Jonathan Sacks’s Moderate Stance on Abortion

While perhaps unrepresentative of popular opinion, American public discourse about abortion tends to pose an argument between two extremes: either the fetus is a “clump of cells” and its destruction a morally neutral act, or abortion is no different at all from postnatal murder. Although the former position has been endorsed by some non-Orthodox rabbis, and the latter by some Orthodox ones, the late British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks made the case for an intermediate approach in his commentary to Exodus 21, which discusses a man’s tortious accidental termination of a pregnancy. Gil Student explains:

Rabbi Sacks focuses on the importance of tradition and interpretation. The talmudic sages (Tractate Sanhedrin 79a) interpret the word ason regarding a pregnant woman who is struck (Exodus 21:23) as referring to damage, a fatal accident. From this interpretation, it emerges that a fetus does not have the legal status of a person, and causing a woman to miscarry is not a capital offense. In contrast, [the 1st-century BCE Jewish philosopher] Philo of Alexandria, under the influence of the Greek translation of the Torah, interprets ason as referring to the fetus’s form. If the fetus is not yet formed, then causing a woman to miscarry is not a capital offense. If the fetus is formed, then abortion is murder.

Sacks briefly traces these two interpretations through history. Jews traditionally followed the Talmud while Christians adopted Philo’s understanding. The result is that Judaism generally does not consider abortion to be murder while Christianity considers it to be murder once the fetus is formed, however that is defined. This distinction is important not only in terms of the nature of the offense of abortion but also regarding how we determine our values. Judaism takes it values from the Oral Torah, the rabbinic tradition recorded in Talmud and midrash, and transmitted throughout the generations by its leading lights.

But Sacks adds an important caveat, which Student quotes:

This is not to say that Jewish and Catholic views on abortion are completely different. In practice, they are quite close, especially when compared to the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome, or the secular West today, where abortion is widespread and not seen as a moral evil at all. Judaism permits abortion only to save the life of the mother or to protect her from life-threatening illness. A fetus might not be a person in Jewish law, but it is a potential person, and must therefore be protected. However, the theoretical difference is real. In Judaism, abortion is not murder. In Catholicism, it is.

Read more at Torah Musings

More about: Abortion, Exodus, Halakhah, Jonathan Sacks, Judaism, Philo


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount