A young man once asked me, “Do y’all still practice the sacrifices in the Old Testament?”
Dodging the “Old Testament” label — we have only one Bible, the Hebrew Bible — I answered, “No. We haven’t since the destruction of the Second Temple in 69 C.E.” Since then (and even before in the Diaspora), we have offered G-d prayer, not sacrifice.
I’m glad he asked: I’d hate for him to walk around with that misconception!
His literalist assumption was unusual. More commonly people assume that as a Jew I must operate on Biblical literalism to use selected scripture to form my perspective. Not really. I’m spiritual but also versed in science.
I once surprised an Evangelical Christian by revealing that I believe in evolution. Biblical ethics inform me, but like esteemed Rabbi Gunther Plaut, I see the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) as my people’s understanding of our relationship with G-d, couched in place and time. I have a lens of culture, the whole of the Torah in context, and about 1,800 years of rabbinical commentary to consider.
I don’t want to live a literal Biblical life, in which I could purchase a slave or put someone to death for working on Saturday. I understand the “abominations” of shellfish and homosexuality (the Bible labels both, and more, as abominations) in the context of my ancestors’ time and culture. Even commentary fits with its place and time — ultrasounds contradict Rav Chisda’s 3rd–4th century commentary that a fetus is “merely water” until 40 days after conception.
In Judaism, scripture-to-scripture context is critical, too. For example, literalists sometimes cite Deuteronomy 30:19’s “choose life” excerpt in arguments against abortion at any stage, assuming their understanding of the verse is universal.
Three large denominations of Judaism in the U.S. officially support choice, partly because of how Jewish scholars understand verses to relate to one another. In Exodus 21:22-23, for example, a fetus is not nefesh, not a living being with rights bestowed.
In those verses, a man who triggers a woman’s miscarriage pays a fine, the fetus being like property; but, the text continues, “if there is a fatality (of the woman), you shall give a life for a life,” Leviticus’s penalty for murder. Centuries of Jewish legal writings also prioritize the mother, a fetus becoming a baby, becoming nefesh, upon crowning.
But even these arguments are best for literalists, and many modern Jews are not that; I don’t see the fetus just before birth as not nefesh any more than I adhere to young-Earth creationism. Nor do all modern Jews occupy the same point on the spectrum of the abortion debate — under what conditions abortion might be appropriate or how early that deeply personal choice must be made.
The Bible is part of the Jewish perspective, but we dwell in context and complexity, especially regarding sensitive issues. Accordingly, scientific research and even personal analysis, framed as such, cultivate respect in cross-religious dialogue, fostering far more common ground than Bible verses cited as evidence.
Susan A. Youngblood is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and an associate professor of technical and professional communication in Auburn University’s Department of English. She is also a cat herder — a.k.a. parent of two, spouse, sometime musician, dog wrangler and juggler of what life tosses her way.