The abortion issue raises raw emotions on both sides of the political spectrum. Strong feelings are often backed up by strong words, from both sides of the aisle, red and blue. When it comes to what the Torah has to say about the issue, oftentimes people might assume that the approach is open and shut, or black and white. The truth of the matter is that there is a lot of gray. Life is often complicated and requires a nuanced approach. As the Torah is a guide to living life, it is infinitely complex and its approach to individual human cases is therefore incredibly nuanced. The slogans of the two sides of this issue are painfully inadequate and banal. Who is not “pro-life?” And who is not “pro-choice?” Do we not all believe that life is a supreme value and want to choose our own path?
When it comes to the Torah’s approach to the issue of abortion, it is true that the phrase, “my body, my choice,” does not represent a Torah outlook. The Torah does not claim that humans are given “rights,” but rather that they are tasked with “responsibilities.” One does not have the right, according to the Torah, to commit suicide, to wound themselves, or to do whatever they would like with their own bodies. As such, the Torah forbids abortion in the majority of circumstances.
However, that does not mean that the Torah is in line with the laws of many states under which abortion is now against the law. The Torah clearly permits abortion in the case of a threat to the mother’s life. The nature of that threat may be much more liberally defined according to Jewish law than according to the State of Wisconsin or many other states. There are major debates between elite decisores of Jewish law as to the circumstances and timing of permitting an abortion. How to classify an abortion at different stages is also debated between great sages. To pretend that there is a monolithic approach to these issues in the Torah is to ignore the truth of the matter.
Another issue which the Jewish community, and in fact, many decisores of Jewish law, have struggled with is the wisdom of advocating for the government’s involvement in deciding matters of freedom of choice. Deciding when life begins and when life ends, are not wholly medical ones, but are informed by philosophy and religious thought as well. Based on that premise, one could say that it behooves the religious individual to advocate for a public policy which they feel is more in line with a Torah approach. However, many great Torah sages have been afraid to advocate for the government’s involvement in limiting personal freedoms, even in cases in which they align with a Torah viewpoint, because they feared that once the government decides to impinge on one personal freedom, they may come to limit another which could severely harm the free exercise of religion.
Rabbi Wes Kalmar leads Congregation Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah, Glendale, and is to offer a three-part educational series, “Abortion in Jewish Law, Thought and in light of Dobbs vs. Jackson,” starting Nov. 9, 2002. The community is invited to attend.
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How to go
WHAT: “Abortion in Jewish Law, Thought and in light of Dobbs vs. Jackson.” Rabbi Wes Kalmar will address the issue from different angles: that of Jewish law, of Jewish thought, of public policy for the Jewish community, and by sharing personal stories from his life and rabbinate.
WHERE: Congregation Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah, 6717 N. Green Bay Ave., Glendale
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 9; Wednesday, Nov. 16, and Tuesday, Nov. 22, all at 7:30 p.m.