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Conscience Magazine

The Jewish Tradition

December 20, 2016

While Daniel Dombrowski made a generally excellent argument about the prin­ciple of conscience in the Christian tradition in his article “The Heart of the Matter” (Vol. 37, No. 2), I was taken aback by the gratuitous swipe at the Jewish religion at the opening of his piece. I found this all the more distressing in that it takes place within the context of an argument about reproductive rights, an area in which pro-choice Catholics find their stron­gest religiously grounded allies in Jews and Judaism.

Relying on a single source (Martin van Creveld’s Conscience: A Biography), Dombrowski repeats the canard that “the concept [of conscience] was not one that had much significance for the ancient Hebrews” because, one is meant to infer, “an ethics of conscience is at odds with a divine command theory.” By repeating the trope of “commanded” (and, therefore, thoughtless or less evolved) Jews and Jewish thought being superseded by later, superior “conscience-driven” Hellenic and Chris­tian thinking, Dombrowski reasserts a paradigm at the heart of Christian misunder­standing and dismissal of Judaism which one hoped, post–Nostra Aetate, was firmly in the past.

For a full treatment of the idea of conscience in the Jewish tradition, I refer readers to Rabbi Harold Schulweis’ excellent book Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey. As a small taste of the Jewish bona fides around conscience in the context of covenantal relationship and commandedness, one need not stretch to David and Bathsheba (a slight reference to a deeply flawed moral actor), when the towering examples of Abraham arguing with God over the fate of innocents in Soddom and Gomorrah, or Moses (repeatedly) standing up to God on behalf of the Israel­ites or Isaiah critiquing the ritual fasting of the Jews of his day present themselves. In the Jewish tradition, no one is free from the critique of conscience, not even God. The arguments in support of this go on, throughout the biblical, prophetic, rabbinic and philosophical traditions of Judaism.

Dombrowski references the Hebrew word for conscience, matzpun, noting that it was not invented until the 19th century. This is true of much of the modern Hebrew language, which was marvelously revived from an ancient to a living tongue in this period. Schulweis points out that the root of matzpun is the ancient Hebrew word tzafun, which connotes hiddenness. Modern Hebrew similarly coined the word matzpen, meaning compass, at the same time and from the same root. The Israelites may have famously wandered in the desert for 40 years, but no one would assume we have no sense of direction simply because we had no word for compass.

Board Member
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights
Washington, DC