We cannot ignore the rise of unprecedentedly strict abortion bills being signed into law in states like Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi last year, which seek to restrict abortions to as early as six weeks. These “heartbeat bills,” which are a strategic, unified challenge to Roe v. Wade have, understandably, created uproar for many groups and movements. Because the belief that life begins at conception stems, often, from religious beliefs, in light of these bills, it seemed necessary to share the Jewish view which, like most religious views, stems from our holy texts. In doing so, however, I offer a caveat.
When people ask me where our religion stands on abortion, what I’d like to respond with is that perhaps we shouldn’t be consulting an Iron Age document written for a specific people to help build 21st century laws in our nation. But alas, as a rabbi, I cannot and so, instead, I emphasize what the Bible says about abortion.
That answer, as it turns out, is easy. The Bible says absolutely nothing on the topic. Nothing. Anywhere.
The closest the Bible comes to speaking on this issue is a verse in parshat Mishpatim, starting at Exodus 21:22:
When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results [lit. her children emerge], but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning [lit. as the judges determine] 23 But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
This is as close as the Bible gets to the death of a fetus and laws surrounding it. I would like to also note, for full disclosure and context, that the verse before it speaks about what to do when a “man strikes his slave,” and that it is preceded by a law stating that kidnapping warrants a death sentence, as does insulting your father or mother. In other words, this passage about a fetus is part of a law dealing with antagonist’s liability towards an innocent bystander and suggests that in most cases, restitution is to be made. It is by no means about abortion as we currently understand it. Additionally, the Hebrew in this passage is replete with difficulties, such as we don’t know why the Hebrew uses the plural in regards to the “expulsion of the fetus,” we don’t know “whether stillbirth, premature birth, or term delivery is intended,” and we don’t know what the text means by “other damage.”
What we do know, however, is that in this case, when a miscarriage occurred in Torah law in this way, “The individual responsible for the miscarriage was fined, but was not tried for murder.” This is clear from the commentators, such as Rashi (10th century France), who notes that the phrase, “and he shall give [restitution],” means that “The assailant [shall give] the value of the fetuses.” In other words, “the attacker is required to monetarily compensate the ‘owner’ of the fetus, the woman’s husband, with an amount of compensation to be negotiated.”
Moving aside from the extremely problematic patriarchal ownership aspects of this understanding, the biblical view seems to indicate that the death of a fetus is not comparable legally to the death of a human. Whereas within the ideas of lex talionis “a life” is “for a life,” a fetus’ death can be restituted by money.
Laws like this exist in law books of Near Eastern Israelite neighbors, such as in the Sumerian law fragments, Hammurabi’s code, Middle Assyrian Law, and the Hittite laws. All of these, additionally, “call for monetary compensation for the loss of the fetus,” meaning that the Israelite understanding of a fetus’ death not being a “life for a life” was in line with the view of other cultures and religions as well.
What about elsewhere in the Bible? Fundamentalists do some heavy reaching trying to attribute abortion to murder, by using verses such as Genesis 2:7, “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being,” or Ezekiel 37:4-5, “And He said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!’ Thus said the Lord GOD to these bones: ‘I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again.’” In both instances, fundamentalists use these beautiful, poetic metaphors to literally equate breath with life.
Others bring parts of Psalm 139 out of context, which states, “It was You who created my conscience; You fashioned me in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am awesomely, wondrously made; Your work is wonderful; I know it very well.” Neil Carter, an author on the platform “Godless in Dixie,” responds quite brilliantly to this use of scripture, stating that “Taken in context, the writer of the psalm was marveling at the omniscience of Yahweh, who he believed could see everyone and everything before they even come into being.”
Finally, there is the ludicrous understanding of Numbers 5, which some commentators view as a priestly way to induce miscarriage; however, one need only glance at it to see the historical distance and ridiculous connection:
If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her— but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself… The priest shall take sacral water in an earthen vessel and, taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle, the priest shall put it into the water…here the priest shall administer the curse of adjuration to the woman, as the priest goes on to say to the woman—“may the LORD make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as the LORD causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend; may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.” And the woman shall say, “Amen, amen!”…Once he has made her drink the water—if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed.
Besides the fact that the Torah here is teaching us that spells and curses are ways to bring about truth in situations of infidelity, and that a bitter or “holy water” can make “a belly distend,” and “thigh sag,” the Hebrew does not clearly indicate that the infidelity caused pregnancy, only that there was an act of sex, and that the woman has been defiled (the same word used for diseased or those who made contact with corpses). Regardless, the idea to take this text and use it as a case for or against abortion is fatally flawed.
And that, is it, when it comes to the subject of abortion in our holy text, in the Torah or elsewhere in the Bible. For scholars, the authors of the biblical stories and laws had very little to say about the subject, and for fundamentalists and believers in the divine origin of the Torah, the words of God does not mention it. I stop here because although the Mishnah, Talmud, and later Jewish law texts have opinions on abortion, the arguments being made today by the fundamentalists are in regard to the interpretations through the lens of the Christian Bibles, our holy text translated (or mistranslated), interpreted (or misinterpreted) to fit an agenda.
True, if one wishes to take poetry literally, take archaic cultic rituals out of context, and stretch biblical laws until they snap, you could form quite an opinion on the subject of abortion when reading the Bible. But, looking at the text with respect for historical distance, context, audience, speech, and genre provides clarity only in the fact that the Bible is not a source to use in arguments regarding abortion.