B'Ezrat Hashem
(Hebrew: "with the help of God")


by Janet Podell

Jewish Tradition: What Does It Imply for Abortion?

Jewish tradition can be compared to a garden four thousand years old, full of rich and beautiful plants, and laid out as a highly intricate maze. The purpose of following its paths is to learn something about the One who planted it, since each leaf represents a part of His wisdom, something about how to live wisely in the larger world that was, and is continually, created by Him. (1)

The paths make a pattern that becomes discernible with time. The pattern tells us that the essential concerns of God are compassion and justice, divine forces through which the created world was called into being, and that God intends them to be the essential concerns of humans as well.

The basis for Jewish religious practice is the text, in the Hebrew language, of a long message that was given by God to a group of refugees who had just escaped both slavery and annihilation. The message is called Torah, meaning "teaching"; it is known to the rest of the world, in translation, as the first five books of the Bible. Its instructions to the Jewish people, individually and collectively, were amplified by additional teachings and explanations that were passed on by oral tradition. Over the centuries, they have been amplified still further by the visions of prophets, the debates of sages, the commentaries of scholars, and the insights of the great-hearted. All of these together constitute the classical Jewish tradition. They call on Jews and, ultimately, on all who hear this message to live in a way that connects us both to God and to one another in a network of active responsibilities.

Jewish tradition thus has the strongest implications for our society's present debate about whether abortion (or, more specifically, unlimited access to abortion for any reason) is right or wrong, for the ideals of compassion, justice, and mutual responsibility are at the heart of that debate. Most of the people who advocate an end to abortion on demand do so because they cherish those ideals. Yet the same ideals are held by many of their opponents, who believe that compassion and justice dictate exactly the opposite conclusion. They believe that abortion is necessary to relieve suffering and that in defending abortion they are responding to a call of conscience. Can the words compassion and justice mean such radically different things to different people?

It would be an impossible task, in the scope of this short article, to relate anything but a fraction of what Judaism has to say on this subject. What I will try to do is to bring forward, from the garden of classical Jewish tradition, some leaves of wisdom: principles and teachings that help refine our understanding of what God wants from us, and how we should act.

The Perspective of Jewish Law

An important part of Jewish wisdom takes the form of a structure of laws, called in Hebrew Halakhah ("the path"). Although the text of the Torah does not address specifically the issue of abortion--it makes reference only to an accidental miscarriage that happens when a woman is injured by men who are fighting (2)--Jewish law does address it. The subject is complicated and the legal discussions are highly technical (3), but two basic principles emerge.

The first principle is that the life of a pregnant mother and the life of her unborn baby are not identical in value. Her life is actual, while the baby's is, in relative terms, potential. Thus, if, during labor, the mother is in danger of dying and the only way to save her is to take the baby's life, Jewish law not only permits it, but requires it. The permission ends the moment the baby's head has emerged. Thank God, death in childbirth, once so common, is now a rare thing in the United States, so the situation of abortion to save the woman's life hardly ever occurs.

The second essential principle of Jewish law is that the life of the baby, despite its inferior status to that of the mother, commands so much respect and value that it cannot be set aside at will. There has to be a compelling and overriding reason to abort. The limits of what is considered compelling remain the subject of disagreement among rabbis trained in Halakhah. There is, in particular, a question of timing, with some rabbis making a distinction between the first forty days of pregnancy (about the sixth week) and the remaining months. Most traditional rabbis accept opinions that allow abortion if the mother's life is at stake, if her health is at stake, or if she is insane or suffering extreme anguish (as, perhaps, in a case of rape), but prohibit taking the life of an unborn baby who is likely to be born with retardation or deformities, or for reasons of economic hardship or disrupted plans. That would rule out the majority of abortions performed in the United States.

Legally, the baby has the status of being part of the mother's body. However, this does not confer on the mother the automatic right to rid herself of an unwanted baby, because in Judaism people are not allowed to wound themselves or cause themselves hurt. In addition, we are taught that every conception involves the mother, the father, and God; great care must be taken to preserve what God has made.

