Category Archives: Parenting

Why the Abortion Debate Hardly Exists in Israel

Dear Josep,

Abortion is one of the most hotly debated and divisive topics in American politics. It’s one of the most important issues on the agenda¬†for aspiring politicians, and the discussion around it comes up over and over again during pre-election campaigns.

In Israel, on the other hand, no one so much as mentions it when elections roll around.¬†Abortion is practically absent from political debates in this country–as much as anything is “absent from debate” in Israel, that is. ūüėČ But really, for¬†a country full of Jews–who are constantly arguing about¬†everything–this has got to make you ask: what’s going on here?!

Well, first, let’s look at what’s going on in the USA.¬†On one¬†end of the spectrum we have the ultra-conservatives, influenced mostly by Christian thought, who believe that a baby’s status as a person¬†begins at conception, and therefore abortion at any stage of pregnancy is nothing short of murder and should be illegal just like murder is.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the ultra-liberals, who assert that no one has any right to tell a woman what to do with her body, regardless of the status of the baby at any stage during pregnancy, and therefore any woman should be free to abort her pregnancy at any time.

These are the voices that shout the loudest, but the truth is that the opinions of the majority of Americans fall somewhere in between those two positions.

While many liberals find the ultra-conservative position horrible and wrong and possibly misogynist, I think it’s important to understand that if you truly believe that the status of “personhood” applies from the moment of conception, there is really no way around this as a serious moral problem. It angers me when I see people brush that opinion off as ignorance or bigotry. The question of exactly at which point a person becomes a person is not a matter of science; it is a matter of philosophy. If you spend more than half a millisecond thinking about it, it is not a simple question at all. According to Christian thought,¬†a person becomes a person at the moment of conception, and at that point, the fertilized egg takes on exactly the same status¬†as the mother. It is not ignorance or bigotry to think that no one should be allowed to kill what you¬†believe is a¬†person, even if that pregnancy and birth may cause suffering.

Fortunately¬†for the world’s one and only Jewish country… the Jewish position on this matter is a lot more, shall we say, nuanced.

In the Talmud, there are several sources that state that in the first 40 days after conception, the embryo¬†(or zygote, or blastocyst, if you want to get technical) is not considered a human by halakha. Maimonides says “All these forty dates, it is not a fetus, it is considered like water.” (This comes out to sometime¬†during¬†the 8th week of pregnancy.) So while Judaism would not advocate aborting a pregnancy in general, there is a lot more room to permit it in the first 40 days.

After this, the fetus has a sort of in-between status in Jewish law, one which I would call “potential personhood.” This applies practically in a number of ways.

Firstly: Judaism, in contrast to Christianity, does not consider abortion to be equal to murder. It is a sin, but not as grave as murder.

On the other hand, most¬†authorities agree that it¬†is permissible to desecrate the Sabbath to save the life of a fetus (a threatened miscarriage, for example), even though the fetus is not considered a person. One of the ideas behind the principle that allows us to break most commandments in order to save a life, is that we are desecrating one Sabbath so that the person¬†we saved will be able to observe many Sabbaths in the future. This principle still applies in the case of a fetus, who will (hopefully) eventually grow into a person, who will (hopefully) keep the Sabbath. ūüôā

From these two rulings we understand that the status of a fetus as a person is somewhat fuzzy.

Accordingly, the question of whether abortion is permitted has a rather fuzzy answer, too. As a general rule, of course, as we saw in the post about pregnancy and contraception, Judaism encourages us to bring life into the world, and therefore, by default, abortion is forbidden. However, under certain circumstances, exceptions can be made.

There is a well-known organization¬†in Israel that deals with fertility and¬†halakha, called Puah Institute. I have never needed to consult them for any reason–thank God–but the general sense I get from them is that their rabbis tend to be very lenient when it comes to aborting a pregnancy for “medical reasons” (a.k.a., the fetus suffering from some medical condition or other that would affect its quality of life and that of its parents and family). There is a general perception that religious Jews will not abort in the case of Down Syndrome, for example, and I personally would not (and not only for halakhic reasons). But I have heard of cases of the rabbis at Puah permitting a woman to abort in such a case where it was determined that having a child with this disorder would be catastrophic for the family.

