Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Today's Supreme Court decision overturning Roe V. Wade denies Jews freedom to follow a fundamental religious principle, which, while upholding the sanctity of all life, values the life of the mother above the life of her unborn child. A synagogue in Florida has in fact sued, challenging abortion restrictions for precisely that reason. There are many other reasons to oppose today's decision, such as health, privacy, personal freedom and the fact that a majority of Americans supports Roe v. Wade. And it should be noted that abortion rights in Israel, even with its large ultra-Orthodox population, are far more progressive than in the US, even prior to today's decision.
Does Jewish law state that life begins at conception? No
Life does not begin at conception under Jewish law. Sources in the Talmud note that the fetus is “mere water” before 40 days of gestation. Following this period, the fetus is considered a physical part of the pregnant individual’s body, not yet having life of its own or independent rights. The fetus is not viewed as separate from the parent’s body until birth begins and the first breath of oxygen into the lungs allows the soul to enter the body
Does Jewish law assert that it is possible to murder a fetus? No
Jewish law does not consider a fetus to be alive. The Torah, Exodus 21:22-23, recounts a story of two men who are fighting and injure a pregnant woman, resulting in her subsequent miscarriage. The verse explains that if the only harm done is the miscarriage, then the perpetrator must pay a fine. However, if the pregnant person is gravely injured, the penalty shall be a life for a life as in other homicides. The common rabbinical interpretation of this verse is that the men did not commit murder and that the fetus is not a person. The primary concern is the well-being of the person who was injured.
According to Jewish law, is abortion health care? Yes
Jewish sources explicitly state that abortion is not only permitted but is required should the pregnancy endanger the life or health of the pregnant individual. Furthermore, “health” is commonly interpreted to encompass psychological health as well as physical health. NCJW advocates for abortion access as an essential component of comprehensive, affordable, confidential, and equitable family planning, reproductive, sexual health, and maternal health services.
What does Jewish law say about the rights of the person who is pregnant and the rights of the fetus?
Judaism values life and affirms that protecting existing life is paramount at all stages of pregnancy. A fetus is not considered a person under Jewish law and therefore does not have the same rights as one who is already alive. As such, the interests of the pregnant individual always come before that of the fetus.
Do abortion bans unduly favor one religious viewpoint over another? Yes
Different religions believe that human life begins at different stages of development. Science can explain developmental timelines, but philosophic and religious viewpoints largely determine what exactly defines “life” or “personhood” for each individual.
Jewish perspectives on abortionare nuanced and subject to constant discussion, as is the case with most of Jewish law. But those bullet points above generate broad consensus, which is why so many in Jewish community feel so disenfranchised and outraged today.
My heart goes out to all those who are so personally impacted by today's news. I share below press releases reacting to today's decision, from the NCJW and ADL.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
National Council of Jewish Women Outraged Over Supreme Court Ruling Ending Right to Abortion
CEO Sheila Katz: ‘NCJW To Continue To Fight’
WASHINGTON — With today’s decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, National Council of Jewish Women CEO Sheila Katz released the following statement:
“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court is a moral failure. It will put lives at risk. By overturning 50 years of precedent, safe and vital abortion care is now virtually inaccessible to millions of people who need it. In the weeks and months ahead, we will see the devastating impact this ruling will have on human lives.
“This egregious decision is a direct violation of both our American values and our Jewish tradition. Reversing the protections of Roe defies logic, morality, compassion and the fundamental right of all Americans to practice their religious beliefs without interference from the government.
“In the 13 states where abortion will become immediately illegal, millions of people will have to face the harsh truth that they no longer have control over their lives and their bodies. This decision will forever alter the lives of those who will be forced to remain pregnant, increasing the chances that they will face life-threatening medical complications, poverty and unemployment. And we know from existing data in states where abortion is already virtually inaccessible that this decision will disproportionately impact those who already face barriers to accessing health care, including women, and particularly Black, Indigenous and people of Color, LGBTQ+ individuals, those with disabilities, young people and those working to make ends meet.
