Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Hebrew Bible, Human Life

A reader, Joyce, comments poignantly on my post about Newsweek‘s rabbis list, which is topped by liberal activist Rabbi David Saperstein. I had noted that the organization Saperstein heads up, the Religious Action Center, takes a firm stance against tobacco. Joyce wrote, “I guess I am ignorant and in the wrong religion. I thought preservation of life and health was about Judaism. I also thought that Judaism taught that we had an obligation to protect the weak. I guess I will have to find a religion which does value life.”

What I didn’t say is that the RAC takes a no less firm a stance in favor of “reproductive rights” and “reproductive freedom” — i.e., abortion. See Saperstein’s letter of congratulation to President Obama on the occasion of Obama’s Inauguration, which touches twice on the matter. The RAC also has a position paper giving “The Jewish Perspective” on abortion. In a nutshell, that perspective is said to be, “Women are commanded to care for their own health and well-being above all else. Therefore, there are several instances when Judaism not only condones abortions, but they are mandated.”
This is the kind of distortion that I referred to in my opening blog post here at Kingdom of Priests. When it comes to Judaism’s actual views on sensitive matters like abortion, we Jews are always reassuring ourselves with half-truths and distortions. We mostly refuse to “Look there.”
Let’s put this out in the open, shall we? As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 57b) sees things, citing the authoritative view of Rabbi Yishmael, abortion specifically in the context of a gentile society like ours is nothing less than a capital crime


Rabbi Yishmael gives as his Biblical reference Genesis 9:6, which literally reads, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human [who is] inside a human, his blood shall be shed.” Maimonides in his definitive law code, the Mishneh Torah, gives this as Judaism’s legal standard. There are, fascinatingly, more liberal laws for Jews, but we are very firm, ferociously so, about protecting unborn life when it is the life of a non-Jew. You’ll find the citation from Maimonides, in Hebrew, on the Mechon-Mamre website; Hilchot Melachim 9:4.
A further law among the Talmud’s Noachide Code — the legal code parallel to the Mosaic Code, but for non-Jews — is that non-Jews should set up courts to enforce the rest of the Noachide laws, including this piece of extraordinarily pro-life legislation. By contrast, there is no way to seriously construe Jewish tradition as mandating a government role in discouraging tobacco use. 
When I noted this recently in a speech at the Jewish Community Center in Austin, a young guy came up to me afterward and ask in horror, “So you’re in favor of executing abortion doctors?” Of course not. My only point here is that in determining the values of the Hebrew Bible, of Judaism and of Jewish tradition, we should not shy away from confronting what our sources actually say. 
This tradition embodies not practical legislation to be enacted in Congress but a worldview, a set of values, that is distinctively Jewish, anchored in the Torah. Yes, let’s at least look there.
Comments read comments(4)
post a comment

posted April 6, 2009 at 8:36 pm

I could be wrong, but doesn’t Orthodox Judaism require an abortion if the mother’s life or health is threatened? I know that Orthodox Judaism doesn’t permit “abortion on demand”, but aren’t there limited circumstances in which abortion is appropriate, according to the Torah and Talmud?

report abuse

David Klinghoffer

posted April 6, 2009 at 9:00 pm

You’re right, PO, absolutely but that’s an answer to a different question. If a Jewish woman went to her rabbi, for tragically, with such a problem, what you say here would come into play. But the question I’m asking is what public policy Judaism would recommend for a non-Jewish country. Different question, so different answer.

report abuse


posted April 7, 2009 at 10:47 am

Is Rabbi Saperstein wrong to argue that opposition to tobacco is morally appropriate, and to suggest that the nation’s laws should reflect that opposition? Wouldn’t our ancestors who developed the Talmud have been likely to support a similar position if they understood that tobacco and well-being were antagonistic? You are right that Rabbi Saperstein should show awareness of Talmudic discussion on abortion, but I believe that he is correct in promoting the right to choose abortion for those who recognize its legality as morally preferable to the horrors and risks that women who elected illegal abortions had to face before Roe v. Wade. Rabbi Saperstein sees the moral complexity of the issue, while our talmudic ancestors were evidently operating with an “us vs. them” set of rules on this question. If not, why else were the rules different for Jews and non-Jews? For me, Rabbi Saperstein’s advice to the President is consistent with our mandate to be ” a light unto the nations.”

report abuse

Your Name

posted April 9, 2009 at 12:35 pm

April 8, 2009
Silly boy!
R. Yishmael’s exegesis is forced and anomalous, in contradiction to the standard understanding of the text; and the conclusion you draw from it is boneheaded, albeit in keeping with your Christianizing agenda.
What Yishmael is doing here is making a cultural anthropological observation: non-Jews suffer from an indigenous, endemic propensity toward thievery, which can only be remedied by the strictest of measures: one strike and you are out, one conviction for theft (of any property, and, in Judaism, a fetus is considered property) and the perp faces execution.
Make no mistake about it: according to YU prof of Talmud (Orthodox) Rabbi Moshe Tendler – a renowned authority on Jewish medical ethics who also holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from Columbia University: “a fertilized egg in a petri dish does not have ‘humanhood.’ Without implantation into the uterus it remains a ‘zygote’ or pre-embryo and is not viewed as an’abortus’ as the church views it.”
One more thing: in another posting, you used a Yiddish word. I come from a family with generations of yichus, and therefore I can cite Yiddish (as my mameloshen, “mother tongue”) authentically; as a convert, YOUR birth mother tongue is Swedish!

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

Another Blog To Enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Kingdom of Priests. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Kabballah Counseling Happy Reading! ...

posted 11:24:22am Aug. 16, 2012 | read full post »

Animal Wisdom: The Voice of the Serpent
Our family watched Jaws together the other evening -- which, in case you're wondering, I regard as responsible parenting since our kids are basically too young to be genuinely scared by the film. The whole rest of the next day, two-year-old Saul ...

posted 3:56:33pm Mar. 16, 2010 | read full post »

Reading Wesley Smith: Why the Darwin Debate Matters
If the intelligent-design side in the evolution debate doesn't receive the support you might expect from people who should be allies, that may be because they haven't grasped why the whole thing matters so urgently. I got an email recently from ...

posted 5:07:12pm Mar. 15, 2010 | read full post »

The Mission of the Jews
Don't miss my essay over at First Things on the mission of the Jews to the world. This, I think, the key idea that the Jewish community needs to absorb at this very unusual cultural moment, for the time is so, so right. Non-Jews are waiting for ...

posted 6:14:16pm Mar. 05, 2010 | read full post »

Darwin at the Mountains of Madness: Evolution & the Occult
Of all the regrettable cultural forces that Darwinism helped unleash, perhaps the most surprising and seemingly unlikely is its role in sparking the creation of modern occultism. Charles Darwin himself could not have been less interested in the ...

posted 2:04:11pm Mar. 04, 2010 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.