A respectful reply to rabbi’s commentary on abortion

Rabbi James Bennett

By Rabbi James Bennett & Rabbi Andrea Goldstein

We are grateful to our colleague Rabbi Seth Gordon for his articulate and thoughtful op-ed in the St. Louis Jewish Light on May 23 (“Jewish law, abortion and born v. unborn life”) laying out an argument that provides food for thought based on his understanding of Jewish law for those on both ends of the abortion debate. We understand that this is one perspective of our ancient rabbinic texts and would like to offer another perspective based on our Reform movement’s religious understandings.

Gordon explains the origins of the halachic (traditional Jewish legal) principle stating that a fetus is not a human being. He quotes from the Mishnah (Ohalot 7:6), which states that abortion is required when it is necessary to save a woman’s life, “for her life comes before [the fetus’] life.” 

From this point, Jewish views on abortion generally fall into two groups. The first sees the Mishnah text as an overarching principle that the life of the mother takes precedence over that of the fetus. The second (based on an explanation by Maimonides) sees abortion as permissible only in cases where the fetus is endangering the life of the mother.

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Reform Judaism’s preeminent halachic scholar, teaches that Reform Judaism has always upheld the broader, more permissive stance (see “Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice”). It is on this basis that the Reform Movement makes the moral argument that the woman, ideally in consultation with her family and physician, does get to choose whether or not her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. According to this religious interpretation of the text, these teachings are not, as Gordon states, “in opposition to the pro-choice view that places a mother’s choice as the primary … issue.” This perspective actually provides a religious foundation for the belief that no one except the woman herself has the right to determine the fate of a fetus within her own body. 

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Moreover, our understandings of these teachings have led us to conclude that the decision as to whether or not to abort a pregnancy cannot be made based on the opinion of male authority figures or scholars, nor by those of any gender who claim authority based upon their religious beliefs, but by the woman, and the woman alone. To suggest otherwise endangers both the health of women and their reproductive freedom and rights. 

Given these values, we are profoundly disturbed by the fact that Missouri came dangerously close last week to becoming the first state without an abortion clinic since Roe v. Wade. These are dangerous times to be a woman in Missouri.  

We know that the majority of Americans, regardless of their religious affiliation, are pro-choice, pro-reproductive freedom, pro-women’s autonomy and pro-justice. We also know that this majority has been a predominantly silent one for far too long. Whether we look at our ancient Jewish texts through a Reform, Conservative, Traditional or Orthodox religious lens, we can all agree that Missouri women must maintain the right to access safe, affordable reproductive health care, including abortions. 

And we cannot be silent about this any longer. Reform or Orthodox, religious or nonreligious, we all ought to take action to protect this basic right of the women in our state.

Rabbis James Bennett and Andrea Goldstein serve Congregation Shaare Emeth.