“Abortion bans place greater value on the life of the fetus than on the pregnant person, a violation of both Jewish law and tradition and of American religious liberty. Now, it seems only certain people are entitled to religious liberty, which renders the entire concept meaningless. Today’s decision betrays this most cherished American value. The rights of American Jews and other people of faith who believe in access to abortion, who are the majority of people in this country, have been sacrificed to the overwhelming zeal of one small group that has turned the shield of religious freedom into a sword.
“National Council of Jewish Women advocates will not be deterred. We will continue to fight until everyone can make their own faith-informed decision about their bodies, lives and futures, regardless of who they are or where they live. Now is the time. Forced pregnancy is an explicit violation of our rights as Jews. Abortion access is and always will be a Jewish value, and we are determined to keep fighting, from the streets to the courts, to ensure that everyone has access to the care they need and the ability to make their own decisions for themselves and their futures.”
ADL: Supreme Court Ruling in Dobbs v. Mississippi Undermines Fundamental Rights
New York, NY, June 24, 2022 ... ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) is stunned by today’s Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturns the longstanding precedent set by Roe v. Wade affirming the constitutional right to abortion.
ADL joined 72 other organizations in an amicus brief urging that Mississippi’s anti-abortion law be found unconstitutional as a violation of fundamental liberty and equal protection rights.
Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of ADL, said “Since 1980, as a matter of both religious and personal liberty, ADL has supported the right to full access to reproductive care. This decision overturns 50 years of constitutional protection for a woman’s right to determine whether to terminate a pregnancy or bear a child. It also imposes a specific set of religious beliefs on all Americans and one that does not align with Jewish tradition. This decision will bring real harm to countless women and undermines the promise of justice and fair treatment to all. We will join with groups like NCJW to support efforts in Congress and in the states to protect this essential right.”
This ruling underscores the importance of passing the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA) which enshrines those constitutional protections into law. ADL will work with partner organizations and elected officials to ensure the passage of this legislation.
Temple Beth El
In This Moment
Here is some additional important information that has come in regarding today's decision.
For those going to the 5 PM rally at Latham Park - and those not - you can gather afterwards at 6 at our Shabbat service, in person or online, where we will be including prayers for safety, healing and justice.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Conservative Rabbis Strongly Condemn U.S. Supreme Court Decision to Overturn Abortion Rights
Commit to supporting legislation in holding up reproductive freedom
New York, NY – For over five decades, the Rabbinical Assembly has strongly and repeatedly affirmed the halakhic necessity of access to abortion based on our members’ understanding of relevant biblical and rabbinic sources and teshuvot – rabbinic responses – and fiercely opposed efforts that would limit access to abortion or stifle reproductive freedoms in the U.S. In response to legislative efforts that threatened reproductive freedom in 2021, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the international association for Conservative/Masorti rabbis, passed aResolution on Right to Legal and Accessible Abortion in the United States. Following today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn its previous landmark cases, Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, effectively nullifying the Constitutional right to abortion for millions of Americans, the RA issued the following statement:
The RA is outraged by the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to end the Constitutional right to abortion and deny access to lifesaving medical procedures for millions of individuals in the U.S., in what will be regarded as one of the most extreme instances of governmental overreach in our lifetime.
Many Americans now face a dire crisis. Many more face uncertainty. This is a dangerous time for all people who are capable of becoming pregnant, especially those in categories who have poorer maternal outcomes, and particularly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) people or those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. For individuals living in rural areas or in states that will jump to further restrict abortion, this decision is truly life-threatening. For American Jews and those of other faiths, this decision is a restriction on our religious freedom. For people who fall into the intersections of all or most of the above, our personhood has been rejected by the highest court in our nation.
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly has repeatedly affirmed the right of a pregnant person to choose an abortion in cases where ‘continuation of a pregnancy might cause severe physical or psychological harm, or where the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective.’ This position is based on our members’ understanding of relevant biblical and rabbinic sources, which compel us to cherish the sanctity of life, including the potential of life during pregnancy, and does not indicate that personhood and human rights begin with conception, but rather with birth as indicated by Exodus 21:22-23.
