When covering Jewish views on abortion, don't forget the Orthodox, U.S. Judaism's fastest growing branch

When USA Today ran a piece last week, suggesting that Christians have misappropriated the Old Testament — the Hebrew Bible — for their views on abortion, I took notice.

What I found was an article that quoted the most liberal Jewish voices on these biblical issues while ignoring everyone else.

There is a range of rabbinical opinion on this issue, but you wouldn’t know it from this piece. That’s bad journalism.

The lead sentence begins with the assertion that the anti-abortion views of Christians are connected to their faith. Then:

This is a familiar argument for the Republican Party when it comes to abortion access. In January, Kirk Cox, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, cited biblical scripture when he came out against a proposed bill that would lift late-term abortion restrictions.

"You knit me together in my mother’s womb,” he said, quoting Psalm 139. “You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born.”

But for many leaders in the Jewish faith, such interpretations are problematic and even insulting.

“It makes me apoplectic,” says Danya Ruttenberg, a Chicago-based rabbi who has written about Jews' interpretation of abortion. “Most of the proof texts that they’re bringing in for this are ridiculous. They’re using my sacred text to justify taking away my rights in a way that is just so calculated and craven.”

Like, how is this view of Psalm 139 “ridiculous”? It clearly states that the unborn child is a person knit together by God.

Also, if “many” Jewish leaders are offended by this kind of interpretation of a Psalm, which is true, the implication is that there are other points of view inside Judaism. Correct?

Across the country, as a wave of anti-abortion legislation reinvigorates the fight over reproductive rights, Jewish religious leaders, activists and women are speaking out in favor of a woman's right to choose, buoyed by their faith.

It’s not just that the U.S. shouldn’t be deriving law from poetic language, Ruttenberg said. It’s that the Jewish tradition has a distinctly different reading of the same texts. While conservative Christians use the Bible to argue that a fetus represents a human life, which makes abortion murder, Jews don’t believe that fetuses have souls and, therefore, terminating a pregnancy is no crime.

Well, not all Jews.

This commentator quotes the Mishnah (part of the Talmud) to make the case that ensoulment happens 40 days after conception. He also adds that the Kabbalah (mystical Bible interpretation) says the fetus receives a soul within three days of conception.

While some Orthodox rabbis have denounced abortion, within Jewish communities there’s considerable support for keeping it legal. Studies from the Pew Research Center show that Jews overwhelmingly (83%) support abortion rights.

Now, this article goes on for some time but the above phrase is the only place in this long piece that admits there’s difference of opinion among Jews over abortion.

Not one Orthodox Jew is quoted anywhere in this article. That’s quite an oversight, considering how — to quote Pew again — Orthodox Jews are projected to dominate American Jewry by the end of this century. Instead of having abortions, the average Orthodox Jewish woman is having 5.64 kids.

Instead, we hear from U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, not a conservative on the abortion question and hardly a Talmudic scholar, either. A Reform rabbi from Minneapolis, a feminist rabbi in Chicago, the head of the National Council of Jewish Women and a St. Louis-based Planned Parenthood activist — who once had an abortion — are also quoted.

Interesting as they may be, they are hardly the person on the street that the vague headline (“Jews, outraged by restrictive abortion laws, are invoking Hebrew Bible in the debate”) for this piece invokes. Plus, I notice, the article only cites one competing piece of scripture. It’s hardly like the whole Hebrew Bible is allowing abortion.

Why didn’t the reporter spread the net a little further? She could have talked with conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, whose research on how Jewish law does forbid abortion is easy to find with a simple Google search. Orthodox apologists are not hard to find.

No Jewish law, Shapiro says, endorses the current mindset that abortion is a matter between her woman and her doctor. That’s his claim. Talk to other Jews on that side of the issue and let readers learn from the debate.

Or the USA Today team could have dialed up Chabad, another Orthodox group, which which quotes the Talmud as saying that a child can learn Torah in the womb and thus does have a soul before birth. There’s also the Pittsburgh-area Jewish Pro-Life Foundation.

Or there’s Efrat, the pro-life Israeli group, whose work was backed by Israel’s chief rabbis several years ago. Those rabbis very much felt that abortion is murder. So, it is possible to find dissenting Jewish voices on the this issue, so why didn’t the reporter even try?

Yes, Jewish views on the topic are complex. This Times of Israel piece, which has a headline that doesn’t match the story and The Forward gave a more nuanced view of the differences in opinion. So does the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, hardly a conservative publication. And if you really want to get into the details of why it’s tough to get definitive Jewish doctrine on abortion from the Talmud, read this entertaining Slate piece, written 19 years ago, but still current.

The USA Today piece does reference Tzitz Eliezer, the most lenient rabbinic interpretation of Jewish law, on the topic. But there are far more conservative interpretations that Shapiro (see above) managed to dig up. So to suggest that America’s Jews are on the warpath about this issue because Christians are stealing their scriptures, is rather simplistic.

Seems to me that the reporter had a thesis in mind, then went and found people and quotes to fit that thesis. Which is OK if you’re doing editorials but not for a news story.

Next time, USA Today, approach the Jews who are out there having the most babies and get their read on abortion. I would have liked to have known their point of view.

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