Tacitus, the great Roman historian of the first two centuries A.D., disdained the Jews’ conviction that it is “a crime to kill any late born child.” For many Romans, disposing of unwanted or illegitimate infants through strangulation or drowning made good economic sense. But Jewish tradition, which holds that all human beings bear the divine image, could not stomach the murder of toddlers, no matter how convenient or genteel.
Judaism introduced to the world the radical claim that all human beings, regardless of station or means, are created in the divine image. And for thousands of years, the Jewish people have been a countercultural bulwark in defending the sanctity of human life. In this light, one could describe Judaism’s worldview as “pro-life.” But in 2019, what does it mean for Judaism to be “pro-life”? Today, the term refers to a specific opinion on abortion. And though the Jewish tradition certainly addresses abortion, its teachings do not align well with either pole of the contemporary abortion debate.
On one hand, Jewish beliefs about the human fetus are incompatible with most pro-choice formulations. Even the Union for Reform Judaism, a liberal denomination that officially supports a woman’s right to choose to abort, affirms that “an unborn fetus is precious and to be protected.”
On the other hand, it is difficult to square Jewish tradition and law with the pro-life positions of Catholics and evangelicals. For instance, Jewish sources forbid feticide. According to many authorities, this injunction is related to the prohibition against murder, in which case it may only be waived when the mother’s life is threatened. But according to many other Jewish writings, abortion is not a subset of murder at all—at least during the early or even middle stages of pregnancy. Instead, it is a form of tort, falling under the proscription against causing bodily injury—including injury to oneself. If abortion is not a form of murder, then other considerations—shame, mental anguish, or the potential suffering that would result if a child was born with a debilitating genetic condition—may sometimes override the basic prohibition against abortion. The leading Orthodox Jewish authorities both in America and Israel take these factors seriously.
Recent statements from prominent Orthodox Jewish organizations indicate as much. Agudath Israel, which officially disapproves of Roe v. Wade, still maintains that it “opposes initiatives that would make abortion unlawful even in situations where termination of pregnancy is mandated by religious law.” Historically, Agudath Israel has fought legislative attempts to define life as beginning at conception. Similarly, in a nuanced statement supportive of the March for Life, the Rabbinical Alliance notes that “a fetus is not yet accorded the full status of life given to a living person.”
Since contemporary observers often define “pro-life” as Catholic or evangelical perspectives on abortion, Judaism’s fierce commitment to life tends to be downplayed, or even ignored. But the complex view on abortion found within traditional Jewish sources is merely one facet of Judaism’s wider conception of human existence. Judaism’s “pro-life” outlook—its promotion of human life and human flourishing—is much more ambitious and all-encompassing than any particular stance one might adopt on abortion.
To best express their historic pro-life worldview in 2019, Jews should adopt the term “pro-natalism.” Pro-natalism maintains that one of the keys to a healthy, happy, dynamic society is promoting families and supporting childbearing. The public health literature is clear that families are great for children, parents, and economic growth. A recent working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research argues that nearly all the declining dynamism in the U.S. economy since the 1970s can be explained by slowing population growth. In a practical sense, a growing workforce is crucial for the long-term sustainability of safety net programs like Social Security.
Pro-natalism is also a way of acknowledging how our society must better deliver on women’s stated preferences. The data indicates that women in the developed world do not have as many children as they say they want, intend, or consider ideal. This represents a societal failure to support women’s choices.
Judaism’s foundational texts lionize large families. According to the Talmud, the first law in recorded history is God’s post-diluvian command to be fruitful and multiply. Jewish tradition records that the ancient Israelites responded to Egyptian oppression by having even larger families. This contrasts starkly with voices who have recently questioned whether it is ethical to have children, given the threat of climate change. In Jewish thought, the dominant pedagogical metaphor is the passing down of knowledge from parents to children. American Jews already serve as pro-natalist role models. According to a Pew Forum study in 2013, Jews by religion have fertility levels above replacement, averaging 2.1 children; Orthodox Jews do better still (4.1), a rate that rises even higher for so-called ultra-Orthodox Jews.
One of the great pro-natalist success stories of the modern era is the State of Israel. It has the highest per capita birth rate in the developed world, is at the forefront of reproductive technology, and is generous in sponsoring fertility treatment. Israel’s strong pro-natalist ethos emerged largely as a response to the demographic catastrophe suffered by Jews during the Holocaust. This powerful collective memory suffuses Israeli culture, even reaching those not directly affected by the Holocaust. Israel’s example illustrates the way in which successful pro-natalism is built on shared cultural values. Recent Eastern European pro-natalist experiments showing signs of failure, like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, likely owe their undoing to the partisan manner in which pro-natalism has been framed in those countries. If Israel is any indicator, pro-natalism’s success in America will require wide, cultural consensus-building.
If Jewish thinkers, leaders, and activists wish to live up to the values of this ancient, comprehensive, “pro-life” heritage, then the way forward is clear. It is time for Jews to lead the way in building a cultural vision and policy environment that encourage the growth and flourishing of families.
Rabbi Ari Lamm is the Special Advisor to the President of Yeshiva University.
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