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 obligation?

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 Jewish Americans.

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 at all?

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 American Jews?

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 approach.

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.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America and as American director of Am Echad]

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