What Do Orthodox Jews Think About Abortion and Why?

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Aug. 25 2000 11:28 AM

What Do Orthodox Jews Think About Abortion and Why?

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Rabbis also offer a dizzying menu of views about how early or late into a pregnancy the procedure can be performed, ranging from only up to 40 days after conception to up to the beginning of the third term. (If the birthing process seems likely to be fatal for the mother, you can remove the fetus at the very last moment--until the head crowns, at which point the fetus becomes a person with a soul and a full legal identity.) These debates derive from different verses than the ones cited above. In one such verse, the fetus is deemed to be little more than water until quickening (in the ancient world, 40 days after insemination).

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Lieberman and Medved are both fully aware of the complex shadings of Jewish law, so why do they give such partial accounts of its views on abortion? Setting aside the fact that you'd have to be a master aphorist to communicate Talmudic reasoning in a sound bite or op-ed, each man has little interest in having the whole truth be known. Lieberman doesn't want to be seen to be failing to act on Orthodox Jewish values as he advances the Democratic Party line, even though most members of the American public would probably be willing to grant him the right to espouse two points of view--a privately held religious view and a view about what would be best for the country. That's how the Catholic Mario Cuomo used to explain his support for abortion, for example. Lieberman could also argue that while Jewish law doesn't leave it up to a woman to decide whether to abort her pregnancy, that decision is left to her rabbi, so a national policy of abortion on demand actually grants rabbis the greatest possible scope for the exercise of their authority. (Politically, that is not an entirely satisfying position, since it suggests one standard for Jews and another standard for everybody else.)

Medved's reasons for representing the Jewish stance on abortion as more negative than it might otherwise seem are, in all likelihood, twofold. Medved--who sometimes substitutes for Rush Limbaugh on his radio show--is as ardent a Republican as Lieberman is a Democrat, and like Lieberman, Medved is trying to repackage Jewish thought as consistent with his party's line. But his comment also reflects a sociological fact about Judaism. Over the past half-century, and particularly in the past two decades, Orthodox Judaism has moved noticeably to the right. Up until 50 years ago, the Genesis passage and the strong anti-abortion position were invoked relatively rarely. In a post-Holocaust world, however, some Orthodox Jews have considered it an implicit imperative to repopulate their ranks and have begun to have extremely large families. There is a powerful social presumption against abortion, and the Genesis verse has become a more common starting point for discussion. A few leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis have even taken to dismissing the Exodus argument as irrelevant, since it deals with damages, not abortion per se. To them, abortion is murder, permissible only in extreme self-defense. With that, these rabbis have ruled out of order a strain of thought valid for more than a millennium. This may be why Medved feels he can represent a hard-line opposition to abortion except in cases of dire threat to the mother as the Orthodox Jewish position. Lieberman, on the other hand, adheres to the most liberal and outward-looking branch of orthodoxy, Modern Orthodox Judaism, and is therefore more likely to see the law as a spectrum of opinions, rather than a definitive pronouncement.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

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