“Bans Off Our Bodies, Bans Off Our Beliefs” – Rabbi Dr. Audrey Korotkin

Rally For Abortion Access, Harrisburg, May 14, 2022

In my home congregation, when my congregants gather on the Sabbath, I thank them for being present for themselves and for each other. Shabbat is meant to be shared by people creating sacred space and marking sacred time. Well, this is the Sabbath, and, this morning, you are my congregation, creating sacred space with your commitment to do justice and love your neighbor as yourself. Thank you for being here for yourselves and for each other – and for all of those who need your love and support now, more than ever.

I want to take you all back several years, to my very first congregational position, at a small town in rural Illinois. I was still a seminary student, just learning how to be the preacher, teacher, pastor and leader of a community of faith. I thought it would be routine – Sabbath services, an occasional bar mitzvah, adult learning, visiting the housebound.

And then, one of my congregants came to me in agony.

She was pregnant. It was a planned pregnancy, and she and her husband were overjoyed. And then, some months into her pregnancy, they discovered that the fetus had multiple abnormalities. It would likely not survive birth. It might not survive that long. And in the meantime, her health and well-being were in danger. They were devastated. They thought they had done everything right.

So they made the difficult, but necessary, decision for her to have an abortion. She came to me because she wanted assurance that Judaism – that her Jewish community and her rabbi – would support their decision and help them heal. The answer was an unequivocal yes.

Judaism believes in bodily autonomy. Judaism believes in the agency of women. And even the rabbis of old – who were by no means radical feminists – drew from our Scripture to codify abortion into Jewish law. Abortion is accepted in Jewish law and sometimes required to save the mother’s life. And a woman’s life is always of paramount importance, no matter how far the pregnancy has progressed.  

My congregant was relieved to know all of this, from a Jewish perspective. But I realized there was a second reason she needed the support of her congregational community. She was not getting that support from the medical community. In this small, rural town in Illinois, she was ostracized by doctors and nurses who allowed their own personal religious beliefs to get in the way of the medical care she needed and deserved. She had a safe abortion. And she had safe harbor in the arms of her congregation.

This was about 25 years ago, well after Roe v. Wade was established law, reinforced by the Casey decision. And yet her experience was much more traumatic than it ought to have been, because other peoples’ religious beliefs were infringing on her constitutional right to choose abortion.

A lot has changed in our country since then. But one thing has not. Politicians and judges are still trying to impose their personal religious beliefs on the rest of us. They are still trying to insert themselves into some of the most personal and fraught decisions we can make. And they are succeeding, state by state – and now, possibly, on a national level. Under the guise of law and justice, they are using their presumptions about fetal personhood that are rooted in their particular conservative, patriarchal notions of religion to limit, or revoke, our right to privacy and our right to agency, and our right to our own religious beliefs.

As a person of deep faith – and a faith leader – I am offended. I am disgusted. I am determined to stop them in their tracks.

We’re talking here today about saving Roe. But don’t forget this is happening right here in Pennsylvania on the state level. My own state senator, Judy Ward, is the lead sponsor of a proposed state constitutional amendment that would proclaim that “nothing in this Constitution grants or secures any right relating to abortion.” Their reasoning? Quote: “to protect the life of every unborn child from conception to birth.”

That is a religious belief – that personhood begins at conception, or fertilization. Senator Ward and others who are signing onto this are, of course, entitled to their personal religious belief. But they are not entitled to impose their religious belief on us. Senate Bill 956 is one of many such proposals that have been debated in this statehouse over the past few years. But it is the most pernicious, because they want, not just to codify their religious beliefs into law, but to insert them into the most basic document of personal freedoms that we have.

It’s similar to the damage that Justice Alito is trying to do to the U.S. Constitution. Substituting his personal religious beliefs for our personal freedoms. Misrepresenting history. Quoting medieval misogynists as reliable sources – one of whom actually changed the words of my Bible (his “Old Testament”), turning the text on its head, to justify his contention that abortion is murder.

I am not kidding about this. I mentioned earlier that Judaism draws from Scripture in its legal acceptance of abortion. Here’s what Exodus 21, verse 22 says, in the laws of injuries:

“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.” There’s no capital crime. There’s no killing. Scripture focuses on the injury done to the woman, and the compensation due her for that injury.

Ah but here’s what Henry de Bracton had to say in the 13th century, as quoted by Justice Alito in his draft ruling:

“If a person has struck a pregnant woman, or has given her poison, whereby he has caused an abortion, if the foetus be already formed and animated, he commits homicide.”

Did you see what they did there? It’s a good thing some of us know our Bible.

Now, Justice Alito neglects to acknowledge the original biblical source. But he does cite a medieval legal “authority” who actually altered the word of God! Honestly, anyone who will do that, is capable of anything.

So here’s the deal. Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. Abortion is still legal in this country – despite the many roadblocks that have been erected to stop it. We have to protect abortion rights and abortion access nationwide and in our own backyard. It is imperative that my religious freedoms and my bodily autonomy – and yours and yours and yours – continue to be guaranteed across this nation.

So to those who are trying to take away our freedom and our rights I say:

Bans off our bodies. Bans off our beliefs.

And let us say: Amen.

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