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Choice, Freedom, and Justice

02/05/2021 11:18:08 AM


                       Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Yitro, which contains the Ten Commandments. The National Council of Jewish Women dubbed next week ReproShabbat, a time to for Jewish educators and clergy to speak out about reproductive justice, a serious issue currently under threat which exists on the intersections of religious freedom, health care, gender equality, racial and economic equality, and LGBTQ rights and recognition. Next week’s parasha suits this topic, as it contains the Torah verses on which Jewish law permitting abortion are based. However, since next week is our Family Shabbat, I thought this week may be a more appropriate time for us to have our own ReproShabbat.

                       Just before the Ten Commandments are giving, about midway through this week’s parasha, Exodus 19:17 says, “Moses lead the people out from the camp toward God, and they stood under the mountain.” The pshat – the surface or literal meaning of the text – is of course that they stood at the foot of the mountain, in the shadow of the mountain’s great height. However, a popular midrash, quoted in the Talmud (Shabbat 88) states that God literally lifted the mountain over the people and said, “If you will accept this Torah, excellent, but if not, this will be your grave.” From here the Talmud continues to assure us that although this initial acceptance of Torah was done so under duress, the Israelites certainly affirm this commitment later of their own free will. Notably, they quote the book of Esther, the topic of Sunday’s adult ed lesson and the text for our next Jewish holiday: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27).

                       However, it’s hard to accept that consent coercively taken is still consent. Even if after the fact, someone continues to affirm the life they had been given as a result of the coerced “choice”, there may still always a bit of a lingering darkness around that so-called decision. Whether or not to give birth is most certainly a personal choice that a pregnant person should have the freedom to make without coercion, especially that of exterior systems. While the other partner in conceiving the fetus may be consulted – assuming the procreative act itself was consensual – it is ultimately an issue of bodily autonomy for the pregnant person. They should not feel that there is a mountain hovering over them, threatening to crush them if they make the wrong choice. Even if they end up feeling ok with the decision made, it isn’t appropriate for someone else to have made that decision for them.

                       There are many reasons someone might want to terminate a pregnancy. Judaism is absolutely, undeniably clear that health is one justification. The life of the pregnant person always takes priority and if there is any chance carrying a pregnancy to term would threaten that, the pregnancy ought to be terminated. Less universally agreed upon in Jewish law, but generally accepted reasons for abortion are also taking into consideration the health of the fetus, the mental or financial health of the person carrying the fetus, and the status of the relationship in which the fetus was conceived. Although this week’s parasha includes as one of its most important, self-explanatory commandments in the staccato verse that gives us commandments 6-9, “You shall not commit adultery,” multiple 18th and 19th century rabbis issued responsa allowing adulteress to abort rather than bring the shame of her adultery onto an innocent child.

                       Cutting abortion access may force someone to stay in terrible conditions. An abused partner may find it more difficult to leave an abuser after they’ve had a child together. Having another mouth to feed may increase the stress of poverty – this one is doubly concerning since it is often communities of color and other communities already living at lower socioeconomic strata that face the greatest restrictions in access, and then are also more unfairly judged for their inaccessibility to family planning measures and lack of material wealth to share with their brood. Lack of access to safe and legal abortions may drive someone in these untenable conditions to lead to attempting self-inflicted abortions or seeking untrustworthy back-alley abortions, which are often deadly or leave lasting chronic conditions. Their refusal to accept someone else’s coercion over their bodies leads the mountain slamming down on them, burying them.

                       As Jews, pikuach nefesh – saving a life – is our highest value. The lives of pregnant people are currently under attack by several legislatures and by people who claim to speak from faith and holiness. It is our duty to raise our voices as people of faith whose ancient religious laws make room for numerous justifications to terminate pregnancies. It is our duty as modern people of conscience to fight for equality in healthcare access and bodily autonomy for all people of all genders. Any Shabbat is a good time for ReproShabbat, that we may one day live in a world of justice and freedom for all bodies. May we make choices freely, experience revelation uncoerced, and may we accept for ourselves the future we intend to create. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, September 26 2021 20 Tishrei 5782