Question: I am wondering about the Jewish view on abortion. The only thing I can remember from Hebrew School in the 1950’s is that the taking of life was to be avoided. In the rare case of when the choice was saving the mother or the unborn child, the mother was to be saved because she probably had other children to care for.Typically today women have abortions for personal or economic reasons. Does Jewish law forbid that? Is there a difference of opinion based on whether the rabbi is Orthodox, Hassidic, Conservative, or Reform?I know that there is a wide variation of opinion within various Christian denominations. I always thought that life begins at conception.
Answer: It is not easy to give a brief answer to the question of what is the Jewish view on abortion. There are certainly differences of opinion expressed by rabbis of different denominations. I do not know that it is the case that a typical abortion today is done for personal or economic reasons. If you have reliable statistics that show this to be the case, I would like to see your source. My analysis of the Biblical and Rabbinic sources below represents my best attempt at understanding a Jewish view on abortion. If I, or any other rabbi, were actually counseling a woman or couple, all relevant factors would be considered.
I’ll give you the bottom line first, followed by the Biblical and Rabbinic sources:
Conclusion: Abortion is permitted to protect the life or the physical, reproductive, and mental health of the mother. It does not permit abortion for economic reasons, for sex selection, for convenience or other personal reasons. Children conceived by incest or rape could fall into the category of causing the mother a tremendous amount of emotional pain and suffering, and abortion would be permitted. Permission to abort children with profound birth defects is generally given only when the birth defect would cause the child to suffer, and maintain no reasonable quality of life. Tay Sachs, anencephaly, severe neural tube defects are examples of such birth defects. Down Syndrome is generally not considered such a birth defect, so under normal circumstances, there is no justification for aborting a Down Syndrome child, since they can live full and productive lives.
The normal starting point for the debate in American political circles, “When does life begin,” is irrelevant to the Jewish view of abortion. I like to say that personhood begins at birth, but life begins in the womb. According to halakha, “when does life begin?” is the incorrect question to ask. The proper question to ask is “which life is more important – the mother’s life or the unborn child’s life?” The central text for examining this question is:
When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results but no other damage (Hebrew – ason) ensues, the one responsible shall be fined …. But if other damage (Hebrew – ason) ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (Exodus 21-22-24).
If harm befell her – the woman – then punishment is lex talionis. If the fetus is killed, then a monetary fine is paid by the one responsible.
Elsewhere, we read:
You may not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of a capital crime; he must be put to death (Numbers 35:31).
There is no justification for sparing the life of a murderer, for fining a murderer instead of giving him the death penalty. Therefore, in the case of the man who committed feticide in Exodus 21, the simple meaning of the Hebrew text is that the fetus was not considered to have been a full human life.
Another source from the Mishnah teaches:
The woman who is in hard labor [threatening her life]- they cut up the child in her womb and they remove it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over his life. [If] its greater part has gone forth, they do not touch him, for they do not set aside one life on account of another life (Oholot 7:6).
A later passage gives an answer to the question of why the fetus’ life is of a lower status than the mother.
We learned: Once his head has come forth, he may not be harmed, because one life may not be taken to save another. But why not? Is [the baby] not a pursuer? [i.e., a pursuer with the intent of causing harm?] — There it is different, for [after the head of the baby has been delivered,] she is pursued by heaven (Sandhedrin 72b).
Two medieval rabbis disagreed on the implication of this passage. One, the 11th century French Rabbi known as Rashi, said that the embryo or fetus is not a living thing and therefore the life of the mother takes precedence (Sanhedrin ad. loc.) Rashi’s interpretation seems to follow the sense of the Biblical passages.
The second, the 12th century Moroccan/Egyptian Rabbi known as Maimonides said, “The sages have ruled that if a woman with child is having difficulty giving birth, the child inside her may be taken out, either by drugs or by surgery, because it is regarded as one pursuing her and trying to kill her. But once the head has appeared, it must not be touched, for we may not set aside one human life to save another human life” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotzeah Ushmirat Nefesh 1:9)
Maimonides’ position is that the life of the mother takes precedence because the embryo or fetus has become a pursuer with the intent to kill. This is a radical re-reading of the Biblical material. The Talmud (Sanhedrin) introduced the idea of the pursuer, but says that the women’s life is danger because she is being pursued by heaven. Maimonides identifies the pursuer as the fetus – both giving it life, and setting up this conflict between two lives.
