Thursday, June 27, 2013

Questions from a College Student

Some time ago, I received the following series of questions from a (non-Jewish) college student from a course she was taking. These were questions that she had to answer about several different religions, and she had been referred to me as a resource on Judaism. I have edited the questions slightly, to focus specifically on Judaism (as the original questions were written with reference to multiple religions).

How would Judaism react to the following issues:

  • Animal testing 

Judaism recognizes a general prohibition against causing unnecessary suffering to animals. (This prohibition is derived from several Biblical sources, including Exodus 23:5.) Thus, for example, virtually all Jewish authorities prohibit hunting for sport. Even when the use of animals is permitted, which is the general rule for human benefit (e.g. food, clothing, labor), there is still an obligation  to refrain from causing excessive suffering. With regard to animal testing and experimentation, the general approach taken by most authorities is that, assuming steps are taken to avoid unnecessary suffering, animal testing and experimentation is permitted as long as it provides a real and non-trivial benefit to human beings. However, while simple in principle, practical application of this rule can be complex, and can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.

  • Famine

(I’m not clear on what the “issue” of famine is in the first place. I am going to assume that the question is what the Jewish position is on helping people that are suffering from famine (although that would seem to be rather obvious).)

Judaism has always stressed charity as a moral obligation and providing aid to those who are suffering from starvation and famine is obviously an integral part of that obligation. In practical terms, when one personally encounters such suffering there is a clear obligation to provide aid to the best of one’s ability. There is also a broad moral obligation to make efforts to provide aid to suffering people wherever they may be, but what this means in practical terms must be dealt with on a case by case basis.

  • Women’s reproductive rights

In general, the terminology of “rights”, rather than obligation, is foreign to traditional Jewish thought. Like every aspect of life, reproduction is encompassed by a number of laws and obligations in Judaism. There is a basic commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), which is understood to bear within it a prohibition against engaging in any kind of birth control (unless medically necessary). Abortion is forbidden as a crime akin to murder, and is only permitted when necessary to save the life of the mother. Again, outside of clear medical emergencies, the exact application of these rules can be complex and can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.

  • Environmental concerns

There are many traditional Jewish teachings that indicate that, although God has given the earth to mankind to use for his benefit, we are expected to do so in a responsible manner. Wanton wastefulness is explicitly forbidden by Jewish law. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hil. Melachim 6:8-10) There are also sources that indicate an obligation to maintain the public domain in an aesthetically pleasing manner, and to avoid damaging the environment in a way that harms other people.

  • Homosexuality

Judaism absolutely prohibits engaging in any form of homosexual relations. Male homosexual relations is explicitly forbidden by the Torah (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13) as a crime bearing the death penalty. The prohibition against female homosexual relations is derived from Leviticus 18:3, and while completely  forbidden, is of a less severe nature. It should be noted that all of this refers only to actual relations. Sexual orientation per se is of no significance in Jewish law.

What does Judaism teach about what happens in death? Reincarnation and the soul?

Judaism absolutely recognizes the existence of the “soul”, which can be best understood as the non-physical locus of the human personality. One of the basic foundations of Judaism is the concept of reward and punishment, i.e. that God rewards us for our good deeds and punishes us for our (unrepented) bad deeds. Included in this principle is the concept that the primary domain of reward and punishment is the afterlife.

The concept of reincarnation does exist in Judaism, however the concept is markedly different from popular conceptions of the idea.

How does Judaism view God? Does an all-powerful God allow people to suffer?

Judaism defines God as the omnipotent and omniscient Source of Existence. All existence is dependent upon Him, but He is not dependent on anything. He is the only true Power in the universe, and nothing can happen against His will. This includes that which we perceive as evil.  As the prophet Isaiah said, “I am the LORD, and there is none else, beside Me there is no God... That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside Me; I am the LORD; and there is none else; I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things.” (Isaiah 45:5-7)

How can a person reach salvation in Judaism?

The general theme of “Salvation” is a Christian concept that does not carry over well to Judaism. Of course, when we are threatened with destruction, either as individuals or as a group, we pray to God for salvation from destruction. Similarly, when we have sinned we are required to repent and pray to God to forgive us and save us from our iniquity. However, the general idea that a human being is, by nature, “unsaved” is foreign to Judaism.

What is the meaning or purpose of life in Judaism?

Judaism sees the purpose and goal of human life as striving to achieve an ever-growing connection with God. One achieves this connection through the fulfillment of God’s commandments, prayer, and the study of His Torah.

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