by Rabbi Philip “Flip” Rice
When Jews make a toast, we usually say, “L’chaim — To Life!” Why? Judaism places greater emphasis on this world, rather than an afterlife. An ancient text even claims we will be held accountable for all of the permitted pleasures of this world we failed to enjoy. So in the Jewish tradition, all life is considered sacred. As such, Jewish men and women are required to care for their own health and security.
Judaism values life so much there is even a legal principle called “Pikuach Nefesh,” to save a life, which states that the preservation of life overrides virtually every other religious matter. Throughout history, rabbis debated cases in which biblically mandated laws could be disregarded for the sake of saving a human life. Violating the laws of the Sabbath or of Holy Days for medical emergencies, for example, is permitted.
While a budding life always has value, it is never placed above existing life. While an unborn fetus is precious and is to be protected, Judaism views the life and well-being of the mother as supreme.
It is due to this fundamental Jewish belief in the sanctity of life that abortion, under certain circumstances, is viewed as both a moral and correct decision. Throughout Jewish history there have been instances when Judaism not only condoned but mandated abortions.
The oral law in Judaism, the Mishnah, forbids a woman from sacrificing her own life for that of the fetus. It states that if her life is threatened, abortion is required. Similarly, when a woman’s mental health, sanity and/or self-esteem are at risk due to the pregnancy itself, as in the case of rape or incest, the Mishnah permits the woman to terminate the pregnancy.
Judaism recognizes all humans, men and women, as moral decision-makers in their own right, entitled to make their own fundamental medical and reproductive choices. As a rabbi committed to the sanctity of a woman’s life and personal dignity, as part of a tradition that affirms a woman’s right to self-determination, and as a member of a religious movement that supports a woman’s right to choose and reproductive rights in general, I must advocate for women’s access to safe, legal abortions. Decisions about one’s body are to be made in consultation with a doctor, family and/or clergy member; politicians should not violate what, at its core, are private, often religious decisions.
Foiling Roe v. Wade
In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled the decision to terminate a pregnancy was a fundamental part of a woman’s right to privacy and self-determination. Roe v. Wade was the culmination of decades of advocacy at a time when millions of women were forced to choose between carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term (including those resulting from rape or incest) and having unsafe abortions.
In the decades since, however, anti-choice organizations, certain religious groups and some politicians have worked to undermine and dismantle the decision. They have passed laws and set the stage for court decisions that make it nearly impossible for millions of women to access safe, legal and affordable abortion services.
The founders of our nation understood the importance of separation of church and state. They created a union of disparate individuals, communities and states in the hope that their different religious beliefs would not undermine the country but strengthen it. While one woman may choose not to end a pregnancy, politicians should not stand in the way of another woman to do so. Such decisions, which are not made lightly, are a matter of life, liberty and one’s own pursuit of happiness.
Rabbi Philip “Flip” Rice is co-senior rabbi of Congregation Micah in Brentwood and a member of the Tennessee Reproductive Justice Network.
This op-ed appeared in The Tennessean on September 17, 2014.