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“No Forced Pregnancy,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

February 24, 2023 | 3 Adar 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. Last week, I offered this D’var Torah at Qabbalat Shabbat. I want to share it with you now.
You can listen to it as a podcast here.

There are many moments that put life into perspective. Welcoming Thia in the community and attaching her name to the generations of strong, loving, women before her is a beautiful blessing to hold and to elevate.

And now, as I begin this D’var Torah, we move into more difficult and challenging territory. The perspective of the week began with gunshots, yet again, in a place where young adults should feel safe in an educational environment. And yet, another school shooting, another mass act of violence because guns in the hands of their owners seem to have no limit in this country to wreak havoc and to snuff out the lives of children and adults.

More people have died this year than there are days since January 1st. And it makes us ask: Don’t those who allow limitless access to guns care about human life? Wouldn’t they want to protect the lives of human beings at every stage? Is the life of a child already born or already on their way into adulthood not also precious?

Now, imagine if all of those folks who so vociferously advocate for the right of a fetus—regardless of the life that carries it—turned their attention to the rights and lives of children in classrooms and students on university campuses who have been randomly shot and killed? That, by way, is the number one cause of death of children in this country. Isn’t that the consistent way to be pro-life?

For we are left standing here wondering how to assert ourselves from the perspective of our own tradition which teaches us to choose life so that we and our descendants may live.

Tonight is about choice. Across the country, many congregations—thanks to the National Council of Jewish Women who has provided wonderful resources—are lifting up this week’s Torah portion to speak about the ability to choose what is best for oneself and one’s body in the face of the Dobbs decision to force pregnancy on those who may need to terminate it for a variety of reasons.

Tonight, I share the language of our tradition that asserts that the act of ending a pregnancy is not a capital offense. In other words, it is not murder. For most of its development, the fetus remains part of the body of the one who carries it.

Let’s look at this week’s Torah portion that provides a scenario.

Exodus 21:22-25
(22) When [two or more] parties fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant person and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. (23) But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, (24) eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, (25) burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

What does not happen? There is no charge for manslaughter. So we learn here about the legal status of the embryo. There is consequence but it is financial penalty. It is a civil suit. Other damage could have much graver impact. Clearly, the text is not concerned with the experience of miscarriage. Anyone who belongs to that club understands the devastation. Under Jewish law, the message is clear that the fetus is not yet a person and only monetary compensation happens. As the commentator Rashi emphasized: “one cannot even be certain that the fetus would have ever made it to nine months anyway.” And at the very beginning of its development, the fetus has absolutely no status whatsoever for the first 40 days of pregnancy which amounted to seven or eight weeks based on the way the rabbis of the Talmud counted.

Many have asked whether a fetus has a soul. The Midrash states:

B’reisheet Rabbah 4:10
“When is the soul [neshama] put in a person, from the moment one comes out of the womb of one’s mother or before one comes out of the womb of one’s mother?’ [The answer}: ‘When one comes out of the womb of one’s mother.’

There are others who say, however, that ensoulment, as it is called, could happen at conception, but also, perhaps, at birth, and yet it could be after surviving 30 days, or when a child could say, “Amen.”

Here is where, because of the lack of agreement and the presence of so much uncertainty, that the moment the soul enters the body is too unclear and the texts seek to remove this question from the equation.

We move from financial reparation to the entrance of the soul, and now to the life of the one who is pregnant. The Talmud is very clear and direct:

Sanhedrin 72b
If a woman was giving birth and her life was being endangered by the fetus, the life of the fetus may be sacrificed in order to save the mother. But once the head has emerged during the birthing process, the baby may not be harmed in order to save the mother, because one life may not be pushed aside to save another life.

The one who is pregnant takes precedence while the fetus is still developing but if it is formed and emerging then they both have claims to life. We would call this a therapeutic reason to end pregnancy.

But the rabbis were aware that there could be other reasons of necessity to end the pregnancy. We learn of this attitude through Responsa literature where questions were posed to rabbis and they made decisions in response to the ideas posed. Here are two examples:

Rabbi Jacob Emden, Responsa She’elat Ya”vetz 1:43, 18th century, Germany (German Talmud scholar)
“The questioner asked about an adulterous married woman (who is pregnant) is a good question. It appears to me to permit her (to abort) and even in the case of a legitimate fetus there is reason to be lenient if there is a great need, as long as the fetus has not yet begun to emerge; even if the mother’s life is not in jeopardy, but only so as to save her from woe associated with it that would cause her great pain.”

 Rabbi Ben Zion Chai Uziel, Responsa Mishaptei Uziel 4:45, 20th century Israel (d. 1953)
“It is clear that abortion is not permitted without reason. That would be destructive and frustrative of the possibility of life. But for a reason, even if it is a slim reason, such as to prevent disgrace, then we have precedent and authority to permit it.”

The focus on life is crucial to Judaism. This is why Judaism emphasizes that we must choose life. And in choosing it, we have the responsibility to guarantee that those who are living lives are protected first and foremost. Our tradition does not disregard what the ancient philosopher, Philo, called the “workshop of nature.” The potential of human life has holy significance and so does the life of that person whose belly carries the fetus.

Any woman, anyone whose body has the ability to be pregnant, has a sacred role in the perpetuation of the generations. All of us have the responsibility to ensure that they are protected and their lives are secure in their experience of pregnancy.

For too many people across this country, we live in a precarious situation where our life can be endangered if we are involuntarily mandated to have a forced pregnancy.

This is the opposite of pro-life.

We are fortunate in Massachusetts. We have laws, legislators, and judges who protect us from forced pregnancy.

We also have our magnificent Reproductive Rights Tikkun Central group who mostly focus their attention beyond the boundaries of our commonwealth. They are wearing nametags and would love to speak with you about their work. Just find one of them and ask how you can help and get involved or just know about their efforts. We are fortunate to have such a hardworking and devoted core of individuals helping to ensure that choosing life remains a solid Jewish value.

May it spread across this country and may no one worry for their own life.

So may it be.

Shabbat Shalom

Originally shared at Qabbalat Shabbat services February 17, 2023

  • Join us at 6:00 p.m. for Qabbalat Shabbat. We celebrate the naming of Shalom Angel’Elizabeth Green, child of  Evelyn Green. Gather with us onsite or online on ZoomFacebook Live, or stream on our website. Let’s celebrate together.
  • Tot Rock Shabbat gathers online at 5:00 p.m.
  • Torah Study gathers at 9:00 a.m. onsite or online (via  Zoom, on Facebook Live, or via Temple Israel’s livestream), followed by an oneg to connect with friends and community.
  • Village Playtime Havdalah gathers onsite at 3:00 p.m. Register here.
  • Gather online to say goodbye to Shabbat with a lay-led Havdalah on Zoom.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher