Today it is contraception and the morning-after pill. Tomorrow it will be kosher slaughter, or matrilineal descent, or circumcision, or other matters of existential importance to Jewish observance. If the Obama administration gets away with forcing Catholic institutions to step across lines of life and death in the name of “health,” the federal government will have a precedent to legislate Judaism out of existence — as several other countries have already tried to do.
Now the Obama administration has told Catholic institutions that they don’t have to dispense pills that kill babies. Instead, they can pay the insurance company, and the insurance company will dispense the pill for them. It is an accounting trick (as Paul Ryan called it) that the White House misrepresents as a compromise. The Catholic bishops, of course, reject it. And only one Jewish organization, the haredi organization Agudath Israel, offered a sharp response. Its Washington director Abba Cohen stated:
Whether or not the White House’s new “compromise” proposal adequately addresses the religious freedom concerns raised by the Catholic Church is for the Catholic Church to say, not us – and, frankly, not the White House, either. The important points here are that no religiously sponsored entity, and no religiously motivated individual, should be forced by government to violate its or his sincerely held religious principles; and that the determination of religious propriety must be left to the religious entity or individual, not to the government.
The Orthodox Union, according to press accounts, guardedly praised the “compromise,” saying: “The president’s stated commitment is a positive first step forward, the details of implementation are crucial and we look forward to working with the administration to see that through.” As a late-in-life returnee to Jewish observance, I habitually defer to the Orthodox Union leadership in such matters. Having had the misfortune to have spent half my life among the atheists and religion-haters, though, I know how embittered and unrelenting are the supposed disciples of science. They are in fact religious fanatics of the worst kind. You can’t make a deal with them. After they come for the Catholics, they will come for us. They already are coming for us all over the world.
It isn’t happening in the United States — not yet, except for a laughable referendum in San Francisco last year to prohibit circumcision. But it’s happening in England, where the country’s highest court has ruled that the religious definition of Jewish identity is racist. It’s happened in several European countries as well as New Zealand, which have banned or might ban kosher slaughter.
Contraception is not the issue. The issue is whether science has the right to decide the ultimate matters of life and death, or whether this is reserved to faith. We can argue the practical consequences all day and not get anywhere. It’s not as if contraception has ushered in a glorious era of human reproduction in which every child is planned and wanted. More than half of births to American women under 30 now occur outside of marriage, the New York Times reported Feb. 18, and overwhelmingly to working-class women who are economically unprepared for single motherhood. And 71% of total African-American and 53% of Hispanic births are out of wedlock as well. The cultural shift from the nuptial mystery of religion to the blandishments of recreational sex has left us with a catastrophic rate of illegitimacy and the prospect of a self-perpetuating underclass.
But that isn’t the issue. The fact that the liberals have left us with a social dystopia instead of a golden age is beside the point. The issue is: Who has the right to draw the lines where life and death are concerned? Morning-after pills may not seem too horrible to most of us. It’s not the same as sucking out the brains of a fully-developed fetus in a so-called “partial birth abortion,” or dismembering a 3-month-old fetus that responds to stimuli and can feel pain, is it? The Australian comic Jim Jeffries has made a career out of a routine that claims heaven must be boring; if you think of eternal bliss as a simple extension of ordinary time, you’d get used to it eventually. That sort of paradox of time has been in the literature since St. Augustine. But the paradox cuts both ways. If you don’t like sucking the brains out of a fully-developed fetus at eight months, how about 7 months? Or six months? Or five months? Three months? How about three months less one minute? Or less one second? Where do you draw the line? Nothing in our science can tell us where life begins. If you can overrule the Catholic assertion that life begins at conception on putative scientific grounds and require Catholic institutions to pay for morning-after pills, you have given “science” carte blanche to determine where life begins — and ends.
Exactly the same issues arise in other matters of existential importance to Orthodox Jewish communities, for example, the most basic of all questions: Who is a Jew? The answer under Jewish law is: the child of a Jewish mother. Parts of the Jewish community that reject Jewish law don’t like this, to be sure. Almost half of American Jews intermarry and the Reform movement conveniently discovered patrilineal descent. But Jewish law remains clear on this subject as it has for thousands of years.
