In the wake of the leaked United States Supreme Court draft decision, America’s attention is once again focused on the abortion debate. And as the nation goes, so too the Jewish community. As with many issues in the culture wars, what is lacking is some nuance and sensitivity.
When the Knesset investigated the Israeli law regarding abortion, the nation benefitted from the insights of R. Aharon Lichtenstein, who testified before the relevant legislative committee. His essay which emanated from that session appeared in English as “Abortion: A Halakhic Perspective” in TRADITION 25:4 (Summer 1991). R. Lichtenstein stated “aborting an existing fetus is unequivocally prohibited…. there is indeed, a view according to which the entire prohibition on abortion is only rabbinic…however, in my opinion this view should not be accorded serious weight, not only because it is disturbing from a moral standpoint, but also because it seems to contradict an explicit Halakha… [T]here are some situations in which abortion is biblically proscribed.” He goes on to discuss when the Torah prohibition would apply during the various stages of pregnancy, and maintains that after the period of viability there would be a prohibition of murder. This conservative approach to abortion is consistent with the views of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, his rebbe and father-in-law, and the leading American posek of the time, R. Moshe Feinstein. Given this perspective his concluding remarks are somewhat surprising, but also speaks to his ability to see the complexity of difficult issues: “In such areas [i.e., abortion] there is room for and in my opinion an obligation for a measure of flexibility… [A] sensitive posek recognizes the gravity of the personal situation and the seriousness of the halakhic factors… [H]e might stretch the limits of leniency where serious domestic tragedy looms, or hold firm to the strict interpretation of the law, when he reads the situation, the pressure for leniency stems from frivolous attitudes, and reflects a debased moral compass.”
In TRADITION’s special issue exploring the thought and scholarship of R. Lichtenstein, Dr. Alan Jotkowitz analyzed R. Lichtenstein’s teachings on this subject, highlighting his balanced approach to a painfully divisive subject. The possibility that the Roe v. Wade will be overturned by the current Court is polarizing. A traditional Jewish perspective on abortion understands the seriousness and the gravity of the prohibition while recognizing R. Lichtenstein’s insistence on maintaining the need for flexibility in halakhic decision-making according to the best interests of the fetus and the woman.