Another position is taken by 20th century Rabbi Isaac Klein He writes, “Being a living thing and being a separate entity are two separate matters. The Talmudic expression is that the ‘fetus is the loin of its mother.’ (Zevahim 35a and Temurah 17a) In other words, the fetus has the living status of a limb, a part of a living being. Just as we do not capriciously cut off a healthy limb, we do not abort a healthy pregnancy. However, a limb which is gangrenous or otherwise threatening one’s health or life is commonly amputated; similarly, a fetus which is threatening the life or health of the mother may be aborted.
Question: Does it say anywhere in the Torah that parents should respect their children?
Answer: The Torah does not say anywhere that parents must show honor/respect to their children, as it says that children must honor their parents.
Parents have five obligations towards their children:
1) Brit Milah (obviously for male children only);
2) Teach them Torah;
3) Teach them a trade;
4) Secure for them a spouse; and
5) Some add, teach them to swim.
However, Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah, hilkhot mamrim (laws of rebels), 6:8, “a [parent] (Maimonides says a father – but this also applies to a mother) is forbidden to impose too heavy a yoke upon his/her children and to be too exacting with them in matters pertaining to his/her honor, lest one cause them to stumble. One should forgive them and shut one’s eyes; for a parent has the right to forego the honor due to him/her.”
In other words — parents should be careful of being too demanding of their children, lest their children sin by rebelling. This does not mean that a parent should not be strict with discipline, or teach strong values; and this does not mean that a parent cannot do anything against the will of the child.
Parents have the sacred obligation to be parents, and teach their children good values and behavior. Children should honor their parents by following their rules and emulating their behavior. We all, children and parents, have the sacred obligation to honor God.
Question: I spanked my children and laid on top of the 2 older ones sometimes(not sexually). The children would not listen to me after I told them stop 1,2,3. They would not take me serious and laugh in my face. I am going through a divorce and my children after 21 months will not forgive me after I said I was sorry. They told me in the Jewish religion they don’t have to forgive me if it is child abuse. Is this true?
I have worked on myself by taking 3 parenting classes. I wish the children would give me another chance to show them I am a safe parent but they won’t. I feel my wife is alienating the children against me. What can I do?
Answer: Your question raises a number of serious questions in my mind regarding your technique of parenting. Speaking as a parent and as a Rabbi, I generally don’t approve of spanking (although used sparingly, I would not call it child abuse), but laying on your children is, frankly, somewhat bizarre.
It is true that if your behavior has been abusive, the children are not obligated to forgive you until you sincerely apologize, make amends, and thoroughly change your behavior.
Now, you say that you are taking parenting classes. Therefore, you must see that you have been a bad parent, at least in the past. However, your note to me does not indicate to me that you have taken responsibility for that. Instead, you blame your wife for turning the children against you. You cannot do anything to convince the children that you have changed as long as you continue to insist that you have done nothing wrong.
I suggest that you see a professional therapist. If you would like to work with a rabbi, let me know where you live and I will try to refer you to a local rabbi.
Question: I guess I need to explain myself more. I have taken responsibility for my child abuse. I was a bad parent. That is why I took 3 parenting classes on my own. My divorce started in August of 1999. The children were close with me before the divorce and did not have anger against me. We always forgave each other right away. I am very sorry for spanking them and laying on top of the two older ones when I got frustrated. I did apologize to them over and over again. I told them I made mistakes and that I took parenting classes to help myself to be a better parent and to be a safe parent. But they still will not forgive me. I am going to a therapist to help me with my anger. He has done a wonderful job with me. I have been going to him for almost 2 years. I am going to talk to the rabbi when I find out who their rabbi is. Maybe he can help me have a relationship with the children.
I just wanted a note from you that the children could read saying that it is OK to forgive your father if he takes responsibility for his actions and apologizes and changes his behavior which I have done.
