Let’s talk about the Jewish view of abortion and abortion rights.
The Talmud offers the following gruesome counsel: “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)
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 listen to today’s abortion debates 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 to hold that the mother’s life is of equal value to that of the developing fetus. Despite this I recognize that others have different religious convictions. The strength of this great nation is the belief that different, and even competing, religious convictions are allowed not only to coexist but even 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 conviction 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)
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 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. We discover a great deal within 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.
I wish we could find more room for our different interpretations to live side by side.