Unfortunately, Israel is not particularly advanced when it comes to accessibility and equality for people with disabilities. Combine¬†this with the fact that the Israeli medical system recommends more prenatal testing than any other country in the world, and you will understand why we¬†also have the highest “medical abortion” rates¬†in the world. I¬†take moral issue with this, personally, but the point is that there is room in halakha to make allowances, even beyond what I personally am morally comfortable with.

So whether an abortion is permitted by halakha depends what the reason is, and it also depends on the stage of pregnancy. The later in the pregnancy, the harder it is to permit. Starting at around 24 weeks, a fetus could theoretically survive outside the womb. So if you think killing a 24-week preemie outside the womb is murder, it’s pretty hard to argue that killing a 24-week fetus inside the womb isn’t murder. Still, Judaism does not consider it the same as murder until the baby has been born.¬†The guiding principle in halakha is “the life of the mother comes before that of the fetus,” meaning that if, even during childbirth, the mother’s life is threatened and could be saved by killing the fetus,¬†halakha says that the fetus must be killed to save the mother’s life.

The fact that Judaism is more nuanced than Christianity on the topic of abortion is the reason the political conversation around it in Israel is so different from that in the USA. Abortions are legal until the third trimester and are funded by our national healthcare. There are theoretical criteria for an abortion to be approved for funding, such as the age of the mother, medical issues, or financial issues, and a woman must appear before a committee for approval. But in practice the request is almost never denied.

I consider myself to be “pro-choice,” in that I believe women should be allowed to have abortions even in some cases where I think it is morally wrong.¬†But while I think women absolutely have the right to do what they want with their bodies, it’s more complicated than that when there is another life, or potential life, involved.

So I find the Israeli arrangement to be a good middle ground: abortions are legal and accessible, but not so accessible that women can take the decision lightly. It seems that the majority of Israelis are comfortable with this arrangement as well.

Another illustration of how different the discourse in Israel is from that in the USA¬†is the difference between our anti-abortion movements. The most well-known anti-abortion organization in Israel is called Efrat. They claim that they are not anti-abortion, but merely offer counselling for¬†mothers who were considering abortion for financial reasons, and if said mothers decide to have the baby, Efrat offers them financial assistance. I have read articles that call their integrity into question and claim that they are more sinister than they seem, but still… compare and contrast to those lunatics¬†shooting up abortion clinics in the USA. O.O

(Seriously Americans. WT*.)

Shelo neda, as we say in Hebrew… roughly, “may we never know from this.”



Letter to a New Father

Um, right. So this letter is not about Judaism or Israel.¬†But, it is¬†a letter to Josep “from the archives,” and I think The Internets may find it¬†useful.

To clarify, I am not posting this in honor¬†of any particular event. It’s just that a¬†recent conversation with someone reminded me that I had written this,¬†and when I told her about it, she encouraged me to post it. So here it is. I wrote it to Josep shortly after his¬†son was born.

Dear Josep,

Yup. There it is: the sleep-deprived, elated new father look. The one that says “OMG I have a baby! What on earth just happened?!… And where is my bed?” Ahh, I know it well.

Welcome to Planet Parenthood.

This is, indeed, a strange new world with strange new rules. And in order to survive, you will need to familiarize yourself with them. We will work through them slowly and carefully.

Rule #1: If Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

Look. I’m not gonna lie. The first few months are going to test everything. Your sanity, your stamina, your marriage, your commitments, your limits, and your ability to sleep sitting up with a little person on your chest. (I hope you have a reclining chair. We don’t!) But for your wife, this period is especially challenging. Her body is still recovering from a crazy ordeal. Her hormones are out of control. Whether she is breastfeeding or not, she could be experiencing pain and swelling, and many first-time mothers and babies have some difficulty getting the hang of it. All this on the very interrupted sleep and the same feeling of clueless, bleary-eyed, exhausted helplessness that you are dealing with. To top it off, she is very likely to experience the beginning throes of something that deserves its own subtitle: mommy guilt. We’ll get to that later.

