Standing for Repro Rights from Jewish Text and Tradition

Posted on January 28, 2022 by Cantor Risa Wallach

I’m pleased to be able to speak on #ReproShabbat once again this year and during this week, along with clergy around the country, for the Shabbat when we read from parashat Mishpatim. I first want to acknowledge that much of my Jewish source material here is provided by my colleague, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg at the National Council of Jewish Women.

While the subject of reproductive rights at this moment can feel hopeless, troubling or intractable, there is still valuable insight that we can gain from the history of Jewish thought on this topic, as well as thinking about the ways that we can contribute to the effort to secure and maintain these rights.

Today in the United States, as you probably know, reproductive rights are severely threatened and curtailed. During the past year, for the first time the United States enacted 100 restrictions on abortion access, more than any other year since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. At the Supreme Court level, we find ourselves at a point where that very decision itself hangs in the balance.

We must remember that abortion is permitted by Jewish law. The recently passed Texas law allows private citizens to sue anyone who ‘aids and abets’ providing an abortion to a pregnant person. This state of affairs can result in Jewish clergy finding themselves counseling a person that Jewish law permits and in some cases even requires an abortion, at the risk of being targeted by lawsuits.

Abortion is also an issue of ‘pikuach nefesh’, the Jewish principle of preserving life and human well-being:

In Talmud in Tractate Yevamot 69b, we find the case of the daughter of a priest whose husband dies, and on the same day immerses herself in a ritual bath, or mikvah, to become ritually pure – which is required to partake of the sacrificial offering of Terumah. It reads:

Rav Ḥisda said: She immerses and partakes of teruma only until forty days after her husband’s death, when there is still no reason for concern, as if she is not pregnant then she is not pregnant. And if she is pregnant, until forty days from conception the fetus is merely water. It is not yet considered a living being, and therefore it does not disqualify its mother from partaking of teruma.

We also have some rabbinic opinions from modern times:

  • Rabbi Mordechai Winkler, Levushei Mordekhai, in Hoshen Mishpat 39 from 1913: ‘Mental-health risk has been definitely equated with physical-health risk. This woman, in danger of losing her mental health unless the pregnancy is interrupted, would therefore accordingly qualify.’
  • Rabbi Ben Zion Chai Uziel (1947-1964), writes in a legal opinion, in Mishaptei Uziel: ‘It is clear that abortion is not permitted without reason. That would be destructive and frustrative of the possibility of life. But for a reason, even if it is a slim reason, such as to prevent disgrace, then we have precedent and authority to permit it.’

Forcing people to give birth can endanger them, and is also a grave injustice.

Maternal mortality rates in the US are the highest of any industrialized country, with Black Americans and American Indian three times more likely to die in childbirth than white Americans. People who are prevented from accessing abortion care are more likely to remain in abusive relationships and to stay in conditions of poverty, and unsurprisingly, marginalized people are more likely to be impacted: Black, indigenous, young people, those in rural communities, immigrants, people with disabilities and LGBTQ people. Because of systemic racism, a national ban on abortion would increase abortion related deaths by 21%, and for Black pregnant people that number goes up to 33%.

Jewish-American author Cynthia Ozick wrote: “What our faith communities would be wise to choose is religious responsibility undertaken autonomously, independently, and on cherished private ground, turning their backs on anyone, however estimable or prudential, who proposes that the church steeple ought to begin to lean on the town hall roof.”

All of us are needed at this moment, when reproductive rights are in grave danger, to act and support the work to preserve these rights.

In Jewish communities we share great excitement when babies are born. We talk about ‘Jewish continuity’ as a value that we cherish, but we unintentionally or unknowingly forget about the stigma that may be caused by this language for those who may have needed to have an abortion. People who choose abortion should feel comfortable and supported, and welcomed to share their stories without fear of stigma. We must also remember that one may experience a whole range of emotions surrounding the experience of abortion: from grieving and sadness to ambivalence, and even relief or joy.

Let us commit to pushing back against attacks on reproductive rights from legal or religious quarters of our society. Let us remember that we too are people of faith, with a deeply-rooted tradition that supports the right to bodily autonomy for people of every gender. And let us feel empowered to speak from a place of authority on those teachings and our pride in speaking up as a Jewish community. Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be so.

Shabbat shalom,

Cantor Risa Wallach