Yes, Judaism Is Pro-Life

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On Thursday, Avraham Bronstein, rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York, penned an op-ed for Ha’aretz, Israel’s most left-wing newspaper. That article was an attack on my perspective on abortion, and in particular, on my characterization of Jewish law as regards abortion.

The whole hubbub started with a brief Twitter exchange. That exchange began with a writer named Quinn Cummings suggesting that the Talmud takes a pro-choice position with regard to abortion. I responded, “Virtually every major Jewish halakhist of the modern era has barred abortion except when the life of the mother is threatened.”

This was my general take on the halacha (Jewish law). That shouldn't matter all that much, because I am not a theocrat and don’t believe America should be governed by Jewish law.

But for the sake of clarity, here is my position on the morality and law of abortion: (1) I believe abortion is murder because life begins at conception; (2) I believe that the government has an interest in stopping murder; (3) I believe that there should be exceptions for when the mother’s life is in danger, including when her mental health prevents her from carrying her to term.

Now, where does Judaism play into all of this? It really doesn’t! As I’ve said many many MANY times on my show and in my speeches, every policy I argue ought to have a basis in secular rationalism, even if the core of my argument rests on the religious respect for the sanctity of life. I never cite the Bible or the Talmud as support for my positions, because in a secular society, that’s both useless and counterproductive. For example, I don’t think Jews ought to be forced by law to keep Sabbath and I’m libertarian on the government’s role in marriage, including same-sex marriage.

But this tweet created a firestorm of controversy.

That controversy led to Bronstein’s take: I’m actually a Christian theocrat. Bronstein’s piece is titled, “Why Does Shapiro Sound Like A Christian Evangelical On Abortion?” Yes, really. Despite the fact that I am not a theocrat and not Christian, I’m apparently an emissary of Jesus. This comes as something of a shock to me, but hey, what do I know?

According to Bronstein:

As opposed to other social issues such as same-sex marriage and school choice, abortion has been a trickier issue to navigate for the Orthodox Jewish community, which tends to identify with socially conservative and pro-Israel Republican values but lines up in religious thought and practice somewhere between the ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ camps. His recent tweet that "virtually every major Jewish halakhist of the modern era has barred abortion except when the life of the mother is threatened," met pushback from thousands of responses, many from rabbis and Jewish academics citing both published halakhic decisions and responsa, as well as anecdotal testimony, demonstrating the opposite.

But this is generally untrue. The Orthodox community lines up heavily in the Republican camp, and certainly not in the pro-choice camp, for a series of simple reasons. First, my original statement is essentially true, although it should have been more clearly stated: the baseline halacha – with exceptions, of course – is that abortion is forbidden unless the mother’s life is in danger. The clear consensus of the rishonim (medieval authorities) is that abortion is a Biblical prohibition, the only question being about which scriptural prohibition is implicated. This is the position of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century, from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (who considered abortion murder) to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (who agreed) to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (who also agreed, stating in 1975, “to me it is something vulgar, this clamor of the liberals that abortion be permitted") to Rabbi Ovadiya Yosef (who said that abortion is Biblically prohibited past three months and at least rabbinically prohibited before then).

Now, rabbis do argue on the level of exceptions permitted. Even rabbis considered more “lenient” on abortion agree that it is prohibited ipso facto; they merely consider more exceptions acceptable. But there is not a single Jewish opinion that supports the mainstream pro-choice position on abortion, which states that an abortion is a matter between a woman and her doctor, and should be available for any reason. Zero halakhists have ever backed such an idea. As in, NONE. EVER. Not “virtually none.” NONE. Such a belief is antithetical to Judaism’s beliefs regarding the human body itself; Judaism doesn’t believe in your total autonomy over your own body. Your body is, according to Judaism, subject to God. You don’t own it. You’re borrowing it. Judaism isn’t even cool with tattoos. As Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein explained, “Even if we were to accept that indeed it is the woman’s own body, we totally reject the conception that she then can do with it as she pleases. This is a completely anti-halakhic perception.”

Furthermore, stating that the general rule in Judaism is that abortion is forbidden except when the life of the mother is endangered is correct. Yes, there are exceptions that vary in their breadth according to different rabbis. But that does not mean the general rule does not exist. This is like saying that while Jewish law dictates that Sabbath cannot be violated except in cases of pikuach nefesh (endangering human life), there are some rabbis who make further case-by-case exceptions, and therefore there’s no real standard in the first place. That’s plainly incorrect. As with Sabbath-breaking, some rabbis grant additional dispensations. But these are dispensations, not an abrogation of the general rule itself.

But according to Bronstein and my other critics, the exceptions to the general rule mean the general rule does not exist:

[A] range of equally prominent rabbinic figures demonstrate in their rulings a sensitivity to situations where a pregnancy will adversely impact, short of threatening, the health or well-being of the mother, or where a child will be born with severe abnormalities, including but not limited to terminal genetic conditions like Tay-Sachs.

He then cites some outlying opinions:

Even beyond these cases, the 18th century Rabbi Yaakov Emden permitted a married woman who had become pregnant through adultery to undergo an abortion to avoid the birth of a child that would bear the stigma of life as a mamzer (bastard). And in a recent lecture, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Hershel Schachter described a case in which he deliberated with colleagues the case of a teenager who would be expelled from her religious school and community, her life derailed, if her pregnancy become known.

