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In Hebrew, "Uterus" Means "Compassion"

by Janet Podell

American Jews and the organizations that represent them are well known for their support of legalized abortion. Among educated Jews with liberal or progressive political leanings - that is, among the majority of American Jews - it's hard to find any who would disagree, publicly at least, with the pro-choice position. Even if a woman in this group feels that she couldn't abort her own child, she is likely to believe that she has no right to impose her preferences on anyone else. The mainstream-to-radical branches of the feminist movement are full of Jewish women who view the availability of abortion as tantamount to human rights, fundamental to a just society.

This used to be my viewpoint as well. It no longer is. The "right" for which I was so enthusiastic in high school and college now appears to me a horror, a repulsive act of mutilation and violence that represents the opposite of social justice.

My change of heart, which has set me radically apart from my peers, began 13 years ago, when I gave birth to the first of my three children. It was impossible to ignore that this baby was the same living being who had been kicking me in the ribs for months. His life was clearly an uninterruptible continuum that had begun long before I could feel him move, and if this was true for my own child, then it must be true for all children.

The second influence was a religious one. I grew up, like the majority of American Jews, in a family that had assimilated itself to the larger secular society and in the process lost its religious heritage. A residue of Jewish culture remained, but of Judaism's nearly 4,000 years of spiritual and moral teachings, we knew next to nothing.

When, as an adult, I began to take Judaism seriously as a way of life, I was surprised to find that it is organized on what we now call communitarian principles, requiring moderation and self-discipline, placing limits on individual freedom for the good of the community, and challenging people to hold themselves to a high standard of personal and social responsibility.

On the subject of abortion, it confirmed what I already felt.

Judaism in its classic form is based on a system called, in Hebrew, halakha, "the way of walking." The rules by which one follows this path to God are derived from the Torah and the other texts in the Hebrew scriptures through a process of scholarly elucidation. Put briefly, the halakhic view of abortion is that, while a baby in the womb does not have the same legal status as a person, and killing it does not constitute a capital crime, its life nonetheless has intrinsic value and may not be taken except in very limited circumstances. These include a complicated labor, when the baby is sacrificed if the mother's life is in danger; serious threats to the mother's health; and various degrees of mental illness. Some rabbis are lenient in cases of possible birth defects in order to spare the mother anguish; others agree with the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, who wrote: "We have no law that permits us to deny life to one who is 'wounded.'" Financial hardship and personal convenience are not considered valid reasons to refuse to bear a child. (An Israeli organization, Just One Life, provides financial help to mothers who are considering abortion for reasons of economic hardship.)

Beyond the halakha of abortion, traditional Judaism contains numerous rules that are intended to teach compassion toward living things and devotion to the preservation of life. There are rules against suicide; against cruelty to animals; against cutting down fruit trees; against self-mutilation. Now, if animals have a claim on our compassion, so must unborn children; if we are not allowed to mutilate any part of our bodies, then we cannot mutilate the children growing within our bodies; if we are told to respect God's creation, then we have to respect the fetus as a created being. Further, we are taught that God's way is to offer hospitality, to show kindness, to respect the feelings of others, to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. Killing children before they are born contradicts every one of these precepts. The Zohar, the main text of Jewish mysticism, says that people who cause fetuses to be destroyed in the womb "drive away the Divine Presence from the world." Rekhem, the Hebrew word for "uterus," comes from the same root as the word rakhamim, "compassion."

Why, then, do the majority of contemporary Jews hold views opposite to what their own religion teaches? The answer lies in American Jews' widespread estrangement from classical Judaism and their willingness to judge Jewish teachings according to accepted social and political verities, rather than the other way around. Brought up to cherish individual freedom, and solidly supportive of sexual equality no matter what the cost (the consequence, in part, of high educational and career expectations for both sexes), American Jews are apt to consider traditional Judaism as outmoded, even reactionary. The Reform branch of Judaism takes a liberal position on all matters, including "reproductive rights." The Conservative movement, to which I belong, is rooted in halakha, but many of its members view Jewish tradition more as an optional "enhancement" of their lives than as an essential system of values. Both groups stress the ethical demands of the Jewish prophets, but in a universalized form, with government as the chief instrument of social justice rather than the religious community. Millions of fully assimilated, secularized Jews see no need to be guided by Jewish teachings at all. (The Orthodox, for whom halakha is binding and who tend to be more politically conservative, constitute a minority of American Jews.)

Though over the years I have become a dedicated student of this ancient and vital tradition, I cannot pretend that I have yet been able to accept halakha in its entirety. I see myself as one who is still growing in religion and who takes it seriously, yet not uncritically. On most issues, and especially on the issue of abortion, I think the world has much to learn from the life-loving, compassionate spirit of classical Judaism, which makes responsibility to others the highest priority, as part of a carefully ordered framework of service to God.

History has given us, within recent memory, a compelling reason to pay attention to Judaism's warnings against the unnecessary destruction of life. In the Torah, God calls on us to turn away from all forms of idolatry. The idols of our day are not statues, but ideologies. Instead of the Creator, people worship social and political causes. The best example among many is the radical wing of feminism, which elevates women to quasi-goddesses while insisting that unwanted children are worthless nonentities who can be disposed of at will. How strongly this reminds me, as a Jew, of the Nazi ideology that declared the Aryans quasi-gods while encouraging the extermination of unwanted people as vermin.

On my wall is a quote from a German pastor who protested against the Nazi killing of mental patients. He wrote to Hitler, "Who if not the helpless should the law protect?" It is the same question we should be asking ourselves today.

Reprinted from The American Feminist, Summer 1995

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