Rabbinic Speech at Abortion Rally
Dear friends, a peaceful Shabbat to you—Shabbat shalom!
I stand before you as a rabbi and as a mother, wife, woman and immigrant. I feel honored to have been invited to speak today and to amplify the call for justice—to uphold Roe v Wade.
My presence is not a political act; it is a moral stance, an expression of my deepest religious values and a fulfilment of the obligations of Jewish ethics.
I am here because I feel God and Torah have called me to be here.
Jewish tradition holds that the most sacred value is ‘pikuach nefesh’, the injunction to save human life. Judaism compels me to protect the dignity, rights, and lives of pregnant people. This value is so important in our tradition that I have chosen to desecrate Shabbat, the holy Sabbath, to be here, and I am here in deep solidarity.
The remarks I am about to offer may seem a bit technical and that is kind of the point. Rabbi means teacher and the Jewish position on pregnancy termination is ancient, complex, and multifaceted. We need both activists and thinkers at this moment; we need to be able to sit with sacred disagreement and transformative discomfort in order to rally united to our common cause.
So, as we say in the Jewish tradition, ‘ta sh’ma’, ‘come and learn’. It is my honor to teach you and this will be our foundation for understanding Judaism’s de facto pro-choice position.
From a theological perspective, it’s crucial to understand that the Hebrew Bible does not directly address abortion. Jewish tradition draws its analysis of abortion from the sole verse in the Torah to address accidental pregnancy loss, Exodus, 21:22. You will now have the opportunity to hear some Hebrew!
‘V’chi yinatzu anashim v’nagfu ishah harah, ve’yatzu yeladeiah v’lo yih’yeh ason anosh, ye’anesh ka’asher yasit alav ba’al ha’ishah v’natan biv’lilim’ – ‘When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may extract from him, the payment to be based on reckoning.”
Yes, it’s patriarchal. But what’s significant is the verse that follows: ‘But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life…’
The assumption here is that the woman has an independent status from the fetus. The fetus, although considered precious, sacred, and worthy of monetary compensation, does not have the same status as the woman, who has full personhood and is worthy of full compensation if she herself is harmed. In further exploring the question, the Mishnah (an ancient compendium of Jewish legal interpretation) states clearly that the fetus gains full status of personhood only when it emerges from the womb and draws its first breath.
In other words, Jewish sources are clear that the woman’s life (and arguably, her wellbeing) take precedence over the fetus. Jewish law not only permits the termination of pregnancy, such as in cases of fetal abnormality or maternal distress, but in some cases mandates the termination of pregnancy: if the woman’s life is in danger.
Indeed, Jewish denominations and individual Jews fall on a spectrum from stringent to lenient on the question of pregnancy termination, but all are united in the belief that abortion should remain a viable option as the law of the land. As the leading medical journal The Lancet stated, this is a matter of saving lives. Pikuach nefesh – the injunction to save human life.
By now it should be clear: reproductive rights in Judaism are a matter of religious freedom. The freedom for our doctors, rabbis, and bio-ethicists to issue advice – and the freedom of individuals to shape their lives – within the framework of our religious ethics.
We are gathered here in blessed pluralism. Some of us are not religious; some of us are. We come from a variety of faith backgrounds, including secular moral perspectives grounded in atheism or agnosticism. One reason I’m here is because I refuse to cede the religious narrative to those who seek to strip us of our fundamental rights. We must reclaim sacred language and holy narrative.
In her book ‘Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority, Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice’, Rabbi Emily Langowitz includes an essay ‘What Reproductive Justice Might Look Like.’ I’ll share an excerpt:
“As people of faith, we have a responsibility to counteract the dominant societal narrative that assumes that religion is against abortion, reproductive and sexual health access, and reproductive justice. This means that the work we do is twofold: to speak out and reclaim the public narrative around religion and reproductive justice, and to continue to take action that ensures that all people have the access to the information, health care, and services that will reflect their dignity as creative agents made in the image of God.”
Let me end with a personal story. When I was contemplating a third pregnancy at age 40, I sought out the opinion of a well-respected rabbi with expertise on bio-ethics. I knew the answer to my question, being a rabbi myself, but I wanted to bring an external moral, pastoral and theological voice to my internal perspective. The question was: what are the competing values between fulfilling the mitzvah (good deed) of p’ru ur’vu, growing my family, versus the risk of termination due to possibly severe congenital birth defects? I wanted to enter this process in a thoughtful, deliberate and holy way.
My Rabbi had counseled many Jewish women on the right to, and even obligation of pregnancy termination. ‘Go for it,’ he said. ‘The Jewish tradition is here to support you in any heartbreaking decisions you may or may not face. […] Our tradition guarantees a woman’s right to her own reproductive agency.’
With those words in my heart, we started our journey, and over three years later, we have a delightful, rambunctious toddler who lights up our souls.
I share this story because it shows the inner workings of Jewish ethics and how religion can offer spiritual sustenance and moral guidance in ways that affirm life, grant choice and center love, agency, health, wellbeing and holiness. I bring you this story to dismantle the structures of shame. We need to bring our stories into the light.
Ironically, it was during this pregnancy that the Iowa State legislature tried to pass a so-called fetal heartbeat bill. Reproductive justice is about context: healthcare access, economic and racial disparities, maternity mortality rates, parental leave and social provisions, LGBT rights. As a rabbi and as a woman, I refuse to let this new world come into being without fighting to uphold our rights and freedoms. I consider this our religious obligation.
I will end with the words of Pirkei Avot 1:14, an ancient collection of Jewish moral teachings: ‘Im ein ani li, mi li. Uchshe’ani l’atzmi, mah ani. V’im lo achshav, ematai?’ – ‘’If I am not for me, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?’
May we heed the call to life, dignity and justice. ‘Olam chesed yibaneh’, we will build this world on love. May the Merciful One bless the work of our hands. Amen.