An Appropriate Eulogy for Terri Schiavo

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

In the aftermath of the de facto murder of Terri Schiavo by her estranged husband with the imprimatur of our Civil Courts, it behooves us all to consider the burning question of the day. How does religion impact upon our society to offset what most people today refer to as the culture of death? For as we all know, the sanctity of life began the trip down the "slippery slope" with the tragic handling of the abortion issue and has been plummeting downward ever since taking with it the sensitivity, value and awe with which human life was once held by American society. The Scandinavians, long known for their "cutting edge" morality (and here I use the word cutting advisedly), are now, slowly but surely, exchanging the "quality of life" standard for the "personality" standard. This would allow, for example, the killing of babies born with mental or physical defects solely at the discretion of the physician. A smiling Hitler looks up to us from below and reminds us that it was his idea to pick and choose, to weed out the chaff from the kernel of humanity, leaving the very "best" humans to thrive, unimpeded by those undesirables in our midst. He must be overjoyed that the world is coming to understand the righteousness of his view of human life.

With this in mind, I was delighted to receive my recent copy of "Tradition" - a special issue containing a symposium on the topic "Orthodoxy and the Public Square." One of the contributors, Rabbi Jack Bieler, in part writes the following, "With respect to participating with other religious groups in order to attempt to influence social and legislative policy development, it would appear that this ought to be the challenge and goal of all humanity, let alone individuals associating with one another because of commonly shared religious beliefs." Rabbi Bieler goes on to qualify his observation by suggesting this can be done without sacrificing Orthodoxy's religious authenticity or in any way appearing to sanction other Faith's religious beliefs that are antithetical to Judaism.

Rabbi Bieler's criteria for such engagement are workable and can yield amazing results. I used this very model nearly three decades ago when confronted with the issue of abortion to what can only be described as wondrous results. Let me explain.

When I received the "call" to the pulpit of Tiferes Israel Synagogue in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, I entered an interesting and challenging world. The Maritime Provinces are the Bible belt of Canada. In truth they make the American Bible belt look liberal. Predominated by Baptists, Wesleyans and Pentecostals, their rigid Christian beliefs resulted in the local Ministers' Association officially excluding Rabbis (or, more to the point, Rabbi) and Roman Catholic Priests. When that very Association broke apart over a debate concerning the morality of selling beer in the local sports arena, home to the second string of the Chicago Black Hawks, I immediately stepped into action. Through my personal associations with various clergy in town (I was the only Rabbi in about 200 square miles), I offered a suggestion that brought all the clergy together. We would not resurrect an official Association, but rather enjoy a free wheeling conversation once a month. We found a welcoming venue at the Boys' Club, which offered us the use of their wood working shop for our monthly gatherings. Involvement in the discussion required no membership - no acceptance of any rules. All one had to do is "brown bag" it and come to the monthly gathering. As I was the founder of the group, I generally led the discussions.

Not surprisingly, everyone thought it was a great idea. Now, Catholics, Jews, Wesleyans, Baptists, United, Presbyterians, Anglicans, etc., were all sitting at the same "table" discussing events in the community and sharing ideas. When a local theater decided to boost its revenues by showing pornographic movies, we stepped into action. The owner was informed that all the Clergy in town would mass before his theater there to conduct recitations of the Psalms to remind the population of the morality we all share as Bible believing people. He backed down immediately. With this accomplishment under our belts, we were energized to use our collective moral influence in other areas of communal interest.

New Brunswick is part of Acadia - French Canada. As such, the Roman Catholic Church dominates the province. In Moncton, however, the population was 60 pct "English" and 40 pct "French." In consequence, by virtue of the Catholic Church's strong anti-abortion stance, one of the only Hospitals in our section of the Province that countenanced abortion was Moncton Hospital. Shortly after our success with the theater issue, I received a number of calls from the nursing staff at Hospital. They informed me that Moncton Hospital was literally an abortion factory. Many had witnessed the calculated and heartless killing of babies fully out of the birth canal already breathing and making their first cries - killed by physicians at Hospital. They begged me as "Chairman" of the new "Ministers' Association" to do something to curb this horrible situation.

I brought their concern before the next lunch of our group. I posed the following question to the group, "Could we craft a statement that might impact the situation and, at the same time, not compromise our respective religious beliefs?" The initial answer by almost all in attendance was no. We represented a very wide range of thought on the subject that seemingly did not allow for a collective statement. I suggested that, as an educational exercise, we begin to explore our respective beliefs on abortion, with a view toward expanding our own personal awareness of the subject; a subject that, at the time, was tearing at the moral fiber of society. All in attendance agreed this would be a positive and productive exercise.