Based on our understanding of Jewish tradition and religious freedom, The RA supports the right to full access for all those who need abortions to the entire spectrum of reproductive healthcare and opposes all efforts by governmental, private entities, or individuals to limit or dismantle such access. Denying individuals access to the complete spectrum of reproductive healthcare, including contraception, abortion-inducing devices and medications, and abortions, among others, on religious grounds, deprives those who need medical care of their Constitutional right to religious freedom. Imposing civil and criminal consequences for clergy assisting their constituents as guided by halakhah deprives our members of a fundamental element of clerical practice incompatible with Jewish values.
"There will continue to be legislative battles in the United States on both the federal and state levels that pose existential threats to reproductive freedom, especially so-called ‘heartbeat’ bills, which violate the foundational principle of separation of church and state. The Rabbinical Assembly emphatically opposes all such laws and Legislative or Executive moves and instead calls on members of Congress to decisively codify Roe v. Wade into law to enshrine the right to health, freedom, and dignity for all Americans.
This was a rallying cry of the reproductive rights movement for decades. But today’s disastrous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade does send this country back, undermining the rights of all its citizens, especially women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color, those with disabilities, and lower-income people.
Abortion is not only about women’s rights. It is also an essential issue of health care, economic justice, religious freedom, bodily autonomy, and human dignity.
As we know all too well, and as today’s news confirms, history is not a story of linear progress. Though we have lost our rights, we must not and will not lose the knowledge and wisdom that history provides.
We will continue to fight, strengthened by the lessons of history, which teach us that abortion access is a Jewish value, enshrined in our texts, and has long been a Jewish fight, sustained by generations of ordinary and extraordinary people.
If you need some strength and support today, you can turn to the stories of:
Fania Mindell, who helped Margaret Sanger open the first birth control clinic in 1916
And the manyyoungactivists who are carrying on this legacy with their own fight for reproductive justice
Today, the legal clock has been turned back, and the consequences will be deadly and devastating. Today, we must look back so that we can move forward, powered by the energy of our forebears and the lessons of their stories.
🎵🎵 Here's the story....of a minyan daily... and we knew that we could daven after lunch...and we hugged from our cyber-boxes...and that's the way we became the Mincha Bunch!
Our afternoon online minyan celebrated the completion of yet another perfect season this week by wearing our new "Mincha Bunch" t-shirts, donated by Pamela Tinkham, who now lives in Florida. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, we have never once missed having at least 10 worshippers at our online or hybrid minyans! While more of our services are hybrid these days, the online Mincha Bunch will continue. Why mess with a good thing? Join us at 1 PM any weekday afternoon this summer! It's the Mitzvah Heard Round the World!
Suddenly it's summer. This is the final Shabbat-O-Gram before my July hiatus, though circumstances may compel me to drop you a line from time to time. I'll be monitoring incoming emails but will be replying only to urgent matters. Meanwhile, our other clergy and executive director will ably hold the fort. For all those who will be traveling, see the traditional wayfarer’s prayer at the bottom of this email. Given the state of airlines and the price of gas and a pandemic that doesn't seem to want to quit, we’ll need all the prayers we can get!
Our final Bar Mitzvah of the season is behind us (and you can find Xavier Marks' Zoom video and dvar Torah here) and we are settling in for what will hopefully be a time for reflection, relaxation and relief from the omnipresence of both Omicron and inflationary spikes. Ukraine, gun violence and the threats to our democracy and to a woman's right to choose continue to weigh us down, as they should, and now Israel seems headed to yet another election cycle. To paraphrase Dickens, if he had been Jewish, "It's been the worst of times and the 'could-be-worse' of times." By the time I speak to you next, Roe v. Wade could be history (the ruling could come down as soon as today), illiberal forces could be emboldened by Russia's defiance of international norms and gun violence will continue to take lives at unthinkable rates (21,000 already this year).
But maybe this week's gun violence prevention deal in the Senate augurs a glimmer of possibility. Optimism and hope have been running themes of mine these past few months, in sermons and other writings. You'll see it throughout this newsletter as well. Let's hope that when we next communicate, things will really be looking up.
Services through the summer will continue to be available both online and in person. Please "check your local listings," as we'll be Zoom-only on Shabbat mornings July 2 and 16.
