Parashat Mishpatim: ReproShabbat

Posted on February 9, 2024 by Dave Cohen

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, an enumeration of many of the laws and obligations incumbent on the Jewish people. In large part they can be viewed as a sort of extrapolation of the Ten Commandments imparted in the previous week’s parsha. There are laws about how to punish someone who insults their father or mother (violating the fifth commandment – honor your mother and father); laws about how to handle unintentional manslaughter (adjacent to violating the sixth commandment – do not commit murder); laws about when a robber can be killed and when they can’t, and how restitution for theft should be made (relating to the eighth commandment – thou shall not steal).

One of the many laws, governing restitution when someone causes a miscarriage in a pregnant woman, has inspired the Reform movement to choose this as #ReproShabbat. The law in question requires only monetary restitution in the case of causing a miscarriage, while other physical harm requires restitution in kind: an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth and life for a life. Rabbis have interpreted this to prove that the potential life of a fetus is not equivalent to an actual life, and this principle has governed much subsequent Jewish thought about the permissibility of abortion, and reproductive rights generally.

One of the most helpful resources I have found to summarize the range of Jewish thinking on the topic is “Jewish Perspectives on Abortion” by Rabbis Raymond A. Zwerin and Richard J. Shapiro. In a nutshell, they report “These are the guiding principles on abortion in Jewish tradition: a woman’s life, her pain, and her concerns take precedence over those of the fetus; existing life is always sacred and takes precedence over a potential life; and a woman has the personal freedom to apply the principles of her tradition unfettered by the legal imposition of moral standards other than her own.” If you are curious about more detail on the foundations of these principles, you can find the entire article at https://rcrc.org/jewish/

For those of you saw the banners proudly displayed outside Temple Beth-El declaring that “Abortion Bans are Against my Religion,” and wondered where exactly it says that in the Torah, I hope you now have a clearer sense of how the value of reproductive freedom is rooted in our tradition.

Dave Cohen

Guest Service Leader