Presented as part of the “Matter of Faith” Interfaith Summer Series on “Caring For Our Common Home”: Most people here are familiar with the story of Creation in Genesis, cha…
Presented as part of the “Matter of Faith” Interfaith Summer Series on “Caring For Our Common Home”:
Most people here are familiar with the story of Creation in Genesis, chapter 1: how God created an ordered material world out of the tohu va-vohu – the empty nothing that once existed. The earth is divided into oceans and continents, animals evolve from sea creatures to walk on dry land, the earth brings forth the lushness of the plant kingdom, and, eventually, humans are created from the dust of the earth itself, animated with the breath of God, and given the responsibility of tending the garden.
But according to Jewish tradition, three creations actually preceded the making of the world as we know it: water, wind and fire. That is to say, the earth could not be what it is without these three things existing first. In this mystical telling of the Creation story, water conceived and gave birth to thick darkness, fire conceived and gave birth to light, and wind (understood as God’s spirit) gave birth to wisdom. The world, then, is maintained by means of these six creations: water and darkness, fire and light, wind and wisdom.
We don’t often think of it this way. But I believe it is crucial that wisdom – born of the very breath of God – is included in this list of basic elements. Wisdom imbues words and actions with intention and thoughtfulness. That’s why we honor wisdom, as an element of creation, in our morning prayers every day:
מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶֽׂיךָ יְיָ, כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִֽׂיתָ
“How great are Your works, O God, in Wisdom have You made them all.”
But Wisdom is not reserved for God alone. If God’s spirit brought Wisdom into being, and if Wisdom is a basic element of the earth, then Wisdom was made to share with humanity. And to be used by humanity, to speak and to act with intention and thoughtfulness, just as God does. We are God’s messengers on earth. We must use wisdom in the way we treat the other elements of the world – earth and air, fire and water, light and darkness.
Jewish tradition and Jewish law – based in Torah, our sacred Scripture – are very clear about our responsibilities. Not to dominate the earth, but to take care of it.
And I want to focus on just one of these elements tonight, and how we ought to be treating it with wisdom. Water, in particular, is a powerful symbol in Judaism.
Water is a symbol of purity. Archaeological excavations at the southern entrance to the Temple mount have uncovered the mikva-ot – the ritual baths – in which our ancestors immersed themselves before they could ascend the steps to the Temple courtyard. Even today, Jews plunge into the waters of the mikvah to ritually cleanse themselves before the Sabbath or before being married.
Water is a symbol of hospitality. When Abraham’s servant went to look for a suitable bride for Isaac, he found Rebekah at a well, and chose her because she not only gave him water, but drew water for his camels as well. Isaac dug wells where his father had traveled, and where God called to him and blessed him.
Water is a symbol of transcendental change. It’s no coincidence that Jacob became Israel in the midst of a flowing stream, struggling for survival against an angelic creature. It’s no coincidence that the turning of the Nile from water to blood was the first miracle that Moses performed in Egypt. And that God’s parting of the sea – controlling the power of water over us – is the miracle that allowed the Israelites to escape the Egyptian army.
Miriam the prophetess is connected with the miracle of finding water in the desert. It was immediately after her death that the wells dried up, and so did the vines and fruit trees around them. Late in his life, Moses’s anger led him to strike at a rock to draw the water out, rather than coaxing it out as God had commanded. His punishment was that he would not be allowed to cross the Jordan River with the people, into the Promised Land.
The symbol of water points not just to our past but to our future: The prophet Ezekiel imagines the restoration of Israel as a time when God will sprinkle us with water to cleanse us from our sins, putting a new heart and new spirit within each of us.
But water is a potent symbol because it is far more than just a symbol. Let’s talk for a moment about water today. A number of our speakers last week talked about how we use it, how we waste it, and how we hoard it. Considering that 71 percent of the earth’s surface is made of water, you’d think we’d have enough. But it never seems to work out that way.