Answer: The childrens’ rabbi cannot help you have a relationship with them. Only you can change the relationship, and it cannot happen overnight. Apologizing is a start, but you need to prove that you have sincerely repented and changed. Only then might they forgive you — but forgiving you does not mean that the relationship is immediately repaired. Nor can a message from me to your children truly make a difference.
Your first note to me indicated that you have not really, internally, and publically take responsibility for your actions. But you are taking steps, and that is significant. If you keep working on it, someday you will rebuild the relationship with your children.
Question: Many years ago my family (non practicing Jews) converted to Christianity. I was not told I am a Jew and found out quite by accident when I was in my early 30’s. I had long since already rejected the Christian religion and had been on a long search for “home”. When I discovered my true identity I began to attend a synagogue. Ultimately I underwent a conversion because of my families conversion to Christianity and their rejection of their own Jewish identity. They were not pleased with my discovery of my ancestry and downright hostile with my “return”.
That was many years ago. I am now 45. My children were very young when this occurred and have been raised (happily) as Jews. Now I come to my problem.
All of these years I have had to battle my family in their attempts to convert myself and my children to their religion. I did not keep my children from them, but guarded their minds and souls with all my might against this continuos onslaught. I myself was completely rejected by my family. They did not seem able to have a relationship with me that did not involve them preaching at me. Last year, I made one final attempt to reconcile with my family, but, they interpreted this as an opening to resume their preaching and came down heavily on my children (now in their late teens).
At that point I gave up. I have cut off all communication with them. My children chose to do likewise (with much relief). There has been peace for us since. Now (finally) I come to my question.
How does the commandment to honor my father and mother apply? I do not want to break laws over this situation. I am at loss as to how to obey this commandment in my situation without bringing harm to myself amd my children. I have no desire to have a relationship with them and feel no guilt about it, however, when I run across this commandment in my reading, I get concerned. How do I obey this law?
Answer: The obligation to honor our parents is understood by Jewish tradition as encompassing three specific responsibilities: providing them with food and drink, clothing and protection, and transportation. Another obligation, that of fearing one’s parents (Leviticus 19:3), refers to sitting their seat, speaking in their place, or contradicting their words.
There are opinions that the former obligations can be fulfilled through an agent; in other words, if someone is taking care of your father, you might have no further obligation. If no one is doing it, your obligation is minimally to pay someone to do it. As long as your parents have their basic need fulfilled, you are not sinning by keeping away from them. If, as they age, they reach a stage in which they need additional care, your minimum obligation would be to offer to share in the expense with your siblings (if any); or help in any other way you are able to make sure that they are getting proper care.
While there is no halakhic limit to children’s obligations to their parents, common sense in the codes suggests that parents should have the wisdom not to make excessive demands that would cause their children to resent their parents. In essence, parents who have caused their children to violate the spirit of the commands to love/fear their parents are themselves guilty of violating the prohibition against putting a stumbling block before the blind (interpreted by Jewish tradition as causing someone else to commit a sin). Your parents have caused the split between you and them, by their refusal to accept the sanctity of your religious faith.
To sum up — your responsibility would be to keep in touch with them just enough to be sure that their physical needs are being met. That could mean asking a sibling (if any) or even the pastor of their church to call you if a problem develops; and then offering to share the financial burden with your siblings or other close family members.
Question: One of our commandments is to honor our father and mother. My real father was hardly ever in our home and seldom paid much attention to me. When I reached out to him, I usually was turned away. Throughout the years, he has rejected my family and has never really wanted to be a part of it. He preferred my sisters to me. I don’t say this to make you feel sorry for me for I do not have any real regrets except the fact that I have never truly been treated as a son by him. On the other hand, my wife’s Dad was a real father to me from the time I married his daughter. I had a wonderful bond with him and did honor him as much as I could.
A lot of commentary, I know, but my question is this: how do I deal with this command? My father is dying of brain cancer. I feel sorry for him and my step-mother, but I cannot bring myself to attempt to establish an “honorable” relationship with a man who was anything but my father to me. How do I get rid of the hate?
Answer: I am not sure that I can give you an easy way to get rid of the hate. I would urge you to do so, however, because it doesn’t sound like your father is worth the emotional time and energy that it must cost you to continue to hate him.
