtedness — of indebtedness to society, of indebtedness to God. What is emerging in our age is a strange inversion. Modern people believe that the world is indebted to them; that society is charged with duties toward them. Their standard preoccupation is: What will I get out of life? Suppressed is the question: What will life — what will society — get out of me?”
For those that know Heschel’s writing, this is a common sentiment of his. He offers a lot of perspective when it comes to gratitude and awe, seeing these as a pathway to experiencing God. The experience of the individual is important. Yet he often cautions about centering ourselves in the universe. As he sees it, God places a tremendous amount of trust and responsibility in us and our community. Yes, we have to acknowledge our blessings, but we will find our worth in how much we can give them too.
I agree with Heschel’s sense of inversion. We act as if everything is due to us but we don’t stop to ask what we must give in return. I see so much of this around us today: the current public health crisis, for example. If we had more of a “we” mentality, we’d take action as a society to protect one another. Unfortunately, we keep butting up against some very stubborn American individualism, in which we poo-poo and even distrust the recommendations for how we can keep one another safe. I believe we’ve hit a stage of the pandemic where the guidance is so obscure and has been made so political that we’ve been turned loose into “every person for themselves.”
I want to be clear: I’m not dismissing the need for people to make decisions for themselves. Each human, as an expression of their value and integrity, should be given final jurisdiction over their own body and family. I’m highlighting, though, how Jewish tradition would want us to make choices for ourselves while also understanding how they impact others. It is Hillel who said it best: “Im ein ani mi, mi li? U’keshani l’atzmi, mah ani? If I am not for myself who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim. It contains a long list of civil laws, which, while articulated in the language of an ancient agrarian society, are rooted in some clear cut values. There’s the theme of fairness: when people or their property cause injury to other people and/or their property, they should make appropriate restitution and the punishment varies in degree of the crime. The laws understand acting with malicious intent versus accidents. It stresses the need to take proper precautions in order to protect yourself and others. If you neglect to take those precautions, there are consequences.
My favorite example of this in the portion is the goring ox. I know goring oxen are not exactly a big threat to most of us, and I don’t want to minimize how terribly destructive a goring ox could be, but I do have a soft spot for the goring ox. Torah says that if an ox gets out of control and gores a person, the ox is put down but the owner is not punished. If, however, the ox is “in the habit of goring,” and gores a person, then the owner is punished. The owner should have known better and taken the proper precautions to control their ox!
Or there’s the example of a person who digs a pit and neglects to cover it up. If an ox falls into the pit, the pit-owner must repay the ox owner for the loss of the ox, because they should’ve known better to look out for others in this way.
Torah is clear: we have to take the proper precautions - personally and civically - to protect life, property and general well-being of one another.
Enter Repro Shabbat - a national movement to celebrate the critical importance of reproductive health access, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice. It’s this Shabbat.
At first blush, you could argue that the fight for reproductive rights is all about the “me.” We warriors of reproductive rights chant “my body, my choice.” Heck, anti-choice advocates could use my own argument against me tonight: shouldn’t someone be looking out for the unborn?
But to understand the Jewish approach to reproductive rights is to understand the balance between the “me” and the “we.”
Firstly, our tradition points to this week’s Torah portion as a prooftext for why the existing, established life of the mother takes precedence over the potential life of the fetus. Protection is extended first and foremost to the living human.
There is a strong Jewish assertion that every woman not only deserves autonomy over her body, but that as a society we are obligated to take precautions that protect her autonomy and her life. This means access to the wide array of health-related medicines, procedures and general care that protects her mentally and physically: birth control, preventative OBGYN care, and abortion access.
Today in America, we are walking precariously close to the open pit of not just curtailing a woman’s right to choose but acting as a society to knowingly cause harm to the health of 50% of the population. We are goring at the basic human rights of others, which flies in the face of the Torah’s injunction to protect one another.
Which brings us back to Heschel:
“Basic to human existence is a sense of indebtedness — of indebtedness to society, of indebtedness to God.”
We are grateful to God for the gifts of our bodies and minds, each one of which is powerful and capable and full of dignity. We show our gratitude through self-care and making healthy, life-affirming decisions for ourselves. And our tradition calls upon us to show gratitude to God by asserting the right for other living humans to feel safe. This means standing up for members of our society who have historically been ignored or made disadvantaged in our public health system. We have been given the responsibility of looking out for one another - making choices as a society that enable each of us to experience the Godliness within us. The more we can activate eachother’s potential, help one another live life fully, the stronger our society and the stronger we, individually, will be.