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Abortion in the Torah

When I was a young student in elementary school, my Rebbi told me the following parable. A small shtetl in Eastern Europe had the opportunity to write a Sefer Torah as a community. A sofer was hired, and preparations for the momentous day of the hachnosas sefer Torah were set in motion. Everyone in the shtetl chipped in. The local wine merchant offered to supply wine for the seudah. The baker provided the Challah and the desert. Those who were musically talented began to practice together. The local seamstress, an exceptionally gifted woman, offered to make the Torah Mantel (cover). When the big day arrived, everyone in the town gathered together in the home of the wealthiest man in the city so they could write a letter in the Torah. The excitement in the air was palpable. The air smelled of freshly made baked goods. The wine was poured liberally. The musicians stood on the side playing lively music. Finally, the Torah was completed. But, when they went to play the beautifully woven Mantel on the Sefer Torah, it was short by a couple of inches. The seamstress was mortified. She tugged this way and that, but no matter how hard she pulled, it was clear that she had mismeasured. The bottom of the Torah scroll was clearly uncovered. In desperation, she turned to the local Rav and pleaded, can we cut the Sefer Torah by several inches to make it fit the Mantel? 

My Rebbi was trying to convey that we must not cut the Torah down to size to make it fit our preconceived notions of what values ought to be. Our Torah must be learned faithfully. We must listen carefully to the values of Chazal and not distort their words to fit our own agendas. Rav Shlomo Wolbe (Alei Shur, Shaar Shlishi) writes that we must work on our Middos in order to understand the Torah. The Torah is only acquired through 48 Middos Tovos. Rav Wolbe quotes Rav Yisrael Salanter (Michtav Daled, Ohr Yisrael), who writes that while the Torah was given to us to intellectually and critically examine, it was not given to us to do as we wish. In other words, while Torah is not in Heaven and we are obligated to pasken Halacha according to our understanding, it was only given over to those who are truly unbiased and will interpret the Torah based on their understanding of what Hashem truly desires.  When someone asks for a din Torah, he relies on the decisor to respond with a true Torah answer and not to respond based on personal bias. Rav Wolbe concludes that aside from a budding Talmid Chacham’s responsibility to learn Shas and Poskim to their innermost depth, they must also work on their own Middos so that they interpret the Torah based only on the will of Hashem and not based on their own bias. Those who don’t work on their middos are destined to cut the Torah down to size to make it fit in the Mantel they have woven.

The issues surrounding the topic of abortion are exceptionally complex. Without getting into the nuances of the various poskim on the subject, we can readily say that there are circumstances where one is obligated to have an abortion. To that end, legal and safe abortion access are certainly Jewish values. Absolute bans on abortion that would leave no room for halachic complexity must be opposed. However, there is no Rabbinic authority that celebrates abortion. No halachic authority believes in on-demand abortion or a woman’s unilateral right to choose. While Roe vs. Wade granted legal and safe access to abortion, over the past several decades, it resulted in tens of millions of abortions. Fetal life, whenever it begins, must be protected by the laws of society. Abortion, in the words of former President Bill Clinton, ought to be legal, safe, and rare. We are a religion that, above all, values the sanctity of human life. Life is a precious gift that we receive from Hashem. A society that devalues life and does not protect those who cannot defend themselves fails in its most basic mission. 

The National Council of Jewish Women celebrated “Repro Shabbat” on February 17-18th. It was scheduled on that particular Shabbos to coincide with Parshas Mishpatim, the Parsha that “lays the foundation for Judaism’s approach to abortion.” In their words, “Abortion access is a Jewish value, plain and simple. For too long, the American narrative about religion and abortion has ignored Jewish voices – and it’s past time for that to end. Join NCJW’s Jewish movement to make it clear that Jews support reproductive freedom.” On social media, people were encouraged to publish pictures of Challah baked in the shape of the female reproductive system. A recommended reading list was featured on their website with a list of books that “sit at the intersection of ‘smash the patriarchy’ and ‘Shabbat Shalom.’” Special prayers were composed in honor of Repro Shabbat. Among the composed verses were “May we find within ourselves the collective will to create a just society in which reproductive justice – the holy right to own the personhood of one’s own body, to have or not have children, to raise any children in safety and community – is foundational.” Another prayer includes a similar sentiment: “We affirm that reproductive freedom – the sacred right to own the personhood of one’s own body – is a fundamental part of the just society for which we strive in Your name.”

Aside from the bizarre Challah pictures that kept popping up all over social media, I was struck by the language of the prayers. Clearly, this was not only about abortion access but also about a personal right to terminate a pregnancy because of ownership of personhood. A scholar in residence at NCJW published an article on this very subject in which she argues that a fetus is regarded only as potential life (as opposed to actual life) and that the fetus is secondary to the adult human carrying it. She writes, “But beyond life-or-death situations, Jewish law permits abortion in situations where carrying the fetus to term would cause “woe” – and that includes risks to mental health or to kavod habriot (dignity).” The blanket term mental health is a slippery slope. It could very well be that a severe mental health threat to a woman might be cause for an abortion, but these are serious halachic questions and must be dealt with by poskim that are capable of handling such weighty matters. Mental discomfort does not give us the halachic license to abort a fetus. Neither does kavod habriot. I speak now not of the individual who is going through something that I cannot begin to fathom. It goes without saying that this person deserves our compassion and sensitivity to the extreme. I am only referring to the halacha itself. We must be faithful to the will of Hashem. We must not distort the Torah in order to fit agendas.   

This article is not about the difference between the Conservative and Orthodox approaches to Halacha. It is about how we see the modern world with all of its challenges and opportunities through the lens of Torah values. I am reminded of an urban legend that sums up this issue well. A battleship plows through rough, foggy seas at night when its radar suddenly indicates an object directly in its path. The ship’s captain signals, “We are on a collision course. Advise you to change course 10 degrees north.” 

A response crackles over the radio: “Negative. We advise you to change course 10 degrees south.” The captain can now see a blinking light from the approaching object, but he assumes it is a ship and becomes perturbed. He bellows a reply: “I’m the ship’s captain. Change course 10 degrees north, now!” The response comes back, “I’m a seaman second class. Advise that you change course 10 degrees south to avoid imminent collision.” The captain is furious and yells another command, “This is a battleship! Change your course immediately!” Back comes the calm reply: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”

The Torah is our lighthouse. We have a responsibility to be a light of the nations and act according to Hashem’s will. As we confront new challenges in the modern era, we must check our personal biases and see the world through the lens of the Torah. Otherwise, we’ll end up cutting the Torah down to fit our own personal Mantel.

Rav Mordechai Burg

Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com

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