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.
Friday, June 24, 2022
Supreme Court Decision Denies Jews Religious Freedom
In This Moment
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.