We Jews know what that’s like – and not just because of the Bible stories. Most of the land of Israel – and the modern state of Israel – is semi-arid, and rainfall is modest, at best. The Jordan River begins in Northern Israel, where there are some lush rain forests with magnificent waterfalls. But looks can be deceiving:. Israel been in a drought for most of the last decade. And Lake Kinneret, the source of much of Israel’s water supply, is well below what it should be.
But we Jews are resilient and resourceful. So we’ve come up with a lot of modern-day methods of well-digging. It was an Israeli, Simcha Blass, who first developed modern drip-irrigation techniques decades ago to, as we say, “make the desert bloom.” Instead of pop-up sprinklers or big irrigation rigs that waste water, either spraying it where it’s not needed or leaving it to be evaporated, drip-irrigation runs perforated hoses around the base of plants and trees dropping just enough water exactly where it’s needed – with water savings of 20 to 50 percent. Israel has been exporting this technology: one company, Netafim, operates in 150 countries around the world. But you can also get drip irrigation kits at Lowes and Home Depot for your own garden.
Israel also embraced desalinization – taking salt out of sea-water in the 1990s after yet another extended drought. The coastal city of Eilat was a pioneer in the 1970’s, and now all of its municipal water supply comes from desalinization. And an Israeli company is now building a desalinzation plant in San Diego, as one way of dealing with the shrinking availability of clean water in an area of the country that seems to have an insatiable thirst for it.
The mechanics of all of this are one thing. But changing peoples’ minds about water – that’s something else. All of our speakers last week talked, in some way, about the environmental footprint each of us has. Shamsa [Anwar, speaking from the Muslim tradition] pointed out that when we use more than our fair share, we are leaving others with less than they need – sometimes with devastating results. I’m a child of the suburbs, where I’ve always taken clean water for granted, for drinking, bathing, and even brushing my teeth. It never occurred to me till pretty recently how much water it costs the earth to make one cotton t-shirt or one hamburger patty. So when I do environmental studies with my students, and we look at our water or carbon footprints, I do them along with everybody else to see where I’m being wasteful.
The book of Proverbs begins with the admonition: “L’Da’at chochma u-musar” – to understand wisdom and ethics. But the Rabbis also have translated it this way: “To understand wisdom and self-restraint.” Why pair wisdom with self-restraint? If a man has wisdom, say the rabbis, he will learn self-restraint. But if he has no wisdom, he is incapable of learning self-restraint.
I’d put it this way: Wisdom is a gift from God, embedded in the very creation of the world, which we can choose to use or to waste. If we choose to waste it, we also waste a lot of what the world offers us, thinking it’s just there for the taking – whatever we want, as much as we want, as long as we want it. When we choose to use it, we understand how very small we are, our very short are our years, and how very restrained must be our needs.
And we take to heart what the rabbis teach about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden: “Take care of the world I have given you, says God. Because if you do not, there will be no one to do it after you.”
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin
It seems to be a pattern lately: When tragedy strikes anywhere in the world, the Jewish and Israeli press seem to get the information out first. And they have deeper and different information than …
It seems to be a pattern lately: When tragedy strikes anywhere in the world, the Jewish and Israeli press seem to get the information out first. And they have deeper and different information than anybody else. After Orlando and Dallas – and even today after Nice and Turkey — the stories that showed up first in my Facebook news feed were from Israeli and Jewish media outlets.
I don’t know why that is. Maybe we’re just so used to responding to tragedy that we’ve gotten pretty good at it.
Anyway, in this week when we’re trying to make sense of events that seem to defy it, it was an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency feed earlier this week about the Dallas sniper that gave me some perspective.
While the mainstream American media have focused mostly on Micah Johnson’s military service, the JTA pieced together some other crucial details.
