As some Orthodox Jews have aligned themselves with the right on other issues, from Israel to immigration, so too have they moved toward the anti-abortion position. Still, even the strictest interpretation leaves room for the life of the mother. As Dr. Immanuel Jacobovits, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote in 1965, “as defined in the Bible, the rights of the mother and her unborn child are distinctly unequal, since the capital guilt of murder takes effect only if the victim was a born and viable person.” That, he explained, doesn’t mean abortion is never a grave offense, but “this inequality, then, is weighty enough only to warrant the sacrifice of the unborn child if the pregnancy otherwise poses a threat to the mother’s life.”
One of the core principles of Judaism is pikuach nefesh: the preservation of life above all else, even Shabbat observance, which is otherwise sacrosanct. What could be more worthy than focusing on the need for the pregnant person, if suffering, to end that suffering, to live and contribute to the world? It is her life, her soul — “present, alive and asking for compassion,” as Rabbi Feldman put it — that is more worth saving.
We are far from the only religion to take a nuanced stance on abortion. But a religious group that dictates a sweeping, intractable view of right and wrong when it comes to abortion may have an easier time getting attention than, for instance, the religious organizations that recently filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, asking fervently for careful, circumstance-based consideration in the upcoming abortion case out of Mississippi.
And so a number of Jews are starting to make noise to rectify this imbalance. A new campaign called 73Forward, led by the National Council of Jewish Women, is gathering activists from secular to Orthodox to defend abortion access from an explicitly Jewish perspective. Rabbis have pledged to join the fight in Texas.
Feminist organizing has always attracted Jewish participation, while within our communal world, groups like the N.C.J.W. and publications like Lilith (organizations where I worked and now work, respectively) have carried the abortion rights banner for many years. But what is notable today are the particular ways Jews are organizing as Jews.
Gen Z and millennial Jewish leaders also point to the reproductive justice movement led by women of color — which connects abortion to racial, economic and social inequality — as the beacon for their own activism. This holistic framework has inspired Jews to fight for abortion access as a crucial part of repairing the world, or tikkun olam, a value that has animated Jewish activism for decades. Many Jewish feminists say they now feel called to support abortion access for those who need it the most, while reminding the country that our own religious freedom is at stake.
Jewish leaders aren’t on television each weekend screaming, “Get your laws off our religion!” But as a minority religion, we naturally favor a true separation of church and state. And there’s another reason. When I write about Jewish attitudes toward contraception or abortion, I always receive an onslaught of vitriol in my inbox. It starts with the horrifying comparison between abortion and the Holocaust that equates millions of thinking, feeling, Jewish lives cut down in their prime to embryos and extends to the idea that 83 percent of American Jews in support of abortion rights are perpetuating the very mass murder that devastated my grandparents’ generation.