In a Just World

photo of Dr. Laurie Zoloth

Subject: Dr. Laurie Zoloth Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
Transcripts: Shaun Mader/Cheryl McShane

The segments included in this interview* were recorded during August 2001, as part of In a Just World a documentary on world religions, family planning, contraception, and abortion. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group with WTTW-Chicago. Laurie Zoloth is Professor and Chair in the Jewish Studies Program of San Francisco State University.

(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)

How do you interpret Jewish teachings in regards to women and procreation?
Women have always been advised to procreate. I do not say we should not, I have lots of children, and I love children. I look forward to a world in which women have the freedom and support to have loving families. That's a very important essential part of Judaism and we ought not to make any mistake about that in our discussion of these texts. The assumption is women will procreate, women will help create families with husbands, and then in fact women also have other tasks and responsibilities that have to be fulfilled with great seriousness. And that's true whether women have rather small families, whether women have rather larger families, there's no shirking the obligation, the call, the necessity of the poor, the necessity to do work outside in the world, to have ones voice known at the gates of the city. So Jewish texts could be very specific in another direction. They could say never go outside the home. They could say we need you to have ten children, we need you to have fifteen children. That's possible. The fact that they don't say that is I think of importance to us. While one is urged to have children, urged to have more than one child, one is also urged to be part of a world of children and to be a teacher if one cannot have one's own children. (There is) a lot of talk about fertility in the biblical text. There's no talk about having everyone having the maximum amount of children they could possibly have, which is a long tradition. Its odd to me that there wouldn't be anything that insists upon maximally for fertility.

Is it permissible for a Jewish woman to use contraception/ practice family planning?
There are repeated times in the Talmud where something called the bariata of the three women, which is an argument about three women, appears again and again in the Talmudic text. Not just one time, but several times. This is a widely understood and widely discussed issue. Are there times when birth control is permitted? And the answer that comes up whenever this is discussed in all those different places is yes! If the woman is too young and the pregnancy would imperil her simply because she is to young that is one whole category. If the woman is pregnant already and it might in some way imperil her life because of her pregnancy. And if a woman is nursing a child--a very interesting exception. If a woman is nursing a child she ought not to become pregnant. Therefore, you can supplement the natural protection of nursing with birth control with a mokh, with some sort of device that prohibits the sperm from entering the woman womb and creating the next child. That allows for both waiting until a woman is old enough and we could certainly do some creative work on the meaning of that text, and allows a protected period for the pregnancy and nursing of every single child. That notion creates the ability for a very sophisticated notion of family planning, that there should be spacing between one and the next and the next.

Judaism appears to place an emphasis on duty as opposed to rights. How does this distinction influence the abortion debate?
Much of the abortion debate has been the rights of the fetus versus the rights of the women. And it's been posed as maternal rights versus fetal rights, and you know where are my rights. And that's just not the discussion that enlivens the Jewish textual tradition. It's what are my obligations and responsibilities to myself, and my other children, and my family and my community in choosing to have a child now and in going forward with the pregnancy now. There's not this sense of it happening you know to me in an unobligated way. But each pregnancy theoretically given the structure of Jewish law, is thought about and wanted and considered and comes about as a result of a certain sort of history and activity of sexual relationships, abstinence from sexuality at some periods of the month, going forward with sexual encounters at other times of the month, thinking carefully about what's needed for the family and the permissibility at different times for birth control, the wonder and miracle of having children, balancing all those things at once and all those duties at once is a part of Jewish life. That being said, there's not a lot of emphasis on your right to have an abortion because you're free in an unfettered way. It might be that becoming pregnant gives you a duty and an obligation to continuing the pregnancy even if it's difficult, even if it's inconvenient, even if it necessitates some adjustments in ones life. It would have to be that you wouldn't go forward with the pregnancy because you felt your life was at stake. So that gravity, that seriousness of intent is very different. You have a duty only to save your life and to save your health and those duties override the duty to the pregnancy. Otherwise your responsibility is to go forward with this pregnancy and this intention to create another child. So that kind of duty base is very different. On the other hand, the rights argument that fetuses have rights is again not a determined right in Jewish text either. Fetuses don't have rights because their rights would only accrue to them if they were able to take on duties. The relative nature of duties and rights is very strongly made in Jewish text and ideas, so this fetus can't possibly taken on personhood. Therefore it has no rights in the way that we would think of you or I as having rights, because we have duties and responsibilities and that's an intertwined notion in Jewish Law. So the notion that there's a right to life is not a richly discovered notion in Judaism. There are ideas about what one is entitled to, or one could fight for, or one what's obligated to be given to another person. But the whole right to life discussion, that language, is not in the language in which Judaism grounds it's way of treating one another.