Her instinct is going to be to take care of the baby. Many mothers forget that they need to take care of themselves, too. That’s where you come in.

So first and foremost, she needs her basic needs met. This includes the following:

1) Food. If you thought her appetite increased when she was pregnant, wait ’til you see how much a breastfeeding mother can eat. Even if she isn’t breastfeeding, she still has a lot of physical recovery to do, not only from the birth, but from the pregnancy. In the first few weeks she should not be expected to do any housework or cooking. Do your best to make sure the fridge is full when you leave for work in the morning. It needs to be the kind of food she can grab, throw in the microwave, and eat with one hand. (Standing up. While bouncing.) Keep a stash of granola bars on you at all times and throw them at her when she starts to get cranky. Trust me, this is for your own good!

2) Rest. I’ve already sent you this video, but it bears rewatching.

Study it very, very carefully. There is more truth to it than I’d rather admit! Both of you should do everything in your power to sleep whenever possible. I don’t care if it’s eleven in the morning, three in the afternoon, or six in the evening. I don’t care if you’re in your pajamas or a business suit. I don’t care if your mother-in-law just arrived or you just made lunch. Microwave it later. When that baby is asleep, you sleep! Take turns staying up with him; there’s no reason both of you should be awake when one of you could be sleeping.

3) Time to be a human. Whenever you get the chance, take the kid and tell her to go shower, nap, or whatever “luxury” she craves. If you aren’t going to be available, make sure she has a sister, mother, or friend to give her some baby-free time, and if you can’t even do that–pay for a babysitter. This is also for your own good, because many mothers who are home on maternity leave end up resenting their husbands for being able to “escape” to work. (Yes. Work can sometimes feel like a vacation compared to being at the mercy of a tiny creature who dictates every single minute of your day.) If you make sure she has some time to herself every day, this is a lot less likely to happen.

Now, we shall address the dreaded:

Mommy Guilt

There are two emotions that are born within each parent along with the baby. The first one, as you probably know, is a fierce, unconditional, overwhelming love for this tiny helpless being in your arms. The second one is a deep, paralyzing fear of something bad happening to him. Both of these emotions have a depth and scale which you have never known before. In the father, the fear often manifests itself in a feeling of protectiveness. My father-in-law says that he considered himself a pacifist until the moment he held his oldest daughter. At that moment, he said, he realized that he would not hesitate to kill anyone who tried to hurt her.

In the mother, this fear can often manifest itself in a sense of guilt. That she’s not doing it “right.” This sense is reinforced by the “helpful” souls who don’t hesitate to point out everything she is doing “wrong”… or by the medical system, when it is more concerned with charts and statistics than with the individual baby.

It’s a universal and unfortunate phenomenon. Here are some ways you can help stave it off (and strengthen your marriage in the process):

1) Don’t be part of the problem. Do not tell her she is doing it “wrong.” Ever. Barring a situation where the baby is in acute danger, it’s usually better to keep your mouth shut. He’s a baby. His needs are extremely basic. It will not kill him if his shirt is on backwards or, God forbid, his feet are cold. (Contrary to what your mothers may believe.) If you think something needs to be done differently, either do it yourself without a word to her or be very careful and respectful with your suggestion. There’s a reason you chose her to be the mother of your children. Trust her. The more you believe in her, the more she will believe in herself. You are a team. Work together.

2) Do your best to strengthen her against the onslaught of “advice.”¬†Your job is to be on her side no matter what. Help her trust herself and learn to filter out the advice that suits you, and toss the rest in the garbage where it belongs.

3) Tell her what a wonderful mother she is. Every single day. Bonus points for pointing out specific accomplishments she achieved that day. Even if it’s “You didn’t throw him out the window!” (…Trust me. There will be times.)

Baby Blues vs. Postpartum Depression

A majority of women experience a period of sadness and frustration after the birth, usually starting around the third day (coinciding with the milk coming in) and ending after a couple of weeks. It’s partly circumstantial (dealing with the change) and partly hormonal. Prolactin, the hormone responsible for triggering milk production, is also a stress hormone that our bodies naturally regulate by shedding tears. This means she might just start crying and not know why. Don’t be alarmed by this. Just let her cry. It will pass.