Johnson was, over time, loosely affiliated with a number of hate groups including some affiliated with Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic Nation of Islam. And he seems to have been, for a time, a member of what’s called the New Black Panther Party. He joined them in Houston a few years ago and attended several protests and other events. This is a group that espouses confrontation, and even violence – and it’s not just anti-white but it’s also anti-Jewish. It’s one of the hate groups that spread those horrific stories that Zionists were responsible for the attacks of 9/11, and that thousands of Jews new about the attacks in advance.
In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the New Black Panther Party, “a virulently racist and anti-Semitic organization whose leaders have encouraged violence against whites, Jews, and law-enforcement officers.” The Anti-Defamation League calls it “the largest organized anti-Semitic and racist Black militant group in North America.”
And here’s why this is important. Micah Johnson was involved with groups like this because Micah Johnson is a hater. Haters hate. That’s what they do. The fact that he was involved with, or a follower of, groups that hate whites, Jews, cops – that just confirms that hate travels in all directions. He said that day that he wanted to kill cops – but he just as easily might have aimed his weapon at Jews.
And Micah Johnson is not unique.
Take Dylann Roof, the young white man who murdered nine black people at Mother AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last June. Much attention was paid to the fact he was wearing the insignias of white-supremacist groups. Much less attention was paid to a Facebook page connected to him that included a hate-filled manifesto railing against “Blacks,” “Jews,” “Hispanics,” and “East Asians.”
And then there was Omar Mateen, who slaughtered 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. He claimed he was doing it in the name of Islam, but the groups he pledged allegiance to don’t really work together. So maybe he hated gays. Maybe he hated himself, since he was known to frequent the club. His former co-workers reported him to be angry at a lot of people a lot of the time. And his ex-wife said he was unpredictably violent at home and often beat her.
Violence against women is another common thread here, since the Dallas shooter had left the army after a sexual harassment complaint.
Haters hate. That’s what they do. There is something dark and evil and very frightening inside such people that can lead them to confrontation and violence. And if you only examine one facet of the hatred – if you don’t look at the anti-Semitism or the violence against women – then you miss the bigger picture.
I don’t know what makes some people hate other people because of their color, their religion, their gender, or their sexual orientation, or all of the above. But I do believe that they are more dangerous than ever. First, because social-networking allows them to be bombarded by, and inspired by, the constant chants of hatred as never before. Ironically, it can make them feel both oppressed and empowered. Second, because our laws allow them access to weapons of mass destruction that are far deadlier than ever before.
That another hater will commit another mass murder is entirely predictable. That too many of our elected officials seem committed to doing nothing to stop it is also predictable. Congress has recessed for seven weeks without even passing a pretty toothless bill that says people on the no-fly list who are suspected of terrorist links cannot buy a gun. No fly, no buy. House Speaker Paul Ryan insists that some people might be on the list mistakenly and doesn’t want their second-amendment and due process rights violated. But where’s the due process for children who are slaughtered in their school, worshipers in their church, or young people in a club? Why isn’t the priority on protecting life?
We’ve all heard in the last few weeks the contention by some gun-rights advocates that what we need are more guns – that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But according to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, there were 20-30 protesters legally, openly carrying their guns in that Black Lives Matter demonstration when Micah Johnson opened fire and the crowd scattered in all directions. “In the middle of a firefight,” the mayor said afterward, “It’s hard to pick out the good guys and the bad guys.” Open-carry made the situation more complicated, more confusing, and potentially more dangerous than it had to be. One innocent protester was wrongly identified as the shooter and arrested.
And a new study out this week from the American Journal of Public Health shows that the higher the rate of civilian gun-ownership, the more likely that police officers will face potentially life threatening situations. Line-of-duty homicide rates among police officers were more than three times higher in states with high gun ownership compared with low-gun ownership states.