If a Jewish woman is considering an abortion, what is she expected to do?
Within an Orthodox community, one is expected to go to one's teacher, one's rabbi, which means teacher, to talk about major life decisions. Now unlike a Catholic tradition, there's not a Vatican, and there's not a pope and there's not this sense that the rabbi is a holy emissary. The rabbi is a wise teacher who makes good arguments. I'm not a rabbi, I'm a scholar and my obligations are different. As a scholar and a teacher my obligation is to lay out for women the range of options within the authoritative text, the range of things that rabbi's have said to allow that to be factored in to their personal decisions. If you are not an Orthodox Jew, if you are a member of another denomination within Judaism, then the discussion with the rabbi assumes more or less normative authority and normative power. There are some communities where what the rabbi says and what the rabbi means you to do would have enormous authoritative power. In modern orthodoxy, the rabbi's that I talked with are engaged in a process that does take into account social situation, maternity, psychological realities. In Liberal Judaism and Conservative Judaism the weight of a woman's yearning and the necessities that surround her decision would be given even more authority, and the weight of the Haskalah given less authority. These are intensely personal decisions. So there's not legal sanctions against one's personal decisions. And people can go ahead and go forward hopefully with the wise advice of rabbinic authorities. This being said, having an abortion, or having a child is the greatest decision one can make. It should not be taken lightly. It is not casual, it is not about convenience. I think for most women, most of the time, that is deeply understood and deeply felt. And I think that the Jewish tradition's understanding of the necessity for a tragic choice is at the heart of the way the texts are understood.

With scientific advances, we now know a lot more about the viability of the fetus than we did twenty years ago. Has this had any effect on the discussion within Judaism?
Judaism has always understood, long before sonograms, that a pregnancy is a developmental process. So unlike a Catholic position, or some Catholic positions that might say a person is created at the moment of conception, the Jewish understanding has always been much more subtle and nuanced than that. Something begins at the moment of conception, something then happens at implantation, after about forty days there's a change in status, up until then there's text that refer to the developing pregnancy as more like water. With that being said, when a woman felt external signs, signs that could be felt by other people, quickening, the kicking of the baby, where you could put your hands on a woman and feel, "oh there really is a pregnancy here", that was another marker. When a woman looked visibly pregnant to the outside world, this was yet another stage in the development. So this notion of the developmental status and the accrual of more and more sort of reality and more moral status is very much a part of much traditional religious law.

Can you explain why some Orthodox rabbis have taken a position against abortion?
Well I can't speak for every scholar that looks at these texts. But I can say that anyone who looks at these texts with any kind of seriousness will find a warrant for some abortions some of the time. Now Jewish law is quite clear about things that are absolutely prohibited. There are absolute prohibitions about many things in Jewish law. The rules are very clear. Had they wanted to say in every circumstance, in every pregnancy, in every single time its a fully ensouled life, its life is sacred, there must be absolutely no abortion, it is not permitted--that would have been said. That's not in fact what one finds. One finds a view of limited acceptance, of tragic moral choices under limited circumstances. Now its important to know this because there will be people who might give a very very narrow reading of this, and that reading of course is also permitted, to say that the circumstances should be only under situations of extremity and they would define the extremity for women very very narrowly. But within that range, there are clearly times when abortion if one follows Mamonidies, there are times when certain kinds of abortions would have to be part of the tradition it would seem to me. This could not be based around the same textual traditions as some elements of Roman Catholicism or Christians later claims, because there are texts that are right there, that are very widely available, that are very deeply understood, that are at the core of the tradition, that start biblically and move through very profound places in the Gemora. So it's important to remember that. Though the interpretations might vary, the texts themselves are right there for the understanding and interpretation by everyone.

How would you describe the perfect world as far as these issues go?
Judaism has always understood, long before sonograms, that a pregnancy is a developmental process. So unlike a Catholic position, or some Catholic positions that might say a person is created at the moment of conception, the Jewish understanding has always been much more subtle and nuanced than that. Something begins at the moment of conception, something then happens at implantation, after about forty days there's a change in status, up until then there's text that refer to the developing pregnancy as more like water. With that being said, when a woman felt external signs, signs that could be felt by other people, quickening, the kicking of the baby, where you could put your hands on a woman and feel, "oh there really is a pregnancy here", that was another marker. When a woman looked visibly pregnant to the outside world, this was yet another stage in the development. So this notion of the developmental status and the accrual of more and more sort of reality and more moral status is very much a part of much traditional religious law.