Judaism, Abortion, and Joan

I read MShaffer’s Joan of Arcadia: Season 3 episode, Episode 3.18, The Child, Part 1.

Joan’s brother Luke has gotten Grace pregnant. Luke wants Grace to abort the baby, for he just got into MIT (his lifelong dream) and doesn’t want the responsibility of raising a child. Grace, however, is reluctant. As she struggles with her options, she finds the answer to her dilemma in her Hebrew class. The instructor discusses Exodus 21:22-25, which states (in the KJV):

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, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

There is debate about what this passage means. Pro-choicers argue this: If the woman suffers a miscarriage, then the guilty party pays a fine. But if there is harm to the woman, then lex talionis (eye for eye, up to the death penalty) takes effect. By contrast, pro-lifers contend as follows: If the baby comes out of the woman not fully formed, then the guilty party pays a fine. But if there is damage to the baby, then lex talionis is brought into play. Is lex talionis (eye for eye, et al.) the punishment for harming the woman or the baby? That is the debate.

Grace’s Hebrew instructor opts for the “both” answer. After noting that the Hebrew word yeled in Exodus 21:22 means “child” and that Amos 1:13-14 condemns the Ammonites for deliberately ripping open pregnant women in Gilead, he offers the following conclusions about Exodus 21:22-25:

“This passage means the very opposite of what some who support abortion profess. In this case, the woman is accidentally struck, but if she or the child dies as a result, then the guilty party could be sentenced to death. This is the only instance in the Torah where involuntary manslaughter calls for the death penalty.”

I’m impressed by MShaffer’s command of the Hebrew language and the debate over Exodus 21:22-25. But, in terms of real life, would someone hear this sort of message in a temple or synagogue? I have my doubts for two reasons.

1. In the history of Judaism, you find the sort of position that Grace’s Hebrew instructor advocates–that the Torah mandates the death penalty for unintentionally causing the death of the fetus. It’s in the Septuagint’s translation of Exodus 21:22-25, Philo of Alexandria’s Special Laws 3:108-109, the Samaritan Targum, and Karaite commentators. The problem is that these are not the forms of Judaism that came to dominate in Jewish communities. The Septuagint and Philo represent Hellenistic Judaism, not the rabbinic Judaism that became normative for Jews after 70 C.E. The Samaritans were considered outsiders because they weren’t full Israelites, and the Karaites were a marginal voice within Judaism, which went the rabbinic route (even though the Karaites may have given us the Masoretic Text).

Palestinian and rabbinic Judaism, however, interpreted Exodus 21:22-25 to mean (1.) a fine for miscarriage, and (2.) lex talionis for harm to the mother. Josephus goes that route in Antiquities 4:278. Encyclopedia Judaica‘s well-documented article on “Abortion” (which I recommend, though I can’t cut-and-paste parts of it) characterizes the position of the rabbis and medieval codes as follows: Exodus 21:22-25 imposes a fine for unintentionally causing a miscarriage, but abortion is still prohibited within Judaism, except to save the life of the mother. There seems to be debate about whether or not the fetus is a person. Normative post-70 Judaism appears to have an anti-abortion position, but it’s not rooted in Exodus 21:22-25.

2. Grace could have heard an anti-abortion message in an orthodox Hebrew class, although I doubt it would have justified its beliefs from Exodus 21:22-25. But Grace is not orthodox, since she had a bat mitzvah, at which men and women were sitting together. In most orthodox synagogues, there are only bar mitzvahs (with some exceptions), and men and women sit apart.

Grace may be conservative or Reform. If she’s conservative, she could have heard an anti-abortion message, since conservatives are interested in the halacha. If she is Reform, however, then I seriously doubt that she would hear it. With the exception of one professor, most of my Reform Jewish colleagues with whom I’ve discussed abortion claim on the basis of Exodus 21:22-25 that the fetus is not a person. If they have any conservative leanings whatsoever, they usually relate to Israel. On abortion, however, they’re mostly pro-choice.

But I don’t mind Grace’s Hebrew teacher channeling the Septuagint, Philo, and the Karaites! Although they didn’t dominate within Judaism, they had their influence on the world. The Septuagint and possibly Philo were big in Christianity, and (as I said above) the Karaites may have given us the Masoretic Text.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Judaism, Abortion, and Joan

  1. Pingback: Philo and the Unborn | James' Ramblings

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