IS JUDAISM A PRO-LIFE RELIGION - PART ONE
“The message of the Torah is one of life. Abortion on demand is simply intolerable in the Jewish religion. To sanction something so heinous as partial-birth abortion is proof of a culture of death standing in marked opposition to the Torah’s ethic of life.”
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, in a press release issued by his organization, Toward Tradition, (September 18, 2000)
Do the Torah and Jewish texts support a pro-life or "pro-choice" view? When discussing abortion in an historical context, it is important to differentiate between the view of Judaism, which is predicated upon traditional values and sacred Halachic Law and texts, and the prevailing liberal Jewish view in our modern culture, which is more in line with contemporary civil liberties groups.
Liberal Jewish organizations brazenly distort Jewish law to give people the impression that Hashem, our G-d, condones abortion for "choice." Nothing can be further from the truth. G-d created mankind to be fruitful and multiply, and to protect and nurture life, both born and unborn.
The Jewish religion is unequivocally pro-life. From a traditional and Halachic standpoint, there has always been a strong proscription against abortion in Judaism dating to ancient times, and abortion is prohibited in our faith. There is only one allowable exception and that is to save the mother’s physical life. The “life” exception has been creatively interpreted by some rabbis to include to a woman’s mental health and emotional state, her financial circumstances, and even the health status of the preborn (whether the baby will be born “defective” with a disease such as Tay-Sachs or a disability supposedly resulting in a life not worth living.)
Although there have been debates among some rabbis as to what the mother’s life means that are reflected in their commentaries, the origin of the abortion prohibition is biblical, with commentaries being interpretations of the textual meaning. Induced abortion never existed as a “choice” in Jewish tradition, which is the primary reason its practice is absent in ancient texts. Only therapeutic abortion was allowed, and mandated, to save the pregnant woman. An accidental miscarriage was often referenced in ancient times with the singular word “abortion.” A similar distinction was made in 19th century articles and literature, as “criminal” abortion was distinguished from “abortion” which by itself referred to a miscarriage.
An important book by Dr. Michael J. Gorman1 addresses the issue of abortion in ancient religions and pagan cultures. While abortion was prevalent in the pagan world, Jews did not practice abortion and there is “no direct mention of a nontherapeutic Jewish abortion in any texts of the Hebrew Bible or other Jewish literature through A.D. 500” other than the reference to an accidental abortion death found in Exodus 21:22-23.2 In his chapter, “The Jewish World,” Dr. Gorman describes three primary contexts in which the unborn child was discussed:
“Behind each of these discussions is assumed a basic Jewish orientation to life: first, the duty and desire to populate the earth and ensure both Jewish survival and the divine presence; second, a deep sense of the sanctity of life as G-d’s creations, a respect extending in various ways to life in all its manifestations and stages and finally, a profound horror of blood and bloodshed.”3
Dr. Gorman examines the two prevailing Jewish views on abortion and fetal status, originating from the lenient Palestinian School and the strict Alexandrian school of thought.
In ancient times, only the Jewish people had a profound respect for the sanctity of life, reverence for one G-d, a desire to have children and abhorrence for bloodshed. The Jewish people did not commit abortions for non-therapeutic purposes, although abortion was common in surrounding pagan society.
There were debates among scholars and rabbis regarding ensoulment (when the soul enters the body) and the legal status of the fetus. Two distinct Jewish viewpoints emerged regarding abortion, from the writings of the historian Josephus and from the text of the Mishnah. In his important book, Dr. Michael Gorman thoroughly analyzes the Palestinian and Alexandrian viewpoints. Both schools of thought considered the issue of ensoulment, with the Palestinian School emphasizing the legal status of the fetus and the Alexandrian School the moral one.
Dr. Gorman highlights how the translation of one word from the Hebrew text of Exodus 21:22-25 to the Greek Old Testament had a profound impact on the discussion of abortion. That one word (“ason”) resulted in a number of interpretations as to the status of the unborn child. Palestinian scholars and rabbis translated the Hebrew word “ason” as “harm” (meaning injury only to the pregnant woman) so only a monetary fine was imposed if the unborn child was accidentally killed. In this opinion, the focus was on preborn legal status, and the Palestinian perspective held that the unborn child was not considered a person. In Alexandria, the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures translated “ason” into Greek as “form,” indicating the stages of fetal development. The rendering of this translation was aimed at the surrounding non-Jewish population. In Alexandria, killing an unborn child was a capital crime, and the moral integrity regarding the humanity of the fetus was not in question.
