A different viewpoint on abortion and Judaism


By Jordan B. Cherrick

The Jewish Light’s Jan. 25 article on Missouri’s new abortion statute inadvertently excludes the position of normative Jewish law or halacha that has been practiced by Jews for thousands of years. Missouri’s abortion statute is fully consistent with normative Jewish law, which holds that abortion is only allowed if the mother’s life is endangered, an exception stated explicitly in Missouri’s statute.

With all due respect, the implication of some of the individuals quoted in the Light’s article — that a person should be allowed to act based on his or her view of religion even if the action violates the secular law of United States — is wrong. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that laws of general moral applicability are constitutional even if they conflict with an individual’s religious beliefs. Thus, one may not use illegal drugs even if one claims that they are a central part of a religious service. One may not murder or steal when the acts are prohibited under state or federal law even if one claims that one’s religious, ethical or moral conscience allows one to commit these crimes. 

A principal article of faith of Orthodox Judaism is the belief held by Jews for thousands of years that authentic or normative Judaism is rooted in the Revelation of the Torah that God transmitted to the Prophet Moses on Mount Sinai, who transmitted the Torah to the People of Israel, both in a written form and in an oral transmission that explains the meaning of the text of the Torah and its Commandments. 

Many agree that the greatest Jewish scholar in Jewish history is Maimonides, or Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, who died in 1204. He codified and explained the faith obligations of every Jew and the ritual and ethical obligations of every Jew that are contained in 613 Commandments of the Torah. Many also agree that the teachings Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the “Rav”) reflect the definitive statement of Jewish law and ethics in the modern period.

The Rav held that, unless the mother’s life is endangered, one may “absolutely not” kill an “infant” or a “fetus in the womb.” Rabbi Abraham R. Besdin, Reflections on the Rav, volume one, “Surrendering Our Minds to God,” at 104 (KTAV, Revised ed. 1993). 

The Rav explained that, under Jewish normative law, which contains both Commandments that have no clear reason and commandments that appear to be moral and rational (such as a prohibition against murder), the source of one’s obligation to observe any commandment is the will of God and one’s faith in God and his Torah. While reason may be helpful in gaining insight into the lessons of the commandments, it is not relevant to one’s commitment to observe the commandments.

One’s use of “reason” is an important and relevant human method of functioning in the world, but it is unstable and may evolve in unknown directions by fallible human beings as society navigates different intellectual, social, and cultural periods. Many modern methods of human reasoning, which are often rooted in selfish motivations, may repudiate commandments even in the case of the prohibition against murder, which many would agree is the most “reasonable” of the commandments. If the dictates of human beings who view physical happiness, pleasure, power, and the autonomy of one’s self as among the principal purposes of human life, we would soon live in a morally chaotic and uncivilized world, as we sadly see in the news every day. 

God gave the Jews the gift of the Torah so that we would conduct our lives based on our faith in him, which supersedes one’s reliance on any human being to decide issues one might think are morally self-evident. Indeed, the Rav observed that God’s most “reasonable” commandments, such as the prohibition of murder, were included in the Torah because a person’s selfish motives may not necessarily be consistent with human reason. 

The ramifications of a person murdering another person can result in a long prison term under secular law. Under religious law, the punishment may also be severe. While God is the only judge of any person at the end of their lives in this world, the souls of unrepentant people who intentionally violated God’s commandments in the Torah may be prevented from experiencing the peace and holiness of one’s eternal life of the world to come.

We must ask ourselves whether human beings have the authority and ability to make decisions about the beginning and end of human life especially when the decision applies to an innocent life who is unable to communicate. We must ask ourselves whether there is any absolute and sacred standard governing our personal moral and ethical behavior in life that is based on Divine Revelation, which is rooted in our faith regardless of the pain and sacrifice involved in “surrendering our minds to God,” which the Rav taught is a foundational principle in Judaism.