2/03/2007

The First Word: Jeremiah's wish | Jerusalem Post

Normally, I like the works of Richard Elliott Friedman. I thought his "Who Wrote the Bible" was an excellent and very readable summary of a common version of the Documentary Hypothesis. I enjoyed his "The Disappearance of God" very much, and I've heard good things about his Commentary on the Bible". Then he went a wrote this article in this weekend's Jerusalem Post. I thought it was terrible, and very unbecoming of someone who would like to be considered a serious scholar (he currently heads the Jewish Studies department at the University of Georgia).


Friedman starts with a binary assertion: people form opinions on matters like abortion, capital punishment, and homosexuality based on "cultural and visceral" responses, and sometimes based on the Bible. His main thesis is that regarding abortion, the Bible is inconclusive at best, and likely permissive of abortion. The passage in Shemot 21 is dismissed as being ambiguous.

There are several problems with his thesis. Firstly, he does not not stake out any middle ground between 'murder' and 'permissible'. He uses a passage in Yirmiyahu to 'prove' that abortion is not murder. Thay doesn't make it permissible. In fact, that's exactly what Shemot 21, accvrding to traditional interpretation, means: killing the fetus of another is punishable by monetary remuneration, not by death, which is the penalty for murder. However ambiguous the passage is, it's very clear that killing a fetus is not murder. That the Bible itself likely presents a middle position on abortion - forbidden but not murder - should at the very least caution one against ignoring exegetical possibilities in other passages.

Secondly, he marshals the cases of Jeremiah and Job, who wished they had been aborted, alongside Kohelet's statement that the stillborn are better off than the living, to show that abortion, as opposed to actual murder, is an acceptable way to cope with life's meaninglessness or difficulty. The equation strains credulity. As he notes, just because Kohelet praises the stillborn, doesn't mean he advocates causing them. Job and Jeremiah lament their own births. Wishing they had been terminated before birth must be read in a poetic context. Job spends an entire chapter cursing the day he was born. To take Job's reaction to his misfortune as any kind of normative indicator is simply irresponsible. Jeremiah's wish that he had been aborted doesn't necessarily mean that it would have been permissible, even assuming that the passage can be read normatively. REF is aware of these deficiencies in his argument, which make it all the more striking that he advances it anyway. Had he presented this argument in a peer-reviewed journal, not to mention any beit midrash, he would have been laughed out of the room. In a publication like J-Post, however, he is speaking to a largely uncritical audience, some of whom may take his words seriously.

The final criticism that I have of this article is probably the most serious. By setting up a binary decision - cultural/visceral vs. Biblical, he ignores an entire corpus of post-Biblical material which is normative for many of us, and ostensibly for REF himself. The halakha has enshrined a particular interpretation of Shemot 21, which regards abortion as injury but not murder. Acquiescence of the pregnant woman does not make abortion permissible just as self-mutilation is not permissible. Granted, the status of a fetus - whether it is part of the mother or a separate entity - is a matter of dispute which has major ramifications for contexts in which abortion would be permissible or even mandated. The Bible itself is open to interpretation; as a legal document, however, certain interpretations - irrespective of whether they are the correct or original interpretations - have been enshrined by that nexus of laws and interpretations that we call Rabbinic Judaism. We Rabbinites genrally don't take our cues directly from the Bible, as I'm sure REF knows. I therefore find is terribly disingenuous that he ignores halakha and discusses only his detection of a permissive pattern in the Biblical text, as if normative Biblical interpretation is influencing today's decision-makers. He beats up on a straw man, and hopes his audience won't notice the elephant in the living room. This member of the audience noticed.
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