The reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade has sent shock waves throughout America. The constitutional right of women to termination of pregnancy, and the corresponding block on states wishing to outlaw abortions during certain periods of pregnancy, have been obvious for decades. Generations have grown up on the simple assumption that a women’s right to decide over her own body is enshrined as part of the constitutional right to privacy. Now, after fifty years, the US Supreme Court has reversed the ruling, deciding that the right to perform an abortion is not included in the US constitution. Reactions, not unexpectedly, have been intense or even unhinged. Thousands took to the street in demonstrations, some violent, against the ruling. Politicians, public figures, state leaders, and cultural icons all felt duty-bound to react, with the overwhelming majority siding against the decision. Nobody could remain impartial.
It is fascinating to chart the reactions of different Jewish organizations such as rabbinical committees, welfare organizations, political chapters, and community representatives. In its great majority, Jewish America came out forcefully against the new Dobbs decision. The National Council of Jewish Women (founded in 1893) mourned the “egregious decision,” stating that “abortion access is and always was a Jewish value” and pledging to take action. Its approach reflected the general reaction of non-observant denominations of American Jewry, which expressed their dismay and even their disgust at the decision and swore to oppose it by any possible means. Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor, a progressive synagogue in Palm Beach County, filed a lawsuit challenging legislation that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, arguing that it violates the tenet of freedom of religion and contravenes Jewish law.
The National Council of Jewish Women (founded in 1893) mourned the “egregious decision,” stating that “abortion access is and always was a Jewish value” and pledging to take action. Its approach reflected the general reaction of non-observant denominations of American Jewry, which expressed their dismay and even their disgust at the decision and swore to oppose it by any possible means
All this is not particularly surprising. Jewish groups whose values are molded by the liberal ideologies of the 20th and 21st centuries will naturally side with “women’s right to their own body” rather than the rights of an unborn fetus to life or the corresponding prohibition against abortion. But what should be our own approach, the approach of an observant Jewry (Charedi or otherwise)?
In the present article, I will argue that as Torah-true Jews, we should support the cancellation of the absolute right of a woman to abort a fetus. In my rabbinic role, I have been involved in difficult and sometimes heartwrenching questions related to abortion, and I am well aware of the nuance that distinguishes halacha from some of the Catholic approaches to abortion. Yet, the idea of elective abortion remains light years from Torah and halacha. Moreover, the debate on abortion should not be seen through the narrow prism of halacha alone. The dispute over involves a profound divide between two different worldviews, whose ramifications cover a broad swathe of crucial societal issues. In this matter, it seems to me that our place must be firmly in the pro-life camp.
Pro-Choice or Pro-Life?
The abortion dispute currently raging in the United States is framed in terms of “pro-choice” and “pro-life”: the camp supporting a woman’s moral and constitutional right to abortions is “pro-choice,” while the rival camp that favors prohibiting abortions is “pro-life.” At first glance, it seems that in terms of values we can identify with both.
On the one hand, how can we not be pro-life when scripture informs us that this is God’s fundamental will—”life is His will” (Tehillim 30:6)? Indeed, the very first human duty mentioned in the Torah, and the first Mitzvah in the Rambam’s listing of 613 Mitzvot, is the obligation to procreate, bringing new life into the world. It is not surprising that Orthodox Jews have the highest birthrates (by far) in Israel, and birthrates for Orthodox Jews in America (in stark contrast with their non-Orthodox brethren) are also far higher than the national average. Beyond this, the halachic prohibition against abortions is universally accepted. According to the Rambam, the reason why it is permitted to abort a fetus when the pregnancy endangers the mother is because it has the status of a “rodef”—somebody who threatens another person’s life. Were it not for this special halachic status, the ruling implies that killing the fetus would constitute a murder prohibition. This, indeed, is the position famously held by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who wrote:
Based on the Rishonim and the commentaries, it is simple and obvious that the clear ruling, as I have written, is that abortion of any fetus, whether qualified or a mamzer, normal fetuses or those suffering from Tay-Sachs, is prohibited as murder. One must not err in this to rely on the response given by this Sage.
