The Debate over Reproductive Rights – A Jewish Perspective

Of all the issues that have come up in interfaith dialogue during my career, none has been more fraught, more unbridgeable, than when we have discussed differences across faiths about reproductive freedom, i.e. abortion. There are ministers and priests with whom I am in deep partnership on other issues or have found some shared recognition of our different narratives; but still, we are unable to find common ground regarding our understandings of this issue. 

I appreciate that difference that some of us hold. There are many facets of our society’s discussion of this matter. But the two points of entry that are most commonly blurred and confused in the spaces I am in are:  the proper and safe regulation of a medical procedure, versus what our traditions tell us about when life begins.   

The latter is fine, when in a faith setting. 

We are all aware of the report last week about a draft Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Though the ruling may, in the end, be different in tone or substance than what we find ourselves with – this decision is not terribly surprising for those paying attention to the court in recent years. We are now preparing for a profound change from the status quo of the last half century. 

What we seem unwilling to acknowledge as a society is that our public policy debate on this – as on so many matters – is informed by views rooted in one faith tradition, the Christian i.e. Western, tradition, to the exclusion of views rooted in the traditions of other civilizations.  

This is not to say that all Christians have the same view of abortion, or that Christian tradition is uniform on this matter. That’s not my place to say. But it is certainly true that significant numbers of Christians, including justices of the court, invoke faith teachings to reach the conclusion – rooted in their belief - that human life begins at conception. This is not a belief shared by all of humanity.  

When we bring civic leaders to Israel, there is often a moment when a participant expresses an assumption about Israel having restrictive abortion laws; knowing that religious matters are much more present in public affairs and that Haredi Jewish parties and Islamist Arab parties both participate in that state’s governing coalitions. They are then surprised to learn that in Israel, abortion is a nearly universally available medical procedure, paid for by government funded insurance.  

This gap – between assumption and fact - is in no small part, because, even in a society where matters of faith are very present in public policy, when that society begins the conversation about reproductive policy by rooting itself in a non-Western and non-Christian tradition, it can reach very different conclusions from those that our Supreme Court may soon determine. 

It is impossible to fully articulate the nuances and complexities of thousands of years of Jewish tradition and law in one paragraph. Suffice to say that we approach the fetus as a “potential life” and one that must be considered and weighed in relation to the “existing and actual life” of the person carrying it.  

It is from this starting point that we arrive at the place where overwhelming majorities of American Jews support reproductive freedom and the rights protected by Roe. It is why we at JCRC were proud to support and advocate for the ROE Act in Massachusetts, ensuring that – in anticipation of what may be coming from the court – at the very least we were on the side of protecting the rights of people in our Commonwealth.  It is why - while nuances and differences exist within our community on this subject - the Orthodox Union (which often finds itself aligned on policy with Christian conservatives) said last week that “Jewish law prioritizes the life of the pregnant mother over the life of the fetus” and that legislation or court rulings “that absolutely ban abortion without regard for the health of the mother would LITERALLY limit our ability to live our lives in accordance with our responsibility to preserve life.”  

This is not to suggest that the United States ought to be governed by Jewish or Islamic law and tradition (Halakha and Sharia) on this or any other matter. But we must be honest and explicit in acknowledging that all Americans are about to be governed by a decision that is rooted, in some significant part, in Christian tradition.  

Our nation should be striving toward a society governed by humanistic and universal principles, rather than be limited by those of the dominant tradition. Our failure to do so will result in the denial of rights for all Americans, genuine harm for many, and, in this case, a severe limitation on the ability of minority communities to live fully in America in accordance with our own traditions.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy