Content warning: This article contains descriptions of abortion procedures and medically catastrophic pregnancies. Please proceed with caution and self-care.
Following the repeal of Roe v. Wade and its protections for abortion access in the U.S., many people are deeply concerned about the potential impact of this decision on their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. If this includes you, as a part of your process, you may want to seek out insights from the Jewish tradition about abortion. I have collected some teachings here that I hope will get you started on your journey.
Abortion is a complicated issue manifested through the bodies of real-life pregnant people — each of whom is a unique individual with a story all their own. I would never presume to tell you, in the abstract, what decision you should make if it becomes necessary for you to make one. I can only share the centuries of Jewish thought and debate on the subject and give the following general advice:
Know yourself. Know your most deeply held beliefs and values, know your needs based on your life situation as it is now, and know what your body and soul are telling you.
When faced with a painful, difficult decision, I find it grounding to look at it through the lens of our always-growing Jewish wisdom, for several reasons. Our tradition is at once very old and brand-new, spanning centuries, continents, and cultures. There isn’t much in life that our accumulated knowledge and perspectives has not addressed. Torah — in the broadest sense, meaning our scriptures, the centuries of commentary and insight they inspire, and the lessons of our own lives — helps us to connect our most cherished values to the process of deciding.
Even though our Rabbis, the founders of our tradition, were men who made assumptions about women and gender in general that most of us no longer share, they left us a legacy: the very values and ways of thinking which empower us to challenge them. They teach that life has meaning and that every person has it in them to make the world better. They teach us to think critically and caringly, delving into complication and ambiguity. They teach us to look at hard questions, that of abortion for example, with compassion and fairness.
Jews do not have a “party line” on abortion, as with most things. Jewish law and custom is built through rigorous debate. Many voices have a say and, with critical issues such as abortion, there is often no final verdict. Judaism is always responding to new conditions and knowledge. For example, our ancient sources speak of pregnant women. These days, however, many of us understand that these discussions apply to anyone with a uterus, including nonbinary people and trans men.
As you’ll see, Jewish sources do agree on one key point: when a pregnant person’s life is in danger, abortion is not only permitted but mandatory.
It is imperative to understand that there is nothing in the pshat (the literal reading) of the Hebrew Bible about abortion — nothing at all. It is not only not prohibited; it is not mentioned specifically.
However, we learn from Exodus 21:22-25:
“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
First of all, please don’t worry or be distracted — according to Rabbinic law which constitutes Judaism as we live it today, “eye for eye” does not mean actual mutilation. The penalty consists of monetary damages which match the extent of the injury. Jewish law is based on reparative justice. Our approach to bodily injury is to center the victim and find ways to compensate them, with money if that is the only redress available (see Bava Kamma 83a-b to learn how the fines are calculated).
What’s critical here is that a miscarriage is treated exactly like any other damage to the pregnant woman’s body.
If an induced miscarriage were tantamount to manslaughter, the damager would have been exiled to a city of refuge. If it were equivalent to murder, that would have called for the death penalty, as we see. The Hebrew Bible treats the loss of a pregnancy as it would any other physical injury. (Of course, in a patriarchal society, the monetary fine was paid to the woman’s husband. Since then, we have evolved.)
The Talmud (circa 100 BCE-600 BCE), is the basis for Jewish law. The Talmud contains interpretations of Torah law, teaching stories, and other Rabbinic wisdom. It is the compilation of centuries of application of the Written Torah (the five Books of Moses) to the lives of the urbanized, literate and scattered population of Jews within the Persian and Roman empires and the greater Diaspora. This work became especially urgent following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
When making law, the Rabbis and Sages of the Talmud read the Written Torah interpretively, allowing their responses to the text to spark new understandings. The Talmud is composed of the Mishnah — a collection of rabbinic rulings and debates believed to have been redacted in the second century of the Common Era — and the Gemara, commentaries and elucidations on the Mishnah, alongside discussions of philosophical issues, anecdotes and other musings. There is no single author of the Talmud and its final editors (believed to have completed their work in the 6th Century CE) are anonymous.