Among other halachic authorities, some take a more lenient position, disagreeing with Rabbi Feinstein’s unequivocal position that abortion is murder. According to these opinions, the permissibility of abortions can be extended beyond the narrow scope of lethal danger to the mother. However, all concur that there is a concrete prohibition against performing an abortion and that doing so can only be justified under exceptional and extreme circumstances. The severity of the transgression is reflected in the fact that based on Talmudic law, a non-Jew who kills a fetus is liable to capital punishment (!) (Sanhedrin 57b). As the Talmud clarifies, this will certainly imply a corresponding prohibition even for Jews (Sanhedrin 59a).
We are thus pro-life. Yet, it seems there is also room for a conceptual identification with pro-choice. The Torah behooves us to take personal responsibility and accountability for our actions, and excuses such as “this is what everybody does” or “my rabbi told me” are not accepted as cause for acquittal. Although much of the Torah relates to the Jewish people as a nation—the nation prospers when it follows the path of God and regresses when it fails to do so—there remains a clear recognition of the part of individuals and their personal responsibility within the nation. This recognition is strongly reinforced by the Sages, who emphasized the individual nature of upholding the Torah alongside the personalized reward of the World to Come, and stressed that each person must declare, following the first of men, that “the entire world was created for me” (Sanhedrin 4:5). Jewish education has forever demanded of each individual that he fulfills the dictate of “choose life, in order that you shall live, you and your offspring” (Devarim 30:19). In this sense, we are for personal choice.
Jewish law requires the rabbinic authority to relate with sensitivity to the hardships the woman is experiencing and to consider what is possible and appropriate in every given situation. In the USA context, an argument can therefore be made in favor of free access to abortions, which will ensure that state legislation will not forbid abortions even when Jewish law sanctions (or obligates) it
Added to this is the fact that the approach of Jewish law to abortion is far from the same as the Catholic ban that forbids abortions even under the most extenuating circumstances (including, according to some Catholic theologians, even when the mother’s life is endangered), and without distinguishing between early (before 40 days) and late pregnancies. Jewish law requires the rabbinic authority to relate with sensitivity to the hardships the woman is experiencing and to consider what is possible and appropriate in every given situation. In the USA context, an argument can therefore be made in favor of free access to abortions, which will ensure that state legislation will not forbid abortions even when Jewish law sanctions (or obligates) it.
This, it seems, is the dilemma that caused Orthodox groups and institutions, most prominently the Orthodox Union, to plead neutrality in the abortion debate. Its statement, published following the leak of the draft court decision, reads as follows:
The Orthodox Union is unable to either mourn or celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade. We cannot support absolute bans on abortion—at any time point in a pregnancy—that would not allow access to abortion in lifesaving situations. Similarly, we cannot support legislation that does not limit abortion to situations in which medical (including mental health) professionals affirm that carrying the pregnancy to term poses real risk to the life of the mother.
The JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington), an umbrella organization that binds together Jewish organizations and institutions from across the Jewish spectrum, went as far as to fiercely condemn the Dobbs decision, marshaling Jewish law to argue that Jews are doubly harmed by the decision.
I find both statements objectionable. The latter implies that banning abortion-on-demand is somehow a greater injustice to practicing Jews than to most Americans, which would be patently untrue. Traditional Jews are infinitely more reticent to perform abortions than your average American, and rabbinic authorities of previous generations, most prominently the aforementioned Rabbi Feinstein, even banned amniocentesis due to the concern of aborting the pregnancy (today, for a variety of reasons, the common rabbinic ruling is more permissive).