The “baby blues” usually lift after a couple of weeks. If they don’t, or if you notice that she is especially sad, to the point of neglecting herself and/or the baby, or talking about harming herself–it’s time to call a professional. Postpartum depression is pretty common and it is treatable. Aside from psychotherapy, there are antidepressants that are safe to take while breastfeeding.

Rule #2: Babyproof Your Marriage

The transition from couple to family is huge. Once upon a time, you could leave the house whenever you wanted, go wherever you pleased, and have a decent amount of quality time alone together. That is no longer the case. Your marriage will have to evolve to adapt to this change, and it can be a serious challenge.

Moreover, each parent approaches parenting from a different past and background, each with their own ideas about the right way to do things, and their own baggage from their own childhoods. These can cause a lot of conflict.

There are two ways to counter this:

1) Carve out “together time.”¬†Go out on a date–just the two of you–at least once a month. Sit down for a coffee together while the baby is napping or contentedly staring at a mobile. Your time together is limited more than ever now, and it is sacred. Make it a priority.

2) Communicate frequently and effectively. Make a point of checking in with each other several times a day, whether you are together or apart. If you have not read John Gray’s¬†Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus¬†yet, stop whatever you’re doing and go buy it right now. (Here it is in Catalan.) I mean it. Trust me. You’ll thank me.

Rule #3: Do What Works

One of the blessings and curses of being a parent in this day and age is that there is so much information. Hundreds of parenting books, dozens of “parenting methods,” blogs, articles and forums online, and of course, the ever-present “helpful souls” who are very eager¬†to tell you exactly how to properly raise children.

Here’s the thing: in parenting, there is very rarely a “right” answer. There are no formulas for success. Don’t let anyone fool you: not a single one of us has any idea what we’re doing. ūüėõ If anyone claims otherwise, s/he is not the one you want to be taking advice from. True, some of us are more experienced than others, and that’s why I’m sending you this e-mail, right? But everybody’s different and different approaches work for different people. You just have to trust your instincts and believe that there’s a reason God chose you for this job.

Mothers in particular do better when they have a support network of other moms who share their values and outlook and most importantly, who aren’t judgmental about other people’s parenting. You can commiserate together, share experiences and advice, and laugh with each other about the difficulties. Surround yourselves with people like that, and don’t be shy about asking for help. We’re all figuring this out as we go. Might as well figure it out together. And now that I mention it…

Rule #4: Get Help

You aren’t supposed to do this alone. There’s a saying, it takes a village to raise a child. I’ll say it a thousand times: do not hesitate to ask for help–and don’t wait until you’re desperate. Do it right away. And I don’t just mean someone to sweep the floors or watch the baby for an hour so you can nap. (Though that is highly recommended!) Real issues might come up and you should know that there are professionals out there whose job it is to solve these problems. For example, if there are issues with breastfeeding, call a lactation consultant. Most breastfeeding issues can be resolved pretty easily if they are properly dealt with early, and there are women who are highly trained in this area and will be able to diagnose the problem and offer effective solutions. Sleep issues? There are sleep consultants who can help get your baby sleeping through the night at 4-6 months of age. Yes, these things may cost money, but as my mother always says, better to pay for this now than for the psychologist later…

Rule #5: This Too Shall Pass

I know better than anyone that sometimes it feels like whatever you’re going through is never going to end. And sometimes the periods of difficulty will be prolonged enough to stretch your sanity to its very limit. But it really is true… you blink, and it’s over. Before you know it your oldest is starting kindergarten next week. (…What?! Me?! My son?! How did this happen?!) A month from now you will look at pictures of him when he was just born and not believe he was ever that small. A year from now you’ll look at that picture I love of you holding him right after he was born, and be amazed at how much things have changed.

And you will learn quickly. Eitan says that he feels bad for parents who only have one kid, because they never get to feel competent! It was only when I had R1 that I realized how much harder caring for H had been.

