Biblical Text on Abortion [1]

Jews who are exposed to the public debate over abortion laws (and who can avoid it today?) tend to find themselves somewhat surprised at the degree of certainty with which some of the parties, notably the Roman Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists, are able to express themselves.

This tone is in marked contrast to the statements of our own rabbis who often hesitate to speak in generalizations, preferring to emphasize the complexity of the considerations in Jewish law. This, by the way, has not been the tenor of the debate conducted in Israel, where the question--like many other religious issues (autopsies are another example)--has become politicized, forcing many Rabbis into one-sided public statements.

While I do not wish to propose a normative Jewish position on the subject, I would like to examine one aspect of this debate, namely the use of biblical sources by Jews and Christians in support of their respective positions.

Let me begin by singling out one of the principal points of contention: Whatever their position concerning the permissibility of abortion, virtually all Jewish authorities would agree that abortion is not to be legally classified as murder.

This thesis seems to be spelled out quite clearly in the Torah. Thus, in Exodus 21:22-23 we read, "If men strive and hurt a woman with child so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow, he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life."

The text (presented here according to the non-Jewish King James translation) makes it clear that the causing of a miscarriage where it does not involve the death of the mother ("mischief") is not to be treated as a capital offence; nor even as manslaughter, for which an entirely different procedure would be invoked, involving the exile of the culprit to a "city of refuge." Rather it is perceived as a civil offence involving nothing more than a monetary compensation to the husband.

Translations Differ

So given the fact that Christians accept the same Bible as we do, how can some of them argue with such certainty that the Bible regards abortion as murder?

The answer to this question involves a little-appreciated fact, namely, that the Christian Bible is not always identical to the accepted Jewish one.

In this particular instance the text used by the Roman Catholic church is actually based on a different reading of the text, as found in the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint. This translation was prepared in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in the 3rd century B.C.E.

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star
Though incorporating much authentic Jewish interpretation and referred to with reverence in Talmudic literature, the Rabbis came to realize that this translation had come to differ to a considerable extent from the Judaism that was developing in the Land of Israel. The Septuagint was eventually abandoned by the Jews in favour of other translations into Greek and Aramaic that were more in keeping with what had become the Jewish "orthodoxy."

The Jewish abandoning of the Septuagint was also facilitated by the fact that it was by then the "official" version of the nascent Christian church.

The Biblical passage in question is rendered in the Septuagint as follows: "...if there is no form, then he shall be fined...but if it has a form, then you shall give life for life."

According to this reading, the verse deals only with the fate of the fetus and is concerned with distinguishing between an undeveloped and developed fetus, a distinction that is recognized by halachah and, for that matter, by the old Canadian law. It establishes that the penalty "life for life" is to be inflicted upon one who destroys a developed fetus.

This version of the passage became the source for the subsequent Roman Catholic positions on the subject--though it does not quite help us to explain similar statements made by Protestant groups who do not accept the Septuagint tradition. These latter groups generally base their positions not so much on specific Biblical texts as on broader positions vis à vis permissiveness or the family.

Those Protestant theologians who do take the Exodus passage into account relate to it in a number of different ways. In a 1969 symposium on the subject of abortion, several participants used the verse to justify liberal positions--including at least one who, during the course of the conference, became persuaded by it to alter his previously held "pro-life" views.

Other participants resorted to alternative interpretations, construing the word "mischief" to refer to the fate of the fetus as well as of the mother (this was cited in the name of the distinguished Jewish Biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto).

Still others argued that on this point, the text, like much of Biblical law, was to be superseded by other quotations in both the "Old Testament" and Christian scriptures that seem to refer poetically to the existence of souls before birth.

A favourite citation of this sort is Jeremiah 1:5: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you for my own." Taken literally this verse could extend the life-span of the fetus to before conception!

Dead Sea Scrolls

All this should not make us forget that the Septuagint is in fact a Jewish translation, and reflects traditions that were once held by Jews, whether in the Land of Israel or in Alexandria.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls had greatly increased our knowledge of the range of views that were current at the time. The authors of these writings also took a very rigid approach to the status of the fetus. For example, Leviticus 22:28 prohibits the slaughtering of an animal and its young on the same day. The "Temple Scroll," one of the most important sources of our knowledge of the Dead Sea sect's laws (published for the first time in 1978) perceived this as a prohibition against slaughtering pregnant animals, a prohibition which does not exist in rabbinic law.

It is of the essence of religious differences that they can rarely be discussed in simplistic terms of right and wrong. If we trace an issue far enough, we often find that it rests upon unprovable axioms of faith or accepted tradition.

In this particular instance, we might suitably adapt the well-known observation of George Bernard Shaw and recognize the extent to which Judaism and Christianity are separated by their common Bible.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication: JS, August 12 1988.