But even the former position is deeply problematic. Yes, it is important that legislation outlawing abortion makes exceptions for cases in which the mother’s life is endangered (which state legislation generally does). Exceptions for cases of potential physical and mental harm should also be considered, as should additional extenuating circumstances. But as Jews, and certainly as Jews for whom the Torah and its values are dear and occupy a central place in their lives, we need to recognize that the debate between the rival camps is not a narrow and innocent dispute between competing, legitimate values. The feud between the camps is an all-out war against much of what we hold good and sacred. Without ignoring the nuance that a Jewish approach brings to the subject, we should be unequivocal about taking a side in the dispute.
A War On the Holy
“People who have the physical power to create, nurture, and give life also have the power to decide when and if it is the right time to do so.” This simple statement, which appears as the caption of the Women’s Rabbinic Network’s statement expressing “devastation” and “despair” over the Dobbs decision, characterizes the spirit of the pro-choice movement. The women rabbis clarify their position further:
We stand with generations of Jewish scholars who state clearly and unequivocally that abortion access is a Jewish value. […] Today’s decision denies pregnant people agency over their own bodies and some of the most important decisions they will make in their lives. Our bodies and our spirits are reflections of the Divine, and no one should be treated as less than that. […] Abortion access is a Jewish value.
This supposedly “Jewish value” of abortion-on-demand was taken to an extreme at a recent Senate Judiciary Committee in which Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) questioned UC Berkeley School of Law Professor Khiara M. Bridges on the value of unborn children’s lives. To Cornyn’s question, “Do you think that a baby that is not yet born has value?”, Bridges replied: “I believe that a person with the capacity for pregnancy has value. They have intelligence. They have agency. They have dignity.” Pushed to answer the question of an unborn baby’s value just a day before birth, Bridges would only repeat her statement, explaining that she prefers to answer the question she deems more interesting: “I think that the person with the capacity for pregnancy has value, and they should have the ability to control what happens to their lives.”
Bridges’ opinion might be extreme, but it reflects the core argument of the pro-choice movement in favor of abortions, which can be summed up in three simple points:
- Each person has an absolute and inviolable right over his or her body;
- An unborn infant is a part of the female body;
- Therefore, a woman has an absolute right to perform an abortion.
In a nutshell, the argument prioritizes personal autonomy over any other value, stopping only at the line of causing physical harm to others, where its realization would result in a Hobbsean anarchy and the dissolution of society. This is why the Cornyn-Bridges altercation noted above is so telling: the value of personal autonomy is “more interesting” than any other value, certainly more than quasi-religious musings over when “life” begins.
In a nutshell, the pro-choice argument prioritizes personal autonomy over any other value, stopping only at the line of causing physical harm to others, where its realization would result in a Hobbsean anarchy and the dissolution of society. This is why the Cornyn-Bridges altercation noted above is so telling: the value of personal autonomy is “more interesting” than any other value
The position, while articulated here in the context of abortions, is far broader in its reach. By way of illustration, Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion supplier in the United States, is also a key player in promoting progressive policies on a range of issues: sex change therapy, liberal sex education for children, a radical feminist ideology, and a range of additional progressive agendas in public matters (from questions of religion and state to the status of illegal immigrants). As Bridges emphasized with her choice of words (“a person with the capacity for pregnancy”)—words that were the subject of a separate altercation with Sen. Josh Hawley—the pro-choice camp is almost automatically identified with the belief that men can become pregnant. Pro-choice is for choice all the way.
This “infinite choice” position, an attitude that penetrates every human space via three dominant channels—the media, academia, and popular culture—is inherently opposed to Torah and its core values. More specifically, as I will outline below, it is diametrically opposed to what we call “holiness.” We must not grant it legitimacy by articulating moral neutrality and ambiguous statements.
