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02/16/2024 10:38:22 AM


Senior Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we find a mishmash of mitzvot. Of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) found in the Torah, 53 of them can be found in the Torah. The laws cover a gamut of subjects from those regarding slaves to damages, loans, rumors, and the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Sukkot, Passover and Shavu’ot).

However, perhaps one of the most relevant for us today is “When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact” (Exodus 21:22). Now the patriarchal implications notwithstanding, what this passage is stating is that the fetus is not considered a human being. Otherwise, the death penalty would apply. 

Judaism has a complex relationship when it comes to when someone is considered alive. Unlike other religious traditions where life begins at conception, in Judaism life begins when the child graduates from medical school. All kidding aside, according to classic interpretations life does not begin until the crown of the head emerges from the womb and the infant takes their first breath.

As the Talmud argues, the first forty days, the zygote is considered “simply water” (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 69b). At no point is the fetus viewed as a full-fledged human until the baby emerges from the womb.

Judaism does not view abortion as murder unlike some other religious traditions. In the words of Dr. Elliot Dorff, “there is a clear bias for life within the Jewish tradition. Indeed, it is considered sacred. Consequently, although abortion is permitted in some circumstances and actually required in others, it is not viewed as a morally neutral matter of individual desire or an acceptable form of post facto birth control.”  

For example, if a woman’s life is in danger, Jewish law specifically requires it whether it be her life or health – physical or mental. 

I mention all of this because we currently live in a world where people take positions based on absolutes and religious convictions. One of the reasons why I love our tradition is it rarely takes these stands when it comes to complex issues like abortion. 

Instead, we like to look at issues from a multitude of angles. Generally speaking, Judaism is not in favor of abortion as a means of birth control. But it also recognizes that there are valid and sometimes compelling reasons to allow it if not require it. From this perspective, one can certainly speak on behalf of this issue from genuine religious conviction and be both anti-abortion and pro-choice at the same time. 

When it comes to matters of life, as our tradition teaches, there are no simple answers. We proudly live in the gray areas, and we can use the teachings of our tradition to help shape our arguments and our beliefs. We can then take those values from our tradition out into the world and argue that there is more than one religious perspective especially when it comes to any number of issues including those related to medical ethics.

To take it one step further, as we learn from parashat kedoshim, there is another issue at play as well, v’ahavata l’reiacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself, or as stated by Hillel, that which is hateful to you do not do unto others. It is not just about the question of being pro-birth or pro-choice, it is also about seeing the holiness in the person who is making the decision. It is about respecting their physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual and religious autonomy to also make the decisions they view as best for themselves and their lives. 

If we wish to be a holy community, part of the premise is that we do not have the ability or the right to make decisions for how others wish to live and express their understanding of kadosh. So many factors are involved in any reproductive decision, and our obligation is not to dissuade or condemn, but rather, to support and not to put stumbling blocks in their path. To love our neighbor as ourself means to see them as fully autonomous human beings with their own hopes, dreams, aspirations, and plans. And to recognize that their decisions are often based on so much more than we may know or understand. 

With that in mind, I would like to share with you some stories from colleagues. I am honored and humbled by the rawness and honesty by which the wrote and spoke, and with their permission I will share some of their experiences. And if rabbis and cantors face these difficult decisions, al achat kama v’kama, how much the more so, so many others face them as well, including so many who are so fearful to share.

When it comes to reproductive choice and abortion, Judaism initially appears to have to contrary opinions. The first being found in Genesis peru ur’vu, be fruitful and multiply. Since there are no maximums in Judaism, the rabbis interpret this to mean that one should have enough children to have at least one boy and one girl, though the maximum number is really up to the couple. Some have taken this to mean have enough to start to replace all those lost in the Shoah, which is part of the reason why so many in the Haredi community are having so many children.

At the same time, to borrow from a colleague Rabbi Rachel Prass who tells her own powerful story which you can see on YouTube , and who has given permission to share her story about her journey and her choice. As she said in the video, “Judaism traditionally permits abortion when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother.” 

Rabbi Prass was not ready nor in a position to carry a child to term. And it was her community of classmates and friends who gathered around her and supported her. This is because Judaism has always prioritized the life of the mother over the potential life in her womb. This means the needs of the woman are tantamount and, according to our tradition are to be both respected and honored. 

