Monday, January 09, 2006


Abortion and Toevah

As a Jew, even as I feel "abortion as birth control" is wrong, I feel it is immoral to compel a woman to maintain a pregnancy that is likely to lead to physical morbidity or mental anguish raising to the equivalent level of morbidity. On the other hand, I know many sincerely religious folk who believe that it is immoral for a woman to abort under any circumstances.

In the ancient world, there were cultures in which women were deemed inferior -- and to receive sexual pleasure from them, to whom it was assumed a man was naturally attracted, was considered inferior to receiving sexual pleasure from other men, to whom a man presumably would have to cultivate a sexual attraction (*). The Hebrews felt (or at least were supposed to feel) the other way. Indeed, the Torah describes the behavior sanctioned by Gentile societies using the word "Toevah", usually translated as "abomination" but really meaning "that which we find morally outrageous about other cultures" (**). For example, the Torah describes the at times famously culturally stuck-up and almost xenophobic ancient Egyptians as finding eating at the same table with foreigners to be a "Toevah".

While some would say that, because of the negative connotations of the word Toevah, as something even prohibited to Gentiles though they characteristically do it, actions which are Toevot should be prohibited as part of a legislative campaign to keep people on the straight and narrow path. However, the experience with abortion is illuminating: what for one person is the height of morality (sacrificing your own health or even life for the sake of a fetus) is for another person a Toevah (how dare you sacrifice your health or life, which are gifts to you from God, for the sake of something that is essentially a parasite) and visa-versa. As Reagan might have put it if he were Jewish and remained a Democrat -- one person's Toevah is another person's Mitzvah. As I say, one problem with legislating morality is that, in having the law not be morally neutral but rather striving for it to be moral (as opposed to merely ethical), you risk the law being immoral.

Abortion is an issue where I certainly feel that certain practices are Toevot. But I am sure some would feel the practices I find honorable are Toevot. In a secular society -- and our society is strong in part because it is secular ... indeed, religion flourishes in our society because it is secular! -- how can we choose whose Toevah to prohibit when the two are mutually exclusive? Better not to prohibit anything at all and allow people, as per Kant, to actually prove their moral mettle and thus truly be good people, rather than trying to protect people from immorality and thus at least denying them the chance to make moral choices and possibly worse, forcing them to be immoral.

(*) Off-topic, but hey, it's my blog and I can go off topic when I want: one of my best friends asks "in much of the ancient world, 'artificial' was considered superior to 'natural' whereas today it's the other way around -- when and why did things change?" My girlfriend's answer to this question is "things changed when mass production become such that 'artificial' things became plentiful yet shoddy whereas 'natural' things became less available yet are no worse than they ever were". I wonder, though, if this change predates mass production. I think we can blame the Jews. Underlying many of the Toevahs prohibited in Leviticus is a notion that "natural" pleasure is sanctified whereas the pleasures of artifice, so valued by the ancient Greeks and non-Hebraic Levantines, are considered, in fact, sinful.

(**) FWIW, I do not view what we today know as homosexuality to be the toevah prohibited in Torah. Indeed, one can argue that for a homosexual to try and live as a heterosexual is just as much a toevah as for a heterosexual to "cultivate" homosexual attractions ... the bisexuals are lucky, IMHO ... they get a free pass on this particular law (unless you consider them unlucky as they have no way of actually fulfiling this commandment as everything is allowed for them?).

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