The obligation to honor our parents is understood by Jewish tradition as three specific responsibilities: providing them with food and drink, clothing and protection, and transportation. Another obligation, that of fearing one’s parents (Leviticus 19:3), refers to sitting their seat, speaking in their place, or contradicting their words.
There are opinions that the former obligations can be fulfilled through an agent; in other words, if someone is taking care of your father, you might have no further obligation. If no one is doing it, your obligation is minimally to pay someone to do it. However, I do not recommend this approach in your case.
This might address the letter of the law, but certainly doesn’t address the spirit of what it means to honor and take care of one’s parents. The man is dying, he is your father, and no matter how poorly he carried out his obligations as your father, your message does not give any hint that he was physically abusive. Had he been abusive, then I could see justification in divorcing yourself from him as your father. As it is, I urge you to go visit him. Visit him regularly, if you are in the same town or easy traveling distance. Do what you can to provide for his needs. Give him that honor — after all, he gave you life. He is your father, he is a human being who may only now realize what a great mistake he made in not spending more time with you. Give him the chance to make amends. Give yourself the chance to cast aside your anger.
In the end, you might find that the hatred that you carry might begin to dissolve.
Question: A moral question: My Mom broke her commitment to my Dad several years ago, causing a divorce. I don’t think this is right. I am shortly going to return to live in the same city as my parents. Morally, as a daughter, would it be better (is it alright) for me to live with my Dad as a stand against this and her pursuit of other men?
Answer: You have an obligation to honor and respect your parents — not to embarrass or contradict them in public, and to make sure that their basic needs are taken care of. I don’t see any benefit from you making a public stand against your mother, but you may live with whomever you want. Another principle based on Leviticus19:17, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.” means that even though we have an obligation to rebuke someone who is sinning, this only applies when the person is likely to listen. First of all, your mother is unlikely to change her behavior based on your rebuke. Second, your parents are no longer together, so anything either one of them does at this point is not a sin against the other. I’d suggest that you stay out of your parents relationship, and refrain from taking sides.
Question: Please explain to me what is meant by the wayward and rebellious son in the Torah portion ki theze? Can you give me an example in modern life?
Answer: The classic Jewish definition of the ben sorrer u’moreh, “wayward and defiant son,” whom the parents are obligated to take before the elders to be put to death by stoning, comes from Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:1-4, Sanhedrin 71a, and Maimonides, Hilkhot Mamrim 7.
Basically, the law is restricted to a son for the three months following his 13th birthday, who has eaten a sizable portion of half cooked meat along with a large quantity of wine, purchased with money stolen from his father, in the company of people who are without a shred of decency. In addition, both the father and the mother must be living (and without any physical handicaps) and both must agree to the punishment.
I can’t give you an example in modern life, because Jewish tradition is very clear that there has never been, and will never be, such a child so wicked that his parents are obligated to put him through this process. Commentators (modern and classical) surmise that this portion was included in the Torah for educational purposes only, to strengthen parental authority. However, you might compare this to children who commit capital crimes, and are tried and convicted as adults.
Question: After a long conversation with a friend I was left to ponder the following situation. A woman becomes pregnant and the father of the child is not known. She marries another man and has her child. Under Jewish law, how does that child relate to the woman’s husband? Is the husband considered the child’s father automatically, of would he have to adopt the child? In either case, does the child have the same right of inheritance as another child belonging to this couple? Or, is the relationship something entirely different? Also, is the answer for a couple living in ancient times the same answer that would apply to a couple today? I hope you can help shed some light on this.
Answer: In ancient times, in a situation such as you have described, the child would be considered the son or daughter of the woman’s husband in all respects. Within halakha, unless adultery is proven (and this is not a case of adultery, by the way), a child is assumed to be the child of the mother’s husband. In all respects (inheritance included), this child would have the same status as any other child of that couple.
This is a very different assumption that we see today in civil courts, which nearly always give the biological father rights and obligations (should he choose to demand them, or should the mother choose to pursue them).
There is no formal adoption procedure under halakha, although there are modern ceremonies that have been written. In this case, however, assuming that the bio-father does not appear, I suggest that the woman and her husband raise the child as their own, and make no mention — ever — of the unknown father. There is no possible benefit for the child to know that the man he is going to grow up knowing and loving as his daddy, is not really his father.
Question: I guess it’s from the parshah Vayehi that the custom of blessing the children on the Sabbath began. It’s unclear to me why the boys are blessed to be as Ephraim and Menasseh, while the girls are blessed to be as the matriarchs. Why not the patriarchs as a point of reference for the blessing for the boys? Now I guess Ephraim and Mennaseh were very righteous to give up their well to do accords in Egyptian society to be herdsmen with their people of Israel. I see blessing the boys to be as Ephraim and Menasseh as quite wonderful. It is unclear to me why we bless our girls after the matriarchs. Did not Sara tell Abraham to turn Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness of the dessert? Rebecca seemed righteous. Wasn’t Leah a bit underhanded, to say the least, when she wed Jacob? Not to say that I think their is a bit of dysfunctionalism to the lives of their husbands the patriarchs. So I guess my question really is, why do we bless the girls on Shabbat to be as the matriarchs, while our boys are blessed to be as Ephraim and Menasseh?
Answer: We bless our boys to be like Ephraim and Menasheh because this blessing has direct scriptural support, from Genesis 48:20, where Jacob tells Joseph that [future generations] of Israel shall bless their sons with the words, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.”
There is no verse from the Torah which directs is to bless our daughters. However, it makes sense that we should bless our daughters as we bless our sons, and the most logical “role models” would be our matriarchs, who were blessed by God with fertility, goodness, and participated in the covenantal promise of being the ancestors of a great nation.
It is undeniably true, as you point out, that the Matriarchs were flawed human beings. Sarah sent away Hagar and Ishmael (though she may have had a good reason to do so – see Genesis 21:9-13 with some commentaries, such as the Hertz Humash). Rebecca was deceitful in her own right – she set up and encouraged Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac. Leah (and Rachel) participated in the deception of Jacob (though in their defense, the guilt really lies with their father), and Rachel herself stole some household idols from her father’s house.
However, all of our Biblical leaders, from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Moshe, David, Solomon, and Elijah, had flaws. It points to their humanity – and teaches us that despite our human flaws, we can still have a close relationship with a forgiving God.
Question: We live in a predominantly non-Jewish area. There are three other Jewish children in my son’s kindergarten class, however neither they (nor of course the 17 other children in the class) are keeping kosher for passover. My son is embarrassed at snack time when he has to eat differently than the other children, even the other Jewish children. (Lunch is not an issue because all the children bring their own lunches.)
I could use a suggestion as to what to say to him to make it easier for him to understand. I am very sensitive to this issue, as growing up these things were not always made clear to me, and I do not want my son to concentrate on the inconveniences more than the beauty of our beliefs.
Answer: Your last sentence is the key – “I do not want my son to concentrate on the inconveniences more than the beauty of our beliefs.” In that statement, you acknowledge that our faith is not designed simply to be convenience – i.e., that it makes some demands on us that do not fit into the common world view of Western society. But you also recognize that Judaism is a religion of extraordinary beauty.
When raising Jewish children, we should focus most of our attention on the positive beauty of observance – building a sukkah, having Shabbat meals together with family and friends, giving tzedakah, attending Shabbat services as a family, waving the lulov and etrog, celebrating Purim, Simhat Torah, Pesah, Shavuot, etc., with joy and song. When your son sees you as a family engaged in living Judaism, and having a good time doing it, he will be proud of being Jewish.
The inconveniences, the dietary restrictions, the sense of being different – all these things will then be placed in a context of a religion he is proud to celebrate. There is no way to erase the fact that your family and your son are different than your Christian (and in some cases, your Jewish) neighbors. But if you see the difference as positive, and are not embarrassed by it – your son will pick up on that and develop a positive attitude towards difference.
What to say to your son about this particular situation – the answer is in the Haggadah, in section of the four children! For the simple son, the young child who does not yet know how to frame sophisticated questions, you should start at the beginning and explain that matzah represents how our ancestors were once slaves in Egypt, and God took us out in a hurry, before our bread had a chance to rise. We observe Passover by eating matzah because we want to remember what it was like to be slaves and be forced to eat hard matzah instead of good soft bread.
