Reviews | Abortion rights are a religious freedom for progressive Jews


As some Orthodox Jews have aligned to the right on other issues, from Israel to immigration, they have also veered towards the anti-abortion stance. Yet even the strictest interpretation leaves room for the life of the mother. Like Dr. Immanuel Jacobovits, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote in 1965, “as defined in the Bible, the rights of the mother and her unborn child are markedly unequal, since the capital guilt of murder takes effect only if the victim was a born and viable person”. This, he explained, does not mean that abortion is never a serious offence, but “this inequality is therefore only serious enough to justify the sacrifice of the unborn child if the pregnancy constitutes a threat to the life of the mother”.

One of the fundamental tenets of Judaism is pikuach nefesh: the preservation of life above all else, even the observance of Shabbat, which is otherwise sacrosanct. What could be more dignified than to focus on the need for the pregnant person, if she is suffering, to put an end to this suffering, to live and to contribute to the world? It is his life, his soul – “present, alive and crying out for compassion”, as Rabbi Feldman said – that is more worth saving.

We are far from the only religion to have a nuanced position on abortion. But a religious group that dictates a broad and intractable view of right and wrong in abortion may have an easier time attracting attention than, say, religious organizations that recently filed a lawsuit. amicus brief to the Supreme Court, fervently calling for a careful and circumstantial review of the upcoming abortion case in Mississippi.

And so a number of Jews are starting to make noise to rectify this imbalance. A new campaign called 73Before, led by the National Council of Jewish Women, brings together activists, from secular to Orthodox, to advocate for abortion access from an explicitly Jewish perspective. The rabbis have promised join the fight in Texas.

Feminist organizing has always attracted Jewish participation, whereas in our communal world, groups like the NCJW and publications like Lilith (organizations where I worked and now work, respectively) have carried the banner of abortion rights for many years. But what is remarkable today are the particular ways in which Jews organize themselves as The Jews.

Gen Z and millennial Jewish leaders are also pointing to the reproductive justice movement led by women of color – which links abortion to racial, economic and social inequality – as a beacon of their own activism. This holistic framework inspired Jews to fight for access to abortion as a crucial part of world repair, or tikkun olam, a value that has driven Jewish activism for decades. Many Jewish feminists say they now feel called to support access to abortion for those who need it most, while reminding the country that our own religious freedom is at stake.

Jewish leaders don’t go on TV every weekend shouting, “Take your laws out of our religion!” But as a minority religion, we naturally support a true separation of church and state. And there is another reason. When I write about Jewish attitudes toward contraception or abortion, I always get an onslaught of vitriol in my inbox. It begins with the ugly comparison between abortion and the Holocaust it equates millions of Jewish thoughts, feelings and lives severed at their peak into embryos and extends to the idea that 83% of American Jews who support abortion rights are perpetuating the mass murder that devastated my grandparents’ generation.


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