Ear­li­er this week, Melis­sa R. Klap­per wrote about 5 Amer­i­can Jew­ish women you’ve (prob­a­bly) nev­er heard of. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I recent­ly came across a copy of the June 28 issue of The Jew­ish Press. The Jew­ish Press is an Ortho­dox Jew­ish week­ly peri­od­i­cal out of Brook­lyn that has a polit­i­cal agen­da with which I could not dis­agree more. When I saw the head­line Time for the Halachic View on Abor­tion to Be Heard,” I groaned inward­ly and pre­pared to be out­raged. Imag­ine my sur­prise when the arti­cle, by Yori Yanover, the senior inter­net edi­tor of the pub­li­ca­tion, turned out to be a call to tra­di­tion­al halachic voic­es to dis­tance them­selves from Chris­t­ian anti-abor­tion activism and to express more force­ful­ly in the pub­lic are­na the nuanced rab­bini­cal approach to the dif­fi­cult top­ic of abor­tion. While I do not at all appre­ci­ate Yanover’s descrip­tion of both lib­er­al Jew­ish groups and evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians as the cra­zies,” I think it is extreme­ly impor­tant that a pub­li­ca­tion like The Jew­ish Press is remind­ing its audi­ence that even the strictest inter­preters of Jew­ish law con­sis­tent­ly approached abor­tion from the per­spec­tive of pro­tect­ing the viable life of the moth­er over the poten­tial life of the fetus. The rab­bis, Yanover points out, his­tor­i­cal­ly did not con­sid­er abor­tion to be murder.

Just to be clear, tra­di­tion­al rab­binic rul­ings nei­ther con­done nor pro­mote abor­tion. Yanover cites the 1990 Rab­bini­cal Coun­cil of Amer­i­ca state­ment that abor­tion should not be an option except in extreme cir­cum­stances and in con­sul­ta­tion with prop­er Halachic author­i­ty,” but he gives equal space to the part of the same state­ment that rejects endorse­ment of leg­is­la­tion that would pre­vent abor­tion in those cas­es. Giv­en the greater rights of the liv­ing human being – the moth­er – Jew­ish law would even allow late term abor­tions if the fetus pos­es a mor­tal dan­ger to her.

This arti­cle caught my eye not only because of its source but also because of the ques­tions that per­sis­tent­ly came my way when I was writ­ing my recent­ly pub­lished book Bal­lots, Babies, and Ban­ners of Peace: Amer­i­can Jew­ish Women’s Activism, 1890 – 1940 (NYU Press, 2013). The book includes two chap­ters on the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can Jew­ish women’s involve­ment in the ear­ly birth con­trol move­ment. I have repeat­ed­ly been asked what the Jew­ish posi­tion” on con­tra­cep­tion was dur­ing the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. Nat­u­ral­ly, there was no sin­gle posi­tion. All of the denom­i­na­tions strug­gled to for­mu­late a response. The Reform movement’s Cen­tral Con­fer­ence of Amer­i­can Rab­bis turned down an invi­ta­tion by the Catholic church to issue a joint state­ment of blan­ket con­dem­na­tion but did not offi­cial­ly endorse birth con­trol for some years after begin­ning to dis­cuss the issue. The Con­ser­v­a­tive movement’s Rab­bini­cal Assem­bly fol­lowed suit short­ly there­after. And the Ortho­dox Union pre­served a telling silence, offi­cial­ly nei­ther approv­ing or dis­ap­prov­ing of con­tra­cep­tive prac­tices that the orga­ni­za­tion saw as best left to indi­vid­u­als mak­ing deci­sions in con­sul­ta­tion with rab­binic author­i­ties. There is plen­ty of lat­i­tude with­in halacha for birth con­trol, which appar­ent­ly comes as a sur­prise to those who want to see all reli­gious peo­ple of all faiths as equal­ly fun­da­men­tal­ist. I find myself agree­ing with Yanover that extrem­ists on both the right and the left could learn some­thing from the his­to­ry of Jew­ish insti­tu­tion­al and legal respons­es to the com­plex­i­ties of the inter­sec­tions of repro­duc­tive rights and religion.

Check back all week for more from Melis­sa R. Klap­per.