Antoninus said to Rabbi Judah Hanasi, Does the soul enter the human being at the moment of conception or at the moment of formation? The Rabbi answered: at the moment of formation. Antoninus said, Can a piece of meat remain for three days and not putrefy? Obviously, the soul must enter from the moment of conception. The Rabbi said, This matter I have learned from Antoninus.
-Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 91b
The Talmud records a number of conversations between the editor of the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah Hanasi, and a pagan intellectual named Antoninus, generally identified with one of the Roman emperors of the time. In this case, the discussion has a rather modern resonance, as the two leaders question how a fetus can be alive but not human (Antoninus thinks it cant; Rabbi Judah seems to accept his reasoning). I often teach this text as part of a tour of Zippori, where Rabbi Judah lived, and probably conducted such conversations with pagan aristocrats and intellectuals. Last week, we conducted a similar conversation here at Shorashim, as we held a two day pre-Shavuot seminar on the right to be born. I find it fascinating that so many of the dilemmas that troubled us here centuries ago have not gone away, or gotten any less troubling.
The two days included the performance of a play, Probability, describing the dilemma of a family with a child with a severe genetic disease, with a chance of a cure only by a transplant from a sibling; but what if the next child conceived is not compatible? Perhaps they should test the fetus, and if it is not compatible, then abort and try again? What are the moral limits of the right of choice? In the drama, the family and their doctors - struggle with this question, and afterwards, so did the audience, along with a panel including a philosopher, the mother of a severely handicapped child, a geneticist, and a rabbi.
Israel has the highest rate of fetal testing in the world, and one of the most liberal abortion policies as well. In real life as in the play, we are confronted with difficult questions about the quality and value of life of handicapped children and the quality and value of the life of their parents. And even if we could resolve these questions satisfactory, we still have to face the slippery slope argument: Brave New World fantasies of a society aborting every fetus that does not conform to its image of perfection seem not so far off. Recently, in a controversial decision, the medical committee that determines Ministry of Health policies in such matters ruled that while in general it opposed abortion to determine the sex of the next child, there were circumstances in which it could be justified.
This general picture is surprising, as we tend to think of Israel as being under the control of the rabbinate in this area, and we also tend to assume that the Orthodox position is one of extreme conservatism. However, the reality is a lot more complex, for better or for worse. The rabbinate does not dominate the decision-making of the abortion committees of the hospitals; and moreover, there is quite a range of rabbinical opinion with respect to the justifications for abortion, with some authorities taking positions that look to us outsiders as rather liberal.
It would be nice if in this difficult and important set of issues, Israel as a Jewish state could indeed be a light unto the nations, adopting policies reflecting a viable application of Jewish values to the moral questions raised by technology. We certainly have the intellectual resources to do this and our traditional sources certainly contain wisdom that can help us to make decisions worthy of a holy people; the question is, do we have rabbis who can lead us in this task, who can reclaim the moral authority lost in the course a century of cultural conflict?