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"Family Values" Video message from WAMP: Women Against McCain-Palin

Living Judaism

Abortion Rights
A Jewish response to a gruesome political mailing.

-- Dr. Daniel E. Loeb

"Obama supports abortion" said the handwritten note accompanying gruesome pictures of the results of aborted fetuses which an anonymous correspondant from Milford, Pennsylvania sent me in the mail. He further urged me to "Stop Obama [and] stop the killing".

Pro-choice activists do not support abortion per say. They seek to keep abortion safe, legal and rare. They support the right of a woman to choose whether or not to bear a child, and by giving people sexual education and access to contraception, they hope that abortions would be only rarely used as a procedure of last resort.

In the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, principles were set down by which courts have affirm the primacy of the rights of the mother in the early stages of pregnancy and the rights of the child in the latter stages of the pregnancy to the extent that the child does not endanger the life of the mother.

Of course, the arguments made against abortion come primarily from a particular fundamentalist Christian worldview. From that point of view it might matter little what the United States Constitution has to say about this issue. The pro-life agenda clearly believes they answer to a higher authority.

As Jews, what should we think about this? What Hallachic questions are raised in terms of reproductive rights? As pro-Life forces announce clearly that they know what side Jesus would take on this issue, what side do we believe Moshe Rabeinu would take on this issue.

The only clear reference in the Bible to the abortion of a pregnancy is in Exodus 21:22

"And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine."

In other words, the penalty for causing a woman to miscarry against her will is a purely monetary penalty. Presumably, the beis din would calculate the difference of value of a pregnant maidservant above that of an ordinary maidservant and impose that difference as a penalty. This is not by any means the biblical penalty for manslaughter which would be capital punishment if intentional or banishment to one of the cities of refuge if unintentional. This proves that by biblical standards the death of a fetus is not akin the a human death; it is more analogous to the loss of livestock or other property.

The scripture then continues:

"But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."

This reinforces the point that fetal life is not comparable to human life. If the woman herself was harmed, and not just the fetus, then the man would be brought to account for that harm, and could be given the death penalty if the woman perished.

Another argument against abortion is that it prevents men and women from fulfilling the positive commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." Traditional Jews observe the commandment to have two children: at least one boy and one girl. According to certain opinions, if one's wife fails to bear children after ten years of marriage, one is obligated to divorce her and marry another women.

However, it should be noted that this commandment is not one of the seven Noachide laws incumbant upon all of mankind. Thus, the Jewish people have no more interest in seeing the government legislate against abortion than in seeing the government legislate against ham or against shattnes.

The life of the mother is paramount under Jewish law, and we know from the sad history of our country that women denied the right to an abortion will risk their lives to give themselves control of their own bodies. The fate of the woman is a much more serious problem in the eyes of the Jewish law than the fate of their fetus.

In conclusion, it seems that even a strict interpretation of Jewish law does not require legislation restricting reproductive rights.

On the other hand, a law against sending people unsolicited graphic photos of dismembered embryoes might not be such a bad idea.

"Choice About This" Video message from WAMP: Women Against McCain-Palin to prevent victims of rape and incest from losing their right.

Per Judaism Abortion is Freedom of Religion

-- Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Living Judaism Editor

Freedom of practicing the Jewish religion would absolutely be obstructed by any government that would make abortion illegal. Just as virtually no Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform or Reconstructionist rabbis oppose the availability of abortion in America, my colleague Rabbi Avi Shafran, at the highly halachically oriented organization Agudas Yisrael, put the matter in his part of the spectrum this way,

"To be sure, the Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a Jewish woman whose pregnancy endangers her takes precedence over that of her unborn when there is no way to preserve both lives. (That is why Agudath Israel, while we oppose Roe v. Wade's effective "abortion on demand," has not and would never favor a wholesale ban on abortion.) And, while the matter is not free from controversy, there are rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother's health."

The Torah does not speak against abortion and only institutes a financial penalty due the father if someone strikes the mother causing her to abort. Exodus 21:22, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chovel Umazik 4:1, see also Arachin 7a-b, Choshen Mishpat 423:1. This is the root of clarity about the matter. If the mother would die, only then would the biblical death penalty of stoning would apply. Accordingly, there are several medical situations where it can be that a posek will rule in favor of abortion, in certain cases in favor of fetal reduction where one fetus is severely damaged and destroying the others change to survive in a woman who has suffered many miscarriages, or in the case of a woman who is in danger of taking her own life if a rape-induced pregnancy is causing her to literally lose her mind, or because she is too young to bear a child without damaging her future fertility or body development (child-rape) and other cases.

[Note: I just attended Yeshiva University's end-of-life conference which had high quality discussions and decisions on this topic.]

So, please be clear Judaism is not a religion of spin. We are a serious, deep, scholarly people with a hugely nuanced bioethical tradition. Consult a qualified rabbi with your bioethics questions, and know that not all have studied bioethics in their training or have the time to stay current, before ever assuming what is good for the future of freedom of religion from the viewpoint of Judaism.

