June 24, 2022
Today’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade casts a dark shadow. The Conservative-Masorti movement expresses anger and deep disappointment at the loss of religious freedom and personal autonomy that will result.
The nation-wide constitutional argument over whether there is a right to privacy that gives women control over their bodies will be replaced by state-by-state political debates over whether the government can or should substitute its judgment for that of the individual.
Congressional and senatorial elections will turn on this issue. States across the country are introducing legislation dealing with the abortion issue. Demonstrations will likely become more frequent, emotions will get hotter, and the shouting will get louder and louder. Civil discourse around this topic has all too frequently been replaced with angry slogans and demonization of opposing views. And sadly, this tendency away from reasoned debate has become all too common in American society.
A friend recently told me about a conversation she had with someone who made the statement “abortion is murder”. The statement was made in such an accusatory manner my friend simply could not respond since if one starts from such a premise, there can be no reasoned discussion. Clearly murder outweighs any right a person might have to choose what happens to her or his body. But doesn’t murder presume the existence of life? How can one come to conclusions about the nature of abortion without first discussing the nature of life?
What does our Jewish tradition bring to this debate? The Talmud, the source of so much Jewish tradition, treasures respectful deliberation and preserves dissent. Our modern society would do well to emulate these practices.
How do we define the moment when life begins? How do we define the moment when life ends? These are questions human beings have asked for thousands of years and which all religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and others, struggle to answer. Rabbi Ari Lucas of Congregation Agudath Israel of Caldwell spoke to these points recently, and I am grateful to him for his permission to share his thoughts here.
Rabbi Lucas commented that “Judaism is unequivocally a religion that celebrates the sanctity of life – we are not permitted to take another life and we are not permitted to artificially hasten death. The ethics and laws around these questions are complex – where is the distinction between artificially hastening death when a person would otherwise live; and artificially extending life when a person has reached the end of their natural life – it’s quite complex. But Judaism considers these questions rooted in our sacred texts and history and with respect for the dignity and sanctity of life”
“Judaism is clearly and unequivocally pro-natalist. People make lots of different choices about families. And it’s a mitzvah to procreate – to have children. We celebrate when children are born. On the topic of abortion, Jewish law for thousands of years has weighed the sanctity of the life of an unborn fetus against the health and well-being of the mother. There are many circumstances where – until the moment a child is born, Jewish law permits an abortion if it seriously jeopardizes the mother’s physical or mental health. Some have interpreted these permissions more narrowly and others more expansively. But all authorities agree that until a fetus is born into the world, it is not considered an independent life … and as such the health and well-being of the mother takes precedence…”
Few decisions in life are more deeply personal than whether to have children and raise a family. “If you or someone you love found yourself in one of these difficult circumstances, who would you want in the room to help you make your choice? I imagine you might want to consult your spouse if you’re married, you might want support from a few friends and family, you might want to consult with doctors about your health. Maybe you’d want input from religious leaders. But I know who I wouldn’t want in the room when I was making this decision – I would not want the governor of the state in the room. I wouldn’t want all the members of the state legislature in the room. Or a police officer.”
Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned and the political debate is intensifying across our country, our responsibility as citizens is to engage in that debate. As we each form our own individual judgment on this vital issue, I urge us all to learn what our Jewish tradition has to say. And to listen to what others have to say about their own faith traditions. Abortion is a deeply personal and, for many, a deeply religious issue. Christians, Muslims and Jews disagree as to the theological, ethical and moral arguments making a common standard so difficult. And, as Rabbi Lucas points out, “When a state passes a law to ban or limit abortion, it takes the authority and responsibility for these choices away from families, religious leaders, and women, and gives that authority to the state.”
Knowledge and reason, rather than shouting and slogans, ought to prevail in the months ahead. Below are some resources we can use to inform our views as we engage in the coming debate. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, so ask your rabbis, teachers, professors and others for more references.
A summary of our Movement’s views on these issues can be found on Exploring Judaism. Teshuvot from our Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards will give a more in-depth understanding:
USCJ International President