Since many Jewish institutions and individuals speaking “as Jews” (or so they say) favor unrestricted abortion, pro-life people often assume that Judaism does, too. But when we distinguish the personal opinions of individuals from the doctrines of a faith set forth in authoritative holy books, matters prove more complex. And when we realize that, from the time of Spinoza to the present, not all of those who identified themselves as Jews have professed the religion of Judaism, we recognize a considerable error: the confusion of public opinion among Jews, which tends to favor liberal over conservative positions in politics, with the theological judgment of Judaism as set forth in the Torah.

A broadly circulated new essay, “A Torah-View of Abortion,” by distinguished Orthodox Judaic religious leader Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, an American who has settled in Efrat, Israel, provides a clear and succinct account of the matter. Riskin perspicaciously sees the issue of abortion on demand in Exodus 21:22-23: “and if two men strive together and hurt a woman, causing her to miscarry, and there is no fatal harm, he shall surely be fined. . . But if fatal injury follows,then you shall give life for life.” Riskin properly reads the “fatal injury” to refer to the woman, not the unborn child, and he calls attention to the well-established law of the Mishnah, the authoritative second century law code on which the Talmud of Babylonia is constructed, that “one life cannot set aside another life.” Hence, if a woman’s life is in danger, even in labor, the unborn child is to be destroyed so as to save the life of the mother. The rule, of course, is irrelevant to the contemporary debate, since (in general) it is not the life, but the convenience, of the mother that is at stake; to put matters more charitably, abortionists never advocate legal abortion limited to the purpose of saving a woman’s life.

The real question is: Is the fetus considered a life that is sacred? The answer is unequivocally yes. The Babylonian Talmud takes the position that, if a pregnant woman dies on the Sabbath and it is possible to remove the fetus so that the child may survive, one is to violate the laws that protect the sanctity of the Sabbath in order to save the life of the fetus. That ruling provides unambiguous evidence on the issue at hand. Since the law maintains that the Sabbath’s sanctity may be violated only to save a human life, the ruling clearly rests upon the premise that the unborn child is fully human. The Babylonian Talmud further holds that life begins when the soul and body are united, which is the 40th day after conception.

Riskin asks, “Can we call a fetus a full-fledged life, with complete rights and full protection entitled for all human beings?” He finds his answer in the legal code of Moses Maimonides, a principal authority for Judaism. Judaism frames its theological opinions through rulings on what people may or may not do, on the theory that what we do is an authoritative statement of what we are, and what we aim to be: in God’s image, after God’s likeness. Accordingly, if we want to find the authoritative theological ruling on any question, we must start with the normative account of how people are supposed to behave. From that concrete and irreducible fact, we extrapolate the theological principle. On the issue of abortion, to grasp Maimonides’ view—which enjoys the authority and standing of the view of Judaism—we shall have to move in two distinct steps.

The first is his explanation of why, if the fetus is inside the womb, the mother’s life takes precedence. (When the head has emerged, that is no longer the case, because one life is not set aside in favor of another.) Maimonides’ reasoning is, on the face of it, somewhat jarring. He says we are obligated to destroy the fetus “because the fetus is considered a pursuer, in effect, a murderer,” in threatening the life of the mother. In his laws of murder, Maimonides rules that “if we come upon a potential murderer clutching a knife in hot pursuit of someone in flight, we are obligated to do what it takes to stop the pursuer, even if it means killing him” (a riding that the New York courts would do well to contemplate). Riskin comments:

By placing the law of abortion within the framework of the laws of murder and then offering the analogy of the fetus to the legal position of a potential murderer, who is to be destroyed, Maimonides opens the nature of the fetus for detailed analysis.

His analogy treats the fetus as a being in its own right; it is not part of the mother. It is a potential life, and, Riskin says, “one cannot get rid of the fetus at will.”

The fetus may be part of the mother, maintains Judaism in Riskin’s reading, but that does not mean the mother owns the fetus or is free to dispose of him at will. Riskin writes, “Treating a human life seriously means that we have to treat potential human life seriousK’ as well. If the mother cannot destroy her own life, she cannot destroy a life that is not hers either.” If the fetus threatens the life of the mother, he must be destroyed. The law of Judaism recognizes as life-threatening psychological as well as physical dangers, and “each case [is] to be judged on its own merits by medical and rabbinical counseling.” But Riskin is explicit: “When no mitigating circumstances exist, and the proposed abortion proves to be only a desire to get rid of an inconvenience, Jewish law . . . clearly forbids the taking of potential life.”

That is, pure and simple, the view of Judaism on abortion on demand, feticide, “pro-choice,” and a variety of other issues concerning the sanctity of life. Judaism is a life-affirming religious tradition maintaining that the human being is “in God’s image” not only after emerging from the womb but from the 40th day within the womb. That position is not identical to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox view, but it is entirely congruent. Accordingly, when we hear that “Judaism” affirms the “right” of women to abort their babies, the correct theological response is simple: Some, perhaps many, Jews may take that position, but the authoritative voice of Judaism—the Torah as mediated by the great sages through time —recognizes no such right, because the Torah affirms life, and, specifically and explicitly, the right to life of the fetus in the womb.

The 20th century was marked by death on a cosmopolitan scale. We Jews, of course, have suffered disproportionately (or so it seems to us; the Cambodians have good reason to disagree, as do the Armenians). With one million dead on the Marne and two million before Verdun, with seven million starved to death in the Ukraine and 20 million Soviet citizens dead in World War II (not to mention the millions of Chinese wantonly killed by the Japanese during World War II and the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who died in atomic explosions and the millions more who died in battle)—the list goes on and on—with all that killing, one mass murder more or less will scarcely make the case more persuasive. The affirmation of life in the face of death should define the critical existential task.