A Torah Perspective on Abortion

In May of this year Rabbi Sami Barth wrote a beautiful explanation of the Torah on abortion for his congregation. (Rabbi Barth was the transitional rabbi for Am Tikvah in San Francisco.) I have his permission to share his email with you. This is a subject with which our country is struggling. For those who see spiritual guidance on this topic there is frequently only a Christian view. It is important that Jews and non-Jews understand that Judaism has an ancient – and different – view that other religions, in particular Christianity.

From Rabbi Barth:

This has become a challenging time for all who cherish human life, and who are inspired by the teaching of the Torah that all humanity are created in the Divine Image. We look at each other, and inspired by the imagery of Emanuel Levinas, we see the Divine in each human face. It is no small chutzpah that we aspire to see God in each other. But now, we are compelled to examine closely our boundaries, to consider where does this essence of humanity, reflecting the Divine, begin. See below for my own thoughts and rabbinic guidance on this question that has been so compellingly brought before us by the draft of an opinion being circulated for likely approval among the justices of the Supreme Court.

The Torah is well aware of the nuances around the conception and creation of human life. In considering the consequences of “unintentional manslaughter” where there is the destruction of a human life, albeit accidental, the perpetrator is consigned to an “Ir miklat” (city of refuge). For full detail see Numbers Chapter 35, verses 9 through 34.

However if an accident (during a fight) causes a miscarriage, the destruction of a fetus, the careful provisions of the “city of refuge” are NOT invoked. See Exodus Chapter 21 verses 22 through 25. The consequence is a fine, as would be the case for any (other) injury caused by accident. It seems to me that there is no clearer demonstration that from the perspective of the Torah, the perspective of Jewish teaching, a fetus is NOT (yet) a human being, and the destruction of a fetus is not the killing of a human being. There is no Jewish concept of “unborn” or “preborn” persons; a fetus is not a person and does not carry the Divine image.

The Catholic church in the middle ages had a centuries long debate (not yet fully concluded) on the concept of “ensoulment” (determining when the Divine soul entered the fetus) — with some views corresponding to the Jewish view that this change in status takes place only when half of the baby has emerged from the womb.

The idea that full human status should be granted to the zygote immediately following conception is a perversion of the teachings of the Torah, and of many faith traditions of the world. It has no reasonable basis in science, in embryology. I fear for the very basis of civilization in this country if the direction now articulated at the level of the Supreme Court becomes normative.

We are in the midst of a complex exploration of the concept and nature of gender and identity, an exploration for which there is significant support in Talmudic lore. We must have faith in our own unfolding understanding of the nature of our humanity. If we are complex and diverse, it is because God created us that way. We approach Shabbat and when we recite kiddush we bless Shabbat as “zikkaron lema’aseh bereishit” (a memorial to the Work of Creation). We, all humanity, are the crowning glory of that Divine Creative Act.

Let us to resolve to live up to, and to defend, our heritage and our true human nature, children of God, children of Eternity.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Sami Barth


In our follow up correspondence Rabbi Barth recommended this online article to me.

The Beginning of Life in Judaism