Posted on February 17, 2023 by Cantor Risa Wallach
For the past two years, I have spoken on Shabbat Mishpatim, now called #reproShabbat in many Jewish communities, organized by the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Last year, the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision changed the landscape for women and pregnant people across the United States. Suddenly, our rights were drastically curbed, and our citizenship was downgraded, especially in states where bans or restrictive laws have been passed. It feels as though we have gone back in time. Now, other forms of reproductive health choices may even be threatened as freedoms that were once taken for granted. It was a traumatic moment for many, and a victorious one for others.
I received the sign that now stands outside of our building, from the NCJW or National Organization of Jewish Women which states: “Abortion Bans are Against My Religion.” We find ourselves having to restate the obvious:
The US is not a Christian country. I repeat: The United States is NOT a Christian country. Does it feel strange to hear those words? Or blasphemous? (Mind you, I have absolutely nothing against Christianity or Christians themselves.)
Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Constitution. And yet. It often feels like many would like this to be a Christian country, to do away with separation of so-called ‘Church and State’, and make it into, God-forbid, a Christian Nationalist theocracy. Christian Nationalism is a related threat making itself known in the world of politics and through hate speech and hate crimes. Extremism has infiltrated our politics to a frightening degree.
In fact, the bans on abortion rest on a Christian interpretation of the time at which conception occurs, and whether the faith permits abortion to be performed. Jewish law does permit abortion, as does Islamic law. I’d like to acknowledge here, the very important work of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on behalf of the NCJW in providing Jewish textual resources for clergy across the US, and offering teachings for so many programs and organizations on the Jewish view of abortion.
As I discussed last year, the Talmud states that abortion is not considered murder in Torah or in Jewish tradition:
Talmud Sanhedrin 87b:10
In cases of capital law, the dispute concerning such a prohibition is with regard to the issue that is the subject of the dispute between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and the Rabbis, as it is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says with regard to that which is written: “If men struggle and they hurt a pregnant woman…and if there shall be a tragedy you shall give a life for a life” (Exodus 21:22–23, from parashat Mishpatim), the reference is to a monetary payment for the life that he took. The tragedy referenced is the unintentional killing of the mother.
Rabbi Ruttenberg writes:
‘Interestingly, a major factor in some Christian views on abortion were developed through a mistranslation of this passage. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (known as the Septuagint, completed in 132 BCE), they translated ason, damage or tragedy in these Exodus verses, to exeikonismenon, “from the image,” making the verse seem to be about whether or not the fetus is “perfectly formed,” rather than whether or not the pregnant person dies. That is, the question of whether one pays mere damages or incurs the death penalty would then depend on whether the fetus is “formed,” or sufficiently developed in terms of gestational stages, to warrant a harsher punishment. Notably, the Septuagint translated the word ason in a different, more accurate, way (as malakia, affliction) in the Book of Genesis. There are a few theories as to why this happened, but the ramifications of this poor translation choice continue to this day.’
On February 13 of this year, USA today published a story about a lawsuit filed by a group of faith leaders against an abortion ban in the state of Missouri. The article cites a Pew survey from 2019 showing “82% of Buddhists, 68% of Hindus, 83% of Jews and 55% of Muslims say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.”
In Kentucky, three Jewish women sued to overturn a ban on abortion, stating that the ban violates their religious freedom. These suits are some of about a dozen such suits being filed across the country.
At a time when anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Black and homophobic incidents are on the rise, when we feel more vigilant when it comes to the threat of harassment and violence against us and our houses of worship, it becomes ever-more meaningful to assert that as a minority religious group among many, we are entitled to safety and security as well as the freedom of religious expression in 2023.
We are among many groups who feel sidelined by Christian Nationalism, by racism, by bigotry and by hate speech. Let us make common cause with all who are oppressed in order to make our society more just, fair, inclusive and empowering for pregnant people, their families and their communities. Ken Yhi Ratzon. May it be so.
Cantor Risa Wallach