Girl Scout Open House

Jews Vs. Greeks Revisited Parshas Vayeishev

What would you do in the following scenario?

There is a city, a small walled city filled with men, women, and children. Outside those walls, there is an army, a mighty powerful army that is besieging this city. Their plan, very clearly is to break down the walls of the city and rob, pillage, violate, and kill everyone and anyone in their sight. It’s only a matter of time until they break down the walls.

At one point, the leader of these soldiers sends a message – “Out of all the people in the city there is one woman that we really don’t like, Mrs. Klein. She never did anything to us but we just don’t like her. If you, the inhabitants of the city send Mrs. Klein out of the city, we will kill her and leave the rest of you behind, untouched and unscathed. All you have to do is send us Mrs. Klein.”

So what do you do? You’re the city elders, and you’re faced with this dilemma. If we send Mrs. Klein to the soldiers, they will kill her and not kill anyone else. If we don’t send Mrs. Klein out of the city, not only will Mrs. Klein die, we will all die. Mrs. Klein is not guilty of any crimes. Do we send her out of the city and save everyone else or not?

The Talmud poses this question and rules that we do not send Mrs. Klein to the wolves. We do not actively involve ourselves in killing her, even though our passivity will likely lead to everyone being killed.

Why is that? The Talmud is known to be a very logical book and this would seem to be rather counterintuitive?

But when you think about it, the reasoning is actually quite logical. To quote Rabbi Yanky Tauber: “If one life can be sacrificed to save 10,000 lives, then one life can be sacrificed to save ten lives. And if it can be sacrificed to save ten, it can be sacrificed to save two. And if quantity is a factor, why shouldn’t “quality” be a factor? Is not the life of a young person in the prime of life more “valuable” than that of a senile 95-year-old who anyway has only a few years left to live? [And] What if a society places greater value on a male life than a female life — would it then be justified to sacrifice the life of a woman to save a man’s life?

Nor does it stop there: the moment a human life is assigned a relative “value” vis-à-vis other lives, its relative value will be measured against other quantifiable values as well: “the good of society,” “the national interest” (“the economy”?). Taken to its extremes (and any logic can, and eventually will, be taken to its extremes) this is same logic by which millions of Jews, homosexuals and mentally or physically handicapped people were exterminated in Europe sixty years ago — because these lives were regarded by the powers-that-be as inferior. There is, of course, no moral equivalence between these actions, but the logic behind them is the same.”

Tonight we will be celebrating the holiday of Chanukah. Maccabees, latkes, donuts, and gifts for eight days, what could be better! But the truth is that the real Chanukkah story is a little more complex than the version we share with our children. The story we tell our kids is one of Greek oppression and a rag tag group of men who fight back. We tell them Chanukkah is about freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the power of the few over the many. And that’s all true. Chanukkah is all those things. But there’s more.

I know we’ve discussed this before, but it’s worth repeating. Historians point out that Antiochus the 4th didn’t send troops to Israel to murder and restrict the religious observances of the Jewish People for no reason. He was actually called in by Jews (!) to settle a civil war. There was a civil war raging between the traditionalists; those who held on to the heritage of their parents, those who maintained that Judaism’s world view should never change and those who were known as the Hellenists; Jews who wanted Judaism to part ways with their “outdated” and “archaic” laws and to fuse Greek culture together with Judaism. They wanted to marry Aristotle to Moses and become a part of the growing number of Hellenized states under Greek rule.

So in truth, the story of Chanukkah was, at its core, a civil war fought over ideologies; do we change and adopt the progressive views of the Greeks or do we hold on to our old traditions. And it must be clarified; Jewish views and Greek views were not that different. Yes, there were the barbaric fights taking place in the coliseums, there was the Greek focus on aesthetics, and a certain amount of hedonism. But at the same time, there was no other culture that shared so much with the Torah. In the Hellenized states, civil responsibility was in vogue. The Greeks, led by their great thinkers, were pondering the great questions of existence, Greek culture promoted equality, Greek thinking placed high value on ethics. Sounds pretty Jewish to me! It was the Greeks who put the word civil into civilization; they were creating an international community, not out of oppression and terror, but out of tolerance and the mixing of old and new; each individual country merging together with the great Greek Empire.

And that’s exactly what makes Chanukkah so challenging for me because this struggle between competing ideologies is far from over. The Greeks were the forefathers of Western civilization. Western civilization has had some pretty dark times; they don’t call the Middle Ages the Dark Age for no reason. Even 50 years ago, there was bigotry, racism, and equality that was rampant in society. But currently, we are living in one of the most enlightened ages. And we once again face a world that challenges our notion of right and wrong, of moral and immoral. We are reliving the battle of the Greeks and the Jews, of the new and the old, of the “archaic” and “backward” views of Judaism vs. the “progressive” views of modern science. And there is nowhere where there is more true than the question of the value of life.

