Israel and the Unborn: Nationhood and First Principles

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“There is something totally amiss when a Jew does not realize that abortions are as important as the settlements.” — Rabbi Meir Kahane, Hy”d, 1980

What is more fundamental to a just society than the protection of innocent life? First, let us consider some core aspects of Judaism and its national expression.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, zt”l, writes in Orot, “Judaism’s entire purpose is the illumination of godliness in the purest, brightest form, in its very midst and in the world and life at large, and the completion of this national character, according to its essential spirit, in its historic land.” He adds:

“…the final goal is not nationalism itself, but rather the aspiration to unite all the inhabitants of the world in one family, ‘that they may all call on the name of the Lord’ (Tzefaniah 3:9). This too requires a special center, nevertheless the purpose is not the center but its effect on broad humanity.”

Rav Kook makes a similar observation in Midbar Shur:

“The people of Israel have two national missions. At Mount Sinai, God informed them that they would be a mamlechet kohanim as well as a goy kadosh…Mamlechet kohanim refers to the aspiration to uplift the entire world, so that all will recognize God. The people of Israel will fulfill this mission when they function as kohanim for the world, teaching them God’s ways.”

The theme of global purpose within Am Yisrael appears in the writings of other Torah luminaries such as Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l:

  • “…the role of the people — like the role of the kohen — is symbolized by the eyal. What the kohen should be to the nation, the nation should be to the rest of mankind: the ‘lead ram’ at the head of the flock of mankind. The nation should be a model to mankind in the performance of all that is noble and good.” (Commentary to Vayikra 16:5)
  • “…what the sun does for all of nature — that is the function of the kingdom of David for humanity. It is to bring enlightenment and to reawaken moral life in the midst of mankind.” (Commentary to Tehillim 89:37)

Eretz Yisrael, therefore, is not for Am Yisrael to treat however it wishes. As Rav Kook notes in Orot, violating national duties has terrible consequences:

“When we regard the connection of Torah to the nation, a covenant was made with the Land and the People that when they cling to the Lord their God, they succeed and develop, sink roots in the Land and prosper; when they stray after foreign gods they are impoverished and fall, the People and the Land are destroyed, and troubles and annihilation follow.”

He reiterates this in Midbar Shur:

“A kingdom of priests ministers to the other nations in order to morally perfect them. So the separation from the nations is itself the greatest unification, in order to benefit the human race. However, if Israel will desert the good, which is the holy Torah, then its nationhood and its territorialism are an abomination before God…Therefore, several times over, the Torah links the giving of the land to the observance of Torah.”

Compare with Rav Hirsch in his commentary to Pirkei Avot:

“God conferred statehood upon His people so that they might defend the enforcement of justice and preserve the truth contained in our Law as handed down by transmission. If the Jewish state carries out this mission, it can be sure of Divine support against all enemy powers, and no other nation will dare attack it. But if the Jewish state should cast off its task and destiny or put it to wrongful use, it will thereby become a nation at the mercy of fate just like all the other states of the world, and God will withdraw His protection from it.”

In a modern context, Hakamat Ha-medina refuted claims about the demise of Judaism in general and Jewish nationhood in particular. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, described the malicious climate after the Holocaust in 1978:

“The mere fact, after the Second World War, of Medinas Yisrael, intentionally or unintentionally, stopped the tidal wave of shmad. I met missionaries on the trains, they used to come over — to me they didn’t do any harm, but they used to come over to others as well. This is exactly what the Gospel said, all of the predictions of the sonai Yisrael, yimach shemom, came true — that’s what they used to say…Medinas Yisrael was the shield by HaKadosh Baruch Hu to stop this kind of gossip about the end of Yahadus.”

Rav Soloveitchik also emphasized the obligations of that watershed event, writing in Kol Dodi Dofek:

“Miraculous grace places upon man an absolute responsibility to fulfill the larger imperative that calls out from the miracle. A transcendental imperative always accompanies miraculous activity…Woe unto the beneficiary of a miracle who does not recognize it for what it is, and whose ear is deaf to the echo of the imperative that arises out of this metahistorical event.”

After Theodor Herzl’s death, Rav Kook likewise warned:

“It [Zionism] is unequipped to realize that the development of Israel’s general [material] aspect is but the foundation for Israel’s singularity…[T]his is not the end goal of Israel, but only a preparation. If this preparation will not submit to the spiritual aspect; if it will not aspire to it, then it is of no more value than the kingdom of Ephraim, ‘a cake readily devoured’ (Hoshea 7:8), because ‘they abandoned the source of living waters’ (Yirmiyahu 2:13), and ‘Egypt did they call hither, to Assyria did they go’ (Hoshea 7:11).”

And now we return to the original question.