You want to protect both black and blue? Here’s what the International Association of Chiefs of Police wants: A reinstatement of the federal ban on assault weapons. Expanded background checks. A national gun-offender registry. The vast majority of Americans – even the vast majority of NRA members – support expanded background checks. And even Justice Antonin Scalia, who penned the Heller case that upended the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, also wrote in that same decision that:
“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
“Yes, guns can be properly and effectively used in self-defense,” wrote the Washington Post editorial board on Monday. “But saturating the nation with firearms also primes the country for deadly violence, making many situations more likely to end in death. Potential suicides are more likely to succeed. Deranged and angry people, such as Johnson, can murder trained law enforcement officers from a distance.
“Curious children accidentally shoot themselves, their friends, or their parents. Domestic abusers kill family members before tempers cool or authorities arrive. Police officers see or fear guns in the cars they pull over, and their adrenaline starts pumping.”
Columnist Eugene Robinson wrote that the solution is not more guns. The solution, he said, is to end the undervaluing of lives, both black and blue.
But that’s what haters do. They undervalue the lives of others who are different. And if they have the means to harm, to destroy, to murder, some of them will do it. Our Torah commands: You shall not hate another in your heart. But if we cannot force the hatred out of peoples’ hearts, we can at least make it harder for them to act on it.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin
As I approach another birthday, just a month from now, I am reminded that High School was a long, long time ago. But it was in high school that I first became acquainted with the works and the life…
As I approach another birthday, just a month from now, I am reminded that High School was a long, long time ago. But it was in high school that I first became acquainted with the works and the life of Elie Wiesel.
Because it was so long ago, we didn’t have Holocaust studies like many school systems have today. In our world history course, we barely made it to World War Two, much less any deep exploration of Nazi atrocities. So I came to know Elie Wiesel after school hours, in what was then called ‘forensics’ – competitive oral interpretation of books, plays and poetry.
For some reason, the couple of years I competed, the same excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s book “Night” was used over and over again, at least a dozen times. I don’t know why. It had been available in English for nearly 20 years at that point. But maybe that’s how long it took to work its way into the general curriculum, even without a special emphasis on the Holocaust. Anyway, it was always the same scene, captured more successfully sometimes than others. It’s the scene where Elie, as a 15-year-old boy, accompanies his father through the line at Auchwitz, where the notorious Dr. Mengele will sort those who can work from those who will go directly to the gas chambers.
As they approach, Elie begins reciting the mourner’s kaddish, preparing to say goodbye to his father, and to life itself.
“My heart was bursting,” Wiesel wrote. “The moment had come. I was face to face with the Angel of death…No. Two steps from the pit we were ordered to turn to the left and made to go into the barracks.
“Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
So that’s what I first learned about Elie Wiesel. That he was a boy whose faith in God was tested by the evil and brutality of humanity. That these images would haunt him forever. But that he understood enough to blame humanity and not God.
At least that’s what I thought.
What I only came to know recently – actually what nobody knew until recently – was that an earlier version of the text was very different. After he wrote the original Yiddish, he wrote an extended version in Hebrew that he never shared with anyone, buried for decades in his archives. Here’s part of what he wrote:
“I stopped praying and didn’t speak about God. I was angry at him. I told myself, ‘He does not deserve us praying to him.’ And really, does he hear prayers? . . . Why sanctify him? For what? For the suffering he rains on our heads? For Auchwitz and Birkenau? This time we will not stand as the accused in court before the divine judge. This time we are the judges and he the accused.”
This was Elie Wiesel in the late 1950s, more than a decade after his liberation. Angry at the world for remaining silent. Angry at some Jews for foolishly believing that they themselves would not be targeted by the Nazis.
Angry at other Jews in places like New York and London and even in Israel, who knew exactly what was happening and did not warn their fellow Jews in Hungary. And yes, angry at a God who would let humanity come to this.
Dr. Joel Rappel, who was asked by Wiesel to organize his vast archive, is the one who found the missing material. He thinks that Wiesel intended to use it in an extended Hebrew version specifically for an Israeli audience, which would include many survivors of the camps, including Auchwitz and Buchenwald where he had been. But even though he never published it, Rappel says Wiesel never wanted it destroyed.
