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Of abortion and search for wisdom

With all the uproar on abortion in the political arena, Americans may wonder what the Jewish stand is on this issue. Are rabbis for abortion rights or against them?

With so much being debated, it's hard to take a side. As in many Jewish laws, the answer on abortion is not a simple one. Each case is considered on its own merits.

As a rule, abortion is forbidden in Jewish law, except when the mother's life is in question. But I have a memory of my beloved teacher's story about Napoleon and a troubled woman who came to me seeking advice that may shed a little light on the issue.

It was 23 years ago, in my last year of post-graduate rabbinical studies, that the venerable Lubavitch Rabbi Zalman Shimon became my mentor and friend. He was a Holocaust survivor from Russia and spent his last years teaching student rabbis in Brooklyn.

"What will you do when a woman comes to you with the following? "I want an abortion! I am not ready to start my family! I am too young to be tied down to a child!' What would you tell her?" Shimon asked me one day in his study.

I was completely dumbfounded. As a newly ordained rabbi, I was being tested about my understanding of life and law. I squirmed in my chair and did not know how to answer. What would I tell a woman if faced with such a predicament?

Perhaps, I thought out loud, it depends on how she became pregnant, why she became pregnant, and how far into the pregnancy she was. I had a very vague idea of when life begins and a lesser idea of how a pregnancy could be terminated.

My rabbi smiled and said: "Enough of your thinking. Let me tell you a story. When the great French leader Napoleon was sentenced and banished to Elba, he did not protest. On the way to the island, an officer asked him, "Are you the great Napoleon, who fought great battles and was even able to take the Russian capital and conquer many countries? How is it that you have lost your pride? You should commit suicide and die with your honor, rather than be reduced to a prisoner!'

"Napoleon answered, "I have never done anything that I could not regret and change. If I commit suicide, I would not be able to regret or change my act.'


Thirteen years ago, I received a call from a distraught woman whom I had never met.

"Rabbi, I have a problem. I have a small income, my husband finally got a job and now I am pregnant. What am I to do? Can I have an abortion?"

She told me that what bothered her most about abortion was remembering that she had been taught in religious school that abortion is murder, an act that would make God very angry.

"I really don't want God to be angry at me," she said. "I called my own rabbi and told him my problem. The rabbi told me that he doesn't believe God would be angry at me. After all, he gave me my body to do with as I wish."

The woman felt that what she heard from her rabbi made sense, but in her heart she felt it was wrong. So in desperation she called me. I realized that she was a sensible and a healthy woman, but going through hard times.

Then I remembered the words of my teacher so many years before.

I knew that this woman wanted and needed a caring person who offered more than just the cold law, more than an easy way out based on a philosophy of a "God who won't be angry."

So I told her about Napoleon, how he once made a great decision. Like Napoleon, the choice of life and death was in her hands. She listened and thanked me. I always wondered what decision she made.

Not long ago a woman dropped by my office unannounced. "I'm here to ask you to bless my son, who has just turned 13 years old. He had his bar mitzvah this month. I feel that you should see him," she said. I wondered why was it so important to her that I bless the boy. Reluctantly, I made the time to see the boy and to bless him.

The boy thanked me and left with his mother, who left behind a short note: "Thank you, Rabbi," she had written. "Napoleon was truly a wise man."

_ Rabbi Eli Hecht is vice president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America.