Join us for services on Friday night as we welcome back guest cantor Deborah Jacobson, and on Shabbat morning as we read the portion of Shelach and the story of the spies sent to scout out the land. This is also a week to celebrate all those who are transitioning, especially those graduating high school and college. To all those who are moving on to the next phase, I offer this blessing:
A special mazal tov to our High School grads, several of whom are seen in this photo from their B'nai Mitzvah year (see their class album). I sent them a separate email this week, letting them know how proud of all of them we are.
And as we send all our teens off for the summer, special b'hatzlacha (good luck) wishes to TBE's own Nathaniel Harrison, who will be representing the US in next month's 21st Maccabiah games in Israel, in ice hockey. Follow the games here, beginning July 12. This is a huge deal. The Maccabiah is the quadrennial Jewish Olympics, for all ages (10,000 athletes, 42 sports, 80 countries, held since 1932) - not to be confused with the JCC Maccabi games for kids. I'm told that Nathaniel's first match will be played in front of 11,000 fans and President Biden is scheduled to attend as part of his upcoming visit to Israel. It will also be televised. As a teen, I attended the opening ceremonies of the 9th Maccabiah, in 1973 and it was a truly formative experience. We learned about the term "New Jew,"an attempt by early Zionist thinkers to reinvent the Jewish "brand" as muscular, heroic and taking an active role in history. The "New Jew" is the opposite of the intellectual yeshiva-based or even enlightened Jew, said to be preoccupied with esoteric subjects while his body becomes weak. The return to Palestine / Israel was supposed to change all that. And that's how the Maccabiah began.
The Art of the Positive:
Winston Churchill said that the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, while the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.This week's portion of Shelach teaches us the power of positive thinking. Where the ten other spies see only gloom and doom, Joshua and Caleb see possibility. Gloom and doom win out, however, and the conquest of the Land is delayed for a generation.
Today's headlines illustrate how what passes for objective news is really only a matter of perspective. You can check out the front pages of over 800 newspapers around the world each day at the Freedom Forum website and it is fascinating to see how the news is framed. This Hebrew headline from this week, for instance, screams "Again!" "For the fifth time we are going to elections," as if to say, "Oy! We are on an eternal loop of hopelessness, a perpetual Groundhog Day that never allows us to move on." You can see Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid exiting stage right, and Lapid seems to be using the headline as a brace to hold himself upright.
But maybe the headline could say, "This time for sure! We're going to get it right!"
A few years ago, the Stamford Advocate had the infamous banner headline that straddled the line of being antisemitic: "Bat Mitzvah Goes Awry." It followed a party that happened to be celebrating someone's bat mitzvah, where a Norwalk mansion was trashed. The mansion was indeed trashed, but that had nothing to do with the religious ceremony it claimed to celebrate, whose values completely oppose the destruction of property. At that time I put together a packet of materials designed to give us practice in the art of the positive re-frame. Some suggestions emerged as to how the Advocate might have headlined that story without the antisemitic overtones associating a sacred Jewish rite with this profane act of vandalism, something other than "Jews Gone Wild."
I then put forward some other famous headlines, several taken from Chronicles: News of the Past (one of my all-time favorite Hanukkah gifts as a kid), recording great events of Jewish history as if they had been covered by modern journalists. See them here and test your ability to accentuate the positive. The packet also includes a number of suggestions you can use to re-frame negative events in your life, to give Debbie Downer a run for her money.
Instead of "Moses Smashes Tablets of Law," for instance, I might opt for "Second Set of Tablets Good as New," or "God to Moses: Take Two." For "Earth Opens, Swallows Korach and 250" maybe I'd put, "Thousands Survive Freak Quake" or "Korach's Sons Collect Huge Life Insurance Payout, Compose Several Psalms." For "Titanic Sinks" how about "Idea Born for Mega-hit Movie."
In the recommended reading below, I suggest this article from today's Religion News Service feed: Poll: Americans’ belief in God is dropping (RNS). Turns out that in the latest Gallup Poll, belief in God dipped to 81%, down 6 percentage points from 2017, and the lowest since Gallup first asked the question in 1944.