England’s Supreme Court, though, ruled in 2009 that it was “racist” to determine Jewish status by maternal descent, as opposed to such criteria as belief, observance, and so forth. The ruling responded to a lawsuit by an intermarried couple who sought admission for their child at the Orthodox-led Jewish Free School. The application was rejected because the child was not Jewish by Orthodox criteria, but Britain’s highest court overruled the religious authorities. Britain’s chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, declared, “An English court has declared [the religious definition of Jewish status] racist, and since this is an essential element of Jewish law, it is in effect declaring Judaism racist.”
Britain’s Catholic leaders supported Jewish leaders strongly and without qualification. Oona Stannard, director of the Catholic Education Services of England and Wales, announced, “We support our Jewish colleagues and feel that it is important that the right to determine who is a member of any religion ought to lie with the religious.” The Church of England refused to comment (as an editor at First Things magazine at the time, I tried and failed to obtain a comment).
Think it can’t happen here? Wait. Some insidious liberal will devise a way to label Judaism “racist” through the courts. It is not much of a leap from “Zionism is racism” to “Judaism is racism.” If it can happen in America’s mother country, the cradle of Anglo-Saxon liberty, it can happen in America.
The same issues of life and death emerge in the matter of kosher slaughter, which is now banned in Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Switzerland, and is under threat elsewhere. All of these require electric stunning before slaughter, which under Jewish law is effected by a single cut by a trained specialist that severs all the major arteries and causes near-instant loss of consciousness. But stunning renders the animal unfit for consumption under religious law. The Dutch have been debating a similar ban for the past year under pressure from animal rights activists, and a dubious compromise is now under discussion. The Dutch ban almost certainly would have passed, if not for the serendipitous publication of an Israeli scientific study showing that electric stunning of animals causes them pain. Well and good: but what if someone were to invent a method of stunning that made slaughter entirely painless? Would that constitute grounds to outlaw a method of slaughter that Jews have employed for more than three millennia?
Kosher slaughter is consistent with the Torah’s concern for the welfare of animals, including not only their physical well-being but also their feelings (one can’t muzzle an ox that is threshing grain, for example, or kill a calf in the presence of the mother cow). I wrote about that here in Asia Times during the Dutch debate. It may seem quaint, or even primitive, to enlightened secularists that we refuse to eat some animals (although one might ask why they do not eat dogs, cats, or chimpanzees, and by what criteria they draw the line). And it may seem strange that we require animals to be slaughtered through the severing of the major arteries. It happens to be the case that kashrut is consistent with the most stringent requirements for humane treatment of animals, but that is not the main point: Our consumption of meat is bound up with the mysteries of life and death, and observant Jews consume animal life for our own sustenance only with divine sanction, and under the supervision of religious authorities.
Kashrut thus bears on the divine origin of life and our recognition of its sanctity. If we do not recognize the absolute right of the Catholic Church to act in accordance with its doctrine regarding sanctity of life, to whom will we appeal when the campaign against kosher slaughter comes to America? Animal rights activists have been preparing the ground for this since 2004, when PETA circulated videos alleging abuses at one of the largest kosher meat processors.
Open the door to “scientific” determination of matters of life and death, and America’s Orthodox Jews — a minority within a minority — will be vulnerable to a new Inquisition. On this issue, there can be no compromise. Agudath Israel is right: Jews should stand by the right of the Catholic Church to determine what is acceptable by its standards, just as we one day will ask the Catholic Church to stand by our right to determine what is acceptable by our standards. To its credit, Britain’s Catholic Church stood by us in 2009 when the English courts shamefully and wrongly ruled that our most basic religious criteria were “racist.” Shamefully and wrongfully, some Jews have failed to stand by the Church under the Obama administration’s persecution. I appeal to these Jews: Don’t be naive. We’re next.