Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this guest post are solely those of the author and are not necessarily reflective of Live Action or Live Action News. The following was sent by Rabbi Shlomo Nachman in response to a Washington Post article, and he has given permission to reprint it here.
Author’s Note: The recent Washington Post piece, “An ancient mistranslation is now helping to threaten abortion rights,” is foisting anti-Torah misinformation, based upon the pro-death consciousness that many Jews are assimilating into their actions and even more devastatingly into their consciousness, on the ill-educated public.
The Torah also does not specifically forbid car-jacking, but that does not mean it permits it. Jewish women back in the day would never have taken the lives of their own children! G-d forbids even the thought. Some things are simply obvious and did not need to be spelled out: Thou shalt not car-jack, thou shalt not murder your children! Nonetheless, the Torah clearly protects the unborn and prohibits child slaughter. I have written more on this elsewhere at learnemunah.com.
Abortion remains one of the most heated debate topics today both within and without Judaism. As we examine the rabbinic rulings on this topic we find examples of our diversity. While most Orthodox rabbis are united in their objection to abortion, many non-Orthodox approve of it, and there are exceptions of course on both sides. In my opinion, the Torah is quite clear on this matter. It seems to me that those who support the taking of these innocent lives usually do so because of political correctness and/or cultural assimilation. I see no way that any Torah-observant person could support this.
Were Judaism strictly a Torah based religion there would be no question in anyone’s mind that it protect the unborn. We also look to the Talmudic debates however, and there things are not quite as clear on this issue, and yet still the general paradigm is one of pro-life. … HaTorah specifically states, “You will not murder.” (9) and “…choose life, if you and your offspring would live.” (10) This principle is often expressed throughout the Scriptures. Therefore we find the following from the Jewish Virtual Library.
The shedding of blood (shefikhut damim) is the primeval sin (Gen. 4:8) and throughout the centuries ranks in Jewish law as the gravest and most reprehensible of all offenses (cf. Maim. Guide, 3:41, and Yad, Roẓe’aḥ 1:4); “violence” in Genesis 6:13 was murder (Gen. R. 31:6), and the “very wicked sinners” of Sodom (Gen. 13:13) were murderers (Sanh. 109a). Bloodshed is the subject of the first admonition of a criminal nature in the Bible: “Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man” (Gen. 9:6). God will require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man (Gen. 9:5). Blood unlawfully shed cries out to God from the ground (Gen. 4:10) and “pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it except by the blood of him who shed it” (Num. 35:33) (see *Bloodguilt). Blood unlawfully shed is innocent blood (dam naki) (Deut. 19:10, 13; 21:8; 27:25; I Sam. 19:5; II Kings 21:16; 24:4; Isa. 59:7; Jer. 2:34; 7:6; 19:4; 22:3, 17; Joel 4:19; et al.), of the righteous (Ex. 23:7; II Sam. 4:11; I Kings 2:32; Lam. 4:13), or blood shed “without cause” (dam ḥinnam) (I Kings 2:31; I Sam. 25:31). “Blood” is also often used as a term indicating general lawlessness and criminality (Isa. 1:15; Prov. 1:16, 18), “men of blood” are lawless criminals (II Sam. 16:7–8; Prov. 29:10), and “cities of blood” places of corruption and wickedness (Nah. 3:1). Following the biblical reference to the image of God (Gen. 9:6), it is said that all bloodshed is a disparagement of God’s own image (Tosef., Yev. 8:4; Gen. R. 34:4), and caused God to turn away from the land, the Temple to be destroyed (Tosef., Yoma 1:12; Shab. 33a; Sif. Num. 161) and dispersion (galut) to come into the world (Avot 5:9; Num. R. 7:10). (11)
The conditions against murder listed above must include the pre-born who are the most innocent and helpless of all victims. It is not listed here specifically because the idea that people would become so fallen that they would slaughter millions of their own children doubtless never occurred to them.
While the Torah is completely clear in its condemnation of murder, as Jews we are also carefully to consider the Talmud and the rulings of our sages. When differentiating between “murder” and “killing” we are required to find a clear element of premeditation. Was the loss of life due to intention and aforethought or was it an accidental taking of life. The penalties are quite different. In the case of abortion the intention is clearly intentional. Throughout Jewish Tradition and Law the role of kavanah or intention is paramount because HaShem’s judgments are always tempered with compassion based in part on our intention. On this point, the above source continues:
Talmudic law also further extended the principle that premeditation in murder is to be determined either by the nature of the instrument used or by previous expressions of enmity. While there are deadly instruments, such as iron bars or knives, the use of which would afford conclusive evidence of premeditation (Maim. Yad, Roẓe’aḥ, 3:4), the court will in the majority of cases have to infer premeditation not only from the nature of the instrument used, but also from other circumstances, such as which part of the victim’s body was hit or served the assailant as his target, or the distance from which he hit or threw stones at the victim, or the assailant’s strength to attack and the victim’s strength to resist (ibid. 3:2; 5,6). Thus, where a man is pushed from the roof of a house, or into water or fire, premeditation will be inferred only when in all the proven circumstances – height of the house, depth of the water, respective strengths of assailant and victim – death was the natural consequence of the act and must have been intended by the assailant (ibid. 3:9). There is, however, notwithstanding the presence of premeditation, no capital murder in Jewish law, unless death is caused by the direct physical act of the assailant. Thus, starving a man to death, or exposing him to heat or cold or wild beasts, or in any other way bringing about his death by the anticipated – and however certain – operation of a supervening cause, would not be capital murder (ibid. 3:10–13). The same applies to murder committed not by the instigator himself, but by his agent or servant (ibid. 2:2; as to accomplices see *Penal Law).
