Orthodox Jews and Abortion

Orthodox Jews

It is true that Judaism does not assign the same status to the unborn child as to life after birth, and thus abortion is permissible, indeed mandatory, when the mother's life is threatened, however the practice in general is forbidden (Feder pp).

Orthodox Judaism alone has maintained scrupulous adherence to Jewish law, according to the sacred texts and classical commentaries, thus if one seeks definitive Jewish ruling on any religious question, one should inquire of those who keep the law in its entirety, that is the inheritors and guardians of the 3,500-year-old tradition, not of those who read the Torah the same way in which a Supreme Court Justice reads the Constitution (Feder pp). Orthodoxy is unanimous and unambiguous in this regard, and according to Rabbi Hirsch Ginsberg, "Traditional Judaism considers abortion tantamount to murder" (Feder pp). In fact, the social-service lobbying arm of Orthodoxy, Agudath Israel of America, filed an amicus brief in the Webster case in favor of overruling Roe v. Wade (Feder pp).

Shira Stem, a reform rabbi and daughter of violinist Isaac Stern, presented her abortion-on-demand advocacy as "a Jewish view of abortion," however, although it is true in the sense that it reflects the opinions of some Jews, much the same way that one might say that the gay group Dignity represents "a Catholic view" of homosexuality, traditionalists regard her dogma as a clever corruption of Torah (Feder pp). To validate her stand, Rabbi Stem cites Exodus 21: 22-23, in which Mosaic law hold that if two men are quarreling and accidentally injure a pregnant woman so that she miscarries, her husband shall receive only monetary damages (Feder pp). Since the death penalty is not invoked in such a case, thus, Rabbi Stem and her colleagues reason that Jewish tradition holds that the fetus is not human (Feder pp). For approximately the last twenty years, the NJCRAC, the umbrella organization of Jewish community-relations agencies, has issued annual resolutions unequivocally supporting the pro-choice side in the abortion debate (Wertheimer pp). The pro-choice campaign serves as one of the key areas of domestic consensus within the Jewish community, with only the Orthodox groups entering a demurrer (Wertheimer pp). On the secular side, the network of local philanthropic bodies that fund most Jewish agencies, "invokes Jewish continuity but offers neither an explanation of why such continuity is important nor a definition of the content of Jewishness" (Wertheimer pp).

Although Judaism does not assign the same status to the unborn human as to life after birth, this is far from taking the feminist perspective, that the fetus is an appendage of the mother, merely a bit of tissue (Feder pp). Various Jewish authorities refer to the fetus as "germinating life" or "nascent life" (Feder pp). Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, who has written extensively on medical ethics, observes that "The destruction of an unborn child is a grave offense, though not murder" (Feder pp). The late Rabbi Seymour Siegel, a professor at Conservative Judaism's Jewish Theological Seminary, noted that "the Talmud speaks of the fetus in it mother's womb joining in praise of the Almighty" (Feder pp). The classic work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, calls the child in utero "the handiwork of the living God" (Feder pp). In support of the right-to-life amendment, Siegel declared, "Traditional Judaism takes the view that the fetus possesses a human dimension: it is human life on the way" (Feder pp).

This reverence for fetal life pervades Jewish law, for the rabbis ruled that the Sabbath, which can be broken only to preserve human life, could be violated to save a fetus (Feder pp). The kohanes, or priestly class, were forbidden to touch a corpse, and contact with a miscarried fetus was considered within this category of ritual defilement (Feder pp). And in Temple times, the capital trial of a pregnant woman was delayed until after she delivered the baby (Feder pp).

Radical libertarianism, the notion that humans may each do whatever he or she wishes with his or her own person, is alien to normative Judaism (Feder pp). There is no right to suicide or self-mutilation, which encompasses so minor an act as tattooing, thus even if the fetus were regarded as an appendage of the mother's body, which clearly it is not, a woman would not be allowed absolute freedom in this regard, any more than she has the right to amputate a healthy limb (Feder pp). The reason Jewish law is not explicit on the subject of elective abortion is because this practice was unknown in Jewish communities from Biblical times until the secular split in the nineteenth century (Feder pp). Jews, who were alone in the ancient world in rejecting human sacrifice and infanticide, a judgement the ancient Greeks considered barbaric, opposed the casual destruction of life at any stage (Feder pp).

In response to the secular Jewish groups, Rabbi Hillel Klavan of Washington, D.C. declared that "For Jewish organizations to take a public stand that distorts authentic Jewish values and to misrepresent them as reflecting Jewish law is in the category of Chilul Hashem, the desecration of God's name" (Feder pp). Judaism's concern for the unborn is a reflection of its historic commitment to life, as seen as in the fact that the Holy One of Israel if often referred to as the God of Life, and his law the Torah Chayim, Torah of Life (Feder pp). Judaism was the first faith to prohibit cruelty to animal life, and even the wanton destruction of trees transgresses Jewish law (Feder pp). Therefore, it reasons that there must be a greater obligation toward an entity that will become fully human in a matter of months (Feder pp).

Although Jewish abortion advocates cringe at the equation of slaughter of the unborn and the Holocaust, Rabbi Jakobovits declares, "Jews may be particularly sensitive to any such discrimination [determining which life is worthy of preservation], having witnessed the horror of six million being shoved into the gas chambers because they were deemed inferior" (Feder pp).

The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements generally consider abortion a matter of individual conscience and oppose most government restrictions on abortion, a position many believe has roots in ancient Jewish writings (Sheler pp). Although the Talmud suggests that the fetus is not fully a person but, rather, is "as the thigh of its mother," nonetheless, it is worthy of protection as a potential human being (Sheler pp). The Mishna, a compilation of Jewish law from the third century A.D., explicitly approves of therapeutic abortions when the mother's life is endangered (Sheler pp). Moreover, the Responsa, later commentaries on Talmudic law, contain varying opinions as to when a non-therapeutic abortion may be justified (Sheler pp). Orthodox Jews today allow abortion only in strictly defined cases involving the health and survival of the mother (Sheler pp). According to Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, "It's nonsense to say a woman has the right to her body...No one in this country has that right? (Sheler pp). Agudath Israel, a social-service organization that acts as the lobbying arm of Orthodox Judaism has said, "Jewish law teaches that all human life is sacred. The life of a fetus has status and dignity," thus the organization supports legislation that protects fetal life by restricting the availability of abortion on demand (Feder1 pp). The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations adds that abortion is not a private matter between a woman and her physician..."It infringes upon the most fundamental right of a third party, that of the unborn child. For Jews, fetal life is inviolate unless continuation of the pregnancy poses a serious threat to the life of the mother" (Feder1 pp).

Although Jewish moral law does not clearly state the status of the fetus and allows abortion under certain circumstances, pro-life Jews argue that all human life must be valued because the sanctity and infinite worth of every human being is a quintessential Jewish value, grounded in the biblical notion that humans are made in the image and likeness of God (Berke pp). According to the Mishnah, "Whoever destroys one life is as if he destroyed a whole world, and whoever preserves a life is as if he preserved the whole world" (Berke pp). Barry Freundel, an Orthodox rabbi from Georgetown has indicated that there is some difference of rabbinic opinion about these circumstances, however stressed that there is no warrant for the overwhelming number of abortions now performed in the United States (Berke pp). He states that the classic Jewish sources really do not much about the general moral or metaphysical status of the fetus, yet "have an 'intuitive response' that the fetus is 'not like an appendix or an in-grown toe nail' that can simply be removed at will" (Berke pp). David Novak, a theologian and rabbi who holds a chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, developed on the theme that Jewish thinking on abortion tends to be less theoretical than practical…