There may be religions with a generally permissive view of abortion, but Judaism is not one of them. “Abortion on demand is a moral abomination, whoever the fetus may be,” wrote Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l. Rabbi Shimon Cowen similarly stresses in his study of the Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noach, “The opposition of Noahide law to the abortion of an unborn life, except in very special circumstances, embodies one of the deepest norms of human society, the protection of life.”

How does contemporary Israel compare with the above? “Israeli government offers women aged 20 to 33 free abortions,” reads a headline from The Washington Post in 2014. “Israel’s abortion law now among world’s most liberal,” reads another from the same year, noting:

“With the newly amended health care package…funding will now be available for more than 6,000 additional women seeking to terminate their pregnancies, at the cost at some NIS 16 million ($4.6 million). No medical reason for the abortion is required.”

An article from last year points out:

“…between 96% and 98% of women who seek state financing for an abortion are approved. Just as crucially, Israel approves abortions as late as the 40th week of pregnancy. This is a very high rate and a very late approval deadline relative to any Western country…”

Dr. Eli Schussheim of the Efrat Association has commented that “more than a hundred children a day are thrown into a trash can.” To put that in perspective, Israel’s abortion rate is substantially higher than Germany’s.

Concerning the scope of permitted abortion, political scientist Rebecca Steinfeld writes:

“The absence of termination time limits means that women are able to abort up to full gestation, and the law does not specify what kinds or severity of defects, or what level of risk, justifies termination. The Israeli obsession with pre-natal testing, combined with a program of free services for the prevention of inborn abnormalities (started in 1978), has generated toleration if not outright encouragement of post-diagnostic abortion for fetal abnormality. Having a late-term abortion due to fetal abnormality is easy in Israel, and Israel has one of the highest late-term abortion rates globally.”

On promoting post-diagnostic abortion, a physician has shared the following background with Rabbi Lazer Brody:

“Dr. ‘Pesach’ is assistant head of obstetric medicine at one Israel’s leading hospitals. Dr. Pesach gave me an inside picture on what goes on in Obstetric Ultrasonography over here: ‘In Israel, the abortion laws are the most liberal anywhere. The government and the kupot cholim prefer the relatively minor cost of an ultrasound and pregnancy termination to the tremendous expenses of treating and raising a child with a birth defect. So, any time a doctor has the slightest doubt as to the health of the fetus, he recommends termination.’”

Consider the current reality vis-a-vis the aims recounted in the memoir of former left-wing Knesset member Marcia Freedman, regarding a protest at the 1976 convention of the Israeli Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists:

“The doctors were listening to a paper on the latest advances in obstetric surgery when a small group of women carrying placards and shouting slogans entered through a side door of the Hilton that led directly into the main ballroom of the hotel. The demonstrators marched noisily across the room and onto the dais. They stood facing the audience, shouting slogans that demanded legal and free abortion.”

Whereas Rav Kook and Rav Hirsch wrote of Am Yisrael serving as kohanim for the world and a moral model for mankind, abortion in Israel is its antithesis — akin to the state’s promotion of sexual immorality both domestically and abroad. Instead of advancing tikkun olam b’malchut Shaddai and the universal ethics of the Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noach, Israel receives international attention for subsidizing bloodshed. Rav Soloveitchik’s remarks in 1975 are all too timely:

“I consider the society of today as insane…I read from the press that in Eretz Yisrael they permit abortions now! Sapir [probably Pinchas Sapir] comes to the US and asks that 60,000 boys and girls should leave the US and settle in Eretz Yisrael. When a child is born, it’s also immigration to Eretz Yisrael, and yet you murder the children.” (Rav Soloveitchik again described abortion as murder in The Emergence of Ethical Man.)

Writing in the 1980s about abortion in Israel, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, zt”l, referred to “this mass slaughter of the innocents in Israel, posing a security problem graver than any threats of war or terror.” He added that “I have never ceased to focus public attention on this evil.”

Religious Zionists show intense, consistent emotion when it comes to territorial issues: construction, annexation, etc. One does not find such emotion when it comes to the mass slaughter of the innocents.

On the contrary, some religious Zionists seek to entrench the status quo. “I support the legalization of gay marriage,” a rabbi from Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi wrote last year. “I support legal access to birth control and abortion.”

Contrast this with Rabbi Cowen’s humane insight in a recent essay:

“The idea that one can do what one likes and the state will kill (and medically rebate the abortion of) any children born from such activities underwrites a culture of indifference to life. Open-slather killing of babies up to birth is the mark of a society that has repressed its spirituality.”

Israel’s brutal repression of its spirituality defies transcendental imperatives of nationhood, jeopardizes security, and models injustice to the world. This should cause at least as much outrage as a delayed building permit or a resolution by UNESCO.

Written by

Occasional writer, fan of racquet and barbell sports, dabbler of languages

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