People will tell you to enjoy every minute. Problem is, parenting is the hardest job in the universe. It is kind of hard to “enjoy” when he is crying and you have no idea why, you haven’t slept in what feels like a decade, your wife just burned dinner and is having an emotional breakdown over it, and all you really want to do is curl up in a ball on the floor and cry right along with both of them. (Go right ahead. I won’t judge! ūüėõ ) So I don’t advise trying to enjoy every minute. But just as parenting is the hardest job in the universe, it is also the best! There will be many, many, many moments of joy and satisfaction and pride and love that you can hold onto during the difficult times. These days it’s so easy to keep a video or picture of him being adorable and happy and study it carefully in moments of crisis, reminding yourself that somehow, some way, it’s going to be all right eventually. Not just all right. It will be amazing. I promise.



Tweet No Evil: The Power of Speech in the Age of Social Media

Dear Josep,

I recently saw a TED talk by Monica Lewinsky–yes,¬†that Monica Lewinsky1–that I found really important and inspiring. She talks about cyberbullying and the “culture of humiliation”, and how the¬†global response to the scandal in which she was involved made her the sort of¬†“patient zero” of this phenomenon. What I find inspiring is her courage¬†in forgiving herself for¬†a mistake that was rubbed in the entire world’s face, reclaiming her narrative, and then going on to speak up for the victims of similar shaming campaigns and try to turn the world into a more compassionate and forgiving place. It’s a worthwhile 20 minutes:

Why am I talking about Monica Lewinsky and cyberbullying on a blog about Judaism?

There is a mitzvah in our tradition called “shmirat halashon“, “guarding the tongue”. It is a prohibition against speaking negatively¬†about and/or to other people. There are several categories of negative speech, including hona’at devarim, speech that is directly harmful or abusive to the person to whom you are speaking;¬†hotza’at shem ra, libeling; and the most well-known,¬†lashon hara, gossiping or speaking negatively¬†about people behind their backs.

Much as these things¬†seem self-evident as part of being a decent person, it is actually very hard. We have a drive to speak negatively about others, for a whole variety of reasons, and especially that last one–speaking about people behind their backs. It can be hard to draw the line between negative speech that is necessary and negative speech that just feels good. For example, if someone has wronged you and you feel hurt, it’s okay to talk about it with someone you trust if you need to get it off your chest and get some support, but it’s not okay to go on and tell everyone you know just for the sake of feeling self-righteous.¬†Because these boundaries are a little blurry, it is an often misunderstood¬†and even maligned¬†mitzvah, especially compared to “big” mitzvot like keeping kosher and Shabbat. ¬†As a kid, I remember it being used against me by other kids as an attempt to shut me down, and not always in a justified context. Unfortunately, even in ultra-Orthodox communities,¬†this mitzvah can be under-practiced and under-appreciated… and also sometimes misused to excuse covering up cases where speaking up is the proper thing to do, such as cases of abuse. Especially in communities that are so careful about things like women’s modesty and holding to the highest standard of kashrut, it is tragic when shmirat halashon is not properly observed.¬†The effects of misusing speech are devastating.

Speak no evil, hear no evil. Image is cropped from this image by
Speak no evil, hear no evil.
Image is cropped from this image by

King Solomon writes in Proverbs: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue”. In the Talmud, the Sages say, “One who embarrasses his fellow¬†in public–it is as though he has spilled blood.” Speech is what elevates humans above animals. It is what allows us to share our ideas, building off of each other to create, develop and advance¬†in science, technology and philosophy. It is what allows us to share our emotions and thoughts, making it possible to build relationships, improve ourselves and others, support others, and heal each other. Words change the way people think, the way they feel, the way they see the world. Speech is a gift that has immense power. And like everything that has immense power, that power can be very¬†constructive… and also very¬†destructive. And in this day and age, when we are so connected and our words and images can be¬†spread globally in the blink of an eye, we have to be especially careful about what we say. We often have no idea what effect¬†our words could have.

The mitzvah of shmirat halashon¬†is not only to avoid¬†speaking negatively, but also to avoid¬†listening to negative speech. Listening to and internalizing speech is what gives it its power, even if we don’t actively spread the negativity. Simply¬†allowing it into our minds and souls contributes to its¬†damage. Simply hearing something negative about another person will change the way you think about him or her, even if you’re not sure you believe what you heard.

