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.
The Jewish religion is unequivocally pro-life and views abortion as akin to murder. 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
There are no specific verses in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) that refer directly to abortion. 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.
Exodus 21:21-23: This passage is often cited as proof that Judaism does not apply the same standard to the preborn child as to a born child. Should a quarrel ensue between two men during which a pregnant woman is injured and miscarries, a judge shall determine the fine but there is no death penalty for the perpetrator. Should the mother die, the death penalty would be required. Therefore, this is supposed to imply that the preborn child has a different status than the born child and is not considered a person.
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 death penalty is also not applied because no court can impose the maximum penalty on a perpetrator if the victim does not yet exist in the world. There is still a penalty paid proving that the preborn child has human value. While the status of the preborn is not exactly like that of a born child, his or her life must still be protected as a developing human being.
There are other critically important biblical proscriptions against abortion. The preborn baby 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.
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 and with predestination? The conflict between Jacob and Esau began in Rebecca’s womb. Throughout Scriptural text, there is that same recurring theme of predestination: Life before birth ordained future events.
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/