From the Rabbi’s Desk June-July 2022
Rabbi Carla Freedman
By the time you read this, it is possible that the Supreme Court of this country will have repealed Roe vs Wade, the decision of their predecessors to guarantee access to safe, legal abortions to all women in this country. Many states prepared for this turn of events by introducing extreme legislation, making abortion illegal under most circumstances, making women who seek abortions criminals and making doctors who provide this medical procedure criminals as well, even in cases of rape or incest.
Many people think that abortion is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments…”Thou shalt not murder”. And what they don’t also understand is that the Hebrew Bible does not construe the death of a fetus as murder (see Exodus 21:12 and 22). There are many occasions in the Torah when killing is actually required. And the Bible clearly distinguishes between murder and killing.
No less a scholar of Jewish texts than Maimonides, who was also a practicing physician (died 1204 CE), established the principle that “if a fetus is threatening the life of the mother, it is permissible to dismember the fetus in utero to save the life of the mother, up until birth is underway”. The notion, then, in Jewish law, is that the mother is an actual living being while the fetus is a potential human being. If the life of the actual living being is at risk, the potential human being is sacrificed to save the mother, who, presumably, will go on to have other children. In fact, Jewish tradition does not consider the newborn baby a viable being until/unless it has survived 30 days (see Numbers 3:40); in antiquity, infant mortality rates were astronomical, and most families lost more children in infancy or early childhood than survived to adulthood.
The reason that many people mistakenly think that abortion is opposed by religion is that the Roman Catholic Church has been visible and vocal in its objection to abortion. No opposing viewpoints are as visible or vocal, so their perspective dominates the public perception on this matter.
But no branch of Judaism forbids abortion. Amongst the Orthodox, the word of Maimonides is taken as definitive; the issue is the definition of “threatening the life of the mother”. They tend to understand the threat as actual and physical, and under such circumstances, they permit abortion.
Those of us on the more liberal end of the Jewish religious spectrum also understand that mental health issues may “threaten the life of the mother”, and that other factors may make it inappropriate for a particular woman to take on the care and nurturing of (another) child at the time in question.
It is deeply troubling that many of those who oppose abortion also oppose contraception of any kind, oppose financial support for families, oppose pre-school programs for young children, and support for troubled teens. They want to bring these babies into the world, and then they abandon them. How this makes anything better is beyond me.
No branch of Judaism, and for that matter, no religion that I am aware of, treats abortion as a small matter; neither do they accept abortion as a form of birth control. But many of us, men and women of faith, understand that abortion services must be available, must be safe, and must be accessible, for those situations that require it.
The repeal of Roe vs Wade is high on the agenda of the “religious right” in Christianity, and one wonders what will come next, after they achieve this. Birth control, interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, and the rights of transgender people are all abhorrent to this community, and they are likely to be attacked with gusto.
But we should not ignore the sweeping implications of the repeal of Roe vs. Wade. The gains women have made, from getting the vote to equal pay for equal work, are at risk, because the ultimate goal of the “anti-choice” faction seems to be the dominance of white, male Christians in America. As immigration has brought more and more people of color to this country, as women have sought and achieved equality in the work force, as the simple binary understanding of sexuality has changed, those white male Christians have apparently felt threatened, and their response has been vicious and vile.
So we have to understand the repeal of Roe vs Wade as both an immediate offense and a foreshadowing of things to come.
And we should understand this from the Jewish perspective. Judaism teaches us to “love our neighbor as ourselves” (Lev. 19:18), and over and over again, the Torah tells us to be good to the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt (for example, Deut. 24:18, 22). To respond Jewishly to the changing face of America, to the achievements of women, to the acceptability of an expansive understanding of human sexuality, means to recognize the humanity of “the other”, the “stranger”. It is to see the Divine spark within all people.
We live in a challenging time. We must rise to that challenge by being faithful to the things our religious heritage has bequeathed us.
And we should do that proudly, vocally, and visibly.