2710 Genesee St.
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A Message from Cantor Socolof

CantorTwo months ago in this space I wrote about how in any organized system, distinctions must be made. At the time, it was in the context of how much milk can cause a vat of chicken soup to be considered treyfe. Recent events have presented a much more compelling example of the import of having a way to decide questions that do not always present clear-cut solutions.

To wit, the current public debate about abortion and when it may legally be performed. Opinions range from not allowing abortions under any circumstances to leaving it totally to the discretion of the mother. The nub of the differences often comes down to the question of when an unborn child attains the rights and privileges of a human being. As I have said in the past, I do not have the expertise to fully comment on legal matters, much less legislation in other states. That said, we, as Jews, should at the very least have our views informed by Rabbinical teaching and halacha. What does Jewish law have to say about such matters?

Firstly, human life is precious. This idea permeates halacha. Of the 613 mitzvot, 610 may be violated in the interests of preserving human life. What about the other three? A topic, perhaps, for a future column, but not directly pertinent to our current question. And I keep saying human life because other life, while important and not to be abused, is not held by the Torah to be in the same class.

One would not consider cutting off a part of one's body unless it presented a clear and present danger to the individual. Similarly, the abortion of an unborn child would not be considered unless it presented such a danger to the mother. In that case, the unborn child would be considered a rodeyf, a pursuer, and the mother would simply be defending herself.

In the Torah (Exodus 21:22-23) we are presented with a case where two men are fighting and, as an accidental result, a pregnant woman is struck and miscarries. The penalty established by the Torah is a fine. The Torah distinguishes between a miscarriage and a fatality. This is in contrast to elsewhere in the Torah (Deuteronomy 19:2-10) where someone accidentally kills another person and as a result is banished to a city of refuge. The different consequences clearly indicate that the loss of a pregnancy is not equivalent to killing another person.

This being so, it is important to note that Jewish law doesn't really address the question of "When does life begin?" Rather, until the child is at least half-born (the head out of the birth canal), the guiding principle is ubar yerech imo, the fetus is part of its mother, much like a finger or even an arm.

And so we are back to the matter of fine distinctions. How is a fetus that is half-born any more human than it was ten seconds before that? You can present a rather valid argument that it is not. But in this instance, as in so many others, lines must be drawn and distinctions made. There has to be a point set where we say that what was a potential life, part of the mother's body, is now a separate and independent human with all of the rights and privileges. Halacha provides us with a process for making such distinctions in a way that led by reason, tempered by concern for those involved, and informed by millennia of experience and disputation of this and other weighty and complex matters.

As we consider this matter in the civil arena, let us keep the Jewish perspective in mind as a guide to what we feel is the best policy for our community, our state and our nation.

Cantor Socoloff

Contact him at uticacantor@verizon.net