For decades, the Christian religious right’s opposition to abortion has dominated the reproductive rights debate in the United States. Activists spent years pushing states and the federal government toward more restrictive policies; those efforts culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the constitutionally protected right to an abortion.
But Christians aren’t the only people of faith with deeply held religious convictions regarding reproductive rights. Judaism not only teaches that abortion is permitted, but compels Jewish faith leaders to fight for reproductive rights, says Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, an author, scholar in residence for the National Council of Jewish Women, and creator of Rabbis for Repro, a national network of Jewish clergy working to support reproductive rights in their communities and on a national level.
The argument Ruttenberg and other rabbis are making has important implications for the law. If Judaism teaches that abortions are necessary, then laws denying the right to an abortion infringe upon the religious freedoms of Jewish people to have them. In Florida, one rabbi, Barry Silver of L’Dor Va-Dor in Palm Beach County, is suing the state to block a new 15-week abortion ban from going into effect, arguing that the proposed rule restricts religious freedom and amounts to “theocratic tyranny.” (A judge announced he would temporarily block the new law, one day before it was set to take effect, in response to a separate lawsuit.) In Israel, officials announced new policies meant to ease abortion access in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision.
Vox spoke with Ruttenberg about what Judaism teaches on abortion, and the role Jewish leaders will play in the next phase of the abortion rights fight.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What does Judaism say about abortion?
Abortion is permitted in Judaism, and when the life of the pregnant person is at stake, it is required. Judaism’s approach to abortion finds its basis in the book of Exodus. There’s a case where two people are fighting, and one person knocks over a pregnant person and causes a miscarriage. It says very clearly, if it’s only a miscarriage, then the person who caused the harm is obligated to pay monetary fines as damages, and if a pregnant person dies, then it is treated as manslaughter. So we see right away that in the book of Exodus it’s very clear that the fetus and pregnant person have different statuses, and causing a miscarriage is not treated as manslaughter. The fetus does not have the same status as a born human. It’s treated as potential life, rather than actual life.
There are two statements in the Talmud, codified in roughly 500 CE, that say for the first 40 days of pregnancy the fetus is “mere water” and doesn’t have any legal status at all, which incidentally is the same in Islam. For the first 40 days, the fetus has zero status, and from then on the fetus is considered a part of the pregnant person’s body — it is “as its mother’s thigh.” The fetus is an extension of the pregnant person until birth. It’s like that old slogan “my body, my choice”: it is literally her body! That makes intuitive sense and resonates with Roe and Casey’s delineation that abortion is permitted until viability. There’s a certain logic to all of that.
I could cite millions of texts through the centuries. We see language stating that emotional pain is just as serious as physical pain in making decisions about abortion. We see that dignity and suffering are legitimate reasons for having an abortion.
Judaism has said again and again that the life, health, and safety of the pregnant person is paramount. Her rights come first.
What do these new restrictions happening in states across the country mean for Jewish people who wish to have an abortion?
This is a violation of our First Amendment rights. It’s definitely a violation of free exercise of religion because it’s not only true that my religion permits me to have an abortion any time that there is need, but also at times I am obligated to have an abortion in order to save my own life. The range of situations in which Judaism would say: “yes, this is go time, you need to take care of yourself” is broader than the state’s in places that are outlawing abortion.
There’s also an establishment clause issue, because the state is making determinations about when life begins based on one very specific Christian interpretation of what that means, but as I’ve mentioned, Judaism has a totally different way of thinking about what the fetus is and how we understand what life is, and how abortion fits into that. The state is preferring one religious philosophy and enshrining it as policy and imposing it on atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and everyone else, when we are supposed to be a country for everyone.
Are there other elements of Jewish tradition that compel you to advocate for reproductive rights?
Yes. In the story of Exodus, we’ve got the Israelites leaving Egypt and being commanded to set up a new society. They’re like, okay, we’re starting from scratch, here’s what a just society is going to look like. There are all sorts of structures set up for economic justice. What the Torah repeats again and again is to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. It’s ancient intersectionality. The Torah knows there are people who will, because of gender, marital, or parental status, be uniquely vulnerable to poverty.
We have to not only set up structures that are good for everybody, but to keep the focus on making sure that those who are most impacted are centered and cared for, and that their needs are at the heart of our work to create justice. For me, to work for abortion justice is to be aware that the people who are most impacted by bans are people who are struggling financially; are Black, Indigenous, and people of color; are young people often trying to do this around parental oversight; are trans men and some nonbinary people; are immigrants; are disabled people; are people in rural communities. We have to always keep our focus on those who are most impacted.
In the American conversation, we like to talk about rights — what rights am I entitled to? In Judaism, we talk about responsibilities and obligations. What am I obligated to? I feel obligated to do this work.
What role did Jewish religious leaders play in helping people secure abortion access in the era before Roe?
Before Roe, there was a network called the Clergy Consultation Service, that was a network of rabbis and Protestant ministers working to help people access abortion care. That work looked like a number of different things depending on where people were and what the need was. It is very natural that rabbis would be part of the activism then. Rabbis for Repro have pledged to preach and teach and speak out and agitate on behalf of abortion justice. It’s very important that we fight for abortion justice not despite our Jewishness, but because of it.
There’s a rabbi in Florida suing the state, arguing that the state’s proposed 15-week ban on abortion access is a violation of religious freedom. What do you make of that, and should we expect to see other lawsuits like this come up?
The National Council of Jewish Women is watching the case very closely, with great interest, and agrees that abortion bans are a violation of religious freedom.
Is there anything about this moment that is giving you hope?
I believe in us. What can I say? I know that power doesn’t break easily, I’m not naïve.
But I’m a student of history, and I know that when enough people come together and say “no”, powerful things can happen. The way out of here, this very narrow place, is going to be hard and long and painful, and it won’t be without a fight. We just have to be willing to show up and be patient. And keep showing up even if we aren’t seeing results today or tomorrow. It takes time and we have to keep working.
The Jewish community is here for this. We’re showing up. And I’m really proud of us.