A representative of the White House suggests to an organization that receives federal funding that the government money may stop unless the organization adopts certain policies. It sounds like politics as usual.
The administration representative is a member of a religious group with conservative values that are in conflict with the policies of the organization whose federal funds are in jeopardy. That sounds like a potential church-state conflict.
That is one of the issues raised by the report last week that Jared Kushner, son-in-law of President Trump who serves as a senior adviser to him, had warned Planned Parenthood that the Trump administration would withhold federal funding from the nonprofit unless it stops providing abortions.
According to a new book by Cecile Richards, then-outgoing president of the reproductive health organization, Kushner, a Modern Orthodox Jew and day school graduate, conditioned funding to Planned Parenthood on a change in its actions during a 2016 meeting shortly after Trump was elected. Kushner’s wife, Ivanka, a convert to Orthodox Judaism, also attended the meeting, Richards wrote in “Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead” (Simon and Schuster).
The Kushners, who have been regarded as a moderating influence on an often-impetuous chief executive, made clear in a “cordial and informative” meeting that the $500 million that Planned Parenthood receives annually from the federal government for a wide array of services may be defunded by Republicans in Congress if the organization continues to provide abortions, Richards wrote. “In their eyes, if they could stop Planned Parenthood from providing abortions, it would confirm their reputation as savvy deal makers. It was surreal, essentially being asked to barter away women’s rights for more money.” She wrote that she regarded Kushner’s terms as a “bribe.”
Richards answered that there was “no way” she would agree to that condition, she wrote. Of the more than 900,000 abortions performed in this country every year, about a third are done at Planned Parenthood, which also offers preventative health care, birth control and pregnancy tests.
Richards did not indicate if Kushner cited any religious motivation for his opposition to abortions.
In the end, the $1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill that Congress passed and was signed by Trump last month included the usual $500 million in funding for Planned Parenthood.
But the encounter with a White House official who is a highly visible member of the Orthodox Jewish community suggests an Orthodox perspective on a contentious social policy issue, and it begs the question of just what Jared Kushner learned about abortion in his New Jersey day school. Jewish scholars, even within Orthodox circles, offer nuanced positions on the permissibility of abortions according to halacha (Jewish law).
While many prominent Republican politicians and Christian leaders favor an almost-blanket ban on abortions, Judaism allows it in selected cases, especially when the life of the mother, or the fetus, is at stake.
“It’s a complicated halachic issue — not an unequivocal ‘no,’” said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, emeritus spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side and a veteran teacher at the synagogue’s Ramaz day school.
Rabbi Lookstein, who supervised Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism, has for three decades taught a Jewish sexual ethics course at the school that was, in pre-#MeToo days, popularly known as “Sex With the Rabbi.” The Jewish position on abortion was among several aspects of intimacy that he discusses with the Ramaz sophomores.
According to halacha, many rabbis will rule with “leniency” requests for permission to have an abortion, especially in the first 40 days after conception, if continuing the pregnancy would pose a risk to the mother’s physical health or “emotional stability,” Rabbi Lookstein’s students learn in the sexual ethics class.
Without commenting on the specifics of Kushner’s reported meeting with Richards, Rabbi Lookstein said it is unlikely that a rabbi would rule against “an organization” like Planned Parenthood.
The rabbi said he is unfamiliar with what the Frisch School in Paramus, N.J., which Kushner attended, teaches as a fellow Modern Orthodox institution about abortion.
Officials of the Frisch School did not respond to requests from The Jewish Week for comment on this topic.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella charedi organization, said “Jewish religious tradition unarguably opposes abortion on demand,” but added that the chasidic and black-hat Orthodox position on the issue sanctions the practice “in very limited circumstances — the halachic issue is complex and cannot be done justice in a few, or even many, sentences.
“Agudath Israel considers it important to protect every American’s right to his or her religious beliefs, and abortion can, as noted above, be halachically prescribed,” Rabbi Shafran said. “But the concept of a fetus’ future being subject exclusively to the decision of the woman carrying it, or both parents, is entirely foreign to the Jewish religious tradition.”
Cecily Routman, founding director of the Pittsburgh-based Jewish Pro-Life Foundation, which advocates against abortion, called abortions “an epidemic in the Jewish community.” Some 23,000 Jewish women in the United States undergo abortions every year, she said.
“From the Jewish perspective,” Routman said in a telephone interview, abortions are “prohibited” in most cases.
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), said in an email that “JOFA takes no position on the veracity of this report [about Kushner] but reiterates its position that women and couples should consult their physicians and personal halachic advisers in making these types of decisions without the involvement of the government.
“JOFA further reiterates its support for every woman’s legal right to make decisions about and have control over her own body,” Weiss-Greenberg said.
On the other hand, Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, former director of Clergy Programs at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said, “The Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements are all pro-choice.
“The Mishna … says if a woman is in labor and is going to die, the midwife must, not may but must, dismember the fetus to save the woman,” Rabbi Margulis wrote in a Facebook message. She added that Rashi, the pre-eminent commentator on the Torah and Talmud, wrote that “until most of the fetus has emerged from the birth canal, it is not yet a person. Rabbinic authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries allowed for abortions in cases of fetuses that had been exposed to German Measles, [and] in cases where the woman’s health is at stake, including mental health.”