The Jewish Position?

A note from a reader tells me that I may have been too nice to the Rabbi turned TV Consultant who wrote a letter saying that she, too, was upset with the portrayal of Orthodox Jews on the show in question. According to the reader, said Rabbi’s previously-expressed opinions of the Orthodox are not inconsistent with how the Orthodox were portrayed on the show. This might explain why in her initial discussion of the show with the Jewish media, she said nothing about the negative portrayal, and only wrote in response to Rabbi Avi Shafran’s justified critique.

I also find her juxtaposition of the “the way the Orthodox girl was portrayed” with “how Reform Jews were portrayed as ‘not even knowing the 10 plagues'” more than a bit jarring. One was portrayed as a foul-mouthed, ungrateful boor. The other was portrayed as not knowing the details of the Passover story. Not only are the two hardly comparable, I dare say the latter has more than a bit of truth to it. Anyway, if anyone can help clarify the Rabbi’s previous attitudes and statements, please tell me.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Jewish Times this week features another misportrayal — this time, of Judaism itself. Rabbi Susan Grossman writes that “all rabbis permit and even require abortion where the mother’s life is endangered.” So far, so good. But then: “This is because, for Jews, human life begins only when the baby’s head or the majority of its body exits the mother, and not before.”

Thus Rabbi Grossman presents as “the Jewish position” a statement expressly and unanimously contradicted by the Mishnah (Ohalot 7:6), the Talmud (Sanhedrin 57b), The Codes of Maimonides and Rav Yosef Karo, and others. According to “Induced Abortion According to Jewish Law” by Dr. Avraham Steinberg (of Sharei Tzedek Medical Center, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Spring 1981), “the Rabbinic authorities who have determined and interpreted Jewish law have unanimously taken a negative attitude towards abortion.”

Rabbi Grossman is a member of the Conservative Movement’s Committee of Law and Standards, and the author of an article titled “Partial Birth Abortion and the Question of When ‘Life’ Begins.” This being the case, her lack of knowledge of Judaism’s answer to this very question has consequences for all those who look towards her and the Conservative Movement to accurately portray traditional Jewish values.

Rabbi Grossman goes on to state as follows: “The current debate is really about what kind of nation we are. Are we a nation that protects the freedom of religious conscience for minorities through the separation of church and state? Or are we a nation in which one religion can force its religious interpretation upon everyone else?”

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics of Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, has suggested publicly that since in-vitro techniques are insufficient to discover many genetic defects, it might be appropriate to declare a child fully alive and viable only after his or her first birthday. So if, as Rabbi Grossman suggests, our only Jewish priority is the provision of maximal individual religious and ethical choice, the natural result is that we should permit not only partial-birth abortion, but “post-birth abortion” as well.

Indeed Rabbi Grossman is correct; the current debate is really about what kind of nation we are. Are we a nation that protects the lives of the unborn and the newly-born, or are we a nation which permits the “Human Values” of Peter Singer to bring state-sanctioned infanticide to reality?

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7 Responses

  1. mb says:

    The Romans practiced post partum abortion, when taking their less than perfect babies to the city dump to die. They would laugh at the Jews, who refused to participate in this barbaric, but to Singer, admirable, practice.

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Ignorant Chiloni question. When the Mishna says (my translation, probably incorrect): “…because her life precedes his. If he’s mostly out, don’t touch him, because we do not reject a soul for a soul.” in Ohlot 7:6, doesn’t it mean that the fetus is not “nefesh” until he or she gets out?

    האישה שהיא מקשה לילד–מחתכין את הוולד במעיה, ומוציאין אותו אברים אברים: מפני שחייה קודמין לחייו. יצא רובו–אין נוגעין בו, שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש


  3. DovBear says:

    How did you get to a lunatic like Peter Singer from the very respectable idea that the government should not be making religious or theological decisions for us? The “natural result” of protecting the rights of minorities through the separation of church and state, isn’t “post-birth abortion.” That’s quite a jump, a jump that hardly seem logical to me.

    Anyway, Orthdox Jewish jurists don’t agree that abortion is murder. Some say it is, some say it isn’t, and those who say that abortion is murder, don’t agree on the point in the preganancy when it becomes murder. And there are additional disagreements about the role the circumstances of the preagnancy plays in determiningg if an abortion can be committed.

    I certainly don’t want the government making that decision for me, or for other Jews. I’d much prefer to let the Rabbis work it out, but if the Christian-influenced wing of the Republican party gets it’s way, I’ll be denied that preference.

