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Repro Shabbat

Judaism constructs its value system around phrases inscribed in its sacred texts.

It begins with verses from the Torah and traverses through words written by rabbis who lived during its formative stages. It walks from what we call the written Torah, revealed at Sinai, through the oral Torah, revealed in rabbinic debates throughout the ages, until arriving at today.

And so, when we ask what wisdom Judaism has to offer about abortion rights, we first turn back to yesterday. Why are we again talking about abortion rights?

The reason so many synagogues are asking this question on this Shabbat has nothing to do with the fact that Justice Stephen Breyer is retiring from the Supreme Court or that this court seems poised to roll back the rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade, but instead because the first verse alluding to abortion rights occurs in this week’s Torah portion. This is why many Jews are observing what the National Council of Jewish Women has called Repro Shabbat.

The Torah proclaims: “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.” (Exodus 21) We learn from these sacred words that the fetus is not considered a life. A miscarriage is about damages. It is not a capital offense. The fetus is not accorded the same value as the mother’s life.

We then turn to the Mishnah, the first layer of rabbinic writings, codified around the year 200 C.E. This text makes the Torah’s implication crystal clear. “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)

The rabbis are definitive in their judgment. The mother’s life takes precedence. A potential life is not the same as a life. And while Jewish authorities continue to argue about what constitutes a threat to the mother’s life, all agree that it takes precedence over that of the fetus.

Jews continue to argue as well over who has authority to make that determination. A more traditional Jew insists that a rabbi, in consultation with doctors, would make such a decision. A more liberal Jew, like myself, insists that the mother should be empowered, and supported, to make such a weighty decision about the life forming within her body. Only she knows best what constitutes a threat.

In the maelstrom that is the contemporary debate about abortion rights, I wish my fellow Americans who follow different beliefs, and whose tradition suggests that the fetus is a life rather than a potential life, would respect my tradition’s voice and its approach to this moral question. Each of us must rely on our tradition’s road map and the hierarchy of values it elucidates.

I also wish my fellow Jews would look to the Jewish tradition’s words for guidance and strength. It is not as simple or as straightforward as saying, “I know what’s right.”

We pick up bits of wisdom and glimmers of fortitude when we start walking from Sinai rather than just thinking the path begins here and now and within the recesses of our own hearts.