"Mommy, let me live!--Judaism confronts abortion.
Here is uncompromising, brutal, powerful prolife advertising--four pages of it, in color, with photographs of the living baby in the mother's womb--in a mass-circulation newspaper.
Now this is what we expect to find in Christian Coalition or in traditional Catholic newspapers, but where did I find it?
In the Jerusalem Post, the English-language daily published since pre-state times in the State of Israel.
What that means is that a powerful, forthright and unapologetic prolife voice has emerged within Judaism too, not on the fringes but at the very center, in Jerusalem (with representatives throughout the world) and at the heart of Orthodox Judaism.
The organization is called "Efrat: The International Organization for Saving Jewish Babies," and it states its purpose very simply: "engaged in a struggle to prevent the intentional termination of pregnancies.... The story of Efrat is a wonderful success story of saving Jewish babies." The Jerusalem Post special section includes stories of mothers who took risks to have their babies, and how glad they are they did; the power of persuasion, with Efrat representatives arguing in favor of life; the story of Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the Jewish gynecologist and abortionist who repented and whose story is told in The Silent Scream.
True, Efrat prefers information and guidance to demonstrations and violence. Its members--doctors, psychologists, social workers, rabbis, and public figures--approach mothers in the State of Israel who are considering abortion and who have come before hospital committees for permission. Their policy is simple: "We cannot prevent a woman from having an abortion if she really wants one and is determined to go ahead. But it is our humanitarian and professional duty to explain to her all the repercussions of her actions. Knowledge of all the facts will allow the woman to make the right choice."
Efrat, which is located at 10 Halluy Street, Jerusalem 91062, Israel, not only saves fetuses from abortion but supports expectant mothers who find themselves constrained by poverty to abort their babies: "Efrat is certain that it is possible to greatly reduce the unjustifiable slaughter of fetuses, if we all support this important institution whose sole aim is the rescue of Jewish children." When women give birth, Efrat is there with food, diapers, encouragement, and allowance.
What is quite remarkable in the Efrat program is what it does not say: here is no appeal to that eternal presence in Jewish life, the Holocaust. Efrat does not tell the stories of the million Jewish children put to death in the German catastrophe, nor does it formulate its message in the language of "not handing Hitler any more victories," even though voluntarily killing Jewish children is precisely what the Germans of that period undertook to do. The statement is entirely in positive language: "rescue Jewish children." But in the present context, the language of "rescue" bears its own subtext. Now what makes Efrat remarkable--apart from the sanctity of its program--is that its leadership encompasses Orthodox rabbis and laypeople throughout the world, and the organization clearly calls for its deepest rationale upon the sanctity of life that marks the religion Judaism. That is not the face that much of Judaism in the West shows the world, but the fault does not lie with Judaism.
The religion makes its statement, and appealing to the Torah--not merely to worldly utility or to secular memory--Judaism motivates Efrat and similar organizations to do the work that the faith must deem sacred: a true mitzvah, an act of religious piety. And then, speaking for themselves as individuals, numerous Jews will gladly tell you, "Judaism is proabortion," though the term they prefer is "prochoice." National Jewish organizations, both secular and religious, align themselves with the abortionist cause, and the single most powerful Judaism in the USA, Reform Judaism, is explicit on the matter. Secular organizations as well take the same view. Ethnic Jews take an active role in the entire phalanx of abortionist organizations and institutions, and in many cases they appeal to their ethnic origin as an explanation for their devotion to "choice."
How are people to make sense of these contradictory facts?
First, not everybody who identifies as ethnically Jewish practices the religion Judaism. Second, just as there are many Christianities, which intersect in a few things but part company in many, so there are diverse Judaisms, each with its own account of what the Torah requires of holy Israel, God's first love. Among the several Judaisms some present the Torah in its classical formulation, others do not.
But if people want to know the view of abortion that Judaism has set forth through the ages and that today shapes the aspirations of the vast majority of Jews who practice Judaism in the State of Israel, Europe, and the outlying diaspora, listen carefully to Efrat. The Torah of Sinai speaks through them--and pleads, along with them, "Mommy let me live!" But the language is its own: "Choose life."
The upshot is, when people tell you "the Jewish view" they may be reporting their personal opinion, and by "the Jewish view" they may mean the opinions of people who derive from Jewish ancestors. They may speak in the name of Judaism when they in fact set forth their personal opinions, as though a religion is simply the sum total of the opinions of the faithful in a given time and circumstance. Or by "Judaism" people may mean a religious community, a social entity that all together takes a position in response to the revelation at Sinai, whether Reform or Orthodox or any of the other Judaisms that flourish. At that point, a Judaism makes its statement.
Christians can make sense of the diversity of Judaisms when they compare Catholic Christianity's understanding of the task of Peter with that of Unitarian or Mormon Christianities; Anglican liturgy with evangelical; the doctrine of the Church put forth by Pope John Paul II with that put forth by Billy Graham; and the Christologies preached in any ten churches chosen at random in St. Petersburg, Florida, with those preached in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Church's one foundation may well be Jesus Christ Lord, but in everyday life many Christianities compete, and the same true is for Judaisms. That is why, when it comes to abortion and proabortionists insist on theirs as "the Jewish" or "the Judaic view," the right question is: "Which Jew?" and "Which Judaism"?
I offer the prayer that, when God sorts matters out, He will hear the unborn child whose still, small voice Efrat hears, as Elijah heard God's voice in the silence of the storm--and whose life and whose mother's life and happiness Efrat deems holy. And that is the commanding voice of Sinai, the voice that, for here and now, we must call "the Torah." If, as the Torah teaches, ours is the God of mercy, then that prayer must find its home in God's ear.
Originally appeared July 9, 1997 in the online newsletter of the Jewish Communication Network at http://www.jcn18.com. Reprinted by permission of the author.
JACOB NEUSNER, a rabbi without sectarian connections, is Distinguished Research Professor of Religious Studies, University of South Florida and Professor of Religion, Bard College. He has published numerous works on Judaism and interfaith dialogue, including, with his son Noam Neusner, The Book of Jewish Wisdom: The Talmud of the Well-Considered Life (Continuum, 1996); The Classics of Judaism: A Textbook and Reader (Westminster John Knox, 1995); with Bruce Chilton, Judaism in the New Testament (Routledge, 1995); and, with Andrew Greeley, Common Ground: A Priest and a Rabbi Read Scripture Together (Pilgrim, 1996).