    This is what Rabbi Grossman means when she asks: “Are we a nation that protects the freedom of religious conscience for minorities through the separation of church and state? Or are we a nation in which one religion can force its religious interpretation upon everyone else?”

    She isn’t bestowing legitimacy on the madness of Peter Singer. She’s saying our own Jewish interpretations of the abortion question are legitimate, and that no government has the right to deny us the freedom, the freedom of religious conscience, to determine this for ourselves.

  4. Yaakov Menken says:


    I think it’s a very good question, not an ignorant one. [You get extra credit for typing the Mishnah in Hebrew characters in a web form, something which I’ve never learned to do.] And it seems clear that you are right, the fetus is indeed not a nefesh.

    But it’s similarly clear that the word nefesh cannot be translated simply as “life”, because the Mishnah continues, “because her life takes precedence over his.” Saying that his life must be lost to save hers is a very far cry from suggesting that “human life begins at birth.” Rashi says, when discussing this Mishnah in Talmud Sanhedrin 72b, “it is not a nefesh, and it is given to be killed and to save its mother.” One cannot kill something that isn’t alive.

    Rather, as you know, one simple translation of “nefesh” is “breath.” It is not yet a “nefesh”, an independent, breathing life. But it is alive, so much so that the Talmud Sanhedrin 57b says that in some cases, one who kills a fetus is liable for the death penalty. Again, one cannot be liable for murder if the victim wasn’t alive. From both Mishnah and Talmud, we see that life begins before birth.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rabbi Yaakov Menken,

    First, thank you for your answer. I didn’t really type in the Mishna in Hebrew, I don’t know how to do it here – I just did a cut and paste from

    Second, what is the reasoning behind this Mishna? Are there general rules to follow in a case where we have to choose between two innocent lives, and if so, what are they?

    Thanks again,

  6. mb says:

    The Twelve Tables of Roman Law held: “Deformed infants shall be killed” De Legibus, 3.8. Of course, deformed was broadly construed and often meant no more than the baby appeared “weakly.” The Twelve Tables also explicitly permitted a father to expose any female infant. Stark, op. cit., page 118.
    Here is more info on the Roman/Greco/Singer et al position.
    There was a Latin name for the baby dump, but alas I’ve forgotten it.

    Leading pagan leaders and philosophers also encouraged the practice. Cicero defended infanticide by referring to the Twelve Tables. Plato and Aristotle recommended infanticide as legitimate state policy. Cornelius Tacitus went so far as to condemn the Jews for their opposition to infanticide. He stated that the Jewish view that “it was a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child” was just another of the many “sinister and revolting practices” of the Jews. Histories 5.5. Even Seneca, otherwise known for his relatively high moral standards, stated, “we drown children at birth who are weakly and abnormal.” De Ira 1.15.

  7. Yaakov Menken says:


    Until the baby is out, its life is dependent upon that of the mother. So if the baby is endangering the life of the mother, then it is considered a rodef, one pursuing with intent to kill, and her life takes precedence. Once the baby’s head emerges, however, we say that it is in the hands of Heaven — you can’t kill one nefesh to save another. No one doubts that the status of a fetus is different from that of a child, but the statement that (according to Judaism) human life begins at birth is simply wrong.


    Just as you would like the ability to chose whether to abort, Peter Singer would like the ability to chose whether to abort. The difference is that your choices would be Jewish ones, while Singer’s would involve what we call infanticide.

    Rabbi Grossman states that the only “Jewish” option is to “protect the freedom of religious conscience through the separation of church and state.” Well, the man you call a “lunatic” is a tenured professor in an endowed chair in the Center for Human Values at the top institution for undergraduate education in the United States (according to US News & World Report, Princeton and Harvard are tied). On what basis can you confidently assert that his “religious conscience” would not also be protected under US law, without falling back upon your own “religious interpretation”?

    Furthermore, if you do not appreciate reductio ad absurdum, then you must reject the same when employed by Rabbi Grossman and yourself. Before the Supreme Court’s creation ex nihilo of a “right to privacy” encompassing abortion, abortion was legal in this country when the mother’s life was threatened. There is no evidence that should Roe v. Wade be reversed and the matter handed back to the democratic legislative bodies of the 50 states (where it belongs), that abortions permitted under Halacha would be refused. You would be hard pressed to find high-ranking members of the “Christian-influenced” or any other wing of the Republican party who would say or vote otherwise; this country is simply not that beholden to fundamentalist Christianity when following its teachings threatens lives.

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