This letter was mailed and hand-delivered to Senator Sasse’s office in July 2019. As we discuss a new Supreme Court Justice and religious views on reproductive rights, it is important to realize that religious liberty should apply to people of all faiths.
Honorable Senator Ben Sasse,
Last week you went to the floor of the Senate, our nation’s greatest deliberative body, and spoke out about Pro-Abortion Extremism. I support your position to be Pro-Life. You have every right, as a father, husband, and US Senator, to let your faith guide your life and decision-making.
As an observant Jew who has studied the same Bible as you, as well as a wide scope of rabbinic commentaries, I see the abortion debate from a very different angle. Why is my religious liberty, my understanding of what my God wants from me, less important than what your God wants from you? How can you claim to be a defender of religious freedom, when it appears you are only concerned with protecting the freedoms of those within the walls of your own church?
When it comes to the question of abortion, Jewish law allows for it and does not hold that a fetus is a person at conception. The Babylonian Talmud — one of our most sacred texts, and without which we cannot fully understand the Torah — explains that for the first forty days of gestation a fetus is considered fluid. And further, the fetus is considered part of the mother for the duration of the pregnancy. More to the point, a fetus does not take on the status of being a person until birth.
The Talmud also explains that if the mother’s life is in danger from pregnancy, even in labor, the fetus may be sacrificed to save her life unless the baby’s head has already emerged from the womb, at which point the fetus is now considered an independent soul. In Judaism, saving a life is of the utmost importance, and in a situation when the mother’s life is in danger, an abortion may not only be allowed, but required. In cases where the mother’s life is not in danger, some contemporary scholars have permitted abortion when a fetus may cause mental pain and suffering if carried to term.
While a slightly divergent point, many Christian communities derive proof texts against abortion from the Hebrew Bible. These texts specifically quote verses about God forming humans in the womb (Psalm 139:13, Jeremiah 1:5, Isaiah 44:24) — but these texts do not even register in the Jewish legal conversation on this topic. Said another way, Judaism does not determine law based on Psalms.
One last example is found in Exodus 21:12. “He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death.” Our sages explain that this verse speaks of a person and not a fetus. “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible is fined.” Let me be clear. This is a financial award for damages, not murder. If the pregnant women died in the altercation, her death – but not the death of the fetus – is treated as a homicide. If you would like specific text citations to the above Talmudic teachings, I will gladly provide them.
Senator, this is complicated. I take it seriously, and I know you do as well. I agree that name-calling and demonizing those with different beliefs is wrong. I honor your family’s religious beliefs; I value the work they do in our community, their church, and at crisis centers across Nebraska. As one of your constituents, I hope you can begin to see that my views are not left or right, blue or red. They, too, come from God and my religious tradition, same as yours.
Yet here is where I think we may differ. I do not now, nor will I ever, believe that I have a monopoly on what is right and wrong. My religious beliefs work for me, for my family, and for many in my congregation. But the idea that I would push them on another is absurd. I am all for religious freedom, but only when our religious positions stay within the walls of our own religious institutions. The question of when a fetus should be understood to be a person in the same way as the woman who carries it, is a theological question; since it’s now a question that people are attempting to answer, and legislate, we should recognize that by its very theological nature any answer of ours will be flawed.
My door is always open to study and learn together, not as Republicans and Democrats, nor as Christians and Jews, but as people of faith who seek to serve God.
Rabbi Steven Abraham