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Judaism and Abortion Rights

What follows is my sermon exploring Jewish teachings about abortion rights from the second day of Rosh Hashanah services.


I know I professed a desire to talk about everything that happened last year, but I am afraid I only have time to tackle the events of this past month. That about sums up this year. Every month felt like a year. And so, this morning one more discussion about contemporary events.

Given the recent decision of the US Supreme Court to let the Texas law stand that effectively blocks access to abortions after six weeks, I thought it important to lay out the Jewish view of abortion. After the holidays, we will host a panel examining this recent Supreme Court decision and Roe v. Wade. We are fortunate to have among our members Robin Charlow, a professor of law at Hofstra University and Lauren Riese Garfunkel, a Board member of the National Council of Jewish Women. They will help walk us through the constitutional issues and what more can be done in the fight for reproductive freedom.

This morning I will turn to the texts of our tradition. For those who are regulars at our second day Rosh Hashanah service, you know it is my custom to examine Judaism’s sacred texts. This is what I will walk us through this morning. Here are the three crucial texts elucidating the Jewish view of abortion. First an aside. As Jews we are informed by our sacred texts. We are guided by their words. We don’t just make decisions without looking to the wisdom of those who went before us. First and foremost, we look to the Torah.

Here are the words of the Torah, from Parashat Mishpatim in the Book of Exodus.
“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage result, 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 are the crucial take-aways from this foundational text.
1. The fetus is not considered a life. The loss of the pregnancy is considered a damage and not murder. Note that this is the context for the often-misunderstood Biblical phrase an “eye for an eye.” That phrase does not mean as contemporary culture would suggest that vengeance should be exacted but instead, we assign damages commensurate with the value of what is lost. The value of a life for a life, an eye for an eye and so on. If the person’s arm is broken for instance, the compensation is standardized: hand for hand.

2. While it may seem unfeeling to refer to miscarriages as damages, most especially to anyone who has lost a pregnancy, this establishes the Jewish hierarchy of values. The fetus is not the same as a person. It is also unfeeling, and I would deem wrong and misguided, to treat women as a husband’s property. I would like to think we corrected this biblical view. Unfortunately, it appears this view has not changed as much as we might have thought. All I can say for sure is that it has changed here.

Next an early rabbinic text. This is from the Mishnah, completed in the second century CE. The Mishnah forms the first layer of the Talmud. This rabbinic text forms the basis for what we know and call Judaism. That is the book that continues to shape us. This informs Jewish law.

The rabbis teach:
“A woman who was having trouble giving birth, they cut up the fetus inside her and take it out limb by limb, because her life comes before its life. If most of it had come out already, they do not touch it because we do not push off one life for another.” (Ohalot 7)

Here are the important insights we derive from the Mishnah:
1. The life of the mother comes before the life of the fetus. The fetus only gains equal standing with that of the mother’s once it is born or at least almost fully emerges. Rabbinic law equates life with breath, with the Hebrew word neshama meaning both soul and breath.

2. Abortion is allowed until the very end of pregnancy. It is not limited to the first trimester. In fact, abortion is required if a woman life is endangered by the pregnancy.

3. Later rabbinic law debates what constitutes a threat to the mother’s life. Traditional authorities only allow for physical threats. In other words, they are only comfortable allowing abortions if the mother is in danger of dying.  More liberal authorities allow for any threat, physical, emotional, psychological and even financial. Liberal Jews argue for its permissibility in the case of rape and incest.

4. Rabbis argue about those details. To be honest, too often those rabbis are still very much men who never bother to consult or listen to women whose bodies they continue to objectify and talk about as if they are their property.

And finally, from the very first chapter of the Bible, the Book of Genesis:
“And God created human beings in God’s image, in the image of God, God created human; male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1)

1. Human beings are created in the divine image.

2. Jewish teaching expounds on this. Our bodies are a reflection of the divine. They are holy because of this image. According to Jewish law, we are not permitted to do whatever we want to our bodies, whether that be piercings, tattoos, surgeries, cremations or in this case abortions.

3. Only if we are saving life is an abortion permitted. The details of what constitutes a threat to life in the case of abortion is debated even among physicians. Different people will have different views about what constitutes a threat to the mother’s life.

Those are the Jewish texts that inform the Jewish view about abortion. Let me summarize their teachings and then give you my own view. First of all because I am a rabbi. And second because I am a man and so I am going to tell you what I think is right.

Judaism does not believe human life begins at conception but instead at birth. The fetus is holy and is considered a life but is not of equal standing to that of the mother. Of course, creating a life is sacred and we should not treat in a cavalier manner. We should look at this as a divine blessing. Neither should we treat a mother’s life in a cavalier manner. The human body too is holy and should be cared for as if it a vessel of the divine. It is not to be worshipped but should be seen as containing God’s reflection.

Herein lies the crux of the problem, most especially with how we discuss abortion rights in our own country. Too often the debate is portrayed as pitting those who believe in God and God’s creation against those who don’t believe. On one side are those who believe we should have reverence for life and on the other are those who think we should be able to do whatever we want when we want.

Our tradition teaches us otherwise. It affirms that the baby forming within a mother’s womb is sacred but not as sacred as the mother’s life. If a terrible choice has to be made between the two, then Judaism teaches that we choose the mother’s life. Of course, every situation is nuanced and complicated which is why we should leave such decisions to a woman. Ideally, she would be able to consult with her partner. But let’s be clear, she can better navigate and assess what the dangers to her own life might be. I hope she might be informed by the advice of doctors and the wisdom of her own faith.

I believe in life. First that of the mother. And second that of the fetus. That is an obvious hierarchy. It is what my Jewish faith teaches me.

My primary objection to the state limiting access to abortions is that it is forcing upon women a religious world view different than our own. It is insisting that women must carry the burdens, and consequences, of a faith they may or may not believe in. And who by the way am I to offer any counsel or wisdom on this matter? I never tossed and turned at night, unable to get comfortable because of my growing belly. All I ever did was make a lot of smoothies for nine months.

And yet here is my pledge. I will fight to unshackle women from a world view not of their own choosing. Do not tell them you know what’s best for them. Let women decide how to navigate such difficult decisions in a manner of their own choosing. I pledge. I am in this fight so that everyone can say, “This is what I believe. This is what my tradition teaches.” And so, this is the decision I choose.

We must stay in this fight and likewise affirm the mother’s life and the importance of our Jewish faith.

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