The Torah’s 613 Mitzvos, Commandments, are divided into three basic categories: testimonies, statutes, and judgements. The last of these are civil laws which any society needs to survive—but these, too, are part of Torah.
Our reading this week begins, “These are the judgements which you will place before them…” [Ex. 21:1]. Rash”i (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) notes that this follows last week’s reading of the Ten Commandments (actually Aseres HaDibros, the “Ten Statements” containing fourteen Commandments), and says, “just as the first [Commandments] are from Sinai, so these are from Sinai.” One might imagine that the Torah’s civil laws were of human origin, lacking holiness, but the Torah ascribes them to the Divine Will, no less than the “Ten Statements” themselves.
What would be so wrong, though, if civil laws were left up to us to determine for ourselves? Actually, history is replete with examples of how so-called civil laws can be anything but civil.
The Medrash teaches that in the city of Sodom before its destruction, it was prohibited to take in or serve guests; they so coveted wealth that, by law, a stranger was to not to leave with property. And they deemed this civilized!
When I first learned this Medrash, I thought it hard to believe. But then I learned that the Greeks and Romans regarded charity as a weakness, as a negative behavior that encouraged further begging. Better, they thought, that one too weak to work, not to mention his wife and children, slowly starve. This went along with regarding slaughter as a form of entertainment, and leaving disabled (or female) infants to die as a method of “family planning.” The evil of the Sodomites seems tame by comparison.
Today is not so different. We see around us the contrast between the Torah’s laws, which are unchanging, and the result of judgements that change with popular sentiment. Just in the past few years, it has not only been deemed appropriate to mutilate and permanently disable children, but it is deemed “discriminatory” to refuse to do so.
And as if we needed further lessons in this, this Shabbos, when we read that our civil laws are determined by Torah and not by our own thinking, is being called “Repro Shabbat” in some circles. They do not, of course, mean actual reproduction—they mean quite the opposite. They are using this Shabbos to promote the “freedom” to deliberately, callously end a fetal life, as if this were a Jewish practice or value.
The idea that access to an elective procedure is a religious mandate is inherently nonsensical, but logic is not their strong suit. Neither, of course, is religious freedom. These are not the people who advocate for creative artists to be given free choice of which events to celebrate, in accordance with their beliefs. These are not the people who promote accommodations for those with holiday and Sabbath observances. They do not believe that Sabbath observance is a Jewish mandate, or that keeping Kosher is a Jewish mandate. But “access” to feticide? That, they say, is a Jewish mandate.
I’m sure it angers a reader or three that I would lampoon this idea, but when we consider the way “Repro Shabbat” mocks actual Judaism, damaging both the cause of religious freedom and the sanctity that Judaism gives to human life, it becomes necessary to speak up.
We have thousands of years of experience with other cultures proclaiming their “modern” values superior to Torah; in all cases, we look back upon their practices today as barbaric and primitive. So we need not guess how “Repro Shabbat” will be regarded in a century or two; history is merely repeating itself. That is cause for comfort, and for renewing our attachment to the Torah values that have clearly stood the test of time.