Question: Are there any good Jewish colleges in the USA?
Answer: There are many colleges with strong Jewish student groups on campus and/or good Jewish studies programs. The national Hillel Foundation publishes a book called, The Hillel Guide to Jewish Life on Campus. You may be able to find it at your local synagogue library. If they don’t have one, ask them to order a copy – it is a book every synagogue should own. As you are are looking at college materials, the Hillel Guide will tell you the important facts about Jewish resources on that campus – it has information about more than 500 colleges and Universities.
Question: Is it correct or wrong for Jewish children to take part in the easter bunny hunt for candy eggs (or the whole question of Easter eggs etc). At first I thought I’d say no. However others seem to argue there is no religious connection in looking for candies. It seems to me that an Easter egg hunt is a Church sponsored activity with a connection to a Christian religious holiday. To say that the egg hunt itself is “secular” is, to me, splitting hairs and somewhat disingenuous. Do we also say that a Christmas tree is only a secular symbol, since historically it has nothing to do with the religious celebration of Christmas.
Answer: I would not let my children take part in an Easter egg hunt. Instead, I would let them enjoy a serious and fun Seder, with an Afikomen hunt!
Question: I have a 5 year old daughter who attends Sunday school and temple and understands that there is a difference between Christians and Jews (i.e. she points to houses lit up with lights and says christians live there) but she still thinks that Santa will give her gifts. As my wife was not born jewish her folks do give my daughters gifts on Christmas though we in know way celebrate it in the home (no tree, lights, celebration.) What response do I give to her insisting that even though she knows santa does not come to jewish peoples homes she does expect him to give her gifts. I feel that maybe she is too young to discourage this too harshly? Any advice on this and understanding christmas for such a small child would be greatly appreciated!
Answer: For a five year old child, I would begin by ensuring that that she understands the true religious meaning of Christmas, so she knows why Christians celebrate it. Children understand birthdays, and they get very excited at birthday parties, and they understand that people exchange presents at birthday . Your daughter will have no trouble understanding that on Christmas, Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus, and they believe that Jesus is the son of God. We, Jews, do not believe that God had a child, we do not believe that Jesus can be God’s son, and therefore we do not celebrate his birthday. Because we do not celebrate his birthday, we do not exchange presents. In addition, she is not too young to be told that Santa Claus is not real. In fact, I think she already knows. She knows that she has received presents from her maternal grandparents, not from Santa.
I think the source of your dilemma comes from the fact that your daughter does receive presents on Christmas, the ones that come from your in-laws. Since she knows that she does get presents on Christmas, she is confused as to why you (and Santa) do not join in the giving. Perhaps the most expedient way to get around the Christmas present issue is simply to ask your in-laws not to give her Christmas presents; rather, they should give a modest Chanukah gift – DURING HANUKKAH, NOT CHRISTMAS – in keeping with your family tradition. I am not in favor of trying to make Chanukah compete with Christmas by giving 8 nights of gifts, rather than one. I am not in favor of being overly extravagant on Chanukah, but rather I suggest focusing on lighting the Hanukkiah, singing songs, playing dreidle, eating latkes, and remembering the powerful story of the holiday (For that matter, I think the commercialized Christmas season that we experience in the United States degrades the religious celebration by pushing the materialistic giving of gifts.).
Above all, you should double your efforts to celebrate Jewish holidays as fully as possible. On Purim, all of you should hear the Megillah morning and night, wearing costumes and having fun. On Sukkot, you should build a Sukkah, let your daughter decorate it, and eat your meals in it. She could even invite some of her Christian friends to come over and help. On Pesah, have a traditional Seder – make the Hagadah and the telling of the story of the Exodus the center of the evening, not the meal. Each week on Shabbat, make Kiddush, bless your daughter with the traditional words of blessing, make the Hamotzi blessing over two Challahs, and enjoy a Shabbat meal. Make your life revolve around the Jewish week, month, and year – and your daughter will not want to look outside of Judaism for the beauty of a religious life.
You may do all of these things already, and if you do, Yasher Koah! If you do not, and you need help finding resources to learn how, please feel free to contact me again.