By Rabbi Avi Shafran
The recent tragic earthquake in India, like similar catastrophes, has
yielded reports of survivors like Viral Dalal, who was discovered unscathed
five days later underneath the rubble of a collapsed building.
It is for such joy amid misery that dedicated rescue workers labor mightily
to remove debris and search for signs of life, even when there seems little
reason to imagine that, buried beneath tons of concrete and metal, a human
being may live and breathe. Our hearts and our minds, moreover, insist that
even the mere possibility of saving a life is cause enough to warrant such
action, even if it drains our energy and resources.
What, though, if searching for a possible survivor would take an even
greater toll, if it would interfere, say, with an important religious
The Talmud, the essential Jewish legal text, posits just such a case: the
collapse of a not-known-to-have-been-occupied building on the Sabbath, when,
according to Jewish religious law, or halacha, an act like digging through
the rubble transgresses the prohibition against work on the Sabbath,
constituting a desecration of one of the Ten Commandments. Notwithstanding
that fact, however, the Talmud requires one to assist immediately in the
task of moving the debris until it is ascertained that no survivor is
languishing beneath the ruins.
Even the remote possibility of saving a life, the Talmud is saying, renders
otherwise important concerns secondary and, with only the rarest exceptions,
demands our every effort. In fact, even if the violation of Sabbath might
yield only short-lived survival, the added moments of life take precedence,
according to halacha.
While it may be that halacha is accepted as binding today only in certain
Jewish circles, one imagines that Jews of all levels of religious observance
would readily accede to the wisdom and morality of this particular ruling.
Life is important enough, most reasonable people would say, for even its
possibility to concern us.
Which might lead us to wonder why the prospect of saving possible life by
limiting abortion on demand engenders so vehement a reaction among so many
Consider: The Pope, Supreme Court Justices and feminists may all have
beliefs or opinions about when life begins and when it is morally acceptable
to terminate fetal life, but no one can in any way objectively prove that
his or her view is definitively correct. They can all argue, to be sure,
but the dialectic will necessarily be limited to the "is so!"/"is not!"
genre more commonly associated with grade-school playgrounds.
So what we have, in the end, at least from a secular perspective, is an
essentially unanswerable question. Life becomes real, priceless and
inviolable at some point, at latest after birth (though Princeton Professor
Peter Singer apparently disagrees even there). What, though, of a viable
fetus just before birth? A day before its third-trimester "pre-birthday"?
Or one even younger? Or one not yet viable?
Ought we not concede, in all humility, that as objectively unanswerable as
these questions may be, there is at least a possibility of life at these
stages? And, if so, that even the mere possibility of life must concern us
desperately as human beings, if we aspire to the title "moral" on any level
And for us Jews, shouldn't the teachings of Judaism on this sensitive
subject be at least relevant to our thinking? The Torah does, after all,
have something to say about when life begins, and under what circumstances
pregnancy may be terminated. Under Jewish law, while a Jewish woman may
procure an abortion in a situation where her life is endangered by continued
pregnancy, and perhaps in situations where the pregnancy poses grave danger
to her health (a matter of dispute among respected rabbinical authorities),
abortion is otherwise prohibited.
Stated simply, unfettered "reproductive freedom" is a concept entirely alien
to Judaism. Why then does it appear to command so much allegiance among
An earthquake, and the Herculean efforts to find and rescue potential
survivors, should shake all of us up to confront not only the terrible end
of so many lives but the question of the beginnings of so many others. We
imperil our status as caring, thinking beings if we refuse to consider
whether the "facts on the ground" here in our nation, the effective
acceptance of abortion on demand, might just reflect a very imperfect
If, in other words, we insist on pretending that abortion is somehow a
simple issue of personal choice, rather than a complex one of human life.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel
of America and as American director of Am Echad