Since 1973, in the landmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling, there have been an estimated 58 million abortions performed. 58 million! That is a staggering statistic!

And I want to be very clear. Judaism does not fall neatly into the box of Pro-Life or Pro-Choice. Jewish Law has a very nuanced view that sits somewhere in between; there are times that abortion is allowed according to Halacha, and others when it is tantamount to murder.  Broadly speaking the question of abortion in Judaism revolves not around the value of the fetus, the relative worth of a child born with any form of deformity is not part of the equation. And that’s because in Judaism, life has infinite value; we have no method to judge the value of one life over the other.

The only question, in Jewish Law, is what impact the baby will have on the mother. And therefore in certain extreme situations, if the birth of this fetus will cause immeasurable suffering to the parent, at times an abortion may be allowed. Absent that, even if there will be difficulties and challenges, the vast majority of Halachic authorities rule that abortion is forbidden.

Raising a child with Down Syndrome is not a simple matter, it poses numerous physical, monetary and emotional challenges. In the United States, it is estimated that over 90% of fetuses that have signs of Down Syndrome are aborted. The medical expectation is to abort such a child. Why not try again, people argue, and have a child that will be able to live a “good” life? people argue.

Anyone who has been part of this shul for over two years does not need the Talmud or the Torah to address this, all they need to do is close their eyes and remember the smiling face of Jeffrey Chupnick.

This past week, Jeffrey Chupnick, who was born with Down Syndrome, passed away at the age of 63. Jeffrey lost his father at a young age, and in many ways was adopted by the shul. At his Bar Mitzvah, he got up and said the berachos on the Torah and the Berachos on the Haftorah, there was not a single dry eye in the shul. No matter how hard it was for him to get to shul, he would. When he was younger, he would sing along for Ein Keilokeinu and Adon Olam. And every Shabbos, until he was simply no longer able, he would sit in that chair and turn the pages to make sure that everyone knew exactly where the services were.

Jeffrey would hug you, he would kiss you, and he wouldn’t let go. He had an infectious joy that would spread from one person to the next. He was a gift to this shul and to anyone who knew him, and he will be missed by all.

I don’t think anyone can possibly say that their life is more valuable than Jeffrey’s? Regardless of our profession, regardless of our family size, regardless of the “impact” we’ve had, I don’t think anyone who knew Jeffrey would think for a moment that his life was in any way less significant than ours.

The civilized world may have their set of values, but we have ours. In Judaism there is no relative value to any life. We never trade one life for another. All of life is precious, all of life is infinitely valuable.

This difference of opinion, this culture clash is true at inception, and it is true as well at the end of life. And here too, Judaism’s view is nuanced and complex and cannot be summarized in a single lesson, let alone a sermon. But one thing we can say is that Judaism does not allow for one to hasten the death of others, Judaism does not view a person with very limited mental capacities as someone who is not worth living, and would be “better off” going comfortably.

In addressing some of the End-of-Life questions in Jeffrey’s life, that was very much the sentiment of the medical team. He wasn’t truly suffering, they acknowledged, but why not let him go comfortably? His cognition is irreversibly impaired. Living like that, what’s an extra day? What’s an extra week?

The civilized world may have their set of values, but we have ours. In Judaism, there is no relative value to any life, nor is there relative value to any moment of life. Each moment of life is saturated with meaning and purpose. Whether you’re a brilliant doctor, philosopher, governor, or you’re a dying man with Down Syndrome with severe cognitive disabilities. The value of life cannot be measured.

Chanukkah, if one were to be intellectually honest, can be a challenging holiday because Chanukkah is a reminder that we may not always fit in and what we do and say may not always be appealing. But Chanukkah also reminds us to search for pure oil, so to speak; to question and to explore, to study and to try to understand the value system of our faith. Chanukkah reminds us to humbly and passionately seek out an understanding and to find meaning in the beautiful light of our tradition. It reminds us that we are the torch-bearers, or perhaps more accurately, the candle-bearers of a faith that has withstood the trials of time and the challenges of each generation.

Tonight, when I light the first light and see that tiny little flame, I will be thinking of Jeffrey Chupnick. Like the small jug of oil of the Chanukah story, he lived much longer than anyone expected. But I will also be thinking of a man who through his long and very full life reminded me and so many others of an ancient yet timeless value system, a value system that sees light and holiness where others do not. By learning this valuable lesson from his life, the memory of Jeffrey Chupnick will always be for a blessing.

Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukkah!

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