The United States is a Christian country. We may not have an official religion, but come on – it’s not like we shut down the nation on Rosh HaShanah or Eid al-Fitr. The only religious holidays nationally recognized are Christmas and Easter. So, it’s not surprising when other areas of life and law are based on Christian understanding. The most prominent of these laws today are the cases surrounding abortion. Many pro-life advocates are pushing for stronger prohibitions on abortion than even Jewish law would allow. Currently, however, no state has laws on the books that would not make an exception for saving the life of the mother. And few, if any, have laws that prohibit in vitro fertilization. At most, there is some ambiguity that needs to be cleared up.
However, this is not stopping a few Jewish women in several states from citing religious freedom as a reason to file lawsuits against their states. The most prominent case is happening in Louisville, Kentucky, where three women filed suit claiming that a law banning abortions violates their religious freedom, since Judaism does not recognize that life begins at conception – rather it begins at birth.
Now I’m no rabbi, but that did not seem right, so I listened to a few interviews and read a few of the stories to find out where this particular law comes from. The first source was an interview on ABC News’ “Start Here Podcast” on the October 14 episode. One of the women, Lisa Sobel, attempted to explain her religious basis for the abortion thusly:
“The way that my husband and I have coped with the news that our first round of embryos were not viable was by us understanding that they were a clumping of cells, they weren’t a human being. They were not a child. I was not deciding to discard a child. I was deciding to not use a fertilized egg that in the natural ways of getting pregnant, your body would have rejected it anyways; you would have just had a heavy period. You would have never known. And so for me, as a religious woman in the Jewish faith, for us life didn’t begin until our daughter was born.”
If you are wondering where in here Sobel is explaining where Judaism tells us about where life begins, she doesn’t. She explains some classic leftist talking points and then continues to tell us that those talking points are somehow linked to her Jewish faith without actually explaining how the two are linked. She later references conversing with her rabbi, but never actually explains how Judaism permits abortion.
The next source of this story was from WDRB, a Fox affiliate in Louisville, which quoted the “sacred text of Judaism, Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 34:10, [which says] ‘from the moment the fetus emerges from the womb.’” That was a curious sentence fragment to exclusively use without any context whatsoever. So I looked it up, and well, let’s just say that context is extremely important here. You see, that excerpt is part of a larger conversation regarding when a neshamah is put into a person. R’ Yudan held that the neshamah is put into a person “from the moment the fetus emerges from the womb.” So basically, the argument is that the ability to end the physical life of the fetus is based on when spiritual life begins. It seems odd that the scientific argument of “a clump of cells” may be reliant on the religious argument of when the soul enters the body. Either that, or they just assumed nobody would look further into their “source.”
But none of this gave me the actual source, and by that I mean: Where are these women finding their backing? Who is providing them with the funding and the talking points to bring this multi-state-coordinated lawsuit? And for that, I found an article in the Lexington Herald Leader that hyperlinked their source within Judaism. So which rabbinic authority, which giant Torah scholar, which ancient sacred text, is the source of the right to abortion in Judaism? The National Council of Jewish Women.
Reading through the NCJW website, you will unsurprisingly find yourself in a world of left-wing talking points with the added hint of Judaism. “Founded in 1893, [NCJW is] the oldest Jewish women’s grassroots organization in the country and is continually guided by Jewish values that call on us to improve the lives of the most vulnerable women, children, and families.” You see, they use Judaism as the basis to guide them to help others. Basically, it’s the old “Or LaOlam” mantra that left-wing Judaism likes to use as an excuse as to how their political views fit in Judaism. It allows them to fight for their beliefs on climate change, gun violence, economic justice, immigration, and civil rights. Spoiler alert: Those last four items are part of the work that NCJW does. None of that is directly related to Judaism, but Jewish principles somehow guide them to caring about these left-wing positions.
So, what does the NCJW say about why abortion is halachically permitted? Well, they point to a pasuk in Parshas Shoftim,” which they explain it to say that “two men who are fighting and injure a pregnant woman, resulting in her subsequent miscarriage. The verse explains that if the only harm done is the miscarriage, then the perpetrator must pay a fine. However, if the pregnant person is gravely injured, the penalty shall be a life for a life as in other homicides.” Obviously, if this was a life, the accidental ending of the life would have been akin to murder. However, the men who caused the miscarriage only need to pay a fine.
Using this as a proof as to why a fetus is not a human is so incredibly asinine. You see, in this case, the miscarriage was accidental, not a purposeful action. Furthermore, if you want to discuss how the person who committed the abortion should be punished, we can certainly have that conversation. If you want to make it that an abortionist is fined for any abortion completed, we can have that discussion. Right now, abortionists are heavily compensated for their work. If the argument is that we should be following the Torah on its opinions about pregnancies that are ended by external causes, let’s go all the way. Instead of paying abortionists, let’s fine them.
But all of this is beside the point. Even if none of this were true, and Judaism allowed for abortions, you can’t argue religious discrimination in this case just because your religion allows for it. If a religion permitted spousal abuse, something tells me that the NCJW wouldn’t come to the defense of that on religious grounds. Even among the most generous halachic interpretation, abortion isn’t a religious practice that Judaism requires. In fact, unless a secular law explicitly prohibits Jewish requirements, we are supposed to obey the law. If the government came after observing Shabbos, or Kashrus, or Bris Milah, that would be one thing, but if local law makes something illegal that Jewish law prohibits, we don’t get to claim a religious exemption for that. Jewish law permits me to build as much as I want on my land, but the town I live in has ordinances that say I cannot do that. I can’t claim a religious exception for that. That’s not how discrimination works. Jewish law does not require abortion. It may permit abortion in some circumstances, but I guess when you have to mold your religious beliefs to fit your political beliefs, you can do all the mental backflips you need to do to arrive at your destination.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.