Hayim Leiter
Mohel, Activist, and Educator

Don’t abort the dialogue

Last week in the United States, Georgia passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws to date. The current legislation criminalizes the actions of doctors who perform the procedure with a punishment of imprisonment for no less the one year and nor more than ten years. Keep in mind, the penalty is not levied on the mother in any way. As to be expected, people on both sides of the issues are getting a bit frantic. So, what’s the Jewish take on the issue?

When questioning major life decisions, such as terminating a pregnancy, one should always consult with a rabbi. These issues are complex and sensitive, and therefore, all relevant factors must be taken into account.

The rabbis of the Talmud had much to say when it came to the status of a fetus (as well as many other things), but they were much more liberal than you might imagine. The amazing thing about the Talmud, and what has most likely lead to its wide readership some 2,000 years after it was compiled, is that it was able to delve so deeply into vastly complex topics while at the same time containing such a wide array of options. It truly is a model for our modern discourse.

The position that life begins at conception, which this legislation is based on, was not held by Hazal. When deciding the permissibility of terminating a pregnancy, one of the major factors in these discussions was the age of the fetus. There are differing implications at different times in the gestation – the point of conception, after 40 days, and after three months and so on. Another factor is if there is a health risk posed by the fetus. If there’s a choice between the mother’s life and the unborn child, the mother will always take precedence, albeit there is some debate as to what things constitute an actual threat.

Just to give an example of a conversation in the Talmud, this is mentioned in Arhin 7a:

אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל האשה היוצאה ליהרג מכין אותה כנגד בית הריון כדי שימות הוולד תחילה כדי שלא תבא לידי ניוול

Rav Yehuda says that Shmuel says: In the case of a pregnant woman who is taken by the court to be executed, one strikes her opposite the womb, i.e., on the abdomen, so that the fetus dies first and so that she not suffer disgrace as a result of publicly bleeding from labor.

There are many issues being discussed in this section of the Talmud, but the rabbis were willing to take many external factors into account when considering terminating a pregnancy. But just to reiterate, there is a plethora of discussion on the topic and the issue is so emotionally charged that those engaging in such considerations need to discuss these issues at length with an expert in the sources. And the rabbis who are being approached to advise on such topics need to do so with the utmost sensitivity.

It’s important to note that being sensitive on these matters does not necessarily mean advising all cases to terminate the pregnancy. As was stated, there are a multiplicity of factors both on the legal side and on the personal side which need to be taken into account. Each case is unique in its own right and needs substantial deliberation.

But there is an additional problem we face when it comes to this, and other issues: our willingness to listen to the ‘other side’. When embarking on conversations dealing with complex, emotionally charged subjects such as abortion, the knee jerk reaction tends to be to push away and vilify those we disagree with. These polarizing behaviors need to end now. Much like the Talmud itself, we all need to be passionate and argue our position to the best of our abilities but at the same time we need to be open to ‘the other’. We have to listen to their position and respond to it adequately because that is the only thing which truly substantiates our point. Personal attacks and delegitimization of those we disagree with do nothing to protect that which we hold dear and want to promulgate.

Facebook is a prime example of conversations gone wrong. Last week, a friend of mine posted his contempt of Ilhan Omar’s upcoming visit to his community because of her openly anti-semitic comments. Many commented in agreement with this post. But one colleague pointed out the need to call out President Trump for the same behaviors as Omar if the author wanted to be consistent. Many lashed out at our colleague in the form of name-calling and inappropriate language. I cite this example because there is nothing wrong with anyone’s objection on either side. But the knee jerk reaction of name calling and delegitimization is completely unhealthy and unproductive.

Whether we realize it or not, Facebook is one of the prime suspects in the polarization of our international discourse. I, for one, have made a habit of accepting friend requests from people I do not agree with in an attempt to diversify my feed. I listen to conservative podcasts even though there is a large chunk of the content I do not agree with. I do this for two reasons: one, it lets me know what the other side is saying and in turn, helps me refine my stance. But even more importantly than that, I listen to the conservative side because they’re getting the discourse right. Members of the conservative movement are willing and even eager to converse with liberals. And that, I believe, is the most restorative activity we can engage in.

So whatever your stance is on abortion, or any other issue, I challenge you to not only dialogue with ‘the other’ but befriend them. We need to open up these lines of communication. It is the only way to move ahead in these troubling times.

About the Author
Hayim Leiter is a Rav and a Mohel in Israel , as well as an activist, and a Jewish Educator. He founded Safer HaBrit, an organization committed to protecting both our sacred ceremony of Brit Milah and the children who undergo it. He made Aliyah in 2009 and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children.