We pay heavy price for polarizing slogans in abortion debate


Rabbi Seth D. Gordon

I was among many in the St. Louis Jewish community who received an email from the Jewish Community Relations Council entitled “Abortion Justice.” As I have previously written (Jewish Light, May 23, 2019), traditional Jewish teaching does not align with either the “pro-choice” or the “pro-life” movements. Last week, as a consequence of the leaked Supreme Court opinion, the Orthodox Union issued its response.

I wrote to Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the JCRC; she promptly, respectfully and clearly emailed me. I raised two issues: How can the JCRC, which represents the entire Jewish community of St. Louis, advocate abortion when a significant segment, albeit a minority, supports Torah teaching? (Others come to a similar position unguided by Torah.)  

While pro-choice advocates in the St. Louis Jewish community apparently have a decisive majority, the question is whether the JCRC should vote on issues that are not broadly supported and are contrary to our religious heritage. Many Jews and non-Jews, unaware of the issues from a Torah point of view and the nuances within the community, are likely to believe that the JCRC represents the Jewish religion and virtually all Jews.  

The title — “Abortion Justice” — is the second issue. It implies that anything other than full support is injustice. I reject the implication that Torah and rabbinic teachings are unjust and that, therefore, we who adhere to them are also unjust. 


The Torah/rabbinic teaching regarding abortion is not only just but also compassionate. The mother is primary; her life takes precedence over unborn life, the fetus. If the fetus threatens the mother’s life (it does so unintentionally), halachah requires us — justly and compassionately — to protect the mother. 

Nevertheless, the fetus, particularly after 40 days, according to rabbinic teaching, is a living being; halachah regards it with compassion and justice. This has been the traditional Jewish position for thousands of years.

Extreme positions sometimes have merit because they clarify but are tainted when they dismiss the legitimate concerns of those who do not agree. When an issue is infused with emotion, although it may energize and galvanize some, it aims to eviscerate others.  

Choice is a strong argument, but it is not the only argument, for so framed, it ignores the life created. The position that life begins at conception is also strong; it is logical and scientific. But it, too, is not the only argument, for so framed, it ignores the mother, and can be construed that killing the fetus is murder.  Again, the Torah position rejects each as extreme, limited in justice and compassion. 

We pay a heavy price for slogans that portray legitimate concerns as unworthy and the people who do so as morally or intellectually inferior.  

The primary price is an undercutting of intellectual integrity.  The secondary price is often, over time, a loss of political support. The third price is that inattention to sound views feeds extreme views. We can forever live in combat, ignore each other and intensify the rhetoric, and people will suffer. 

It is no small matter that we turn away from Torah teachings — morally and ritually — to our own detriment. We lose our moral compass and weaken ourselves as Jews. I am proud that our Torah heritage for millennia has found justice and compassion for both the mother and the unborn fetus.  

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon serves Traditional Congregation.