The Jewish perspective on abortion is nuanced but reasonably clear: abortion is permissable under a variety of circumstances. “The issue of abortion in Jewish life is both complex and multi-faceted, with roots going back to the Bible. Its complexity is due, in large measure, to the reluctance of Jewish legal authorities to establish a single principle by which to determine the morality of abortion,” wrote Rabbi Raymond A. Zwerin & Rabbi Richard J. Shapiro in an article published by the interfaith Religious Center for Reproductive Rights,
These are the guiding principles on abortion in Jewish tradition: a woman’s life, her pain, and her concerns take precedence over those of the fetus; existing life is always sacred and takes precedence over a potential life; and a woman has the personal freedom to apply the principles of her tradition unfettered by the legal imposition of moral standards other than her own.
Due to the general leniency in matters of abortion, as well as to a long-standing Jewish insistence on the separation of religion and government in American life, all four non-Orthodox Jewish movements – Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Humanist – are on record opposing any governmental regulation of abortion. Moreover, many Orthodox authorities take the same position," Zwerin and Shapiro continue. "Whatever their opinions on abortion in any given situation, a vast majority of Jewish thinkers agree that decision-making with respect to abortion must be left in the hands of the woman involved, her husband, her physician, and her rabbi. Out of this context, in consonance with her Jewish heritage, she can make a decision as she is permitted to do by the United States Constitution.
The decision of the Supreme Court of the United States of America to overturn Roe V Wade not only removed protections for women’s reproductive rights but it calls into question the guarantee of the First Amendment's first sixteen words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”
“Today, the Supreme Court has effectively allowed one religious point of view to determine when life begins and the rights of a pregnant woman ends,” said Rabbi Steve Leder. “They have breached the Wall of Separation which has protected both religion and the freedom of choice since our nation’s founding. To them I say, ‘We will rebuild the wall!’”
The essence of separation between church and state holds that all religious points of view need to be equal in the eyes of the law and the federal government has to protect the individual's right. “We live in a country with many faiths, with many different beliefs,” he said. In religious matters it has to be voluntary. Individuals have every right to live their own life exercising beliefs and behaviors appropriate for themselves as individuals. This also means that there is no coercion of others, nor expectation to support a religion or religious belief. “Freedom of religion has to include freedom from religion.”
On the topic of abortion where there is no unanimity amongst the religions. “How can we deny choice? Let's let reasonable people disagree and behave according to their reasonable points of view.”
There are four aspects to the issue of abortion in Jewish tradition: (1) the legal status of the embryo/fetus, (2) the time of ensoulment, (3) conditions under which a therapeutic abortion may take place, and (4) conditions under which a non-therapeutic abortion may take place.
As Rabbi Leder explained during Friday’s Torah study, the origin of the Jewish position on abortion is found in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 21, and the juxtaposition between verses 12 and 22. Verse 12 says, "One who fatally strikes a party shall be put to death." To kill a person is a capital offense.
Verse 22 describes a different circumstance.
וְכִֽי־יִנָּצ֣וּ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְנָ֨גְפ֜וּ אִשָּׁ֤ה הָרָה֙ וְיָצְא֣וּ יְלָדֶ֔יהָ וְלֹ֥א יִהְיֶ֖ה אָס֑וֹן עָנ֣וֹשׁ יֵעָנֵ֗שׁ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר יָשִׁ֤ית עָלָיו֙ בַּ֣עַל הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וְנָתַ֖ן בִּפְלִלִֽים׃
When [two or more] parties fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible [ Heb. “he.”] shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning
The passage makes a distinction between a fetus and a human life. Rabbi Leder continues with further insight into the basis of Jewish thinking on abortion in this recording from the June 24th study session.
Friday evening’s Kabbalat Shabbat service included moving comments from Rabbi Susan Nanus and several congregants, each expressing their own thoughts, emotions, and ideas.
The links below represent a cross-section of resources and information including the comprehensive article from the Religious Center for Reproductive Rights cited at the top of this post.
- Religious Center for Reproductive Rights
- My Jewish Learning: Abortion and Judaism
- National Council of Jewish Women: Judaism and Abortion
- The Forward: Jewish Reaction to Supreme Court Ruling
- Thomas Jefferson and Religious Freedom
- Jewish Telegraph Agency: American Jews Gear Up for Wave of Post Roe Activism
- Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
- Women of Reform Judaism