By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant This week’s Torah Parsha (BO) continues with the story of Exodus. God had already inflicted seven devastating plagues on Egypt, subsequent to the Pharaoh’s...
This week we read in Exodus the Torah parsha Mishpatim. Mishpatim, the Hebrew word for “laws”, contains many laws addressing Hebrew slaves, homicide, assault, homicidal animals, theft, seduction, sorcery, and more. At the end of this parsha, Moses repeats the commandments to the people as laid out by Gd, and the people respond, “All the things that Hashem has commanded we will do!”
One interesting part of Parshat Mishpatim is its connection to the rabbinic view on abortion. We read in Exodus 21, “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined […] But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”
The rabbis understand this line to mean that if a pregnant woman is pushed and she falls and as a result she miscarries, but no other harm is done to her, the man who pushed her is liable to pay a fine. He is liable only to pay a fine because this is not considered a capital offense. The miscarriage does not count, in rabbinic legal terms, as the end of a life. We understand this further in connection with the following line that reads, “but if other damage ensues”. The rabbis understand “if other damage ensues” to mean the death of the woman. “If other damage ensues”, meaning the woman dies, then the penalty of the man who pushed the woman shall be his death.
Since the punishment is different for the man who pushes a woman and she miscarries versus whether he pushes her and then she dies, we learn that it is the life of the woman, and not the fetus, which counts as a life. Rabbi Beth Kalisch writes in The Roots of the Amicus Brief, “That essential distinction — that a fetus, while precious, is not equivalent to a fully formed human life — lays the foundation in later Jewish law for a relatively permissive view of abortion. Because pikuach nefesh, the “saving of a human life,” always takes precedence in Jewish law over other concerns, the morality of abortion in Judaism is always tied to the welfare of the pregnant woman.”
This seems pretty clear to the rabbis. And interestingly enough, the same passage from Exodus 21 is used in Christian theology to explain the exact opposite conclusion; that abortion is considered murder. How is this possible? It is a result of a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “ason”, אָס֑וֹן , in the Septuagint- the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible dating back to the third century B.C.E. The rabbis translate the word “ason” as damages and then interpret that word as such. The Septuagint translates it as such: “When two men fight and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a penalty [..] But if it be perfectly formed [at the time of miscarriage], he shall give life for life. The Septuagint lays out two different scenarios than the Hebrew translation. Instead of the difference of the man’s punishment depending on whether there was an injury to the fetus or the death of the woman, as the rabbis understood it to be, the Septuagint translates the difference as being between a child who is born “imperfectly formed” or a fetus who was “perfectly formed” at the time of miscarriage. With the Septuagint’s translation, the penalty for the man who pushed the woman who then gives birth to an imperfectly formed baby is money. If the woman he pushed miscarries a perfectly formed fetus, the penalty is the man’s life.
Exodus 21 is hardly the only text from the Tanach where we see striking differences in the translations between Christian and Jewish sources. It is easy to see how these differences in translation can create such a large divide in theology. It is always interesting to me when a translation difference comes up, especially in our weekly parsha. It also helps me understand why historically a majority of the non-orthodox, American Jewish community has been vocally pro-choice and why historically the most vocal anti-choice protestors and legislators often are the ones who identify as Christian.