More Abortions, Fewer Jews

We can't avoid the fact that that the abortion question is getting hotter at a time when American Jewry is in demographic crisis.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting with Pope Francis reminds me of a story Ariel Sharon liked to tell about an encounter he and his wife Lily had with a previous pontiff, John Paul II.

Sharon started talking of Israeli place names, but the pope took over and started listing them himself.

The pope clearly had a picture of the land of Israel in his mind’s eye, and Sharon must have looked impressed. “I would like you to remember that the land of Israel is holy to Muslims, Christians, and Jews,” Sharon quoted the Pope as saying, “but it was only to the Jews that it was promised."

“That,” said the pope, turning, in Sharon’s account to Lily, “is the difference between terra sancta and terra promissa.

I understand that geopolitical and state matters are what Netanyahu and Francis spoke about (the prime minister couldn’t have given any greater gift than his father’s book on the Inquisition in Spain). But what I find myself wondering is whether common ground can be found on the question of abortion.

This issue has already reached such a stage here in New York that the Catholic leadership and at least elements of the Jewish leadership made a joint public appearance, back in January 2011. The press conference expressed their shared concerns about new statistics showing that in 2009 an astonishing 41% of pregnancies in the city not ended by miscarriage were ended by abortion. In some elements of the minority community, the number soared to a staggering 60.

One of the startling things about the event was that the Christian leadership - led by the man who would shortly become Timothy, Cardinal Dolan, of the New York archdiocese - was joined by the executive director of the Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Dovid Zweibel. I could be wrong, but I’m not aware of such a previous public appearance.

The issue was not about abortion rights. In America, those are a matter of what the legal scholars insist is “settled law,” though Rabbi Zweibel said that the Orthodox constituency he represents would “welcome the overturning of Roe vs. Wade,” the 1973 Supreme Court Case that legalized abortion in America. He was onto a broader point.

“We’ve been hearing for many years from pro-choice supporters that abortion should be ‘safe, legal, and rare,’” the Rabbi said. “Well, if that’s the goal, we’ve clearly, abysmally failed - especially here in New York City.” He offered a count of the number of pregnancies ended by abortion in the city in the previous decade at more than 900,000.

“Our different faith traditions may have different perspectives on some of the important theological questions raised by the miracle of human life. But despite our different perspectives, we can all agree that there is something terribly wrong when abortion becomes just another method of birth control.” He went on to suggest that “this drags us down as a humane, civilized society.”

The press conference had little impact in New York. But I’ve written about it several times, for it strikes me as a newsworthy moment. Even more so after its themes sounded were echoed by the chief rabbis of Israel, who, as reported in Haaretz, have been voicing support for the Israeli anti-abortion group Efrat and going so far as to speak of abortion as “fetal murder.”

I would not suggest that anyone ignore the warning of Rabbi Benny Lau against “Taking our Torah in the direction of Christian Catholic canon law.” Neither is there reason to avoid the fact that the abortion question is getting hotter at a time when the Jewish demographic crisis, particularly in America, is coming ever more clearly into focus.

This is particularly the case at a time when the findings of the latest Pew study suggest this crisis in the Jewish community in America may be worse than previously appreciated. If one accepts the optimistic interpretations, we are merely holding our own. The problems of dwindling numbers and identification are widely attributed to intermarriage and assimilation. Whatever the cause, it strikes me as a moment to reflect on fundamental Jewish law in respect of abortion and the consequences, in and out of the promised land.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, the founding editor of The Forward and its editor from 1990 to 2000. His books include “The Citizen’s Constitution: An Annotated Guide,” and most recently “The Rise of Abraham Cahan.”

A sign by the anti-abortion group Efrat in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moti Milrod
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, presents Pope Francis with a Menorah during their meeting at the Vatican, Monday, Dec. 2, 2013.Credit: AP

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