First, Emden’s opinion is considered a serious outlier at variance with virtually every other opinion on abortion among the prominent authorities. Second, Rabbi Schachter states that abortion is only clearly permissible when the mother’s life is in danger; he posits the possibility of other exceptions. In the lecture cited, Rabbi Schachter says abortion is clearly Biblically prohibited, and the only question is what type of prohibition it is; Rabbi Schachter explicitly says that if a woman just doesn’t want to have a baby, that’s not a good enough reason for an exception to the rules prohibiting abortion.

Bronstein correctly sums up that the “sensibility of the Orthodox community may accurately be described as ‘pro-life,’ as abortion is assumed to be prohibited unless ‘permitted.’” Which is precisely what I was claiming as the general rule.

But according to Bronstein, Judaism is “pro-choice.” Why? Because “the actual mechanics of a woman making an intensely personal, fraught decision with the support and guidance of her family, doctor, and rabbinic mentor is closer to what the ‘pro-choice’ community has long described as the ideal context for legal abortion.”

This is simply a lie.

In fact, if we were living in a Jewish theocracy, the woman and doctor would have no say about abortion. Only a rabbinic court would be involved in the decision. A woman would not “consult” with a rabbi any more than you “consult” with a judge in a criminal case. Rabbinic rulings are binding under Jewish law. Pro-choice language makes no sense in this context. Even the Tzitz Eliezer, who famously holds the most lenient position regarding abortion, states: “All Jews are warned strictly not to terminate pregnancies lightly. A great responsibility is placed on both the inquirer and the responding rabbi. In addition to this, there is an aspect of guarding against those who breach behavioral boundaries that even gentiles do not cross but rather legislate against it and punish harshly those who transgress.”

Now, if Bronstein wanted to talk about crafting exceptions in public policy to a general rule barring abortion – exceptions which could include, for example, the possibility of religious freedom considerations as countervailing arguments – that would be one thing. But the pro-choice position says that a woman unilaterally makes the call on abortion for any reason whatsoever, with or without a consultation of any type. Michelle Wolf shouts, “God bless abortion!” The Democratic National Committee platform states that taxpayers should subsidize abortion, and that any law restricting abortion in any way should be prevented. Judaism explicitly and ringingly rejects that position. If Bronstein wants to make a specifically Jewish pro-choice argument, his argument utterly fails.

Finally, Bronstein argues that my position on abortion “tracks much more closely with the extremist positions of several Christian denominations.” As I’ve explained, I certainly am not getting my pro-life position from the Bible, though I believe Judaism tracks rather closely with my perspective (Bronstein could well argue that Rabbi Feinstein’s perspective is more Catholic than Jewish if he doesn’t like my opinion); I’m certainly not drawing it from the New Testament. I make purely secular arguments for the pro-life position.

But Bronstein seems to suggest I’m part of a nefarious theocratic Christian plot to take over the United States – and that I’m willing to overlook the welfare of Jewish women in order to side with my Christian political masters. He explains:

[A]ny broad-based abortion restrictions based on the right-wing Christian perspective could lead to Orthodox women having their own liberty to follow the guidance of their faith curtailed in truly life-altering ways. The shame of it is that the halakhic tradition, with its nuanced perspective and case-by-case record, has a lot to offer an increasingly polarized and angry national debate…It is not hard to understand the reluctance on the part of Orthodox organizations to engage on an explosive issue that carries the potential to undermine years of careful coalition building within the Trump administration and GOP establishment.

The logic here seems to be this: Judaism is pro-choice; therefore pro-life legislation would threaten Jewish practice. But this is false on several counts. First, Judaism is pro-life, with certain exceptions deemed controversial in the halachic canon; Judaism is clearly not pro-choice in the way the phrase is used in American politics, given that the pro-choice community argues that fetuses are not human in any way and that women have complete bodily autonomy. Second, legislation could be drawn with minor exceptions to the pro-life rule – but the argument here is that there should be no pro-life rule at all. Bronstein, in other words, isn’t authentically interested in Jewish law becoming American law – not because he wants to separate the two, as I do, but presumably because that would be too restrictive to cover his own perspective on abortion.

What about pro-life legislation from the Jewish perspective, then? Here’s Rabbi Dr. JD Bleich on the issue:

[Rambam] questions why divine providence makes it possible for Christianity and Islam to flourish and capture the minds and hearts of so many devotees. Rambam asserts that those religions play a role in the divine blueprint for human history in promulgating and keeping alive the notion of the coming of the Messiah. Were Rambam writing today, he might well conclude that the function of preservation of belief in the coming of the Messiah has been assumed by the Chabad movement and find that the Catholic church now uniquely fulfils a different role in the transcendental divine plan, i.e., it tenaciously promulgates the notion of the sanctity of fetal life and the teaching that abortion constitutes homicide. Non-Jews who engage in that endeavor do so with divine approbation. Non-Jews engaged in fulfilling a sacred mission are surely deserving of commendation, applause and support.

In any case, American law shouldn’t mirror Jewish law. Ironically, the same people who argue that separation of church and state ought to be ultimate are willing to overthrow that separation so long as they can claim that religious freedom dictates social leftism. Which suggests that in their view, leftism -- not religious principle or secular principle or any neutral principle at all -- is paramount.

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