On July 10, Ben Shapiro, Editor in Chief of the Daily Wire, ignited a firestorm by tweeting that “virtually every major Jewish halakhist of the modern era has barred abortion except when the life of the mother is threatened.” Self-ordained Twitter-rabbis rushed forward to contradict Shapiro’s assertion. These self-proclaimed experts cited or mis-cited relatively obscure and minority opinions to try and distract from the fact that Shapiro was essentially correct. Traditional Judaism is and always has been pro-life, and it condemns most abortions performed in the US as immoral.
Of course, nearly every religious matter is subject to debate, especially regarding a contentious issue like abortion. However, not every opinion is given equal weight. Shapiro’s statement accurately describes the most authoritative and widely accepted Jewish sources.
It is worth noting that many of the sources relied on by pro-choice Jews predate the discoveries of modern science demonstrating that human life begins at conception (see: any embryology textbook), that a human fetus has a heartbeat by as early as six weeks, and that fetuses can feel and experience pain relatively early on in the womb. The more we learn about fetal development and capacities, the more difficult it becomes to justify abortion. In fact, it is extraordinary that Judaism took such a strong anti-abortion stance prior to the discovery of such scientific facts.
Jews were pro-life long before Catholicism or evangelical Protestantism existed, and we ought to be proud that Christians adopted our Jewish legacy. An unbroken Jewish pro-life tradition from antiquity through today considers abortion a serious crime, allowable only to save a mother’s life. Consider the following sources:
1. In the first century CE, Josephus noted that his fellow Jews rejected the Greco-Roman practice of aborting unwanted babies: “While Christians adopted the prevailing Jewish view, Tacitus, a Roman consul and historian who supported abortion and infanticide as late as 110 CE, mocked Jews, not Christians, as the source of anti-abortion beliefs. (Tacitus, The Histories, Book V, 5).
2. The legally authoritative Talmud of the late classical period (b. Sanhedrin 57a-b), codified Judaism’s longstanding refusal to end innocent human life in the womb except in a case in which the mother’s life is in danger.
3. Maimonides, the most widely-revered Jewish philosopher, recognized that Jewish law banned abortion except to save a mother’s life. (Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning the Murderer, 1:9).
4. The Zohar, Judaism’s greatest mystical work, notes that an abortionist “destroys the artifice of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His workmanship… For these abominations the Spirit of Holiness weeps…” (Zohar, Exodus 3b).
5.The Shulchan Aruch (published 1565), known as the “Code of Jewish Law” and the foundational text of modern Jewish law for eastern Jews, allows abortion only to save a mother’s life. (Choshen Mishpat 425:1-2).
6. Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Rema - 1574), who wrote the foundational text of modern Jewish law for most western Jews, agrees with the “Code of Jewish Law.” (Also see: Choshen Mishpat 425:1-2).
7. Rabbi Moses Feinstein, the leader of American Ultra-Orthodoxy in the twentieth century, and widely known as a very lenient decisor, considered abortion a form of murder. He emphasized “the need to rule strictly in light of the great laxity” placed on abortion in the West. He harshly dismissed outlier arguments for abortion as illegitimate, rejecting one as lacking “any cogency” and another as so feeble that it was “undoubtedly a forgery compiled by an errant student.” (Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat Pt. 2 Ch. 69).
8 .Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the undisputed intellectual leader of Modern Orthodoxy until his death in 1993, characterized abortion as “a crime” involving “the murder of an unborn child” and thought it obvious that an embryo constitutes an “actual person, not a prospective one.” (The Emergence of Ethical Man, pp. 27-29).
9.Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” leader of the Chabad movement until 1994, wrote that abortion “constitutes deliberate murder of a creature who is as yet unable to protect himself from those who seek to murder him.”
These most respected and followed sources and authorities support Shapiro’s assertion. But Shapiro’s detractors chose to cite dissenting opinions of lesser stature.
Even those opinions, however, are not substantially more permissive than the mainstream sources Shapiro described. They merely add exceptions for grave health concerns that do not necessarily rise to the level of mortal danger. These positions, while theologically divergent, produce similar results in practice. Even pro-choice advocates acknowledge that only a “small proportion” of women have abortions for any maternal or fetal health reason, even when “health” includes morning sickness and difficulty working. These minority opinions do not change the fact that, within the spectrum of American politics, Judaism is solidly pro-life.
We can see just how opportunistic Shapiro’s critics were, given that in a time of need, virtually all of them would abandon their position and admit that Judaism does indeed recognize a human fetus as a living human child. Consider that Jews are forbidden from engaging in many forms of work on the Sabbath. All of these restrictions, however, are preempted by the need to save a human life. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik noted, the same mainstream Jewish sources that prohibit most abortions also provide a rationale for Jews to violate the Sabbath to save a fetus. Conveniently, even the staunchest abortion advocate would almost certainly rely on these mainstream sources to save the life of her unborn child on the Sabbath. Because, after all, these opinions are authoritative, and, as Shapiro noted, deep down everyone agrees: a baby’s life is at stake.
Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin is the President of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, as well as a Resident Research Fellow at the Tikvah Fund and a reservist military chaplain.
Howard Slugh is the General Counsel of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, as well as an attorney practicing constitutional law in Washington, DC.