When it comes to abortion, Jewish tradition recognizes that there can be a multitude of extenuating circumstances. For some of my colleagues, they wanted to be pregnant. They wanted to have a child, but the pregnancy resulted in severe genetic abnormalities that even if it could be carried to term, would not truly be viable including the story Rabbi Laurie Rice wrote in the Tennessean.  

As Rabbi Rice tells it, “Twenty weeks into the pregnancy, we learned that the child I was carrying was a triploid, meaning the fetus has three sets of every chromosome rather than the usual two. As much as I wanted this news to mean that my future child might be bionic, it simply meant that our fetus would likely not come to term, and if it was born, it would not survive even one year.   

We were given two choices: Go forward and see what happens, or have a second-trimester abortion. I sobbed. Day in and day out, I sobbed. I sobbed about the baby I would not mother. I sobbed about the dreams that died in that very moment. I knew that I wanted to have the abortion. Because I wanted to have a baby. I wanted to be a mother. And I could not do that until we could start over and try again.”

And when you talk to women, you can hear so many of these heartbreaking stories. Judaism agrees that the psychological harm in carrying a non-viable fetus to term would be detrimental to the health and well-being of the mother. And what if she is diagnosed with cancer and has to make a difficult decision? And as we are now seeing, there are more and more legislators who wish to remove that ability to make the difficult choice with the potential blessing of the Supreme Court.

I was thinking about that as I listened to the story from my friend Rabbi David Young and his wife Cantor Natalie Young, whose melodies we often use on Shabbat. They told their story on Story Corps. In 2006 they went to see Dr. George Tiller because they were expecting their second son Elijah, only to learn that he’d developed a brain condition that made it impossible to for him to survive on his own. As Rabbi Young said, “I remember them saying it would be impossible for him to survive outside the womb … it was an impossible choice, to have a third term abortion or give birth to a baby who would not live.” As Cantor Young said, “he was so kind and so apologetic and said it wasn’t their fault and no one wanted to be there.” Dr. Tiller was one of a handful of doctors to perform late term abortions. As they said, “Dr. Tiller was a man of faith.” Keep in mind Elijah was planned and wanted. On May 31, 2009, Dr. Tiller was murdered at his church in Wichita, Kansas. 

We speak of late term abortions as a form of birth control, when in reality, medically speaking, there is no such term. It is a political concept. Out of all cases, only 1.3 percent of abortions take place after the 21st week.  And in pretty much all cases it is either because the mother’s life is in explicit danger or the fetus, like Elijah, was not viable.  In almost every one of these cases, the fetus is wanted and desired. Medical intervention takes place out of necessity not convenience. Dr. Tiller died because he erred on the side of compassion. And with some of these new laws, as we have seen, many others will be forced to curtail or end their practices of helping expectant mothers. And many more women will be afraid to seek out the medical help they need, which, as we know, will only result in more deaths, not more lives. 

As Ephriam Sherman notes in an article on this very subject for the JTA, “… it is nearly impossible to create a law that limits abortion and does not put a secular legal ban on some halachically permissible abortions.” 

As we know, there continues to be ongoing debate in our nation that has been at the forefront of the political world since 1973. The pro-birth movement began with the Catholic Church. However, “In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.”  

We have already seen a case where Kate Cox in Texas had to flee Texas to get an abortion because the State determined that her life was not in danger enough. Having experienced miscarriages ourselves, I can’t even fathom the authorities stepping in to question whether or not they were legitimate or an attempted abortion. 
In addition, much of the debate over abortion continues to be argued in religious terms, but not in our religious terms. The Jewish view as we have seen is very nuanced. And that is part of what is so frightening is that one religious perspective in a democratic society is seeking to remove the ability of a different religious perspective from being able to make informed choices. Therefore, any restrictions would also represent a violation of our religious expression, which is also a scary prospect. 

I look at my daughter and I look at my sons and I have a great number of hopes and prayers for them. One of them is to be able to live in a world where they can freely and openly express their Judaism without fear and without persecution. 

Reproductive choice is part of the Jewish journey, and may we continue to demonstrate our holiness by continuing to fight for the rights of all to have that choice even if it is not necessarily one that we might personally make for ourselves. For that is what it means to be a holy people. 

Shabbat Shalom.


Watch the entirety of Friday’s service here.

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon.


Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784