I think Wiesel knew there would come a time when people would question what really happened, as though maybe it wasn’t so bad – because after all, how could this happen in 20th century Europe?
I think Wiesel knew. That Holocaust deniers like David Irving would claim the numbers were small. That Jew-haters across the world would take to the streets and chant that Hitler was right, and that the gas chambers should be rebuilt so that they could finish what he began. That with turmoil and terror and murder throughout the Middle East, with Muslims slaughtering Muslims, somehow Israel would be blamed and ostracized and punished.
And I think that’s why he became a voice of conscience, not just a voice from the grave. For Jews in places like the Soviet Union, but not just for Jews – but also for victims of slaughter and genocide in Cambodia, and in Honduras, and on behalf of people in Tibet and Biafra and Paraguay. We say “never again.” But Wiesel knew that we never quite mean it.
After his death, I saw many otherwise intelligent people chastising Elie Wiesel for his support of Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing governments in Israel, which has eschewed peace talks with the Palestinians and expanded the reach of settlements in what might otherwise, eventually, become Arab communities. Some have even going so far as to equate it to support of Nazism. Now, you all know that I’m no fan of Bibi Netanyahu, that I think he has needlessly and frequently squandered both the opportunities for peace and the good-will of the international community.
But given Wiesel’s personal history, which he gifted to us, I cannot blame him. His experience taught him that virtually no one in the world would lift a finger to save a Jewish life. Not one, much less six million. So we’d better prepared to do it ourselves.
And thank God we have his history. The memoirs, the novels, the mystical tales, survive – and maybe a lot more that we don’t know about in that vast archive. “To forget the victims means to kill them a second time,” Wiesel once wrote. “So I couldn’t prevent the first death. I surely must be capable of saving them from a second death.”
That’s all the more important now. Those who survived have been passing away – many without sharing their stories. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has tried to preserve as many stories as they can. So has Yad Vashem in Israel. Director Steven Spielberg was so swept up in the story he told in Schindler’s List that he created a foundation to record individual survivors’ accounts. His Visual History Archive includes the testimony of 53-thousand survivors.
But soon there will be no more people alive to tell the tale first-hand of the horrors they experienced, and how they managed to survive. And of all those voices, Elie Wiesel’s was the most powerful, and the most important. Because he spoke and wrote and preached and taught, for decades – refusing to be silent, refusing to let someone else tell the story. He never had an organization. He was an army of one. And yet his story is the one that everyone turns to – even if the one he published is not quite the whole story. And now that voice – that voice of conscience, that voice of truth – is silent.
So we must go back to the written words. Words like these:
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.”
This is the voice that calls us to action, to justice, to compassion. We must take sides. For some of us, it may mean standing up to the neo-Nazis in the streets of Paris. For others, it may mean demanding safety from gun violence in our own communities. Whatever cause calls to us, we cannot stay on the sidelines. We must take sides.
Historian Deborah Lipstadt – the one who stood up to the lies of Holocaust denier David Irving and beat him in a court of law – wrote this week that there is no replacement in sight for this man who spoke truth to power. That may be so. Maybe nobody else could be quite as eloquent, and as angry, and as determined, and as brave. But if the life and legacy of Elie Wiesel teaches us anything, it is the power of one voice in a world that sought to silence it.
Ken Yehi ratson. May we find courage in our own voices. As we say together: Amen.
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin
Imagine, if you will, that you are a woman in childbirth in ancient Israel. What a joyous day it is to give birth to a child – a child who will carry on the traditions of your ancestors, and who will work to sustain the family and enrich the community. As a woman, you, too, should be celebrated – for the power you have to give birth. For the lifeblood within you that makes human life possible.
But according to the Levitical laws in this week’s Torah portion, you are a contagion. The power you have to give life makes you dangerous, even evil. After you give birth, you are isolated, shut away from your family and your community, for 40 days if you give birth to a son, or 80 days if you give birth to a daughter, who also has that power of life within her. And when your days of isolation are over, you must bring a chatat, a sin offering, to the priest – the man who will perform expiation on your behalf.
