Shabbat Message: Reproductive freedom

Posted on February 12, 2021 by Cantor Risa Wallach

Here’s a question for you: Do you think of yourself as a religious or pious person?

Does that term ‘religious’ make you cringe just a tiny bit? Does it sometimes feel as if being a religious person means you have to be Orthodox, a very observant Muslim, Sikh or Hindu? Or for some, the term religious might even have a very Christian edge, here in the US, especially.

When I was first asked to sign a pledge to teach about reproductive rights in my congregation by my friend, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, I felt compelled to do so partly out of my great respect for her and her work. Rabbi Ruttenberg is the scholar-in-residence at the National Coalition of Jewish Women. She has been tasked with creating resources for educating the Jewish community about reproductive rights from a Jewish perspective at a time when the nation’s legal environment has become downright hostile to those very rights.

#Repro Shabbat is being observed, at the behest of the NCJW, in many locations across the US. #ReproShabbat was set for this week based on the Torah portion which falls on this Shabbat, parashat Mishpatim. Specifically, the portion contains an important description of what happens if a woman miscarries, as the result of a fight between men. When men 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 from him, the payment to be based on reckoning.

But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

This scenario sets up an example of legal precedent in which the life of a fetus is important, but not nearly as important as that of a woman and her bodily integrity. Certainly, our tradition does not take such a procedure lightly, and would always value life as sacred and worthy of safeguarding.

The Torah does not apply the resonant phrase of “life for life (nefesh tahat nafesh)” when a miscarriage occurs, but ONLY when the mother is killed. Clearly the Torah implies that the fetus is not to be regarded as a person. There is no death sentence but only financial restitution in the case of a miscarriage. In fact, Jewish law permits and in some cases requires abortion of a fetus. According to Talmudic sources, if the life of a pregnant woman is at risk, her life takes precedence, until the head of a baby emerges and it takes its first breath.

It must be acknowledged that one in four people who can become pregnant have an abortion before the age of 45. Jews are included in these numbers, and most likely some members of any Jewish congregation. This is a personal issue for many of us, and may become one for many in the future. Abortion remains a stigmatized issue in our culture, and whether intended or not, that stigma can cause people to feel silenced about their own experiences in Jewish spaces. Those who need abortion access need to feel supported and free to speak about these experiences without shame or stigma.

Increasing restrictions on access to abortion in the US in many states have slowly eaten away at the protections that Roe vs. Wade once provided for pregnant people who choose to terminate that pregnancy. Four hundred and fifty restrictions on abortion access have been passed since 2011. Arguments for ‘religious liberty’ have been used to deny employer coverage of contraceptives or for health providers to deny abortion access. Lack of access to abortion and contraception can adversely impact a person’s financial security and mental health, and these barriers to reproductive health care must not go unchallenged.

In a positive development, President Biden lifted the global Gag Rule on January 28, removing the previous restriction on any international organization that receives US funding from making referrals for abortion providers or even discussing safe abortion as an option for pregnant people.

The use of the term ‘Pro-life’ has dominated a public discourse driven by sharp and contentious religious rhetoric, silencing the voices of those of us who are, in fact religious and who may not support these louder cries for restrictions on the rights of pregnant people.

At this time of danger for the rights of those who must feel free to make important choices about their own reproductive health, let us not hesitate to speak out about this fact: Reproductive freedom is also a Jewish issue.

Cantor Risa Wallach