Sanctity of Life
Oceans of ink have been spilled in trying to define and explain the concept of holiness, its nature, and its parameters. To capture part of its essence in just a few words, a life of holiness is one that infuses God into our lives. It is a life of elevation and exaltation, one that reaches for something that transcends the worldly existence shared by humankind and other lifeforms. This loftiness and Godliness—the human capacity for transcendence—is what we mean when we refer to “holiness.” The entire Torah directs us toward this elevation, not (necessarily) in the sense of isolation from the world and its ways but in the sense of elevating them. The introduction to the revelation at Sinai clarifies the purpose of giving the Torah to the Jewish nation; it urges us to be holy:
Now if you surely hearken to My voice and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be My treasured possession, for the whole earth is Mine. And you shall be unto me a nation of priests and a holy people. These are the things you shall speak to the Children of Israel. (Shemos 19:5-6)
The principle of holiness undermines the foundations of the pro-choice movement. Focussing on abortions, the second of the three points noted above (“an unborn infant is a part of the female body”) is explicitly denied by the Talmudic statement whereby “Three partner together to create a child: God, his father, and his mother.” The process of childbirth, from conception to birth, is holy. God is a partner in the fetus; it is not just “a part of the female body.” Even the first point, a person’s absolute right over his or her body, is moderated by the principle of holiness. As several rabbinic authorities note, the Torah does not allow a person to cause himself bodily injury, because he is not its sole “owner.” The body is given to us by God; it possesses Godliness, and we must treat it as such. Added to this, of course, is the sanctity of life. “Life,” the verse in Tehillim states, “is His will” (Tehillim 30:6). Human life captures the Divine image, which is why murder is so severe a crime: “For in the Divine image He fashioned man” (Bereishis 9:6). Abortion-on-demand does not respect the sanctity of life.
[O]ur lives are filled with holiness: the sanctity of life, of nation, of the land, of family, or marriage, of time, of the mitzvos, and so on. All of these define the contours of our life and provide the guidance for our choices and decisions
In a broader sense, our lives are filled with holiness: the sanctity of life, of nation, of the land, of family, or marriage, of time, of the mitzvos, and so on. All of these define the contours of human elevation and provide guidance for our choices and decisions. This concept of holiness cannot peacefully coexist with the right to choose as promoted by the pro-choice camp. The essence of pro-choice is the absence of holiness: the right of every person to free choice is absolute, unhindered, and unfettered by the boundaries of sanctity. These choices are not private matters alone; they are public, in that they obligate us universally. All must accept them, all must grant them legitimacy and inclusion; all who do not are castigated as bigots. Society, united, must collectively celebrate the destruction of the edifice of holiness, including all its grand institutions.
We must not be a party to this. I do not think that the laws of the Torah should necessarily become the law of the land, not of Israel and surely not of the United States (a matter that deserves separate treatment, especially in the Israeli context). Yet, in the public debate that continues to rage on the issue—a debate that alongside its legal implications has deep cultural and educational ramifications that affect us all—it is imperative for us to side with holiness.
The Jewish disposition to remain “neutral” is eminently understandable. Aside from the complexity of the abortion issue, as noted above, neutrality is an exilic instinct that draws from the need to “be okay with everybody.” As weak and vulnerable exiles in a foreign land, Jews throughout the course of history have refrained, to the degree possible, from expressing positions on public matters. There was always more to be lost than there was to be gained. This factor, it seems safe to assume, is partially behind some of the public statements made by rabbinic organizations on the issue of Dobbs and Roe.
[W]e cannot ignore the costs of neutrality. Silence is confusing. Making a statement while refraining from taking sides, certainly between such charged and powerful camps as “choice” and “life,” sends a message of equality and inclusion, granting legitimacy to abortion-on-demand as a fulfillment of a woman’s right to personal autonomy
Yet, we cannot ignore the costs of neutrality. Silence is confusing. Making a statement while refraining from taking sides, certainly between such charged and powerful camps as “choice” and “life,” sends a message of equality and inclusion, granting legitimacy to abortion-on-demand as a fulfillment of a woman’s right to personal autonomy. Over recent weeks I have witnessed, in conversation and in print, religious and even Charedi women who suffer from deep moral and halachic confusion on the abortion issue, alongside similar issues that pitch modern and postmodern ideals against core Torah values. Some fully endorsed the “right of women over their body,” and others paraphrased the famous statement of Blu Greenberg: “Where there’s a rabbinic will there’s a halachic way.” In other words, the boundaries of holiness are malleable. Everything depends on us.