This seems like no way to treat a new mother. But those are the laws in this ancient, patriarchal society, in which the fear of the life-blood translated into isolation, and even punishment, for a woman’s pain.
But lest you think that this notion only belongs in the ancient world, think again. Because isolation, shame, fear, and sin are the guiding forces behind the battle over reproductive rights in 21st-century America. A battle brought into the news headlines when presidential candidate Donald Trump stumbled most inelegantly into the middle of it.
In case you missed it, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was asking Trump about his views on abortion law – something you’d think he would have thought of at this point in the campaign. But Trump only recently declared himself “Pro-life” – the misleading name that anti-choice groups give to their cause – and apparently he didn’t get the memo.
To Matthews’s surprise, Trump said that, if abortion were to become illegal, and he hoped it would, that women who obtain abortions should be punished.
That caused a collective gasp, not only from those of us who believe in a woman’s right to choose, but also among those who do not. You see, the anti-choice folks have strict talking points when it comes to such things, and you’re supposed to say that the doctors should be punished but not the women, because the women are victims. Within hours, Trump changed his tune, to adhere to the anti-choice orthodoxy – but not before exposing the hypocrisy of their movement.
Women who seek abortions are being victimized in this country, but not by the health-care providers who have the courage to care for them, under sometimes dangerous conditions. They are victims of a system that has isolated reproductive care in stand-alone clinics, as though it is abnormal, dangerous or even downright evil. They are victims of a proliferating range of state laws that limit the time, place, and conditions under which they can access what are supposed to be constitutional rights; that deliberately make it more difficult and more expensive for both women and their doctors; and that increasingly criminalize intention – why a woman is seeking an abortion in the first place.
The result is isolation, shame, and punishment, perpetrated mostly by male politicians, who seem to have put themselves in the place of the high priest of old, who had the power over women at a time when they were most vulnerable.
Just this week, members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives fast-tracked legislation limiting abortion to 20 weeks of gestation when federal law established in Roe vs. Wade gives a woman to 26 weeks, and outlawing the most typical type of surgical abortion used in 2nd-trimester cases. The bill didn’t even get a hearing before being approved in committee and sent to the House floor for a pending vote.
Governor Wolf’s office already has said he’ll veto it. And we’re fortunate that we have a governor who supports reproductive justice, unlike in Ohio, Texas, Indiana, Florida, and elsewhere. But the fact that many lawmakers think they can score points in an election year by limiting reproductive rights should make us all worry about the over-reach of politicians into the most intimate and difficult choices we make. And about the way these laws victimize women, isolate them, label them, and punish them.
There are, of course, many people who oppose abortion for any number of reasons, some of them rooted in their own religion’s teachings. But the thing is – religious teachings vary from one religion to another, from one sector of one religion to another. It should be up to an individual to follow his or her beliefs. It should not be the role of government, at any level, to rule that one set of religious beliefs trumps another. Some religious traditions teach that life begins at conception, that a fetus at any gestational stage is a human being entitled to legal protection. Judaism teaches something different.
And that’s really important for me, as a woman, as a Jewish woman, as a Reform Jewish woman, and as a rabbi who counsels people who sometimes have to make these powerful, and difficult, and life-changing decisions.
Our Jewish tradition places the life and well-being of the mother above all other considerations when it comes to abortion – a principle that comes from the Torah itself. Exodus chapter 21 describes a situation in which two men are fighting and a pregnant woman is accidentally injured. If the woman dies, the man who strikes her is considered a murderer. If she lives but the fetus is lost, the man must pay monetary damages to the woman for the injury to her. In other words, the fetus is not a nefesh, not a human being, and so the death of a fetus is not considered to be a capital crime.
But what about abortion? Where do we stand there?
