JERUSALEM — A subject ordinarily not on the top of Israel’s national agenda has become a hot topic in recent weeks, following media reports that the country’s two chief rabbis sent a letter to all state-funded rabbis urging them to discourage abortions.

In the letter, which was disseminated in late December, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger noted that approximately 50,000 abortions are performed in Israel every year — 20,000 approved by Health Ministry abortion committees and 30,000 unapproved procedures performed illegally in private clinics.

The chief rabbis wrote that abortions, which Judaism permits under certain circumstances, “delay the coming of the Messiah.” The vast majority of abortions, they said, “go against Jewish law” and are “unnecessary.”

Israeli law, which is influenced both by Jewish and civil law, permits abortions in cases where the child was conceived through rape, incest or with a man other than her husband; when the unborn child has a serious birth defect; and when carrying a child to term endangers the mother’s life.

Avi Blumenthal, a spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate, told the Register that the letter was nothing out of the ordinary.

“This is the third time the chief rabbis have sent such a letter,” Blumenthal said, “but journalists have short memories.”

For the past three years, Blumenthal said, the chief rabbis have urged rabbis to highlight the heroic actions of Shifra and Pu’ah, two Israelite midwives who, according to the first chapter of the Book of Exodus, defied Pharaoh’s order to kill all first-born Israelite males in the Land of Egypt.

This year, the Torah passage containing the story was read on Jan. 9.

Women’s rights organizations blasted the chief rabbis for trying to convince women and their husbands not to terminate a pregnancy.

Some said the letter was tantamount to religious coercion, a flash point in a country where Orthodox rabbinical courts enjoy exclusive jurisdiction over Jewish marriage and divorce and many other areas of Jewish life. Most Israeli Jews define themselves as traditional or secular, rather than ultra-Orthodox.

“You have a bunch of men who do not allow women to participate in their gatherings who are telling women what to do with their bodies,” Irit Rosenblum, director of the New Family organization, told The Jerusalem Post. “Why are they interfering? Do they think a woman does not know how to decide on her own what she does with her body?”

Economic Concerns

Others hailed the rabbis’ efforts to limit the number of abortions.

Dr. Eli Schussheim, director of Efrat, a Jerusalem-based organization that provides financial and emotional support to women who might otherwise have an abortion, said the chief rabbis have been very proactive in their fight against terminations.

“They realize that the majority of women seeking an abortion are doing so due to economic hardship,” Schussheim said. “The committee they created to examine the phenomenon studied the issue very carefully.”

Noting that roughly a quarter of Israelis live below the poverty line, Ruth Tidhar, an Efrat social worker, said, “We live til the tip of our income as it is; if one spouse loses his or her job, life can become extremely difficult.”

Standing in a room whose walls are filled with pictures of babies and children born to mothers assisted by Efrat, including sets of twins, triplets and even a bright-eyed foursome of quadruplets, Tidhar describes her organization’s “typical” client: “The vast majority of the women who come to us are religiously traditional and married. Usually this isn’t their first pregnancy. The classic case says, ‘We already have three kids. My husband says we won’t be able to manage financially, and he’s right.’”

Once a woman’s need is established, Efrat provides financial assistance during the pregnancy as well as such essentials as a crib, stroller and diapers for the newborn.

In all, the organization “has saved” more than 40,000 children from abortion, Tidhar said.

Yuval Aharon is one of these children.

“I had recently broken up with my boyfriend and working in the U.S. when I discovered I was pregnant,” Yuval’s mother, Mali Aharon, recalled during a phone interview from her home in an Israeli coastal town. “I moved back to Israel, but I didn’t have a job or money. My boyfriend wanted to be part of the baby’s life but not my life. I was alone, and it was a tough time.”

A friend who knew that Aharon didn’t really want to abort told her about Efrat.

“The organization was wonderful. They gave me a small stipend to buy things for myself and helped tremendously after my daughter was born. They gave me a baby bath, a crib, a stroller, pacifiers, bottles, and sent packages for a year and a half. Were it not for Efrat, I’m not sure I would have had the baby.”

Now, five years later, Aharon is a manager in a high-tech firm, married — to her ex-boyfriend, the father of her daughter — and expecting a son any day now.
“I feel like it’s a sort of closure from God,” Aharon said.

Father William Shomali, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said the Church is grateful for the chief rabbis’ efforts to prevent abortions.

“Abortion is a crime, and we support any person in the world who works against it, even if the reasons they evoke are sometimes different,” the chancellor said.

Those differences? “Jews believe abortion could delay the coming of the Messiah,” Father Shomali explained. “We Christians believe the Messiah has already come.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.