Every Monday afternoon at Jewish Journeys, there is a new Hebrew word or phrase of the day. We teach the word in each of our classrooms, and when we convene for Tefilah Time (an interlude of song and prayer between one class and the next) we talk about what each group learned. This past Monday our phrase of the day was tikkun olam, repairing the world.
It’s an apt phrase to be focusing on this week. This week’s Torah portion is called Mishpatim, which means Laws or Judgments. Torah speaks here about freeing slaves, and and about who’s responsible when somebody’s ox gores somebody else. Torah urges us (again) not to wrong the stranger. And here we also find a verse that shapes the Jewish view of abortion.
In this week’s Torah portion we read (Ex. 21:22) that if two men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant person and a miscarriage ensues, the person who caused the damage is fined. Fined, not put to death. Torah does not treat the causing of a miscarriage like manslaughter or murder, which in ancient times would have demanded the death penalty.
Later Jewish jurisprudence holds that the life of the pregnant person is paramount. Once the head has emerged and the baby draws first breath, it is considered an individual life. But a fetus begins as “mere water,” in Talmud’s terms. When there is a conflict between the needs of the fetus and the needs of the person with the womb, the person with the womb takes precedence.
(I wrote about this in greater detail and cited more textual sources last year: Reproductive Justice and the Dream of Sky.)
Since the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization SCOTUS decision, abortion has been restricted or banned in 21 states. Teen pregnancy rates are rising in Texas, which has some of the most restrictive legislation nationwide. Meanwhile, several Texans are suing the state over the trauma and danger in being forced to carry nonviable pregnancies.
I pay particular attention to Texas because I grew up there, and because much of my family still lives there. But there are plenty of other places across the country where the same realities are playing out. Often laws that restrict or ban reproductive healthcare are written and enacted in the spirit of a particular Christian understanding that “life begins” at conception.
I don’t think any religion’s beliefs about when life begins should be codified in civil law. Beyond that, it’s wrong to force someone into the life-threatening process of carrying a pregnancy. (Is it surprising to hear pregnancy described that way? Here’s more from Harvard Health.) Pregnancy turns out to be really dangerous – especially for low-income folks and people of color.
It’s wrong to deny the inherent human rights and dignity of any human being. Forcing someone into pregnancy is a denial of human rights and bodily autonomy. In that sense it’s akin to our nation’s shameful history of forced sterilization. And like many injustices both historical and contemporary, it lands hardest on people who are already “on the margins.”
The burden of forced pregnancy – physical, emotional, fiscal and more – lands hardest on people who don’t have resources or power, people who may already live with illness or poverty or homelessness. I’m grateful to live in a state where the right to bodily autonomy is honored… and it pains me that so many people across the country can’t take that right for granted.
Meanwhile, those who drove the fall of Roe want to ban abortion everywhere, and anti-choice activists are pushing lawmakers not to compromise for any reason. A national ban would mean that the autonomy we enjoy here would end. But even in the absence of a national ban, it’s intolerable that people in almost half of our country don’t have rights over their own bodies.
All week as I’ve been working on this d’var Torah, I’ve been struggling with the sense that nothing I’m saying here is new. We all know that the fall of Roe has had precipitous and terrible impacts. But it feels important to name these realities, again, and to remind ourselves that we have an opportunity and an obligation to try to help fix what has been broken.
On Monday when I was teaching my students about tikkun olam, I told them the thing I love most about this foundational Jewish idea: our tradition presumes that we have power to make things better than they are. Where the world is broken, we can bring repair… and our tradition teaches not only that we can, but that we must. This is our “job.” It’s what we’re here for.
In the words of “A Prayer for Reproductive Freedom,” shared by the National Council of Jewish Women:
May we find within ourselves the collective will
to create a just society in which reproductive justice –
the holy right to own the personhood of one’s own body,
to have or not have children,
to raise any children in safety and community –
Every time I read this prayer, these lines remind me that reproductive justice isn’t just about my body and my healthcare, though of course those are part of it. It’s also about being able to raise all children in safety and in community. Can we actually imagine a world in which all children’s needs are genuinely met? That’s what real reproductive justice would look like.
What an amazing vision. And since our tradition teaches that learning matters because it inspires us to action, here are two short lists of actions we can take before or after Shabbat to at help protect access to reproductive healthcare for everyone. It won’t get us all the way to justice, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Shabbat shalom to all.
Action items from the NCJW:
Action items from the Religious Action Center / Women of Reform Judaism:
- How WRJ is partnering with the RAC and how you can get involved!
- Path Forward on Abortion Resource Guide
- WRJ’s 2023 Reproductive Health and Rights Page
Rabbi Rachel wrote this d’var Torah for #ReproShabbat 2024, an initiative of the National Council of Jewish Women co-sponsored by Women of Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.