Readers might further inquire, so how then do we relate to Judaism's biblical reference to "choose life"? When someone comes to me who has an unexpected or painfully difficult to bear pregnancy, I go through several pastoral counseling steps. First I create safely, listen to and validate her experience through ensuring a room with confidentiality, and a self rich in empathy, support, listening. No advise-giving or moralizing. Since I am not an Orthodox Rav, rabbi or posek, and consider halachah advisory, not binding on those who ask my advice, I am free to tell young and not-so-young women who come for such counseling that I will help her think through her personal decision seriously, that we will incorporate a Jewish lens on her difficult situation and that I will support her decision and stay present to her not matter what she decides. A rabbi such as Rabbi Shafran, cannot make the latter statement, in his part of the spectrum, which I fully respect for those so choosing, your Rav's decision on such a matter is binding, not advisory.

As a woman and I get grounded in a caring relationship that helps her adjust mind, body and spirit, to a challenging, frightening situation inside her very own body and personal life. We review the situation – how old is she? Has she had quality medical care? When I was a campus rabbi, I would find out where in the spectrum of Judaism her family and she fit. Do others know? How do their desires/values/situation affect the situation? (husband/boyfriend/dorm student date rapist). When did she find out, i.e., what stage of pregnancy – Judaism has different points in pregnancy where different interventions are possible. Who knows? How are they reacting? We breathe and integrate each awareness.

We then move into Jewish principles and discussions about the matter, just a few being that there are circumstances where Jewish law decisors have counseled abortion. Together we marvel and weep at the gift of life and the difficulty of experiencing it now, of such an awful choice arising in college, or high school, or from an affair, or during breast cancer, or if it's a Tay Sachs or Trisomy 13 fetus, or….I tend to know many Jewish couples longing to adopt and let her know this option. Women and girls choose both ways, we are all differently able to survive.

Because I am also responsible for ensuring our community could help her get through a pregnancy, if she would want to do so, to ensure that she would not be isolated, impoverished or treated as less ethical than any of us imperfect humans. I will never forget the day in the 1980's when an interfaith bible study colleague asked me to walk out onto the local through-road at 1 pm-ish on a Sunday. Every church in that South Jersey region seemed to have opened its doors and out poured people with anti-abortion signs. I thought of all the students, Jewish and not, that I'd spoken with as a college rape-counselor in years gone by and wept. Then I picked up a clipboard with lined paper on it and wrote:

Please sign in to:
  1. Adopt one of the millions of babies that will be born each year who will need a family if abortion is outlawed;
  2. If you don't want to support babies born out of wedlock, then agree to support babies born from rape and to pay the expenses for the mothers. )
  3. Send weekly support checks to those willing to care for one or more of those the babies who will be abandoned; 
  4. To sign here agreeing to pay higher taxes for orphanages, health insurance for this millions of additional humans,


Three people out of the over four hundred some individuals I managed to canvass along that highway signed on.

Absolutely, from my part of the spectrum, I do support in the mother's right to choose, and that her body is her own. There are many precedent points in Judaism, enough for a full subsequent column to grant women this right, as is done in most of the spectrum of Judaism. For example, the Torah teaches that Jewish women have rights:

"Let us call the girl and ask for her reply." They called Rivka and said to her, "Will you go with this man? And she said, "I will," giving standing to a woman to have the final say in controlling her destiny.

I am an American, I believe in freedom of religion and that every religion has lots of points along its spectrum where a woman can choose to set herself. I do not decide for such a woman what she needs to do, I respect her fully if she wishes a Rav to so guide her life and if she does not, I respect her as well. I will partner her as her rabbi/spiritual guide on the difficult journey of her choice without ever criticizing her, or trying to make her feel guilty or further influencing her decision. This compassion is also found, in my experience as a former Orthodox Jew in halachic communities where there are paired principles known as l'hathillah and bediavad. The former means, what we tell someone before they act, i.e., prevention and the latter means, what we do after the fact which throughout Judaism ideally and typically includes compassionate re-integration into family and community when desperation leading to an action a rav did not sanction has lead to unfortunate circumstances.

So yes, we must preserve freedom of religion, which includes availability of abortion, or none of us will be able to practice Judaism. Informed voting is vital – know your Judaism, then make an informed choice.

Rabbi Dr. Goldie Milgram, MSW directs ReclaimingJudaism.org and Bmitzvah.org. She serves as a Jewish bioethics consultant to rabbis and families, has written articles on the subject for Moment Magazine and Belief.net, and teaches Bioethics, Halachah & the Role of Jewish Clergy for the Aleph Ordination Program. She is author of many works include the November 2008 release, Living Jewish Life Cycle: Creating Meaningful Jewish Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life, which offers not only trans-denominational ritual support but also carefully explains Jewish bioethical principles regarding birth, conception, infertility, adoption, organ donation and end of life..

To view previous editions of "Living Judaism", please click here.

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