Bu really, why does this headline have to be so negative? My reaction is, it's amazing that at this time when organized religion has taken such a hit, belief in God is so resilient. Since when do 81 percent of Americans agree about anything? I frankly have trouble believing that the number is so high. In Europe the number is down in the 30s. And, just exactly what does it mean to "believe in God" anyway? For a Jew, belief is not the core issue - deeds count much more than thoughts or intents.
And take a look at this Pew poll today, with the headline courtesy of Ha'aretz: "Survey: Most of the world prefers Biden to Trump. But not Israel". No doubt there is some truth to that, but the headline would lead us to believe that the relationship between America and Israel has become decidedly chilly since January 20, 2021. Nothing can be further from the truth. If you head over to the Pew website, this new survey has a very different headline("International public opinion of the U.S. remains positive"), and you'll find that in fact Israelis overwhelmingly support current American policies. If you look at the graphic from the same survey, you'll see that 83 percent of Israelis view America positively right now, with the Biden administration in power.
Monty Python teaches, You know, you come from nothing - you're going back to nothing.What have you lost? Nothing!
The Great Debate: Is the Golden Age of American Jewry Over? (AJC Global Forum)- Lively debate on the classic Jewish question, which basically comes down to "It can't get worse," vs "No, it can." AJC’s signature Global Forum session - the Great Debate featured Bret Stephens, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times; Editor-in-Chief, Sapir and Pamela Nadell, Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History; Director, Jewish Studies Program, American University. They tackled the question: Is the Golden Age of American Jewry Over? Moderated by Laura Shaw Frank, AJC Director, William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life. See also:
Meet Every Jewish Name on the Stanley Cup(Forward) Tampa Bay has the distinction of having the most Jewish names on the Stanley Cup and may add more in 2022 as they are currently in the finals, hoping for a third straight triumph.
Conservative Movement's New Website: Exploring Judaism- ExploringJudaism is a new home for the Torah of Conservative Judaism, embracing the beauty and complexity of Judaism, and our personal search for meaning and learning. There is always something to learn and explore. Our approach is rooted in the ideas that Judaism grows with us, that we’re guided by process, and that there is beauty in the balance.
The History of Your Favorite Israeli Foods -Each ethnic group that immigrated to Israel brought different styles of eating and cooking that have contributed to the modern cuisine of that country. See also: The restaurant of the summer is this new Brooklyn hot spot (NY Post): Shalom to the restaurant of summer 2022: Laser Wolf, an open-air, Israeli-style grill on Williamsburg’s Hoxton Hotel rooftop. Its pricey, protein-powered menu is worthy of its eye-popping view of the Williamsburg Bridge, the towers of Billionaires Row and all the bright lights in between. Named for the character of a butcher in “Fiddler on the Roof,” meat-centric Laser Wolf is run by highlyacclaimed Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonovand his business partner Steve Cook. The duo’s CookNSolo empire boasts 12 places in the US including the original, widely praised Laser Wolf in Philly.
Which European countries are best for Jews? A new study offers unexpected answers. - Jewish Telegraphic Agency -Antisemitic sentiment is especially prevalent in Italy and Hungary, according to multiple surveys. But a first-of-its-kind index combining different measures of Jewish experience found that they are also the best countries in Europe for Jews to live in. The index, unveiled Monday, is based on a study that combines polling data and policy information to create a single quality-of-life metric for Jews in the 12 European Union countries with sizable Jewish communities, according to Daniel Staetsky, a statistician with the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research who wrote the report for the European Jewish Association in Brussels. “The goal with this report is to take the excellent data we already have about how Jews feel, about how prevalent antisemitism is, and combine it with government policy measurables,” Staetsky said during a conference held by the European Jewish Association in Budapest.
Who Is Yair Lapid, Israel’s Likely Next Prime Minister? (Yair Rosenberg, Deep Shtetl). Lapid will (apparently) finally get his chance to lead, if only for a few months. “The ideological descendants of Yigal Amir are sitting today in the Knesset,” Lapid declared as he was putting together the coalition last year. “They receive legitimacy; they are welcome guests in all the studios. If we had not performed this miracle, the government of change, they would now be ministers in the government.” Those words still are true. The future of Israel's democracy, as with America's, hangs in the balance this fall.