There are, of course, rabbis and social activists--associated mainly with the three liberal branches of contemporary Judaism--who take advantage of the ambiguities inherent in questions of mental health to give blanket acceptance to all abortions. Although these branches represent the majority of American Jews who belong to religious congregations, this point of view is a departure from the classical Jewish understanding of the issue, which does not endorse abortion as a routine way of rescuing women from crisis pregnancies.

Teachings on Compassion and Kindness

If I, as a Jewish woman, cannot bring myself to accept the view that the destruction of unborn babies is simply a private medical matter, it is not only because the consensus of Jewish law says no, but, even more, because respect for life and compassion for living creatures are the great lessons of the Torah and the religious practices it mandates. As Maimonides said, "the ordinances of the Law were meant to bring upon the world not vengeance, but mercy, lovingkindness, and peace." (4)

Judaism's religious practices are called, in Hebrew, mitzvot (singular: mitzvah). Concerning the mitzvah called b'al tashchit (not to be destructive), the thirteenth-century book Sefer Ha-Chinuch says:

The purpose of a mitzvah, as is well known, is to train our souls to love the good and that which is creative and useful and to refrain from all that which is destructive. The way of the righteous and men of good deeds is to love peace and take pleasure in the welfare of their fellow-man and draw them closer to the Torah. They would not wantonly destroy even a mustard seed. They are grieved and oppressed at the sight of waste and destruction. If they could save anything from being destroyed they would do so with all their power. (5)

The mitzvot include many that are intended to instill compassion for animals. (6) Among them are rules of kosher eating: for example, the requirement of painless slaughtering; the prohibition against slaughtering a mother animal and its young on the same day; the prescription of a waiting period between meat and dairy meals, since milk is the product of life and meat is the result of death. One is also required to give work animals a day's rest on the Sabbath, to feed them immediately, and to yoke together animals of equal strength, so that the weaker one does not suffer. The humans and animals who inhabited the Garden of Eden, we are told, ate a cruelty-free vegetarian diet, and all creatures will do so again in the messianic age. Could an unborn child be less valuable than a cow? Can I, on the one hand, concern myself with whether the chicken in my family's supper died painlessly, and on the other hand, think it none of my business if babies in the womb are poisoned with saline solution or cut up with scalpels?

A great number of mitzvot are devoted to relationships between people in marriages, in families, in communities, and in general. Among these are the category known as "acts of lovingkindness." Following the example God sets in the Torah, as well as the examples of the first Jews, Avraham and Sarah, we are instructed to visit the sick, bury the dead, comfort mourners, provide clothes for people who need them, feed hungry people, and offer shelter to travelers. (7) In large Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, there are volunteer organizations for these purposes, as well as for such things as assisting needy brides and postpartum mothers, offering interest-free loans, and lending medical equipment.

We are taught to set aside specific parts of each harvest for the poor; to give charity, preferably on a daily basis (and it should be noted that the Hebrew word for charity, tsedakah, comes from the word tsedek, meaning justice); and to protect people who are in a state of weakness or helplessness, including orphans, widows, strangers, and runaway slaves. We have to be concerned with other people's safety, building fences around our swimming pools and guardrails around our roofs. We have to be concerned with other people's feelings, guarding our speech so that we never cause anyone humiliation. We have to help people we consider our enemies, even if we must force ourselves. And we have an absolute obligation to save a human life that is in danger. (8)

For this reason, a single person [Adam] was originally created: to teach that whenever a single soul is destroyed in Israel, the destroyer is held guilty as though he had destroyed an entire world; and whoever saves a single soul in Israel is given merit as if he had saved an entire world. (9)

In no way can I reconcile this intense, almost overwhelming emphasis on life, compassion, and mutual responsibility with the point of view that makes an unborn baby something disposable. The Jewish bans on suicide, euthanasia, and infanticide (the oldest such ban in the world), as well as rabbinic legislation to prevent the use of the death penalty, testify to Judaism's affirmation of life and its rejection of death as a solution to a problem. The Hebrew language itself, the language of the Torah, embodies a protest against abortion, for rachamim, the word for compassion, comes from the root rechem, meaning a mother's womb.

