The sanctity and infinite worth of every human being is a quintessential Jewish value, grounded in the biblical notion that man is made in the image and likeness of God. According to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5): “Whoever destroys one life is as if he destroyed a whole world, and whoever preserves a life is as if he preserved the whole world.”
Against this background, it is ironic and vexatious for many pro-life activists that American Jews tend to line up on the “pro-choice” side in the struggle over abortion. “Affirming the Sanctity of Human Life,” a conference held last November 12 in Washington, D.C., brought together a hundred or so Jews who are troubled by the Jewish community's stance toward the unborn, particularly concerning the gruesome late-term procedure known as “partial-birth abortion.”
The assembly was, if not representative, at least diverse: secular and religious, prominent public personages and private individuals, the well informed and those trying to become informed. Organized by Chris Gersten of the Washington-based Institute for Religious Values, and sponsored by a grant from Our Sunday Visitor Institute, a Catholic organization, the conference was held at the Catholic University of America. Even for someone accustomed to interreligious gatherings, the anomaly was striking. Happily, it was not of the “what's wrong with this picture” variety, but rather, what's right with it: ordinary Jews and rabbis of all denominations (several with long, hasidic-style beards) engaged in dialogue with each other and with the evangelical Protestant and Catholic pro-lifers in attendance. Only in America, one might say—and perhaps only when the issues truly involve life and death.
The morning session consisted of panel presentations by three Orthodox Jews and a maverick Reform rabbi. Marshall Breger, a law professor and political writer, lamented the fact that Jews support “abortion rights” more than any religious or ethnic group: they are consistently 15 to 20 percent above the norm, he said, even when controlling for various factors such as religious belief or unbelief, political ideology, social class, etc. He attributed this support, in part, to fears that governmental restrictions on abortion would abridge personal autonomy and impose Christian religious standards on Jewish life. He said that “gray areas” in Jewish law—its combination of silence and ambiguity regarding the fetus' status, its handful of exceptional situations allowing abortion—have confused Jews about the permissibility of abortion in general.
Barry Freundel, an Orthodox rabbi from Georgetown, seconded Breger's sociological account of Jewish fears about abortion as being “symbolic” of the wider Jewish culture clash with conservative Christian movements. “It's hard to have a conversation about abortion,” he said, “that doesn't become a conversation about something else.” Even among his own Orthodox congregants, Freundel said, his pro-life preaching is treated as the rabbi “getting up on his soapbox” again. Nevertheless, he said, he feels obliged to inform them that the absolute license to abort, as practiced in the United States today, is “simply impossible to reconcile” with traditional Jewish teaching. Judaism, he said, permits abortion in a few limited circumstances, such as to save the life of the mother. He indicated that there is some difference of rabbinic opinion about these circumstances, but stressed that there is no warrant for the overwhelming number of abortions now performed in the U.S. He said that classic Jewish sources really don't say much about the general moral or metaphysical status of the fetus; but, he added, we have an “intuitive response” that the fetus is “not like an appendix or an in-grown toe nail” that can simply be removed at will.
David Novak, a theologian and rabbi who holds a chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, further developed the theme that Jewish thinking on abortion tends to be less theoretical than practical. And the guide to practice is sometimes ambiguous: The great medieval teacher Rashi, for instance, implies in one case that the fetus has no rights, but elsewhere seems to imply the opposite. No Jewish source, however, accepts abortion for the purpose of birth control or sterility, a practice that “cheapens human life” and public morality. Novak suggested that Jewish casuistry regarding permissible versus impermissible abortions could leaven the general societal debate on this vexed issue. But he warned against having the Jewish witness be limited to pleading “exceptions” and hard cases; it is corrupting, he argued, to allow exceptional cases to dictate general rules, or, worse, to be the occasion for erasing rules altogether. Despite his emphasis on the practical over the metaphysical, Professor Novak did, finally, open the door to the kind of wider considerations assumed by Christian pro-life advocates when he spoke of Judaism's overall thrust toward “greater inclusiveness in the human community.”
