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The Talmud offers the following counsel regarding abortion: “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth, one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.” (Mishnah Oholot 7:8)

Two insights emerge from this text. If a woman’s life is in danger then abortion is permitted—and even demanded. Jewish authorities continue to debate what might constitute a threat to the mother’s life. More traditional authorities argue only a physical threat, more liberal offer expansive interpretations, including psychological dangers. The second insight however is the more significant and informative for our contemporary debate. The mother’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus.

As I watch today’s shrill discussions I find myself growing increasingly agitated. My religious commitments are offended when others place the life of the fetus over that of the mother. I believe otherwise. My tradition teaches me that the mother’s life takes precedence. My deeply held religious conviction tells me that it is demeaning of women, and perhaps even misogynistic, to hold that the mother’s life is of equal value to that of the developing fetus. Despite this I am willing to respect those who have different religious convictions. I ask however that they do the same. The strength of this great nation is the belief that different, and even competing, religious convictions are allowed not only to coexist but also flourish.

The fetus is of course sacred and must be treated with care and concern. It is a potential life. Its value must not be brushed aside. Its value must not be treated in a cavalier manner. Nonetheless when its potential life threatens the actual life of the mother it becomes of secondary importance. Despite the debate among Jewish authorities regarding what constitutes a threat to the life of the mother; all agree that the mother’s life is of greater importance. The mother and fetus become two lives of equal value when the baby’s head emerges. Until that moment the mother’s life takes precedence. And that is what Judaism teaches, and that is what I firmly believe.

Yet a woman’s body (as well as a man’s) is not entirely her own. Our tradition also teaches that our bodies belong to God. We cannot do whatever we want to our bodies. My religious convictions are equally offended when people speak of their bodies as if they created them, as if they control them. They are instead entrusted to us. We are commanded to care for them. We do not own them. Even our bodies are divine gifts.

This is what I learn from our Jewish tradition. My faith demands the convictions of me that our bodies are sacred, human life is holy, but as well that a mother’s life is of greater importance than the potential life of the fetus she carries. I first discover this in this week’s portion. “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:22-25)

Here we learn that monetary compensation is offered for an accidental miscarriage. In the Torah the intentional taking of a human life constitutes a capital crime. No compensation could suffice. Only the death penalty could rebalance the scales. That the Torah does not require this in the above situation is evidence of the Jewish position regarding abortion.

In addition, the meaning of an eye for an eye is not meant literally but instead figuratively. We are to determine the value of an eye. We are to calculate a fair monetary compensation for the injury. There is a profound confusion about this point. In contemporary culture an eye for an eye is instead used when speaking about exacting vengeance. Use of this biblical phrase suggests a veneer of justice, and is too often misused to justify military action. This is not how our tradition understands this phrase. There is much in the interpretation. Different religious traditions often understand the same words in different manners.

People speak as if their convictions are the beginning and end of all debate. They speak as if their religious beliefs are the determinants for all and that their interpretations are the only legitimate readings. I prefer however to look to my own faith for guidance and counsel. There I discover much to inform our current debates. There my religious convictions are restored.

My faith begins, and ends, with my tradition’s interpretations. My understanding however draws a wider circle, and includes the interpretations of others people’s religious convictions.

Appendix: A thoughtful, and immediate, critique from a congregant.
On the point that we should not impose our views of such moral issues on others, while I personally agree in general, in fact we do often impose our views of moral matters when it comes to action as opposed to belief. Our law allows all to believe what they want, and for the most part profess what they believe, but draws the line at action. Actions that contravene the norm are routinely condemned and punished, even when religiously based, and to some extent this must be so. For example, if one religion believes that smoking marijuana is required, its adherents do not get dispensation from our drug laws; if another believes children must proselytize at night in the street, it must nevertheless succumb to laws against child labor and abuse. Saying we should not impose our religious views on others, in matters such as abortion, does not really resolve the dilemma of how to deal with acts that our social “norm” considers (morally) beyond the pale. I don’t happen to think that a majority of Americans are against abortion, but if they are, if they find it so morally repugnant that they believe it cannot be tolerated at all in a civilized society, then how is a religious dissent on that issue any different from dissenting religious views regarding child abuse, polygamy, misogyny, drug use, etc.? I think it’s too easy to say each can do whatever he/she believes, because we still have some minimal societal norm to identify and enforce.