I’m neither a rabbi nor a scholar, but from what I’ve gleaned, the traditional Jewish sources have little to say about abortion. Nothing in the Bible; a bissel in Talmud; a few lines in Rashi and a few more from Maimonides.
In Talmud Yevamot, a fetus is considered “mere fluid” for the first forty days, and after that is understood to be a part of the mother until birth.
Still later, Rashi taught that until the baby’s head emerges from the birth canal, the baby doesn’t possess a soul. Maimonides also weighed in, permitting abortion when the mother’s life is in danger.
Whether informed by these teachings or not, some 83 percent of American Jews believe that abortion should be legal in most cases. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of American Jews, alert to having the Christian majority’s values shoved down our throats, are also staunch supporters of the First Amendment insistence on the separation of church and state, making being subject to religious values of conservative Christians noxious.
But two major American Orthodox groups, the Rabbinical Council of America and Agudath Israel of America, take a different stance. According to a statement released by the RCA in 2019: “Jewish law opposes abortion, except in cases of danger to the mother.”
So there you go. Once again we Jews disagree among ourselves.
For what it’s worth, I myself am a staunch believer in abortion rights. Abortion as a woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy. Abortion as health care. Abortion as the right of the individual woman to make medical decisions on her own behalf. And also, without legal abortion all hell erupts—is already erupting—in the form of rape victims being denied abortions and women with life-threatening complications from pregnancy also being denied abortion. Not to mention all those unwanted kids and the lives of misery they are all but condemned to endure.
Even so, I was discomfited when I learned that some 1500 synagogues, my own among them, were expected to observe the third annual “Repro Shabbat,” loosely organized and encouraged by the National Counsel for Jewish Women, and slated to coincide with the reading of Parshat Mishpatim, which contains a discussion of miscarriage:
“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other harm ensues, the one responsible shall be fined when the woman’s husband demands compensation; the payment will be determined by judges. But if other harm ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”
In my opinion, that’s a pretty thin proof text on which to pin an entire abortion-rights Shabbat observance, but okay, as I already admitted, I’m no rabbi. I wasn’t going to go to the event, but it was my mother’s yahrzeit, and I wanted to say Kaddish for her. During the better part of my teenage and college years, my mother put in endless hours of work on behalf of Planned Parenthood and abortion rights. I was all but gestated in the stuff. And as it turned out, on Repro Shabbat, I got to synagogue on time to hear an attorney who’d worked and continues to work on behalf of abortion rights give a talk from the bimah.
He was great. Reasoned, temperate, compassionate, informed. I agreed with every word he said, and even learned a thing or two.
Even so, I was uncomfortable. And that’s because though I’m pro-choice from my keppie to my toes, I don’t understand how abortion rights have the first thing to do with Shabbat observance.
I’m well aware that it’s a fine line. Is it okay to talk about Israel, the plight of Ukraine, racism, civil and LGBTQ rights from the bimah? I tend to ere on the side of keeping such discussions someplace other than the sanctuary and some time other than those times devoted to worship.
Like most American Jews, I’m a firm believer in the First Amendment: free speech, separation of church and state. But I also believe in the separation of prayer and politics. Abortion as a women’s issue, a health issue, a separation of church and state issue, and even a human rights issue– yes yes yes. But as a particularly Jewish issue? Not so much.