I think that at a deeper level, the problem of negative speech¬†stems from difficulty with another concept that is not a¬†mitzvah but a¬†middah¬†(positive character trait/ethic) that we are encouraged to develop: judging others favorably (dan l’kaf zchut). Judging people favorably does not mean excusing their behavior or turning a blind eye to their negative traits. It means giving¬†the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best–because there is always so much we don’t know about the situation or the person–and focusing on the good aspects of that person or group.

When we truly judge everyone favorably, there is simply nothing negative to say.

I’ll give you an example that I found especially distressing. A couple years ago, there were a number of cases of parents accidentally leaving their babies or young children in a hot car, that ended in tragedy. Facebook was full of awful comments, blaming the parents, calling for severe punishment of these “criminals”. This really upset me, because in most cases like these, the parents are actually completely responsible and loving parents who had one fateful moment of absentmindedness with terrible consequences. Here is an excellent article on the topic, which I think anyone who has an opinion on this should read; but I warn you, it is an emotionally difficult read, especially as a parent.

We all make mistakes. I cannot imagine the agony those parents must have been experiencing. As a parent, my heart clenches and I get sick to my stomach just thinking about it. They need support in their grief and guilt, not people making nasty comments, rubbing their mistake in their faces, and calling for punishment. When I tried pointing out to people that these parents deserved our support and empathy and not our criticism, the responses were… not encouraging. I wrote the following in my journal:

It scares and saddens me that I live in a world where people’s automatic defense mechanism in these cases is to be cruel, angry, and to punish, rather than to be kind, compassionate, and try to help. It makes me wonder about our justice system, where our response to wrongdoing is so focused on punishment instead of reeducation and rehabilitation.

And it angers me that when I show compassion for parents like these, I get responses like “Stop your crocodile¬†tears, you probably agree with those teenagers who think the Boston Marathon bomber was ‘too pretty to have committed a crime’. Your false compassion cheapens the life of a child who died a horrific death.”

Because making a tragic mistake as a parent is apparently morally equivalent to committing premeditated murder out of senseless hatred. And apparently, it is impossible to have compassion both for the parent and for the child.

I just haven’t been able to stop thinking–and occasionally crying–about this.

Social media intensifies the phenomenon of negative speech and magnifies its ugliness. And I don’t just mean the kind of high-profile “shaming campaigns” and cyberbullying Ms. Lewinsky is talking about. Every time we share an article, a status, or a spoken remark¬†that ridicules¬†someone, every time we make¬†a disparaging comment or use disrespectful or extreme language to describe an individual or a group (excluding, of course, individuals or groups that have proven themselves unequivocally to deserve those descriptions), we are using the gift of speech for harm.

The Torah calls on us to use our speech to build, rather than destroy. To use it, as Ms. Lewinsky urges, to cultivate a culture of empathy and compassion instead of a culture of humiliation, criticism and punishment. Not only to speak constructively, but also to close our ears to negative speech, and drown it out with kind and encouraging voices.

I try to be careful about how I speak¬†and write, and I try to think ten times before saying or writing anything that is harsh or critical. But every once in a while I will hurt someone with my words. I think the blessing-and-curse of being highly sensitive and empathetic makes it easier for me to be aware of the effect words have on others, and that also makes this issue particularly important to me. But I am no saint and I struggle with avoiding negative speech just like the next person. It’s not an easy trait to cultivate, but I think it is of far greater importance than most people realize.



1. If you were not old enough to be politically aware, or were otherwise living under a rock, during 1998, here you go.↩

Blog readers: Do you remember when someone’s speech, positive or negative, had a deep and lasting impact on you? Please tell us about it in the comments. (And as per the halakhot of shmirat halashon, if your story casts someone in a negative light, please avoid details that reveal that person’s identity to someone who might know him or her.)

Also: if you are interested in learning more about this topic, cultivating¬†constructive¬†speech and avoiding¬†destructive¬†speech, I have a friend who runs this daily e-mail service, “Protect Our Speech”, that sends one short e-mail lesson per day about shmirat halashon. You can subscribe by sending an e-mail to¬† You can also find the lessons on Facebook under the “Protect Our Speech” community.