The philosopher Philo linked the practice of abortion directly to the 10 Commandments; specifically, the Commandment against murder. The distinction between “formed” and “unformed” fetal status was of less importance to Philo and Alexandrian Judaism than their concern for the sanctity and protection of all preborn life, and a significant minority of the Palestinian School scholars concurred.
Later on, in the early Middle Ages through the modern period, medical doctors regarded the practice of abortion a grave moral offense:
“Distinguished Jewish physicians of ancient and more recent times also admonished against abortion. Denunciations of the practice of abortion are recorded in the medical oaths and prayers of Asaph Judaeus in the seventh century, Amatus Lusitanus in the sixteenth century, and Jacob Zahalon in the seventeenth century.”4
The Seven Noahide Commandments prohibit abortion, as indicated in Sanhedrin 57b and Genesis 9:6. These laws are universal and binding upon non-Jews, and the prohibition also applies to Jews.5 The Torah’s 613 Commandments were to be built upon and not to replace, the Noahide Laws.6
Because there is no punctuation in Torah text, and if there is more than one way to read a verse and different meanings result, then all meanings are valid. The verse: “Someone who spills human blood, by humans his blood shall be spilled” can be read two different ways. The first way means that there will be judicial punishment for homicide. However, the verse can also be read: “Someone who spills the blood of a person inside a person, so he shall be killed.” This second reading refers to a fetus (person inside a person) indicating punishment for feticide.7
The Torah is ambiguous when it comes to abortion. There is no direct proscription against abortion in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh). That's because abortion never existed as a choice in Jewish tradition, or in the Jewish community. But there are many passages and positive commandments indicating a connection between the preborn child and the adult; a continuum in the life cycle that began prior to birth.
Did not He who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one fashion us in the womb? (Job 31:15)
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you: I ordered you a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5) There is a preordained destiny that G-d intended for the prophet, crafted even before his birth.
The Biblical account of Rebecca’s unusual pregnancy connects fetal life with future events. In Parashas Toldos, the following verses relate the struggle between Jacob and Esau that began in the womb, foreshadowing their future rivalries and the conflicts between two nations:
The children agitated within her, and she said, “If so, why am I thus?” And she went to inquire of Hashem. And Hashem said to her: “Two nations are in your womb; two regimes from your insides shall be separated; the might shall pass from one regime to the other and the elder shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22-23)
“Jacob and Esau represented cosmic forces in Creation, forces that transcended the normal course of personality development, and that existed even before birth. Thus, the turmoil within her was due to the irreconcilable conflict between the two nations that was already taking shape.”
The Book of Psalms: The entire passage from Psalm 139:13-16 provides intricate details of G-d’s handiwork in human creation.
“For thou hast made my reins; (kidneys, internal organs) Thou has knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (v. 13)
“My frame (skeleton) was not hidden from Thee, When I was made in secret (in the womb), And curiously wrought (embroidered, referring to the veins and arteries) in the lowest parts of the earth.” (v. 15)
“Thine eyes did see mine unformed substance (the embryo), and in Thy book they were all written.” (v. 16)
The Book referred to in Verse 16 is the doctrine of predestination. G-d has a book in which is recorded against each person, from the embryonic stage, the number of days which would be lived. (Commentaries and verses from the Soncino Books of the Bible, London: The Soncino Press, 1985, p. 453-454.)
Talmud Arakin 7a-b: Indicates it is permissible to violate the Shabbat to save the life of a preborn child. Further, while a traditional Jew is forbidden from carrying a knife on the Shabbat, a Jewish surgeon may do so and use it, to save a preborn child’s life.
Mishnah Niddah 3:7 states that in the earliest stages of pregnancy, up to 40 days post-conception, the fetus is considered "mere fluid.” Still, unless there is significant danger to the mother's life, even at this early stage of pregnancy abortion is prohibited. There is no distinction between the stages of fetal development because abortion is considered destroying the seed and a form of self-wounding, which is forbidden in Judaism. The "trimester" stages of prenatal development was an invention by the Supreme Court to justify the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973.
