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The Jewish people is generally credited with bringing the concept of morality to the world. The ancient Greeks pioneered in the observation and investigation of nature, while our ancestors focused on how to follow the proper moral path.
Moral reflection, however, does not characterize modern Israeli society - indeed it is more notable by its absence. Of Jewish brain power - as reflected in the amazing number of patents, medical innovations, high-tech start ups - we still have an abundance. It is Jewish wisdom that is missing.
In part, the shift of focus from ethical reflection to technical problem-solving is a legacy of modern Zionism. As historian Anita Shapira describes the intellectual fathers of modern Zionism, "[Their goal was] to see the rise of a generation from whom spiritual characteristics would be completely shed; one that would be outstanding in its lust, its physical bravery, and it belligerence." Modern Israel is a fulfillment of that dream.
And in part, our lack of reflection is a result of our focus for so long on the immediate problem of securing our existence in a hostile environment. Long-range planning on such issues as water resources, serious thinking about the structure of government and the relationship of the various branches, and the like have been treated as luxuries for which there is no time as long as we face daily threats to our lives.
Issues surrounding procreation and abortion provide one telling example of the lack of moral debate in Israeli society. Despite continual talk of the demographic threat to Israel, tens of thousands of abortions, both legal and illegal, take place annually. The requirement of approval of abortions by hospital committees provides no brake. Approvals are routinely granted.
Tel Aviv University doctoral researcher Yael Hashiloni-Dolev did a comparative study of genetic counseling of expectant mothers in Israel and other Western countries. She found that Israel leads the world in pre-natal testing, and that women are routinely encouraged to abort where there is the slightest chance of even the smallest birth defect. She tells of one young mother, pregnant with her first child, who was counseled by her obstetrician to abort because the ultrasound suggested that her son might be born with a small penis.
Between 1997 and 2002, the number of annual abortions because of possible physical defects jumped 20%. Nearly 10 such abortions are performed daily in Israel.
It is not uncommon for an Israeli woman to undergo ten pre-natal tests, plus four ultrasounds and amniocentesis. A woman who does not undergo extensive pre-natal testing is considered primitive. Yet, according to Hashiloni-Dolev, most of the pre-natal tests performed in Israel are not even available in Germany.
WE HAVE become prisoners of the technology available. The attitude seems to be: If the technology exists, it must be used. And if one is already testing, then we must act upon the results of that testing. Whereas only 13% of American and 23% of German genetic counselors would push a woman carrying a baby with Downs Syndrome to abort, 73% of Israeli genetic counselors would, according to Hashiloni-Dolev. As one counselor told her, "I don't think that people like you and me should have to pay for the retarded children the religious have."
The act of procreation is, or should be, one of life's great mysteries - an expression of shared hope and commitment on the part of father and mother. University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass, in an article on cloning - the ultimate commodification of human life - movingly describes what couples' once experienced in the act of procreation - "the pleasure of sex, the longing for union, the communication of the loving embrace, and the deep-seated and only partly articulate desire for children." That is being lost.
Instead procreation has been transformed into a form of production and children into commodities. Parenthood has become a competition for the most perfect baby, and every parent a Frankenstein. In place of the self-trancending decision to nurture a helpless being, parenthood has become a matter of fashioning a child who will satisfy all his or her parents' vicarious needs. Pity the poor son or daughter in whose creation so much technology has been employed and in whose achievements so much parental hope invested.
Once the Jewish people gave the world the idea of the sanctity of every human life. Today our contribution to thinking about the sanctity of life is Peter Singer, the Princeton University "ethicist," who would reportedly grant parents a one-month grace period after birth to decide whether to keep their baby or put it to sleep.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that the proliferation of genetic testing and the casual acceptance of abortion as a means of weeding the imperfect out of the population has been accompanied by no significant public ethical debate.
The days leading up to Pessah are as appropriate a time as any for that soul-searching to begin. On Pessah we celebrate our redemption not just as a nation, but as individuals. Enslavement can take many forms. The physical bondage of Egypt was but one. Indeed the commentators on the Haggada stress that one aspect of the slavery in Egypt was the lack of any time to reflect and think. The Hebrew slaves initially lacked sufficient spirit to even respond to Moses' promise of freedom.
And today, we often find ourselves slaves of the products of our own creation, whether it be the cell phone, Email, or the latest prenatal test.
In homes all around Israel, Jews are engaged this week in searching out and destroying all traces of hametz. That process has a spiritual parallel. We are supposed to use this period to search out as well the hametz within - all the spiritual leavening that impedes our efforts to realize our full potential as human beings created in the Divine image.
Thinking more deeply about how we produce and how we destroy our children should be part of that process.
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