The Halakhah not only permits, but actually requires, abortion, when it’s necessarily to safe a woman’s life – even up to the time when a woman is about to deliver. The Mishnah, which dates from the 3rd century, is actually very graphic in its description: “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth, we cut up the fetus in her womb and remove it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over its life. If the greater part already is out, we do not touch it, because Ein dochin nefesh mipnei nefesh, one life does not take precedence over another.”
In other words, the fetus is not a human being until the greater part of its body already has come out of the woman. Even until then, abortion is required on the woman’s behalf.
From this Mishnah, we have two distinct legal traditions that emerge, but both allow or even require abortion in at least some cases. The great Maimonides said the reason we do this is because the fetus comes under the legal category of a rodef, a pursuer, who in Jewish law must be killed to protect its intended victim. If you follow the reasoning of Maimonides, as many Orthodox authorities do, you’d probably conclude that abortion is only permitted when the woman’s life is in danger.
But there’s a second, and equally legitimate and widely accepted, reason given by the pre-eminent Torah and Talmud scholar Rashi, who explained it this way:
“For as long as it did not come out into the world, it is not called a nefesh, a living thing, and it is permissible to take its life in order to save the mother. Once the head has emerged, it may not be harmed, because it is considered born, and one life does not take precedence over another.”
Rashi’s reasoning leads some later halakhic authorities to broaden permission for abortion beyond the threat to a woman’s life to her well-being, be it physical or psychological. And it’s because of Rashi that we as Reform Jews have long argued in favor of reproductive choice on religious and moral grounds.
As early as 1929, the Central Conference of American Rabbis declared urged “the recognition of the importance of the control of parenthood as one of the methods of coping with social problems.” By 1947, the CCAR was calling for Planned Parenthood services in hospitals and other agencies “and urges that the Board of Directors of health and welfare agencies permit their professional staff members to make maximum use of these services as a community health resource.”
Our congregational arm, the Union for Reform Judaism, also publicly supported reproductive rights state by state, as early as 1967, six years before Roe vs. Wade standardized abortion rights on a national level. The appeal was for each state to, quote, “permit abortions under such circumstances as threatened disease or deformity of the embryo or fetus, threats to the physical and mental health of the mother, rape and incest and the social, economic and psychological factors that might warrant therapeutic termination of pregnancy.” Several times since, both the URJ and the CCAR have affirmed this position.
We do not treat abortion lightly. We caution that it should not be treated as a form of birth control. But we also recognize and condemn the inequities in our rapidly multiplying and punitive state laws. Laws that subject a woman to unnecessary and potentially dangerous medical procedures. Laws that discriminate against women of limited means, who have neither the time nor the funds to make multiple trips to far-away clinics. Laws that embrace untested or discredited medical theories. Laws that undermine the ability of clinics to provide timely, safe and effective reproductive care. Laws defunding Planned Parenthood, which not only punish women who seek abortions but also those who simply want to get basic health care.
We support reproductive rights because our Jewish teachings tell us that this is the right thing to do. But as the CCAR declared in 1975: “As we would not impose the historic position of Jewish teaching upon individuals, nor legislate it as normative for society at large, so we would not wish the position of any other group imposed upon the Jewish community or the general population.” In other words, my decision, based on my beliefs, is my business.
As a rabbi, I have the blessing and the responsibility of counseling people at the most difficult and private moments in their lives. I know there are all sorts of reasons for a woman to seek an abortion. Every situation is unique. None is helped by an intrusion of political posturing, or the imposition of somebody else’s stated beliefs, into the intimate lives and decisions of women and their families. Not in Harrisburg. Not in Washington. Not anywhere.
As Jews we believe our tradition gives a woman the freedom to make these choices. As Americans, we believe that the Constitution’s separation of religion and state compels others to recognize that freedom.
Ken yehi ratson. Let us not only pray, but let us work toward this goal of empowerment and justice and freedom. And let us say together: Amen.
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin