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The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health & Ethics

First published in:IN/FIRE ETHICS
Newsletter of the International Network of Feminists Interested in Reproductive Health, Volume 3, Issues 3&4, 1994
phone (202) 986-6093 fax (202) 332-7995

Comments from a Jewish Perspective on the United Nations Conference on Population and Development

By Susannah Heschel

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Sustainable Carrying Capacity
The Rights of Nature
Reproductive Ethics and Women's Rights
Conclusion
About the Author

Introduction

Why are we talking about religion at a UN Population Conference? Because although some aspects of religion may give rise to many of our most serious problems, other aspects of religion may be the only force to bring necessary changes in human behavior and values. Religion is a challenge to our complacency, self-righteousness, and materialism. But we at this conference have to remind religious leaders of the urgent issues facing humanity today, because too often religions define the wrong moral issues.

Religious values are fundamental to the sense of self-worth and dignity of individuals, and also to the dynamics of cultural and social change. But how should we react if some religious traditions fail to promote human dignity?

Freedom of religious belief and practice is important, yet controversies over the UN Statement initiated by religious representatives have made it clear to us that religions themselves may sometimes pose the greatest threat to our freedoms. In matters of population and the environment there are no national boundaries -- the pollution we produce in the United States comes down as acid rain in Canada, or goes up as an ozone hole over Australia. So, too, religion: for example, the teachings of the Vatican concerning contraception and abortion may be intended only for catholics, but the consequences of global overpopulation affect the entire human population; no religion is an island. Each of us has a stake in what the other is teaching.

I turn now to a description of Judaism's teachings. There are three issues concerning population and development to which Judaism contributes: sustainable carrying capacity of the earth; the rights of nature; and the ethics concerning contraception, abortion, and women's rights generally.

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Sustainable Carrying Capacity

Judaism today stands in conflict. At its heart, Judaism demands that we take responsibility for our actions, yet recent teachings of rabbis and theologians, both liberal and conservative, insist on increasing family size. Jews are told to have more children to make up for the six million killed in the Nazi Holocaust, and the family, defined in its most limited sense, is held up as the central, sustaining pillar of Judaism. Yet sustainable carrying capacity is an issue of moral responsibility: if there are limits to the earth's ability to sustain human life, then our prime responsibility today is to ensure that human life in future generations is a real possibility.

We all know the warning signs. In many parts of the world, fuel wood consumption is 30 to 200 percent higher than the replacement rates of tree stock; agricultural development has resulted in soil erosion and a world-wide decline in soil organic matter by 15 percent. This decline has resulted in a habitat loss for diverse fellow species, diminished ground water recharge, and an increase in catastrophic flooding. Over-exploitation of ocean fishing stocks world wide has led to greatly diminished yields. The nitrogen fertilizer used in the tremendous food production that has permitted the unprecedented growth in world population since 1800 is made from natural gas, a non-renewable fossil fuel; geologist estimate out remaining supply will last fifty to one hundred years. Without nitrogen fertilizer, we can produce enough food to sustain only two billion people on earth. Not only is the carrying capacity of the earth for humans limited, but the intense activity necessary to support so many of us is diminishing that capacity.

Clearly, a religion that promotes large families is acting irresponsibly. The moral issue is, do we try to stuff as many human lives, no matter how miserable they are into the next two or three generations? Or do we slow down our growth rate and stabilize the human population at a level that is sustainable by the resources of our planet forever, or at least into the foreseeable future? Thousands of generations would be able to experience a comfortable and meaningful life, each one not inhibited from their full potential by a depleted and polluted earth. Judaism is not an island, and our responsibility must be not only to the heritage of our ancestors, but to the future generations of all humans.

Sustainable carrying capacity is threatened by overpopulation and overconsumption. We need changes in our lifestyles, values, and goals. Judaism is a religion of restraint, teaching us that what counts in life is not what we have, but who we are -- our dignity, self-esteem, and our nobility. Our overconsumption can be ended only by taking those values to heart.

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The Rights of Nature

Global population is not just an issue of numbers and humans. We have to consider the human impact on nature and the earth. The earth is four and half billion years old, while homo sapiens has been here a for a mere twenty thousand years. Yet we have become the most powerful force that earth has encountered, and unfortunately that power has been used destructively. Tens of thousands of species of animals and plants are disappearing annually as a result of human action, yet the question we pose all too often is, "What should we do to make this a healthier environment for humans?" This anthropocentric approach simply reinforces the mentality of exploitation. The questions that are missing are, "What does the earth need? Are there rights of nature apart from benefits to humans? Do our fellow creatures, both animals and plants, have a moral right not to be made extinct?" If we sit back and think, what makes our earth so beautiful and interesting is its great diversity of life forms all interacting to promote the stability of the global ecosystem. If one accepts this view, then it is immoral to diminish that diversity and that beauty.

Here Judaism has a contribution. Throughout the Bible, we see that nature stands in a spiritual relationship to God. The Hebrew word ruach applies to the life of humans and to the life of animals. God makes a covenant with all of creation which includes giving commandments to animals, such as to rest on God's Sabbath. We read in the Psalms that the whole earth worships God and sings praises to God's name. In the Bible, a miracle is not only God's intervention in history thus breaking the laws of nature. A miracle is also the workings of nature itself, such as the rising and the setting of the sun. Nature is a vehicle for all spiritual experience, but nature also has its own spiritual life, which we have no right to diminish, let alone destroy.

In Genesis, God gives humans responsibility for the earth. To be a religious Jew means that this responsibility may not be violated. The rights of nature is a moral teaching that should be at the forefront of our theological agenda.

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Reproductive Ethics and Women's Rights

Regrettably, our religions focus too much attention and fuss on the wrong issues. Even more troubling, we hear the wrong voices. If a theological tradition is articulated by men, it carries within it a deep moral flaw.

It is very gratifying that Judaism, despite its patriarchal roots, also has a tradition of liberal and lenient teachings concerning heterosexual pleasure, contraception, abortion, and lesbianism. For that, we are grateful. In Judaism, during heterosexual intercourse, a husband must first satisfy his wife's orgasm before his own; most forms of contraception are acceptable; abortion is approved not only to save a woman's physical life, but also her psychological well-being, as well as to protect her from a pregnancy resulting from rape or adultery; and lesbianism, while not welcomed, is not considered sinful. Moreover, Judaism supports women's education and economic independence.

But every religion, including Judaism, has positive and negative teachings about women. None explicitly says that women should be held in contempt. The problem is not what is said about women; the real problem is who does the talking. Religions too often speak in voices of men. This is the root of the problem. Where are women's voices? Here is the heart of the UN conference. In too many parts of the world, women have fewer rights, less education, and do much more physical work that their partners, all while continuing to bear and raise children. For too many of world's women, life is too painful. Overpopulation is not the root of the problem but rather the symptom of a greater problem of mistreatment of women. Our goal as Jewish feminists is that women have full equality in defining Judaism, which is precisely what we are now undertaking...

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Conclusion

To conclude: the population crisis is also a spiritual crisis, the results of attitudes of greed and exploitation, indifference, ignorance, and sexism. Religion gives us an opportunity to see the world through God's eyes, to reorient our values and recognize what are the authentic and urgent moral issues of today. We need to grasp that opportunity while there is time...


About the Author

Susannah Heschel is a professor in the Department of Religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

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