Abortion and Justice

When people defend abortion as a matter of conscience, they often rest their claims on the idea that denial of the "right to choose" is a denial of justice. They speak of women being forced against their will to carry babies, give birth, and perhaps sacrifice their plans and dreams to take on the burdens of motherhood, thus losing some of their control over their bodies and their lives. Allied to this is a sense of outrage over the fact that women and men may be equals in work, sex, and every other aspect of life, but they are not, and can never be, equals in suffering through a crisis pregnancy. When it occurs, the disaster is the woman's; the man can share it or not, as he pleases. Abortion is seen as an efficient way of restoring the lost perception of equality, at the same time that it removes the cause of the suffering. These appeals to justice touch a responsive chord in a lot of people, and rightly so; everyone should be concerned with making sure that others are treated fairly.

But every student of history knows how easy it is to begin committing injustices against one group while one is enthusiastically pursuing justice for another. The compendium of Jewish learning called the Talmud contains an explanation of why the law of talion ("an eye for an eye") as expressed in the Torah must of necessity be understood to mean payment of monetary compensation. This is because the offender who is sentenced to lose an eye might actually die as a result of his punishment, in which case the court would be guilty of injustice. (10)

Said Rabbi Bunam: "The verse: 'Justice, justice shalt thou pursue' (Deut. 16:20) teaches us that we may use only justifiable methods even in the pursuit of justice." (11)

In seeking fairness and compassion for women, the proponents of abortion commit a grave injustice of their own by sanctioning the killing of unborn children. To make the act seem less horrific, they resort to ways of dehumanizing the one who has to die. The baby developing in the womb is reduced to an abstraction under the medicalized term "fetus," rendering it a mere physiological artifact that can be dispassionately vacuumed away. Once the baby is redefined as subhuman, then its death is no longer seen as a real death, and people can go on pretending that justice has been served by its disappearance.

Still, the fact that supporters of abortion are motivated by concerns of justice and mercy ought to bring some hope to the pro-life camp: If their consciences are actually in good working order, it should be possible for them to expand the scope of their concern to include those from whom it is now withheld. In Jewish terms, this means encouraging people to listen to their yetzer ha-tov, the inherent inclination to do good.

Sexual Ethics

Anyone who reads the Torah cannot help but be impressed by the amount of attention God gives to describing permissible and impermissible sexual behavior. One of the Torah's major themes is the achievement of holiness by imperfect human beings. How we conduct ourselves sexually has the greatest impact on our progress toward that goal, both as individuals and as a society. Classical Jewish tradition makes it very clear that sexual pleasure, created by God, is a force for good when its context is a loving marriage, but a destructive force otherwise. This may be a message that the world would rather not hear; but the epidemic of crisis pregnancies resulting in abortion appears to validate it.

If one had to boil Jewish advice on human troubles down to two words, they would probably be "increase responsibility." A Talmudic rabbi said: "A person is always liable for his actions, whether awake or asleep." (12) Men and women need to be convinced to take more, not less, responsibility for their sexual behavior and its possible consequences. At the same time, pregnant mothers who are desperate have to be helped to find the best solution possible that is still in accordance with the mandate to protect life.

Finally, what of the claim that individual autonomy for women cannot be guaranteed without abortion? That claim may be true. The question is whether absolute freedom of choice is a goal that a society must meet at any cost. According to Jewish tradition, people have been given the power of free will to decide how they will behave. They do not, however, have unlimited freedom to set their own rules without reference to any ethics but those they have generated themselves and those that make them feel comfortable. That attitude is, in essence, a form of idolatry, with the individual self as the object of worship. And idolatry is what the Torah specifically instructs us to transcend.

One of the great goals of classical Jewish tradition is to come to the realization that everything we have--our property, our speech, our love, our time--is best used when it is used in the service of the Creator, which often means in the service of other people. All human beings are created b'tselem Elokim--in the image of God. (13) If we understood this truly, how hard we would work to preserve and cherish that image when it appears in the womb as an unborn baby, and how reluctant we would be to do anything at all to cause it harm.

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