D’var Torah for Friday, January 28, 2022


In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we find a mishmash of mitzvot. Of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) found in the Torah, 53 of them can be found in the Torah. The laws cover a gamut of subjects from those regarding slaves to damages, loans, rumors, and the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Sukkot, Passover and Shavu’ot).

However, perhaps one of the most relevant for us modernists is “When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact” (Exodus 21:22). Now the patriarchal implications notwithstanding, what this passage is stating is that the fetus is not considered a human being. Otherwise, the death penalty would apply. 

Judaism has a complex relationship when it comes to when someone is considered alive. Unlike other religious traditions where life begins at conception, in Judaism life begins when the child graduates from medical school. All kidding aside, according to classic interpretations life does not begin until the crown of the head emerges from the womb and the infant takes their first breath.

As the Talmud argues, the first forty days, the zygote is considered “simply water” (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 69b). At no point is the fetus viewed as a full-fledged human until the baby emerges from the womb.

Judaism does not view abortion as murder unlike some other religious traditions. In the words of Dr. Elliot Dorff, “there is a clear bias for life within the Jewish tradition. Indeed, it is considered sacred. Consequently, although abortion is permitted in some circumstances and actually required in others, it is not viewed as a morally neutral matter of individual desire or an acceptable form of post facto birth control” (Matters of Life and Death pg. 128).

For example, if a woman’s life is in danger, Jewish law specifically requires it whether it be her life or health – physical or mental. 

I mention all of this because we currently live in a world where people take positions based on absolutes and religious convictions. One of the reasons why I love our tradition is it rarely takes these stands when it comes to complex issues like abortion. 

Instead we like to look at issues from a multitude of angles. Generally speaking, Judaism is not in favor of abortion as a means of birth control. But it also recognizes that there are valid and sometimes compelling reasons to allow it if not require it. From this perspective, one can certainly speak on behalf of this issue from genuine religious conviction and be both anti-abortion and pro-choice at the same time. 

When it comes to matters of life, as our tradition teaches, there are no simple answers. We proudly live in the gray areas, and we can use the teachings of our tradition to help shape our arguments and our beliefs. We can then take those values from our tradition out into the world and argue that there is more than one religious perspective especially when it comes to any number of issues including those related to medical ethics.

Shabbat Shalom;

Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff