Declaring that abortions "delay the redemption," Israel's chief rabbis have pledged to "strengthen" the work of an anti-abortion council in the rabbinate and urged state-employed rabbis to take other steps to reduce abortions.
In a letter sent out on Monday, Chief Rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger encourage local rabbis to devote their Shabbat sermons to speaking against abortions, distribute anti-abortion literature to couples registering for marriage at religious councils, and work in coordination with the pro-life organization Efrat to encourage grassroots opposition to abortions.
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Metzger told The Jerusalem Post that it was important to encourage fertility and discourage abortions, in part, to fight a demographic war. "I am sorry to say that our enemies are multiplying," said Metzger.
The letter was sent out to all city, neighborhood, settlement and local council rabbis on the state payroll throughout the nation.
These rabbis are urged to devote their Shabbat sermon next week, January 9, when the reading of the book of Exodus begins, to emphasizing the severe halachic prohibition against abortions.
The first chapter of Exodus features the story of the Hebrew midwives Pu'ah and Shifra, who refused to listen to the king of Egypt's order to kill all male babies: "But the midwives feared God and did not as the king of Egypt commanded." The rabbinate has traditionally seen the reading of this biblical verse as marking an opportunity to speak out to the faithful against performing abortions, a spokesman said.
Reference made in the rabbis' letter to the connection between abortions and the final redemption is based on the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Niddah which states that each baby that is born brings the redemption closer. "The redemption does not take place until all the souls are brought out of their storing place," states the Talmud.
The letter announces that an anti-abortion council set up two years ago, headed by Chief Rabbi of Beersheba Yehuda Deri, will be "strengthened," but offers no further details.
Local religious councils are requested to continue to pass out anti-abortion literature to couples who register for marriage. This literature has been distributed for the past 25 years, according to the letter.
In addition, local rabbis are advised to consult with Dr. Eli J. Schussheim, head of Efrat, if they plan anti-abortion rallies in their respective towns.
The country's rabbis were notified in the letter that "the vast majority of abortions are unnecessary, and Halacha severely prohibits them".
Figures provided by Efrat's Schussheim during a presentation before the chief rabbinate two years ago showed that a total of 50,000 abortions are performed annually in Israel, 20,000 of which are legal while the rest are performed illegally.
"Rabbis have a role in encouraging their communities to have children and to discourage abortions. It is the best weapon against our enemies," Metzger said.
He added that there were cases in which Halacha permitted performing abortions, "such as when there is a danger to the mother's life or in extreme welfare situations.
"However, the rabbinate has adopted Efrat, which saves between 4,000 and 5,000 babies a year by providing pregnant mothers with financial and psychological support during their pregnancy," he said.
Irit Rosenblum, head of New Family, an organization fighting to prevent religious influence in marital and birth issues, said the rabbinate's initiative constituted blatant intervention by men in women's decisions regarding their bodies.
"You have bunch of men, who do not allow women to participate in their gatherings, who are telling women what to do with their bodies," said Rosenblum. "Why are they interfering? Do they think a woman does not know how to decide on her own what she does with her body?"
Rosenblum said that she sent a letter to MKs urging them to prevent the rabbinate's intervention.
Rosenblum voiced concern in her letter that if pressure is put on women not to have an abortion they will have one anyway, but in substandard conditions in a way that could endanger their lives.
"It seems to me that in the 21st century there is not room for the intervention of religious figures. We must not abandon women who are in need of a termination of pregnancy, and we must allow it for every woman that demands it, in the most professional and safe way possible."
"I am not shocked by this announcement," said one women's rights activist who has been involved in fighting the Rabbinical Courts on the issue of agunot (women denied a divorce by their husbands) for many years. "Israel is becoming more and more fundamentalist, and this is just another step to further control women's rights and sexuality."
She added: "We are moving backwards, and I think it's about time that women's rights groups get together and take note of what is really happening here. This step is in sync with what is happening in the rabbinical courts."
Ruth Eglash contributed to this reportâ€¢
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