The entire body of Jewish law that deals with abortion directly starts with the Rabbis of the Talmud. They looked at the real lives of Jewish people — such as women with dangerous pregnancies — and did their best to apply Torah law so as to do justly in specific cases.
Just as the Torah treats an accident that causes a miscarriage as a case of damage done to the pregnant person’s body, the Talmud tends to treat a fetus as part of a pregnant person. For example, we read in Mishnah Arakhin 1:4:
“If a woman is about to be executed, they do not wait for her until she gives birth. But if she had already sat on the birthstool, they wait for her until she gives birth.” (Again, please don’t be distracted — Jewish law places so many restrictions on the death penalty that it is almost impossible to impose. See Mishnah Sanhedrin Ch. 4.)
Other rulings also indicate that a fetus becomes a person only when their body has begun to emerge from that of the mother. The following passage is one to which our content warning applies. Mishnah Oholot 7:6 states explicitly:
“A woman who was having trouble giving birth, they cut up the fetus inside her and take it out limb by limb, because her life comes before its life. If most of it had come out already they do not touch it because we do not push off one life for another.”
Many people find this explicit passage to be difficult reading. I agree. This passage describes a time of loss and pain, when an anticipated time of great joy turns into a time of desperate peril. Our rabbis certainly did not relish the end of a pregnancy. To the contrary, they took seriously the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” This procedure for a late-term abortion, described in unflinching detail, is prescribed as a necessary, painful intervention to save a mother’s life.
Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 72b explains it like this:
“‘If his head emerged’ we do not touch him since we do not push away one life for another.” The Medieval commentator Rashi underscores the point with, “as the entire time that it has not gone out into the environment of the world, it is not a soul, and [so] it is possible to kill it and to save its mother. But when its head came out, we cannot touch it to kill it, as it is like a born [baby]; and we do not push off one soul for the sake of another.”
As to the fetus’ status before that, we learn in Yevamot 69b that, “If she is found pregnant, until the fortieth day it is only a fluid.” And in Gittin 23b:
“Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi holds: A fetus is considered as its mother’s thigh, a part of its mother’s body.”
The great Rabbi Yehuda haNasi (Rabbi Judah the Prince, circa 135-215CE) is said to have been the redactor of the Mishnah and was a mighty legal mind. If he made such a clear declarative statement about the status of a fetus, that might seem to be the end of it. But, as is often the case with our Rabbis, they leave us with unresolved contradictions.
In Sanhedrin 91b, the same Rabbi Yehuda haNasi who said a fetus is like a thigh says, “‘And Your providence has preserved my spirit’ (Job 10:12) indicates that it is from the moment of conception that the soul is preserved within a person.”
However, the verse upon which Rabbi Yehuda haNasi depends uses the word “rukhi” for “my soul.” In Jewish thought the ruakh (which also means breath) is understood to be an impersonal life force — other living creatures besides human beings have ruakh. So perhaps this simply means that the fetus has life processes within but only receives a human soul — a neshama — upon birth. Therefore, a fetus can be like a thigh (which is a living limb) and still only attain fully ensouled humanity upon birth.
You might be thinking that this is no small matter — the difference between a thigh and a fetus is that one has the potential to become a distinct human life. Indeed, our Rabbis and the commentators were aware of this and were not casual about the magnitude of terminating a pregnancy. There is another opinion upon which the strictest legal decisors with regard to abortion rely.
(In the text below, Rabbi Yishmael is using the Rabbinic technique of a very close reading of the text. The verse from Genesis states literally, “One who sheds a person’s blood, in/by a person [b’adam], their blood will be shed.” Ordinarily, this verse is used to justify capital punishment in the case of a murder of one living/born person by another. Often, the prefix “b” means “in”, however in this case most people read it as “by” because of context. Rabbi Yishmael is using it creatively to arrive at his ruling.)
Sanhedrin 57b teaches:
“In the name of Rabbi Yishmael it was said: [A Noachide (a non-Jew who resides in a Jewish community and who wishes to worship G-d without converting) may be put to death] even for the killing of a fetus. What is Rabbi Yishmael’s source? For it is written, “One who spills the blood of a person inside another person etc.” (Genesis/B’reishit 9:6). Which person is inside another person? This is referring to the fetus in the mother’s womb.” Many commentators to this day cite this ruling, saying that, surely, what is forbidden to a Noachide must be forbidden to Jews who carry a greater set of obligations.
However, the very verse from Genesis/B’reishit cited here by Rabbi Yishmael is one of those cited later in the pasuk (bit of Talmud) referred to earlier, Sanhedrin 72b, which teaches that, at any point in the pregnancy, if the fetus has not yet emerged and the mother’s life is in clear danger, the pregnancy must be terminated. Here the verse is interpreted like this: “The Torah said, 'The one who sheds blood, shall his own blood be shed,' meaning, save the blood of the pursued by the blood of the pursuer.” Here the fetus is ruled to be a rodef, a pursuer after the mother, so the abortion is a mandated act in defense of her life."
This is a classic demonstration of the key Rabbinic principle:
One verse of Torah yields many interpretations.
To explore those interpretations is not to engage in mere thought-games but to discern how to act justly in very real, very urgent, life-changing circumstances.
Jewish scholars and judges have continued these debates until the present day. Two of the most famous modern rulings reflect our current divergence of opinion on this matter. Differing opinions, as we see below, are each considered valid and have their adherents. What remains clear is that, even if one follows the strictest Jewish rulings regarding abortion, restrictive civil laws interfere with our ability to follow the guidance of our tradition.
Reb Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) has been called the greatest Orthodox halakhist (legal thinker) of his day. Certainly, his impact on the American Ashkenazi Jewish world remains immense. He was especially influential in the world of first and second generation American Jews of Eastern European origin who were seeking to hold fast to Judaism while adjusting to the life of modern US citizens. He was especially worried about assimilation into American popular culture with its excessive individualism and casualness about violence in popular culture.
Keeping those concerns in mind, we can perhaps understand the imperatives which drove him to write the following about abortion in his key work Igrot Moshe:
“It would be forbidden to kill it (a fetus) even to save someone’s life. The exception would be to save the life of the mother during childbirth, not for any other need of the mother, which would definitely be forbidden.
“Even for children for whom the doctors predict a very short life span, such as those children who are born with the disease called Tay-Sachs, which through newly developed tests can be diagnosed prenatally, it would be forbidden since there is no danger to the mother and the infant is not a rodef. One cannot permit an abortion even though there is very great suffering involved.”
You might ask, why quote from this opinion when it is so severe on pregnant people? For one thing, in the Orthodox world, Reb Feinstein is an unavoidable halakhist (legal authority). In fact, in debates on this subject, his is sometimes the only Orthodox view presented, as though the denomination were a monolith. It is important that people concerned with this topic be able to engage Reb Feinstein's views in the larger context of the broader Jewish conversation. That is what we will turn to now.
Reb Feinstein’s interpretation is followed to this day in some communities. Other religious leaders turn to an interpretation from another important modern thinker, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (1915-2006), who saw things from a very different perspective.
Rabbi Waldenberg was born and raised in Jerusalem, spending his entire life in the Land of Israel. He is considered an especially important halakhist on medical issues. His career as a dayan, a rabbinical judge, began before the State of Israel was declared and continued throughout most of the 20th Century. He was concerned with establishing humane and Jewishly rooted norms for self-contained Jewish communities in little danger of assimilation. He sought to create halakha (Jewish law) that would address changing technologies and the new medical possibilities they created.
