Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Women say goodbye to sweet home Alabama

Anti-abortion activists march towards the U.S. Supreme Court during the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

(RNS) — It is 2031.

My grandson, Noah, is about to celebrate becoming bar mitzvah.

In the middle of the two of us studying his Torah portion together, Noah stops me.

“Grandpa, there’s something that I need to know.

“When Alabama and Georgia wanted to make those laws that made it illegal for women to end pregnancies, what did you say? What did you do?”

He would be referring to the legislation in Alabama that bans nearly all abortions in the state. Physicians that perform abortions could get up to 99 years in prison.

Earlier in May, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed a law making abortion illegal after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, or roughly six weeks after conception.

Ohio, Mississippi, and Kentucky have all passed similar bills this year.

The end game?

They want the Supreme Court to take the wrecking ball to Roe v. Wade.

The possibility that my grandson will ask me this question haunts me.

This column is my response to my grandson, and others.

Because, as a Jewish leader with a public voice, I will not remain silent.

Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky once enslaved the bodies of African Americans.

Now, they seek to enslave the bodies of women.

I will not remain silent as legislators attempt to erect their own version of The Way Back Machine (remember Mr. Peabody and Sherman in the old cartoon?) that will return America to the pre-Roe v. Wade era.

Let us be clear: A Roe v. Wade-less America would not end abortion in this country.

In an America that is increasingly divided by class, the rich would still have access to abortions, and the poor would not. I am not interested in creating laws that would penalize the daughters of the under class.

Why this renewed fervor against abortion rights?

Because, they say, a fetus has full legal rights.

Snark alert.

More right to life, apparently, than an infant after it leaves the womb.

Or, a child in a school.

Sorry — once you are out of the amniotic fluid you are on your own.

Because as soon as that over-the-counter pregnancy test tells you that you are pregnant — or, even, if you don’t even know that you are pregnant — we care more about whatever is inside you than about protecting children against guns.

Notice the speed with which we protect the unborn.

It would take you more time to rent an apartment.

As for protecting the born — that’s a whole other thing.

Christians and others have the right to believe that a fetus is a living, human being. That is a matter of personal religious choice. Christian teaching believes that the fetus has a soul from the moment of conception.

This Christian understanding of abortion is at the root of the current attempts to outlaw abortion in this country. It is a theocratic argument.

Except, where does this leave the Jews?

Jewish law believes that when the fetus is in the first trimester, the fertilized egg is considered mere fluid. 

When we go beyond that period, Jewish law still says that the fetus is not a person until its head emerges from the womb. That is when life is presumed to begin.

The fetus is potential life, and that potential life has moral value.

But, Judaism also believes that there are times when abortion is permitted, and even warranted.  

This would be when the physical or psychological health of the mother is in danger. This is the idea of the rodef, the one who pursues another in order to do harm.

If the pregnancy will cause harm to the mother, then the fetus is “pursuing” the mother to harm her. 

Here, Jewish law is very clear. A rodef can be killed, even if it intends no harm.

Maimonides, in his classic code of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah, states that there can be no rachmanut, no compassion, for a rodef.

So, yes. Judaism is concerned for the mother’s physical health.

What about mental and emotional health? This is an admittedly broad area, and it is the area in which many pregnant women find themselves.

Judaism is concerned about the mother’s mental health as well.

In the 1700s, Rabbi Jacob Emden ruled that a mother could end a pregnancy that resulted from an adulterous union. Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, who had been the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, concurred.

Why? Because that pregnancy would cause emotional and mental hardship

We would extend this to even more heartbreaking and tragic situations — if there has been rape or incest.

But, tragically, cynically: the new Alabama law does not even take those horrors into consideration.

What about when the fetus has a terrible disease, or a life-threatening or impairing disability?

Jewish law has been cautious, but somewhat liberal in such situations — if bringing this child to term would have a serious impact on the mother’s emotional health. Some traditional authorities, such as rabbis Eliezer Waldenberg and Shaul Yisraeli, permitted aborting a fetus diagnosed with Tay-Sachs in order to prevent the future suffering of this child and the mental anguish of its parents. 

The Talmud says: Silence is akin to agreement.

In the face of these new rulings, I will not be silent.

I want to look my children and grandchildren in the eye and know that I did the right thing.

I want to look my women friends and colleagues in the eye and know that I did the right thing.

Therefore, I stand with women and allies in refusing to be silent about these regressive laws.

I believe in religious liberty for Christians, as I believe in religious liberty for all people (with certain major exceptions: I really don’t care if your religion says that you should not vaccinate your child. You want to live in this world? Vaccinate your kid. Caring about the health of others would seem to be a universal religious obligation.)

So, if you are a religious Christian, and you don’t believe in abortion — please. I urge you: don’t get one. Carry the baby to term. Truly. Mazal tov on that baby!

But, as for others, like Jews, whose religious principles would say that abortion is ethical under certain circumstances…

We are not chopped liver.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.