In the case of abortion or infanticide the mother either intentionally goes to the abortionist requesting the death of her child, or she intentionally takes some agent that she knows will destroy her child. In either case the mother is clearly guilty of the murder of her own child. Cases of forced abortion in places like China are not part of my considerations here. I speak of those who choose this path for themselves.
As for the halachic punishment, the complexity of the Talmud leaves the sentencing to the discretion of the beit din. We can say however that if the mother hired an abortionist to commit the murder, her child did not die directly at her hand and so the abortionist would be liable to the death sentence, while the mother would be held to a lesser punishment (a ruling I would not personally support as I feel her participation in the murder demands the same punishment as the abortionist). If the mother took a ‘morning after pill’ she would be liable to the death penalty according to my understanding of the halachot as well as the biblical mandate. In the Tanach capital punishment is not dependent on the age of the victim nor the aggressor (Nid. 5:3; Maim., ibid. 2:6). Justice mandated the extreme penalty in cases of any murder. We no longer applies these laws of course, but the Divine Law remains in play. HaShem executes His judgments.
Daniel Eisenberg, M.D. notes for Aish.com:
The traditional Jewish view of abortion does not fit conveniently into any of the major “camps” in the current American abortion debate. We neither ban abortion completely, nor do we allow indiscriminate abortion “on demand.”…The easiest way to conceptualize a fetus in halacha is to imagine it as a full-fledged human being – but not quite. (12) In most circumstances, the fetus is treated like any other “person.” “Generally, one may not deliberately harm a fetus.” (13)
As stated in Torah:
When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a premature birth results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life – eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. Exodus 21:22-25.
This verse must be carefully understood. Many translations read “and a miscarriage occurs” rather than as “a premature birth results” as I have it here. The passage, in my opinion, is to “a premature birth” when the context is considered. The text actually says that if the child “departs” [“yasa”] the womb and no other damage ensues from the event. In other words, if because of the struggle the baby is born early but is otherwise fine, then the men may be required to pay damages for their carelessness but no more. “But if other damage ensues,” i.e. the baby is born with some deformity or born dead, then the standard penalties will apply, ‘an eye for eye, tooth for tooth’. If the child dies as a result the men are guilty of the murder, a life for a life. The text makes no sense any other way. The Hebrew term shachol references an abortion or miscarriage. That word is not used here. There is conclusive evidence that both Torah and Rabbinic halacha regarding the pre-birth child as fully human and subject to the same protections and respect as all other people.
The only biblical or halachic justification for an abortion is when the mother’s life is clearly in jeopardy. In such cases the rabbis have ruled that the baby is like a rodef, a pursuer seeking the life of its prey. While halacha demands each of us to protect the lives of others to the best of our abilities, it does not require us to martyr ourselves to do so. Likewise the mother is not required by halacha, neither biblical nor rabbinic, to lay down her life so that her child might live.
So serious and sad is such a rare situation that the Mishna adds, that if it would be possible to save the mother’s life by maiming the baby, such as by amputating one of the child’s limbs, abortion would then be forbidden, so that both the child and mother could both live. Despite the classification of the pre-birth baby in such cases as a rodef, once the baby’s head or most of its body has been delivered, the baby’s life is considered equal to the mother’s, and we may not choose one life over another, because it is considered as though they are both pursuing each other. (14)
We see therefore that the pre-birth child is considered fully human from conception onward, with the exception that while the child is within the mother her life takes priority in the event of medical emergency. Our Law therefore rejects abortion and in my opinion, despite the views I acknowledged above, the use of so-called pre-embryonic zygot for harvesting stem cells. Human life is sacred and Torah demands it be treated as such.
The Aish article continues with the following point that is directly relevant to our question of stem cells, transplants, and so on:
It is important to point out that the reason that the life of the fetus is subordinate to the mother is because the fetus is the cause of the mother’s life-threatening condition, whether directly (e.g. due to toxemia, placenta previa, or bre[e]ch position) or indirectly (e.g. exacerbation of underlying diabetes, kidney disease, or hypertension). (8) A fetus may not be aborted to save the life of any other person whose life is not directly threatened by the fetus, such as use of fetal organs for transplant.
… As a rule, Jewish law does not assign relative values to different lives. Therefore, almost most major poskim (Rabbis qualified to decide matters of Jewish law) forbid abortion in cases of abnormalities or deformities found in a fetus. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one the greatest poskim of the past century, rules that even amniocentesis is forbidden if it is performed only to evaluate for birth defects for which the parents might request an abortion. Nevertheless, a test may be performed if a permitted action may result, such as performance of amniocentesis or drawing alpha-fetoprotein levels for improved peripartum or postpartum medical management.
So to sum up my understandings on these topics: Human life is sacred at all points of its development. Hence we are commanded: “… I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live— Deuteronomy 30:19. All life, especially human life, is to be treated with honor and dignity at all times regardless of its age, health, or other considerations. Treating human beings as objects, harvesting them for lab experiments, buying and selling their stem cells etc, taking their lives through needless abortions – meaning other than to save the life of the mother – are monstrous activities in violation of Torah and our Holy Religion. Such actions are violations of the sanctity of the Sacred Name. As Rabbi Hillel said, “That which you find detestable do not do to another.” I choose to live, hence I am pro-Torah and pro-life.
9. Exodus 20:13
10. Deuteronomy 30:19
12. Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat II: 69B
Bio: Rabbi Shlomo Nachman ben Ya’akov is an Chassidic (Breslov) Sephardic Jew and Rabbi Yoreh Yoreh, Yadin Yadin. He also holds an MA in WorldReligious Studies, an Interfaith Counseling degree and other achievements. He is the owner/author of LearnEmunah.com and offers weekly live Jewish broadcasts and services.
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