Shafran on Grossman

Several weeks ago, I wrote that the Conservative Movement’s Rabbi Susan Grossman had mischaracterized Judaism’s understanding of when life begins, and the Jewish position on abortion, in an opinion piece in the Baltimore Jewish Times. This week, Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel weighs in on this subject in the same journal.

While I emphasized her position on the beginning of life, Rabbi Shafran contradicted her more forcefully on the subject of abortion itself:

Abortion is expressly forbidden by halachah. There are different opinions about the nature and gravity of the prohibition of killing of a fetus, but no accepted halachic authority views feticide as a matter of personal “choice” subject to any individual’s will. Like most forbidden acts, abortion can become permitted, even required, in certain circumstances. Such circumstances include when a continued pregnancy threatens the life of a Jewish mother-to-be.

And whereis I brought up the opinions of Peter Singer to counter-balance her vision of the anti-abortion lobby, Rabbi Shafran chose to more directly confront her misstatements on that issue as well:

Rabbi Grossman went on to make several significant errors.

Firstly, she presented opponents of abortion-on-demand (the “anti-abortion lobby”) as intent on “mak[ing] all abortions illegal.” Such abortion absolutists may indeed exist, but the vast majority of those who are unhappy with the unfettered use of abortion as birth control have a much more nuanced position…

And so, to raise the specter, as Rabbi Grossman does, that if “the anti-abortion lobby” has its way, “all abortions would be banned, even those required under Jewish law to protect the life of the mother,” is to traffic not in facts but in fear-mongering.

She is further mistaken when she asserts that “some in the Orthodox community” have joined the effort “to ban abortion.” No Orthodox organization supports a ban on abortion. What is promoted by some Orthodox groups (like, most prominently, the one I am privileged to represent, Agudath Israel of America) is the regulation of abortion through laws that prohibit the wanton killing of fetuses while protecting the right to abortion in exceptional cases. That not only reflects the feelings of a majority of the American people, but more closely approximates Judaism’s approach to the topic.

Regardless of differences of emphasis, it is clear that Rabbi Grossman set aside unambiguous statements in Torah and Halacha in favor of an attitude towards abortion more characteristic of the most left-wing, secular elements of Western society. Considering her membership in the Conservative Movement’s Committee of Law and Standards, and authorship of an article on “Partial Birth Abortion and the Question of When ‘Life’ Begins,” this is a matter of no small consequence.

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3 Responses

  1. Neviah T. says:

    I would add that (according to my understanding) even the Roman Catholic Church permits removal of the fetus in the case of an ectopic pregnancy. Indeed, I would be interested in finding out precisely which pro-life organizations would support a ban on “all abortions”, including saving the life of the mother. To be fair, Pope John Paul II beatified a woman (Gianna Molla) who died in pregnancy to save the life of her child. But the point still stands that the RCC, a most vigorous opponent of abortion in our country, still countenances such a procedure — and to suggest that it and other groups would martyr women in such a way is just pure hogwash.

  2. DovBear says:

    I liked what Rabbi Shafran wrote, and his position is not far from my own (though I expect, following the Tzizt Eliezer, I’d permit abortions he’d outlaw)

    Incidently, to paraphrase Rabbi Shafran “And so, to raise the specter, as Yakov Menken does, that if ‘the pro-abortion lobby’ has its way, ‘Peter Singer’s view would carry the day, and infanticide would become permitted,’ is to traffic not in facts but in fear-mongering.”

  3. Yaakov Menken says:


    The difference is kemizrach mimaarav, like east from west, and not merely in the political sense.

    A specter is a phantom. It does not really exist.

    Rabbi Grossman refers to “the anti-abortion lobby, whose ultimate goal is to make all abortions illegal, regardless of maternal need.” Rabbi Shafran is willing to concede that “such abortion absolutists may indeed exist,” but I would ask how much of “the anti-abortion lobby” actually shares that feeling. I’m doing some research on that. She also claims that “some in the Orthodox community have supported efforts to ban abortion,” which is factually incorrect. We know that. It’s a specter.

    Peter Singer, on the other hand, is flesh and blood. Not only does he have an endowed seat at Princeton from which to promote his novel version of “ethics,” but his ideas are gaining traction — see the front page of the Bnai Brith Jewish Monthly. I’m hoping to blog about that when I find time, but he’s no specter at all. And the legitimization of his ideas must be considered, if we claim that society “protects the freedom of religious conscience for minorities” even when doing something that we would call murder.

    Seventy years ago, abortion on demand was no less inconceivable than the adoption of Singer’s ideas is to you today.

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