Abortion often permitted in Judaism, rabbi says

Rabbi Allan Nadler

MONTREAL — Chabad and Agudath Israel in the United States have “allied themselves” over the years with the Catholic League and Christian evangelicals by supporting the overturning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark “Roe v. Wade” decision protecting therapeutic and partial-birth abortions, Congregation Beth-El’s Rabbi Allan Nadler asserted recently.

But although a 1999 Agudath Israel policy paper backs up Rabbi Nadler, Chabad in New York said that it has never tabled a formal public position on Roe v. Wade, and Chabad representatives suggested that Rabbi Nadler is misstating the group’s position.

Speaking earlier this month in the first lecture in a four-part series at the shul on the “Jewish Ethical Perspectives on ‘Matters of Life and Death’’’ Rabbi Nadler said the positions of Agudath Israel and Chabad on therapeutic and partial-birth abortions run counter to talmudic law.

In an email exchange with The CJN, Rabbi Nadler said that “there is no basis in Halachah for opposing such medical procedures, since until the baby’s head has… exited the womb, the mother’s health is paramount, and Jewish law actually mandates that the fetus be destroyed to protect the health of the mother.”

He added: “The rabbinic rulings on this are, in my view, perfectly consistent with current U.S. and Canadian law, under which all therapeutic abortions are protected by law. Indeed, a ‘partial-birth abortion’ is a medical procedure rarely employed, and when it is, it is always to protect the life of the mother,” he said.

“Thus my claim is that the position taken by Chabad and Agudath Israel are inconsistent with talmudic law.”

But in an email exchange with The CJN, Chabad in New York said that Rabbi Nadler’s claims about Chabad have no basis in fact.

“I’m not saying he made it up,” media relations director Rabbi Motti Seligson said. “He may have heard something from someone and is defining it as Chabad’s position. But I have no idea what he is talking about.”

But Rabbi Nadler said that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, spoke out against Roe v. Wade “on very numerous occasions… his position is well known.”

“Really? So it was a very well-known secret position?” retorted Rabbi Seligson.

“If this were an opinion of the Rebbe, whether communicated to ‘close associates’ or spoken about by farbrengen, it would have been published. I did some of my own research and found no such thing.”

Rabbi Berel Bell, founding dean of  Montreal Chabad’s Chaya Mushka Seminary for girls, did not specifically recall whether Rabbi Schneerson ever offered a specific opinion on Roe v. Wade. He said it’s possible that he did, but that he’d have to do more research on it.

Rabbi Nadler said: “One thing is certain: numerous haredi and chassidic rabbis have taken a hard line against Roe v. Wade and even harder against partial-birth abortions.”

In general, Rabbi Nadler noted that Judaism allows abortion under many circumstances, because it does not consider the fetus to be human until the mother gives birth.

Those circumstances could include the physical and psychological health and well-being of the mother, he added. The fetus in Judaism is viewed a “limb” of the mother, and not as a human life.

However, he added, Judaism does not allow abortion for frivolous reasons, such as sex selection or for convenience.

Rabbi Nadler said an “enormous amount of confusion exists within the [Jewish] public square” about how Judaism views birth control, abortion and such questions as when human life begins.”

One of the major misconceptions, he said, is that there is a “Jewish-Christian ethic” about abortion.

Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.

“The Jewish approach is legalistic, not metaphysical,” and not based, as it is in Catholicism, for example, on belief in the “ensoulment” of the embryo from the moment of conception.

Rabbi Nadler cited several sources to make his case.

Exodus 21:22-23 says that if someone causes a woman to abort or have a miscarriage, the person responsible pays a fine and is not considered guilty of ending a human life.

“In legal terms, this would be considered a tort, not a capital offence,” Rabbi Nadler said

In the Mishnah (Ohalot 7:9), if the life of a woman in labour is in jeopardy, one can dismember the fetus (a partial-birth abortion) as long as the head has not yet emerged, at which point the fetus is considered human.

The “most powerful” source for Rabbi Nadler is Arachin 7a, which says that even in the case of a pregnant woman condemned to death, her execution would not be postponed until the baby is born, unless she is in labour.

In other words, it’s clear you’re not killing two people if you execute a pregnant woman, Rabbi Nadler said, even though it might very well appear “unseemly” to do so.

The remaining two talks in the series are on April 24 (on gun control), and May 1 (on holy wars and martyrdom).