ROANOKE, Va. (WXFR) — Virginia Del. Eileen Filler-Corn says Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed abortion restrictions infringe on her religious freedom as a Jewish woman.

“What he was talking about, with his idea and concept, and what we have seen honestly from other legislators who have already expressed and espoused an interest in introducing legislation that would take rights away from women and our own bodily autonomy, would be in direct conflict with my faith, Jewish faith, and many other religions,” Filler-Corn, the former Speaker of the House of Delegates, said during a tour of the Raleigh Court Head Start childcare center in Roanoke.

At Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Roanoke County, Rabbi Kathy Cohen agrees. She says the idea that Filler-Corn touched on is rooted in the Talmud, the authoritative text of Judaism, where Cohen says the scripture asks when potential life becomes real life.

“If we were to translate it, it would be better about potential life,” she explained. “So, when is this mass of cells actually considered potential life?”

She says the Jewish faith overall considers real life to begin when the baby crowns.

Rabbi Jama Purser at Beth Israel Roanoke, a conservative synagogue, agrees, saying in an email to WFXR News that they stand against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade.

Like many religious faith traditions, Judaism is a life-affirming religion.  Nevertheless, there are different qualities of different life-forms, and not all of them are considered by the Jewish tradition to be equivalent, nor do they all have the same rights and protections. Animal life, referred to in Hebrew as “neshama”, for example, is  distinguished from human life, “nefesh.”

Rabbinic law established the time of “ensoulment” of a life-form as taking place on the 40th day post-conception. Before the 40th day, no viable form of life exists, i.e., no ensouled life (neshama) and no human life (nefesh), and the fetus at this point is considered “merely liquid” (maya d’alma) by the rabbis of the Talmud. One of the most important differences between the Jewish view and anti-abortion views is that the rabbinic view of ensoulment (when the soul/neshama enters the body) is not equated with a human life (nefesh). After the 40th day, for example, the fetus is considered ensouled (to have “neshama”) but is still not considered to be a viable human life (i.e., to be a nefesh), until it is born. The word nefesh in the Jewish tradition thus refers to a human being who is born and is considered a viable life individuated from the mother’s body.

The fetus is considered in a separate category from human life.

Judaism views the fetus as part of the mother’s body. The view is rooted in the Bible, which many faith traditions share. The classic source comes from Exodus 21:22-23.  In these verses, two men who are fighting push a pregnant woman and she loses the baby, but she herself lives. The penalty defined in the Bible is a fine, to compensate for the harm done to the woman’s body. Because the death of a fully individuated living human being would have been a capital offense, however, the Rabbi’s equate the lack of such a penalty in these verses in response to the death of the fetus to imply that the fetus is not yet a living human being. Judaism understands the verses to mean that until birth, the fetus is not a viable living being.

For this reason, the life of a fetus is not granted the same rights and protections as a human life…until it is born.

Sometimes, the needs of one life form will conflict with those of another. While in Judaism we revere the sacredness of all life forms including that of the fetus, and we share a sincere desire with other faith traditions to see potential life come to fruition, the legal status of the fetal life form is not equivalent to the legal status of the mother. The mother’s life and well-being almost always takes precedence over an unborn fetus.  While Jewish law does not condone abortion as a form of birth control nor does it condone needless destruction of the fetus, abortion of the fetus is permitted, and even required in certain cases, if necessary to save or preserve the life and well-being of the mother.  Once the fetus is born, it is viewed legally as a human being, and every effort must be made to preserve its life as well as that of the mother. Birth is defined as the moment when the fetus emerges into the open air, defined by some as the moment the majority of the fetal body has emerged into the open air.

In the Jewish Conservative Movement to which my community belongs, our Rabbinical Assembly has strongly and repeatedly, and for over 50 years publicly affirmed the necessity of legal access to abortion based on our clergical and academic scrutiny of Biblical sources, along with other Jewish and medical texts. Fewer issues in Judaism are more clear than protecting extant human life. We strongly oppose limitations on access to abortion or restrictions on other reproductive freedoms in the United States specifically because we believe doing so causes needless death and suffering to human life. Therefore, we oppose the recent Supreme Court Decision striking down the Constitutional right to Abortion as an infringement of our religious liberty.

Email sent by Rabbi Jama Purser with the Beth Israel Roanoke Synagogue

“In our movement today and for many conservative Jews as well, a woman’s right to her desire to control her reproductive organs should be for that woman alone,” said Cohen.

The Temple Emanuel rabbi adds that she believes both sides of the abortion debate are looking to save lives, but in the Jewish faith, a mother’s life takes precedent.