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Here's a colorful comment that someone under the name of Leah wrote on my previous post regarding abortion:
"Thank you "rabbi" slifkin for bending over backwards to demonstrate how liberal you are. The vast majority of world renown poskim, including R Moshe, actually maintain unequivocally that abortion is a form of murder. You are a shill. A dult with a compromised level of intelligence. Your books are silly. You are silly. Everyone knows you are a ruined person.... A horrified liberal wannabe. And a failed human to boot."
Well, I've been called worse. But my curiosity was piqued - what was a liberal wannabe like me purportedly horrified at? Someone else called Shimshon helpfully explained that Leah was referring to the mesorah. Apparently I was horrified at the mesorah, which views abortion as murder, and thus, explained Shimshon, I "mocked and denigrated it."
So near, and yet so far.
Yes, I was, and continue to be, horrified. But not at "the mesorah." Rather, at how people utterly misrepresent what "the mesorah" is, to the extent that it is actually they who are distorting the history of rabbinic opinions over the ages.
I've long been both horrified and fascinated by a particular phenomenon: when the widespread perception of rabbinic thought regarding a topic turns out to be the exact opposite of the reality of rabbinic thought regarding that topic. And over the last few years, I've come across a few.
The first was with regard to Chazal's knowledge of scientific matters. Until then, I'd assumed that the notion that Chazal could be fallible in scientific matters was a legitimate but minority view, with the majority view being that they had divine inspiration for everything that they said. But after studying the the topic of the sun's path at night, I realized that the exact opposite was the case - at least in the times of the Rishonim, the majority view was that Chazal were fallible in scientific matters.
Subsequently I discovered this phenomenon with several other topics. Given my field of interest, I was encountering them in topics relating to rationalism versus mysticism. Abortion has very little to do with this, and so it was particularly interesting for me to see this phenomenon appearing again.
I think that Leah and Shimshon accurately reflect popular notions about the Torah position on abortion. There is a widespread assumption is that it's a form of murder (and thus almost never permitted), and that the consensus of rabbinic opinion says the same. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. Yes, you can find opinions which state that, especially among 20th century poskim (and it is interesting to analyze why this view suddenly peaked during that period). Rav Moshe Feinstein is, of course, the most prominent example - though even he admits that the fetus is not a full life, and says that it is a "somewhat of a life."
But when you actually study the history of rabbinic thought over the ages, it becomes abundantly clear that the majority rabbinic view over the ages is that abortion is not homicide in any shape or form. Of course, it is still generally severely prohibited, and there is no basis whatsoever in Judaism for the notion that a woman (or a man) has the right to do whatever they want with their body. But it is not any form of homicide (and accordingly there are various circumstances under which it can be permissible and actually mandatory). This in turn is based on the straightforward understanding of various laws in the Mishnah and discussions in the Gemara.
For example, the execution of a woman who is pregnant is not delayed to allow the birth of her child, since the fetus is considered to be merely a part of the woman rather than a separate life. And the Gemara, discussing the case of a woman dying in childbirth, where she may be saved at the expense of the fetus if its head has not yet emerged, rejects the notion that this is due to the fetus being considered a rodef (another human acting as a murderer); instead, as Rashi and the other commentaries explain, the reason it is permitted is that the fetus is not yet a nefesh. Meanwhile, Ramban and his disciples use the fact of the Torah requiring monetary payments of damages for killing a fetus as evidence that there is no form of homicide involved. In fact, the big challenge for rabbinic authorities over the centuries was to figure out exactly why abortion is prohibited, precisely because it is not any kind of homicide - and the general answer was that it is prohibited as a form of physical injury to the mother, or that it is an act of wanton destruction of seed.
(Even in contemporary times, it is simply not true to state that the "vast majority of world renowned poskim maintain unequivocally that abortion is a form of murder." The most prominent posek on such matters was Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, who sat on the Jerusalem Beis Din with Rav Elyashiv and was considered the preeminent posek regarding questions of medical halacha. He followed the classical approach that it is not generally considered any form of murder, with its resultant leniencies, and plenty of other "world renowned" poskim would refer abortion cases to him.)
When I pointed this out, citing an article by Rav Eliezer Melamed on the topic, Shimshon responded as follows:
"This isn't me you are arguing with, clever one. The Rambam disagrees, and very explicitly and strongly. No, don't ask me for the cite. I've seen it, mentioned by non-anonymous rabbis. I don't even doubt you are familiar with it. I'll take his opinion over a modern-day rabbi notorious for his iconoclasm (that's to put it mildly and euphemistically) on various controversial issues. How can he ignore the Rambam? He can't, but he does, because he would have no choice but to argue against it. The rabbis I know don't. He does. What does that say about him? Are there no comments from the last 1500 years on the subject he will draw from? That's severe cherry picking. And even then, his Talmudic references and the logical inferences he makes do no follow."
Now, of course it should first be noted that Rambam is hardly the only opinion that counts. But even when it comes to Rambam, his position is most certainly not "very explicit and strong." In fact, Rambam's apparent position that the fetus is a life (deduced from his description of abortion being permitted for a woman about to die in childbirth due to the fetus being a rodef) is viewed by rabbinic authorities as problematic, precisely because it conflicts with the straightforward understanding of the Mishnah and Gemara (which seems to rejected that line of reasoning). For this reason, numerous authorities explain Rambam in such a way that he is not rating abortion as a form of homicide.
Alas, I suspect it would be a mistake to presume that actual sources in Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim would sway those who are determined to argue that abortion is homicide and anyone who says otherwise is a "horrified liberal wannabe." The key is revealed in the accusation of my being a "liberal" (even if only a wannabe). For many people, their opinion on abortion is the same as their opinions on Covid restrictions, the reliability of the 2020 US election results, and everything else - it is governed by the powerful tribalism of their social identity. How strange it is that this leads to them rejecting mainstream positions in rabbinic law out of hand.
I am indeed horrified. But then again, I'm a dult with a compromised level of intelligence, and a failed human to boot, so what do I know?
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