We must take a different path. With the grace of God, our situation today—certainly in Israel but even abroad—is such that we no longer need to cling to neutrality and pay its ever-spiraling costs. Two Orthodox Jewish groups are worthy of note in this matter: Agudath Israel of America, which lauded the Dobbs decision and ended its statement with a prayer that “the ruling will inspire all Americans to appreciate the moral magnitude of the abortion issue and to embrace a culture that celebrates life,” and the Coalition for Jewish Values that likewise welcomed the decision and emphasized the gravity given to the sanctity of life in Jewish tradition.
While many others have written on the subject from the perspective of Jewish law on abortion, I have tried to highlight the importance of seeing the issue in the broader context of a cultural struggle that affects us in multiple areas—both in the way we think and the way we act. It is thus urgent that we express our opinion on the matter, the more so when the alternative is to abandon the arena to those who claim that Judaism endorses elective abortion.
A long and torrid exile forced the “era of neutrality” upon us, in line with the scriptural description: “Her king and her officers are among the nations—there is no Torah” (Eicha 2:9). Now is the time for Torah. For Torah and for holiness.
 See https://www.ncjw.org/news/national-council-of-jewish-women-outraged-over-supreme-court-ruling-ending-right-to-abortion/.
 See https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article262964903.html.
 Shut Iggros Moshe, Vol. 2, no. 69.
 See Shut Chavas Yair, no. 31, who makes a distinction between an “Ish” and an “Adam” in explaining the Rambam’s position, and Shut Noda Biyhuda, Tinyana, Choshen Mishpat no. 59, who equates the status of a fetus to a tereifa (a person suffering from a terminal disease).
 Among others, a leading proponent of the more lenient position is Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg zt”l; see Shul Tzitz Eliezer Vol. 9, no. 51, “Family Medicine” Chap. 3; loc. cit. Vol. 13, no. 102; among other sources. See also Rabbi Ovadya Yosef zt”l, Shut Yabia Omer Vol. 4, Even Ha’Ezer no. 8.
 See Horios 2b, and Rambam, Introduction to Commentary on the Mishnah.
 See my article, “Between Williamsburg and Berlin: What is the ‘Charedi Basic’?” Tzarich Iyun (May, 2020); https://iyun.org.il/en/sedersheni/the-charedi-basic/.
 One example is found in Yeshayahu 56, where the eunuch comes before God with the claim that he is but a “dry twig”—he has no continuity. The Divine response is that by upholding the covenant he, too, will be blessed with “yad va-shem” (“a hand and a name”), granting him eternity within the Jewish people.
 According to the Midrash (Shemos Rabba 28:6), each individual member of the Jewish people has a unique part in the Torah, while the Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 4b) mentions that the Torah was handed down “piecemeal” to allow for pluralism of interpretations. For the World to Come, see Berachos 17a; and see the Morasha Syllabus class on the subject, available here: http://morashasyllabus.com/class/The%20World%20to%20Come%20Part%20I.pdf.
 In recent weeks, US news has covered the case of a ten-year-old girl who became pregnant in Ohio and had to travel to a neighboring state to perform an abortion. From my experience, most rabbinic authorities would permit the performance of an abortion in such circumstances.
 The declaration appears on the OU’s official site: https://www.ou.org/news/statement-by-the-union-of-orthodox-jewish-congregations-of-america-on-us-supreme-courts-potential-overturning-of-roe-v-wade/.
 Niddah 31a.
 See Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 420:31; Radvaz, Hilchos Sanhedrin 18:6; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Hilchos Nizkei Guf Ve-Nefesh 4; see also Rabbi Shlomo Zevin, Le-Or Ha-halacha pp. 318-335; Rabbi Shaul Israeli, Ha-Torah Veha-Medinah 5-6, p. 107; 7-8, pp. 331-336.