Mishnah Kritot 1:3-6 says that after 40 days the unborn child is considered formed and a woman who miscarries or aborts has to undergo the ritual cleansing process (mikveh) just as she would if a living child were born.
Exodus 21:21-23: This passage is often cited to prove that Judaism does not apply the same standard to the unborn child as to a born child. In the verses, should a quarrel ensue between two men during which a pregnant woman is injured and miscarries, a judge shall determine the fine. Should the mother die, however, the death penalty would be required. This has been interpreted (wrongfully) to mean that the loss of fetal life did not require the death penalty, therefore, the unborn child is not considered a human being.
One problem with this interpretation is that the preborn child’s death occurred as the result of an accident, not intentional homicide. The penalty for murder is death whereas manslaughter carries a lesser penalty (refer to Exodus 21:12-14.) The Stone edition of the Torah includes the rabbinic writings and commentaries).
The Exodus verse is not clear as to what is happening. We are given two possible outcomes and we are not certain a miscarriage took place. If fetal death did occur it was the result of a quarrel between two men and an accident, not an abortion. No choice was involved here. Anyone familiar with the Jewish Scriptures knows that the penalty for murder is death, while the penalty for manslaughter is not (See Exodus 21:12-14)
Capital punishment cannot be applied for the death of a victim that does not yet exist in the world. In ancient times there was no certainty or evidence that a woman was pregnant until quickening occurred. That would mean that given the situation described in the Exodus passage, the perpetrator would have been charged for a capital offense, whereas the cause of the developing baby's death may been a natural miscarriage not related to the quarrel. Unless there is a direct intentional assault on the pregnant woman causing the death of her child, it is manslaughter and the courts do not impose the maximum penalty. There is still a penalty paid proving that the unborn child has human value.
There are other critically important biblical proscriptions against abortion. The unborn child has inheritance rights and the baby’s father has the right to an heir. There is a positive commandment to protect the child so that he may observe many future Shabbats. There is a biblical prohibition against self-wounding. Abortion advocates claim a “fetus” is just “an appendage of the mother.” The baby has his or her unique DNA differentiated from that of the mother. But even if it were true, it is a violation of Jewish law for any Jew to self-mutilate. It is a violation to get tattoos, let alone cut off a body part or engage in self-wounding.
It is clear that Hashem, our G-d, established an association between fetal life and the destinies of individuals and events. Why else would so many textual passages continually refer to the unborn child in such detail? G-d could have easily begin the conflict between Jacob and Esau after their birth, yet He chose not to. The Torah portion indicates that their conflict began in Rebecca’s womb. Throughout Scriptural text, there is that same recurring theme of predestination: Life before birth ordaining future events.
The view of traditional Judaism is that abortion is akin to murder. In Halachic law, the unborn child is considered a developing life with value that must be protected and saved whenever possible, barring any danger to the physical life of the mother. In that case, abortion is mandated in Jewish law. Today, abortion is performed for birth control, convenience, economic reasons, sex selection and far too often, parent's discovering that that their unborn child has Down syndrome or some other medical challenge. The new radicalized abortion laws passed in certain states even permit killing a living child that survives abortion. Had abortion been performed in Rashi's time as it is today, there would have been an outcry from rabbis and the religious community, and the practice would have been condemned as infanticide.
1Gorman, Michael J. Abortion & the Early Church: Christian, Jewish & Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World. 1982. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998.
2Ibid. p. 33. See endnote on p.107 for additional explanations.
3Ibid. p. 34.
4Rosner, Fred. Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law. KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1981, p. 181.
5Tendler, Rabbi Moshe D. “Contraception and Abortion.” Medicine and Jewish Law, edited by Fred Rosner, M.D., Jason Aronson, Inc., 1990, pp. 117-118.
6Shabtai, David. “Abortion Within Limits.” The Torah Musings. September 2, 2013. www.torahmusings.com/2013/09/abortion-within-limits/
7Rabbi Akiva Tatz. “Medical Halacha (Law) – Abortion.” Simple to Remember - Judaism Online. https://www.simpletoremember.com/media/a/abortion/