And so we began. We spent hours upon hours sharing our respective views, demonstrating the basis in Biblical or other religious teachings for the posture our respective religions took on the subject. After all the discussion, after all the wonderful presentations, I again placed before the group my initial question, "Could we craft a statement that might impact the situation and at the same time not compromise our respective religious beliefs?" Again, the answer was a resounding no. Given the presentations and the significant differences our respective Faiths had on the subject, all felt that we had reached an impasse that would never be breached without compromise; a step none of us was willing to take. I then pointed out that we all shared a common belief about life. We all believed that life was a gift from G‑d, that G‑d was intrinsically involved in pregnancy and birth. All agreed. I suggested that we collectively make this point to our community in one voice, asking that before one contemplates thwarting this reality of life he/she consult with their Clergy.

We issued the statement. The media picked it up immediately. They were, as the community itself, astounded that Catholics, Protestants (many of whom were openly anti-Papist and protagonists of the more traditional role Christianity ascribed to the Jews in the crucifixion of the Nazarene) and Jewish Clergy would issue a collective statement when their experience in the past had been that these very same Clergy would not entertain being members of the same organization. What was most significant was that, within two weeks after our collective statement was made public, abortions at Moncton Hospital dropped by 40 pct! Moreover, staff told me that our statement had deeply affected the Hospital administration and medical team engendering many formal and informal discussions regarding the morality of abortion. (See the statement following this article).

When Francis Cardinal George first came to Chicago, I served with him as a Trustee representing the Jewish community to a then fledgling group helping to develop a grass roots project aimed at taking on many of society's issues particularly as they relate to the poor. At that time, I recounted my Moncton experience to the Cardinal. I suggested it would be a wonderful mechanism to develop here in our City. He agreed.

Subsequent to our conversation, the cRc arranged for a private dinner party with the Cardinal and his entourage to discuss this concept and to begin to delineate some of the issues that were on the horizon, which this type of mechanism could address more affectively than each religious group going it alone. We decided to appoint liaisons from our respective groups. Rabbi Matanky assumed the responsibility of representing the cRc. We agreed that, when issues of common concern would present themselves, our liaisons would be in contact to begin the process, if possible, of collective response. It was my hope that once we were successful in working with the Catholic Church, we could reach out to other denominations in Chicago asking them to come on board.

Given the horror of Terri Schaivo's death, the obvious need for the religious community in the United States to find an affective medium by which to address such important and pivotal societal issues, I believe it is imperative that we in the cRc redouble our efforts to develop a pan-religious motif that stands ready at any given moment to provide moral direction to society as a whole. Now is the time to act.


Message from Moncton Clergy

And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him... (Genesis 1:27)

The major Faiths of our community, Christianity and Judaism, accept this passage from the Bible and many others similar to it in the Old and New Testaments as indicating a unique spiritual place for man in God's creation. Indeed, one can state that this view is shared with all religious disciplines. Yet, as we view the world today, the reality of the Sanctity of life (that of being created in the image of God) and the importance of treasuring this sanctity seems to be less and less of an issue in the decision making process. More and more society seems to view our existence as a biological phenomenon; giving no consideration to the spiritual uniqueness of man and the special sanctity this necessarily gives to the human life experience.

As ministers serving various denominations in Greater Moncton, we feel compelled by our deep Faith in God and our wonder at His creation particularly as it manifests itself in the creation of man, to collectively reach out to our brothers and sisters asking them to consider the following:

  1. When faced with a crisis in life, is not the Sanctity of life itself and the right of each individual to a full and complete life experience one of the most critical points to be considered prior to deciding upon a course of action that may limit another's life experience?
     
  2. Is not life itself the gift of God and should not this factor be of importance in making life and death decisions?

The Sanctity of life has become one of the central issues in today's society. The definition of life, of death, of normalcy, in fact the very right to life itself, are now before the collective bench of man's moral court. Decisions made in these areas must include a definite awareness and acceptance of the Sanctity of life as a gift from God if they are to bear any positive results.

In closing, we urge each and every one of you to seek the counsel and guidance of your spiritual leader when confronted by these issues. Explore all the ramifications a decision in such serious areas may have for yourself and your loved ones.

May God inspire us all to seek Him and follow in His way. Amen.

 

Rev. George Barrette
Central United Church
Rev. J. Angus Mc Donald
St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church
Rev. Laurel Buckingham
Wesleyan Church
Rev. Donald J. Maund
Mountain View United Church
Rev. Bruce Fisher
Glad Tidings Pentecostal Church
Rev. Paul McCracken
St. James Anglican Church
Rev. Ralph E. Johnston
St. John's United Church
Rev. Gerald H. Myer
Lewisville Baptist Church
Dr. A. Paterson Lee
First Baptist Church
Rev. George H. Snuden,
Exec. Dir., Social Action Comm.,
United Baptist Conv.
Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz
Congregation Tiferes Israel
Rev. Robert Stevens
Humphrey Memorial United Church
Rev. Basil Lowery
Bethel Presbyterian Church
Rev. Joseph Unidi
Lower Coverdale Baptist Church