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Ritual, Repression, and Reproductive Justice

05/21/2021 03:32:12 PM


          Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Nasso, we read about the ordeal of the Sota, the suspected adulteress. If a man becomes suspicious of his wife, regardless of any evidence to support his jealousy, he may bring her before the priest in the Tabernacle and they will perform a ritual together to determine her innocence. The central act of this ritual is that the woman must drink a concoction of water, ink dissolved from a piece of parchment containing an incantation of sorts about the situation, along with some dirt from the Tabernacle floor by the altar, which also surely contained blood and animal hairs from the sacrifices performed there. If she is innocent, nothing will happen and she will be cleared of all charges. If she is guilty, the potion will cause her “thigh to sag and her belly to distend” and it seems her ability to conceive is damaged, thus rendering her a curse to a society that prioritizes a woman’s ability to give birth as her highest worth.

          Upon reading this, I was reminded of the absurd assertion of lawmaker Todd Akin back in 2012 that abortion rights are not necessary, even for extreme cases of incest and rape, because “If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down." At first glance, the Torah seems to support the idea that a woman’s right to self-determination and reproductive freedom comes solely from her perceived innocence. If she has done wrong, she deserves the reproductive outcome regardless of the affects those consequences may bring to her own physical and mental health.

          But with a more discerning eye and understanding of historical context, this ritual was a move for reproductive rights and women’s protection in its own time. By requiring a jealous husband to bring the suspected adulteress to the priest, he had to rely on the priest and on God to sort out the situation. He could not simply beat her behind closed doors or kick her out of his home at will. If the potion proved the woman’s innocence, there was no appeal process for him, he had to accept that he had been wrong and any child his wife might now give birth to was undeniably his responsibility. The Jerusalem Talmud comments on the ordeal: “G‑d compensates her for her humiliation. If she was barren, she will now conceive; if she gave birth painfully, she will now give birth with ease; if she used to give birth to unattractive children, she will now give birth to beautiful children.”

          Today, we thankfully live in an even more equitable world for people of all genders and reproductive abilities, but there is still a ways to go for real protection of reproductive justice and freedom. Next week, I will be joining the National Council of Jewish Women for their non-partisan virtual lobby day. Although I am a little disappointed to not be able to descend on the Hill with hundreds of clergy from around the country, I am still proud to unite with those rabbis and cantors in spirit as we all meet via phone or zoom with our senators and representatives in each state. We will be advocating on behalf of Jewish values for the Women’s Health Protection Act (or WHPA) and the Equal Access to Abortion in Health Insurance (or EACH) Act.

WHPA ensures federal abortion access to protect Roe v. Wade in spite of many state legislatures attempts to curb abortion rights. Just last week, Texas governor Greg Abbott signed a “heartbeat law” prohibiting abortion as early as six weeks – before many women even realize they are pregnant – effectively criminalizing abortions in general. Meanwhile, the EACH Act would repeal the Hyde amendment, which prohibits government money from going toward abortion. The Hyde Act means people on Medicaid or other government-supplied health insurance policies (such as military personnel) cannot receive abortion care. It also means that foreign medical aid cannot include abortion care, which then also leads to issues with properly funding many humanitarian aid organizations that also provide HIV treatment and prevention measures or any other sexual healthcare because they may also provide abortion services.  

Laws like the heartbeat bill and the Hyde Amendment tend to effect communities already living at the margins of society, such as people of color and people living in poverty, and are deeply entrenched with the same issues of institutional racism and classicism our country has been grappling in the past year through questions of criminal justice reform or immigration policies. Further, as I’ve said many times before, they are a violation of religious liberty as Judaism teaches abortion is acceptable in a fairly wide range of cases, and even mandatory if the pregnant person’s life is at risk. A woman should not need to prove her innocence or her life’s worth to be granted dignity and healthcare. You can learn about Jewish values on reproductive rights as well as how to take action on these two pieces of legislation as a Reform Jew on or

Just as we see in this parasha the need sometimes for leadership to step in to ensure protection for women’s rights and bodies, we still need to urge our leadership today to further those protections. May we see a time when everyone has true bodily autonomy and full access to healthcare. In the meantime, may the Lord bless you and keep you. May God deal kindly and graciously with you. May HaShem lift the Holy One’s face toward you and give you peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, September 26 2021 20 Tishrei 5782