Two Rabbis Urge Return to Basic Moral Values of Judaism and Apply Them to Current Social Problems
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Two Rabbis Urge Return to Basic Moral Values of Judaism and Apply Them to Current Social Problems

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Two prominent rabbis urged Jews to retum to the basic moral values of Judaism, and to apply those values in dealing with the social problems that concern the general society today.

Among those problems, they cited the condition of the poor and the unemployed, schools, housing, nuclear proliferation, the right of privacy, capital punishment, abortion and the definition of death.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Encino, Calif., and Rabbi Saul Berman, who next month will assume the post of senior rabbi at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City, an Orthodox Synagogue, were the principal speakers at the first plenary session last night of the ninth annual Conference of the Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE). Rabbi Brian Lurie, executive director of the Jewish Federation of San Francisco, Marin County and the Penisula served as moderator of the dialogue.

The CAJE conference, which will continue through Thursday at Stanford University here, has brought together almost 2,000 Jewish educators from the United States, Canada, Israel, England, Australia and Mexico.


Schulweis maintained that “a backlash of Holocaustal memories” had “unleashed a cynical suspicion of gentiles and a repudiation of the universalism and liberalism within the Jewish tradition.”

“The pendulum has swung wildly toward a new Jewish toughness,” he said, “toward a de facto disavowal of all claims on Jewish energies to struggle for others. There is a vital need to correct this swing of the pendulum toward parochial chauvinism.”

Schulweis declared that “To ignore the universalistic dimension in Judaism is to ignore the meaning of Jewish monotheism. God is ‘melech ha olam — king of the universe and all the inhabitants thereof.’ To mock Jewish universalism is to miss the meaning of God’s creation of the whole universe.”

The Rabbi supported his contention by extensive quotations from Biblical, Talmudic, and post-Talmudic sources, including the Biblical injunction that there should be “one law for the home-born and for the stranger that lives among you,” and the Talmudic directive to “feed the hungry of the gentiles, visit the sick of the gentiles, and comfort the bereaved of the gentiles together with the Jewish poor and afflicted.”

Schulweis warned that “Jewish parochialism after the Holocaust makes a mockery of our justifiable outrage against churchmen and statesmen who would not act to protect Jews because it would compromise their narrow religious and secular self-interests.”

“What argument have we against such corporate selfishness,” he queried, “when we defend our own behavior and attitude with the same squinting perspective?”


Berman, while agreeing that “there is a need for a re-emphasis on the universalism of Jewish obligations,” added that he “would not, however, predefine the Jewish approach to social issues as necessarily consonant with what passes for American liberalism.” He said he did not think that” the Jewish approach on issues such as abortion or definition of death, or even equality, would necessarily conform to what we would describeas liberal. The issue is not a return to liberalism as much as it is an honest return to Jewish roots.”

Jewish involvement in the social problems that confront society, Berman declared, is “not a matter of philosophical or esthetic preference, but is a matter of religious obligation.”


As an example of how Jewish law relates to contemporary issues, Berman turned to the subject of abortion. The contemporary debate on this issue, he said, “has been conducted between those who, on the one hand, insist that the fetus is a living person, and those, on the other hand, who insist that the fetus is entitled to no protection while the mother is entitled to use her body in accordance with her own will.”

Jewish law Berman said,” has traditionally rejected both these opinions. It insists that the fetus becomes a living person at the moment of birth, while simultaneously insisting that no human being is fully entitled to injure of destroy any part of her own body at will.”

“While eliminating these extreme positions,” he continued, “Jewish law affirms the need for careful case by case evaluation of the rights of the potential person as against the needs of the living mother. While Jewish law does describe certain patterns of situations in which abortion is not permissible — such as for purely socio-economic reasons, and likewise describes certain situations in which abortion is certainly permissible, such as where there is threat to the life of the mother — nevertheless most situations require case by case determination based on the peculiarities of the needs involved.”

Berman declared: “We must draw on that Jewish wisdom to enrich the public debate in America and to elevate the moral standards of the country.”

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