While in general it is safe to say that no one speaks for all Jews, it is also safe to say that in Judaism, life and birthing life is sacred. So much so that if a blind woman who is giving birth requests that a candle be lit on Shabbat, a clear prohibition of the Sabbath, one is nonetheless obligated to light that candle.
Laws around conception, life and birth endanger the separation of church and state by placing one religious belief ahead of others. Jewish law says that life begins when the head appears or should it be a breach birth, when the majority of the fetus has emerged. Both the Torah and the Talmud tell us that a fetus is potential life but not a separate life from the mother.
Rashi, the pre-eminent Biblical commentator, (France 1050 CE, middle ages) goes so far as to say that a fetus is not nefesh, not a person. The Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 69b) states that “the embryo is considered to be mere water until the fortieth day (after conception).” Thereafter the “fetus is as the thigh of its mother, i.e., it is deemed to be part and parcel of the pregnant woman’s body.”
This duality is easily expressed in the idea that if a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, her conversion applies to her fetus. That fetus is born a Jew because it was part of the woman carrying it. If it were a separate entity, it too, would need to undergo conversion upon birth.
The life that we know, takes precedent over potential life. The fully existent human life has control over her body. The fetus, is a rodef, a pursuer. In self-defense, the woman has the right to protect herself if the fetus places her life at risk. The Mishna describes the steps a woman endangered during childbirth is allowed to take in order to save her life.
In Mishneh Torah’s Laws of Mourning (1:6), Maimonides writes that “we do not mourn for fetuses, for anything which does not live for 30 days…” This is supported in the Shulchan Arukh, the compendium of everyday laws. (Yoreh De’ah 374:8)
The word halacha, Jewish law, comes from the word meaning to walk, to go. The sages of every era write responsum to bring the laws into a delicate balance of ethical teachings, historic and current values and current knowledge. Knowing what we know about pregnancy and childbirth, the halacha has not changed. Neither an embryo nor a fetus are recognized as fully formed human life. A woman, with the strength of family, medical assistance and her own spiritual counsel still controls her body. She has the right to weigh pregnancy against her physical, emotional, spiritual and economic concerns. She is the fully formed human being: the one to be protected. She is the sacred life around which decisions must be made.
"I'm proud to bring my faith into this important conversation."
Rabbi/Cantor Birdie Becker
M.S.W., M.Ed., M.R.S., Ph.D.
Centennial/Pueblo CO 720-849-5270
Shalom Park, Rabbi,
Certified Eden Associate
Temple Emanuel-Pueblo, Rabbi/Cantor Emerita, www.TempleEmanuelPueblo.net
Life Cycle Officiant, https://www.weddingwire.com/biz/rabbi-birdie-becker-englewood/d32f58f32e253da3.html
B'nai B'rith Colorado, Admin. https://bnaibrithcolorado.org
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