Abortion – A Jewish perspective

Judaism, like any other religious belief has a wide variety of different thoughts, opinions, and expressions on this topic. However, with that being said, I believe it is safe to say that Judaism is all about life. As we say after the Friday night blessing over the wine, La’heim, “to life”! As I write this article, it will be as I see it from my research, and understanding. Others may disagree, and have a very different view.

The two sides to this coin are the, “pro-life”, and the “pro-choice” coalition’s. Both groups are very passionate about their perspective on abortion. They both have people identifying with their group that are zealots, and those that are close to the middle of the line. The pro-choice activists are not “anti life”, and the pro-life activists are not opposed to “women having choices”. I believe that somewhere there is a balance between the two extremes.

One particular view, from the pro-life group, is based on, “when does life begin?” Some answer this question with “at conception”, others may say “upon birth”, some feel its “when a heart beat can be detected”, and I’m sure there are several others. These are all good thought out reply’s. I have heard/read a variety of good arguments for each one.

If a person identifies with the “when does life begin” approach, they may hold the belief that because the embryo or fetus is alive, it is therefore a viable human baby thus being independent of its mother, therefore the mother has no right to abortion. While others believe that there are different stages during the pregnancy that allow for abortion. And some identifying with the pro-life group do feel that some situations warrant an abortion.

Once the egg and sperm come together, according the medical experts an embryo is formed. Overtime the embryo develops into what they call a fetus until birth.1 I will be using these terms in this article so as to maintain clarity.

If we take the approach of “when does life begin?”, another question arises; If the embryo came from the sperm and the egg, weren’t the sperm and egg alive when they came together? Of course they were both alive, that’s how they came together.2 The sperm and the egg contain the DNA that has been handed down from generation to generation, in that family line.3 So when did life begin for that embryo? My answer is that it was always alive. Part of the embryo’s life had been alive in the sperm, and part was alive in the egg. In this case the embryo not only contains the mothers DNA that came from her parents but also from its father and his generations. Another question could be, did its life start in the womb, or was it always alive, only in a different form? I have heard Rabbi’s state that all Jews of all generations were present at Siani receiving the covenant. This statement take in account that we were part of our previous generations.

Some people opposed to abortion base their opinion totally on their belief of “when does life begin”. However, another approach to this topic is not about “when does life begin”, but rather “when does the soul enter the body?

It is our soul, and the breath (spirit) that God places into us that separates us from all other creation. There is no doubt that the embryo and fetus being carried by the mother is alive, and human, but when do we receive our soul from God? Did my soul enter into my body before I was born, while still in the womb, or did it enter upon taking my first breath? There is a wide variety of opinions on this topic as well. The articles written by different Rabbis on the topic is endless. A simple understanding is that upon death, our body returns to the earth, and our soul returns to Gen Eden (heaven). Some Rabbis teach that we have two souls, a godly soul, and an animalistic soul. Our godly soul connects us with our creator, and the animalistic soul is what controls our bodies daily functions, like any other of Gods creations. All living, and breathing creatures have an animalistic soul. Only humans additionally have the godly soul. An example could be that we, like all creatures, become hungry. At that time we will desire food, and start to look for something to eat. Our companion will be hungry as well. The animalistic soul is telling us we need to eat, and if we didn’t have the godly soul, it would be whoever gets to the food first gets to eat it. However our godly souls tells us to share the food with our companion. All breathing creatures have a soul, the Hebrew word “nephesh” translated to English is soul, or “that which breaths”. But we have a “godly soul” that God breathed into us, that an animal does not have.

Adam was not created with this soul initially, it was after Adam was created that God breathed in the soul.

“And the Lord God formed man4 of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man5 became a living soul.”

Genesis 2:7 NKJ

With this in mind I, and much of the Jewish community, believe that we receive our soul upon taking our first breath at birth. It is after taking our first breath we receive our soul from God that separates us from the other creatures.

I have heard some rebuttal that the fetus breaths while in the womb. Therefore its first breath is not upon birth. A very simple reply to this view is that the fetus does receive oxygen in the womb, but does not breath in the womb. The fetus is not inhaling and exhaling while in the womb. The delivery of the oxygen is accomplished from the umbilical cord. The umbilical cord contains a vain and two arteries. The vein delivers the oxygen and necessary nutrition to the fetus to sustain life. The arteries work as conduits to remove anything the fetus does not require. The umbilical cord is connected to the placenta, where the vein and two arteries originate from. The fetus is totally dependent on this functioning correctly, and can not function independent of it, until birth when it is separated from the umbilical cord and starts breathing.

It is my view and typically the Jewish view that the life, health, and welfare of the mother is primary, thus giving her precedence in an emergency over the fetus. Of course the embryo, or fetus is also important. If the fetus were to be detrimental to the mothers life, health, or welfare it would be removed to preserve the mothers life.

Life, health and welfare aren’t always physical. There are many reasons a person could become pregnant. Having sexual intercourse isn’t always consensual, and can have devastating effects, and then compounded if the victim of non consensual sexual intercourse becomes pregnant.

  • Should the victim of this situation be forced to undergo the repercussions of this event?
  • Should a young person that was careless, and tests positive for being pregnant, have her entire remaining life altered, because of a bad decision?

Medical help isn’t always about a physical situation, sometimes it can be related to something emotional, or physiological. Every person faced with this decision has unique circumstances that are very personal and only related to what is before them. It is not a decision that can be taken lightly, nor is it black and white, where one solution fits all, and can have a pigeon hole solution decided by others. This decision can only be made by the individual that is faced with the reality of what befalls them. It is always wise to seek counsel from those who love you and are a part of your trusted community and professional help brings a balance to the equation. As always this needs to be coupled with prayer!!


Jim Behnke


1Embryo and Fetus

2Sperm & Egg joining together

3Sperm, in contrast, are small and mobile. A single sperm is also called a spermatozoon (sper-MAH-toe-ZOH-on). Many sperm together can be called sperm, or spermatozoa (sper- MAH-toe-ZOH-ah). Most have long, whiplike tails. When an organism releases sperm, they use the tails to swim toward the egg. The head of a sperm contains proteins and DNA. The proteins help the sperm cell enter the egg cell. Once that happens, the sperm releases its DNA to pair with the egg’s DNA. Science News Explores

4The Hebrew translated as “man” in this verse is “adom”. Adom can be translated as mankind, and not necessarily as a male. The Hebrew word for male in Hebrew is “ish”.


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