Yehuda Levin, an Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn—a conference participant though not a panel member—said that the Orthodox community has a special responsibility to present to the wider public the authentic pro-natal, pro-life Jewish view on abortion. Levin, well known in the New York area for taking the conservative cultural agenda to the streets and to talk radio, said Jews are obliged not just to cultivate righteousness within their own community but also to be “a light unto the nations”; specifically, he argued, Orthodox institutions should lobby to protect life as earnestly as they seek tuition tax credits or vouchers for religious schools.
Clifford E. Librach, a Reform rabbi from Sharon, Massachusetts, picked up on the theme of greater inclusiveness. He turned the tables on his own liberal Reform movement, which frequently justifies changes in Jewish law on the grounds that the ancient rabbis lacked modern, scientific knowledge. What, then, Rabbi Librach asked, if the sages had known that, from the moment of conception, twenty-three chromosome pairs form the signature of each human being, or that a fetus exhibits brain waves at just ten weeks, or that fetuses are sensitive to music and human voices? Though the Reform movement has uncritically supported “abortion rights” in its political activities, Librach found a source of possible hope in its rabbinic wing, which has occasionally displayed a measure of moral seriousness on the issue. In 1996, for instance, it refused to give legal approval for an abortion to a couple that claimed giving birth to a handicapped child “would impose an undue hardship on their other children.” According to the rabbinic responsum: “The secrets of God . . . are not knowable,” and “We do not encourage abortion, nor favor it for trivial reasons, nor sanction it on demand.” At other times, however, Librach noted, the Reform rabbinate exhibits pro-choice obfuscation, euphemism, and self-contradiction, as in its 1994 home prayerbook, which offers the following prayer “upon termination of a pregnancy”: “Mother of all life: I need You. I need Your comfort and love; I yearn to rest my head on Your tender breast. Rock me in Your arms as I reflect upon the meaning of life and loss. . . . Awed by the creative powers within my body, I look back with sadness on the life that could not be.”
Similar ambivalence characterizes the thinking of Conservative movement rabbis, Librach said. He quoted a 1998 Conservative rabbinic manual, whose section on “grieving ritual following termination of pregnancy” is hopelessly self-contradictory in its attitude toward the unborn: in some passages referring to the fetus as “a thing,” a mere “stirring” or “seed” of life “that could not grow into a child” and therefore “could not be,” but in other places as a “baby,” even praying “Shelter this baby, O God, under Your care.”
As part of a successful strategy to reduce abortion, Librach cited the need to celebrate the “autonomy” of the fetus and its potential for uniqueness and creativity. Hesed, the Hebrew word for lovingkindness, with its implication of self-sacrifice and surrender, should be part of the mother's attitude toward the unborn life within her, and of society's toward her in her dilemma. We must “acknowledge . . . the difficulty in addressing both the morality of the act [of abortion] and the fragile loneliness of the mother, who is both a person and a vessel . . . [and who] desperately needs a friend more than a lecture.” He recalled God's solicitude for Hagar (in Genesis 16) as a model for our response to women who feel abandoned, bereft, and alone.
The luncheon speaker was actor Ben Stein, who argued for the importance of bringing the pro-life case to Hollywood's liberal Jewish elite. Though that elite is not particularly religious, it will, over the long term, take notice if groups of rabbis persistently argue against abortion and for life. Given that so many people take their cultural and moral cues from movies and TV, it is vital, he said, that Hollywood be converted to the pro-life cause. He expressed a wish that the TV series Touched by an Angel would have a pregnant young woman receive the message that the life inside her is a human being; that, he said, would be a cultural turning point. Already, he noted, there is some “upward seepage” of pro-life sentiment in Hollywood coming from the industry's blue-collar support people—grips, light men, hairdressers, make-up artists, and others.
In the afternoon, there were two impassioned pleas for Jewish opposition to the late-term procedure frequently called “dilation and extraction” but commonly known as “partial-birth abortion.” As the speakers all indicated, “partial-birth” is the more accurate description because labor is induced to the point that the majority of the body comes out the birth canal, while the head, still remaining inside, is punctured with scissors and the brain suctioned out by a catheter in order to facilitate removal of the collapsed skull. The procedure is, according to every speaker at the conference, clearly in violation of Jewish law, which says that if either a baby's head or the majority of its body emerges from the womb it is considered a human being and may not be harmed.
Sandi Merle, a Manhattan-based writer and founder of STOP (Standing Together Opposing Partial-birth), said recent election results and congressional votes seem to confirm that “American culture is becoming a culture of violence and death. Worst of all are the murders of convenience, very much like the killing of unwanted babies in the days of Moses. It is an infamous sign of human regression if we are to become the murderous pharaohs rather than the life-saving midwives. . . . As a people with a tribal memory, instinct tells us we must fight for the survival of those most vulnerable among us-in this case those without a voice, innocent unborn children.” She called for educational efforts, political activism, and a simple truthfulness that doesn't try to “cleanse” or “sterilize” the reality of partial-birth abortion by describing it simply as a late-term abortion. “Be not afraid. Say the vile words: ‘Partial-birth,' ‘suction tubes,' ‘infanticide,' ‘murder.' Describe the procedure to all who will listen. Make them feel the scissors' thrust. Otherwise we will be meeting here again next year, and we will remain polite, and kind, and timid, and proper, and—I'm afraid—doomed.”
Moses A. Birnbaum, a Conservative movement rabbi from Plainview, Long Island, was among the 450 rabbis who, under the sponsorship of the Institute for Religious Values, recently published an open letter to Jewish members of the U.S. Senate, urging an override of President Clinton's veto of a bill to ban partial-birth abortion. The National Council of Jewish Women countered with a pro-abortion letter signed by a group of 500 rabbis; but, Rabbi Birnbaum said, they were unable to refute either the medical or religious arguments of the original letter. Troubled by the idea that religiously knowledgeable Jews could sign such an anti-life document, Birnbaum concluded that “Many rabbis, difficult as it is to believe, are not aware of the horrific details of the partial-birth abortion procedure.” Nevertheless, he said, he has been able to convert many of them to a pro-life position by explaining its details and assuring them that the legislation makes full provision to protect the life of the mother.
He said there is much misgiving and guilt in the Jewish community over partial-birth abortion, and people are hungering for an authentic Jewish response. Although Jews cannot, like Catholics, accept a total ban on all abortions, according to Rabbi Birnbaum, it is imperative to “unite with our Christian brothers and sisters” against partial-birth, “a procedure unique in its total violation of Jewish law” and “tantamount to infanticide.” He said Jews should not worry about partial-birth legislation leading to a wider ban on abortion, but should consider one issue at a time. He decried the “mantra of choice,” arguing that sometimes people must simply “choose life—the best choice of all, the only choice.”
Rabbi Eliezer Goldstock of Brooklyn, a Lubavitcher hasid, criticized today's “morality of convenience” which is always “looking for an excuse” even as “children are being killed.” Rabbi Goldstock, who is director of Heart to Heart—an agency that counsels women with unborn children of imperfect health to carry their pregnancies to term, gives post-birth assistance, and, where necessary, provides adoption services—said fetal handicap does not justify abortion, since we are all born with a grave handicap: our mortality.
Though the key conference participants and attendees were learned in Jewish law and tradition, one should not underestimate the importance of the ordinary Jews, whether religious or not, whose presence seemed to me a great sign of hope. If these Jews in all their diversity and independence could see the rightness of the pro-life cause (in whatever measure), so, I thought, might many others. As more and more Jews begin to feel comfortable discussing protection for the unborn, what was previously unthinkable becomes suddenly thinkable, even do-able. Education is key, Andrea Seawald, a social worker from Pittsburgh, told me; eventually there will have to be a national Jewish pro-life organization.
Conference organizer Chris Gersten thanked the pro-life movement and Catholic University for “creating space” for a specifically Jewish pro-life group that is unified, at least for now, only in its opposition to partial-birth abortion. That might be the beginning of a larger Judeo-Christian consensus on life, but to help end this one particularly heinous procedure would, in itself, be a great good. As Sandi Merle put it: “Ultimately, we will have to explain to our children, and our children's children. L'dor va-dor, from generation to generation, we may have to explain the evil that lives after us.”
Matthew Berke is Managing Editor of First Things.