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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Gulping the Kool-Aid

Religious apologists were hard at work today. First, we have at the Huffington Post an article claiming that the Bible does not prohibit abortion. The author, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes:
 The Hebrew Bible makes only one reference to abortion, and this is by implication. Exodus 21:22-23 states: "And if two men strive together and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, accordingly as the woman's husband shall lay upon him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, though shalt give life for life."
There is a significant parting of the ways in the interpretation of this passage between Judaism and Catholicism which will, in turn, mark the much more lenient rulings on abortion of the former and the much more severe views of the latter.
According to the ancient Rabbis, the text is to be read simply as written. The Bible talks of a woman who is hurt by a man in a fight and loses her child. Monetary restitution is paid for her miscarriage. But if the woman dies, then one must take a life for a life. The passage does not say that a fetus is alive but that the mother is.
The words if "no harm follows" the ''hurt" to the woman refers to the survival of the woman following her miscarriage. In that case, there is no capital guilt involved since the woman did not die and the fetus is not considered to be fully alive. The attacker is therefore merely liable to pay compensation for the loss of her "fruit," her fetus. "But," the Bible continues," if any harm follow,'' i.e., if the woman, rather than her fetus, is fatally injured, then the man responsible for her death has to "give life for life."
The interpretation is straightforward and matches the Hebrew original precisely. According to the Jewish interpretation the Bible only says that the woman, rather than her fetus, is living.
This interpretation that a fetus is not fully alive and the destruction of a fetus does not carry a death penalty is also borne out by the rabbinical interpretation of the verse defining the law of murder: ''He that smiteth a man, so that he dieth, shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 21:12), which the rabbis construed to mean "a man, but not a fetus."
These passages clearly indicate that the killing of an unborn child is not considered as murder.
But the Christian tradition disputing this view goes back to a mistranslation in the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Bible that sometimes contains significant errors (see my book Kosher Jesus for a comprehensive list). There, the Hebrew for ''no harm follow" was replaced by the Greek for "[her child be born] imperfectly formed.''
I would challenge the assertion that the Masoretic text represents the "original Hebrew," given that it was not created/compiled until several centuries after Christ. The claim that the Septuagint was an incorrect translation at odds with "ancient Rabbis" is also laughable. What Boteach is really saying is that he prefers the interpretation of more modern Rabbis over the (approximately) 70 Rabbis that created the Septuagint in the third century B.C. Finally, the section that he references discusses the punishment for a miscarriage or birth defect caused by an assault on a pregnant woman. It isn't about abortion, and to stretch the meaning to justify abortion is intellectually dishonest.

The second apologist article is this one from USA Today, where Oliver Thomas, a Baptist minister, who engages in classic sophistry to criticize state laws that would prohibit courts from applying Sharia law in their court decisions. He initially condemns bigotry--something most everyone will agree is wrong. Then he brings up issues involving Muslims, including opposition to the building of Mosques, an isolated attack on a Sikh temple (which is apparently the closest incident he could find of anti-Muslim violence in the U.S., although Sikhs are not Muslim), and states passing the "anti-Sharia laws." By its positioning, and intermixing with the attacks on the Sikhs, we are encouraged to think that all of these are evidence of bigotry, although there might be many reasons why someone doesn't want to be near a Mosque, including being woken at the crack of dawn by the blaring of the call to prayer over loud speakers; and very good reasons for anti-Sharia legislation. 
 
Having implied that the anti-Sharia laws are bigoted, Thomas then argues that Sharia is harmless. He writes:
And what is sharia but the way Muslims must live and work? Drawn from the Quran, the directions of the prophet Mohammed and the teaching of Muslim scholars, sharia is prayer and fasting, work and worship, family. One cannot be a Muslim without practicing some form of sharia. Outlaw sharia and you've outlawed 5 million to 8 million Americans. Like the Bible and other sacred texts, sharia is always subject to interpretation, so sharia does have a dark side. In Egypt's new constitution, to be voted on in the coming days, Islamic religious law is used as the basis for restricting fundamental rights for women and children.
Threatening Islamic law?
But is sharia a threat to America's legal system? The Constitution prohibits courts or other government agencies from substituting religious law for civil law. The government may not compel adherence to the practices of any faith, including Islam.
The problem with Thomas' argument (besides that it is deceptive) is that the anti-Sharia laws don't seek to outlaw Muslim's religious practices. It outlaws the application of Sharia law in court decisions. Thus, a court could not justify an "honor killing," or beating a spouse, or killing homosexuals, or beating or killing women because they were outside without a male relative escorting them, or child molestation, or any of a myriad other things that are allowed under all or some flavors of Sharia merely because it is allowed by the perpetrator's religion. Thomas says that the Constitution already prohibits substituting religious law for civil law (which isn't actually true). But if that is the case, then there isn't any harm having a law that expressly so states.

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