In his key work, Tzitz Eliezer, Rabbi Waldenberg wrote:
“If there is a danger to the mother from continuing the pregnancy, one should permit abortion without hesitation. Also, if her health is poor and to cure her or to relieve her from great pain it is necessary to abort the fetus, even if she is not in actual danger, there is room to permit it, based on the halakhic authority’s evaluation of the situation.
“In the case of a baby who will have Tay-Sachs, one should permit...abortion as soon as it becomes evident without doubt from the test that, indeed such a baby shall be born...if, indeed, we may permit an abortion according to the halakha because of 'a great need' and because of pain and suffering, it seems that this is the classic case for such permission. And it is irrelevant in what way the pain and suffering is expressed, whether it is physical or psychological.
“Indeed, psychological suffering is in many ways much greater than the suffering of the flesh.”
Dr. Tamara Mann Tweel, a Jewish medical ethicist, in telling her story, gives a powerful example of Rabbi Waldenberg’s point about psychological suffering. Dr. Tweel writes movingly about her experience with a catastrophic pregnancy which had to be ended. The following passage is one to which our content warning applies.
During her 13th week, Dr. Tweel’s doctor showed her a sonogram that contained devastating news: her fetus would, in her doctor’s words, “not survive the pregnancy.” Her own health depended on aborting as soon as possible. Dr. Tweel was agonized. She had wanted another child so much. She writes:
“I didn't understand what I had inside of me and I didn't understand what I should do. I called a dear friend, an Orthodox rabbi, who I knew would be both compassionate and firm. After consulting with his rabbi, he said the case was clear. In situations where the mother's health is at risk and the fetus (he explicitly said fetus) is not viable, Jewish law errs on the side of the mother's health. I should have the operation and I should not bury the fetus — it is not a life.”
As Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg teaches, “Jewish law permits abortion and, if needed to protect the life of the pregnant person, requires it.… [M]ental health is considered as serious as physical health; emotional pain is considered as significant as physical pain. Human dignity is regarded as a valid basis for other decisions in Jewish law, and so, too, here.” Rabbi Ruttenburg’s conclusion: “[L]aws banning abortion are [an attack on] freedom of religion.”
Most Jewish thinkers today agree on one more thing: whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is a very serious decision that should be made deliberately in consultation with doctors, spiritual leaders, partners and G-d — except in the case of an emergency when a pregnant person’s life is at stake, and no deliberation is needed before proceeding with an abortion. Notice that the government is not included in the list of sources to consult.
There is one more sugya (section of Talmud) which might shed light on our approach to the profoundly difficult issue of abortion. Yoma 83a teaches:
“It was taught in the Mishnah: If a person is ill and requires food (during Yom Kippur) due to potential danger, one feeds them according to the advice of medical experts. Rabbi Yannai said: If an ill person says they need to eat, and a doctor says they do not need to eat, one listens to the ill person. What is the reason for this halakha? The verse states: ‘The heart knows the bitterness of its soul’ (Proverbs 14:10). Obviously! For what reason (do we say the obvious)? The Gemara answers: It is lest you say that the doctor is more certain (because of expertise). Therefore, the verse teaches us that it is the ill person who knows their own suffering better than anyone else.”
In other words, we learn from Jewish tradition that well-being is not only assessed by obvious physical signs but by heeding our internal voices. It is a mitzvah (commandment) to fast on Yom Kippur, but sometimes, a person just can’t.
In such a case, the Rabbis counsel that we listen to our bodies, our hearts and our souls.
We can assume that no one sets out to get pregnant so as to have an abortion. A pregnancy may be unplanned and crisis-producing in some way, or a pregnancy may be very welcome but crushing medical news makes a decision necessary. In any case, the situation calls for compassionate care that puts the well-being of the pregnant person first.
This is never going to be an easy issue. It is good for Jews in crisis to consult our texts, our doctors, and our spiritual leaders. And — at the end of the day, the heart knows the needs of the soul and must be heard.