PHOTO: Panelists for the June 30 program “Overturning Roe v. Wade and the Jewish Response” were, from left: Portland poet and essayest Judith Arcana, who worked in a pre-Roe illegal abortion clinic; Rabbi Rachel Joseph of Congregation Beth Israel; and emergency physician and County Commissioner Sharon Meieran. Read about the panel below story on rabbis comments.
Rabbis speak out on Roe decision
Last month, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade removing the federal right to abortion. The decision has been criticized for disregarding the rights of women or the values of Judaism, or both.
The ruling may impinge on Judaism’s obligation to protect life – the life of a pregnant woman. Halacha (Jewish law) is clear that if a pregnancy threatens a mother’s life, she has the right, perhaps the obligation, to protect herself.
The leadership of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (Orthodox Union) issued a statement (read in full) on June 24 that makes that second consequence clear. “Legislation and court rulings, federally or in any state, that absolutely ban abortion without regard for the health of the mother would literally limit our ability to live our lives in accordance with our responsibility to preserve life.”
The Jewish Review reached out to Portland-area congregational rabbis, as well as the Portland Kollel and Chabad of Oregon, and asked them to share their views. Following are responses from those who shared their thoughts about both Jewish values and women’s rights.
Rabbi David Kosak of Congregation Neveh Shalom wrote about Jewish law and also asked members of his Conservative congregation to speak out on Judaism’s stance on abortion, even if they personally oppose the practice.
“The Torah permits abortion. Period. That’s not a political or partisan statement, it’s a fact. This normative reading of the Torah is inscribed in our Jewish legal system. As the subject of this landmark ruling is brought up in your conversations in the days, weeks and months ahead, speak also as a Jew. Disagree with Judaism on this topic if you must but include it in your discussions about abortion. Educate those with whom you speak that Christian beliefs about when life begins have been inserted into the national debate and have restricted Jews from the free exercise of our faith.”
The clergy of Congregation Beth Israel wrote to members of the Reform congregation that reproductive freedom is not a new issue for Judaism.
“We have not a half-century, but many centuries of legal precedent in our Jewish history, affirming that the life of a mother takes precedent over the life of an unborn fetus. The brutal and abrupt removal of the freedom to make personal health care choices in the United States will put many people at risk. History shows that abortion bans do not stop abortions, they only stop safe abortions. People of color, low income and other marginalized people will be disproportionally affected.
"Significantly, this ruling is an affront to religious liberty in our nation – something which should be protected by a reasonable Supreme Court. While we recognize that there are those whose religious beliefs condemn abortion, those beliefs are not universally held and should not be forced on those, such as the Jewish community, whose religious teaching differs.”
Congregation Shaarie Torah (Conservative) Rabbi Gary Oren also reflected on how Jewish tradition values life and how the ruling puts one religious view over another. As a father, he also reacted to the new reality on behalf of his daughter.
“The decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade saddens (enrages) me for a few reasons. (1) Our most sacred and authoritative texts do not view a fetus as full person until it is born. Therefore, forcing someone to carry a pregnancy that they do not want or that endangers their life is a violation of Jewish law because it prioritizes a fetus over the living adult who is pregnant. Any ruling holding that a fetus is a person effectively elevates one religious viewpoint over others, and infringes upon Jewish pregnant individuals’ right to follow the tenets of their faith. (2) As a people who value life, this decision clearly endangers some women. (3) I have a daughter, and it is inconceivable to me that the state would limit her ability to control her body.”
Rather than speaking from a religious perspective, Community Chaplain Rabbi Barry Cohen considered how the decision impacts women.
“The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade has broken my heart. Despite the fact that I am a rabbi and a trained chaplain, I will not argue from religious tradition. We can all use religion to ‘prove’ that our ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’ stance is correct.
I have tried to imagine I am a woman who has become pregnant and must choose whether or not to bring it to term. Last night (June 23), my choice was legally protected. This morning, depending upon where I live, it is not. I may be forced to have a child. I have tried to feel the accompanying betrayal, powerlessness and helplessness.
This dreadful Supreme Court decision has denied millions of women their power, freedom and autonomy. Full stop. We will all suffer the consequences.”
Three rabbis expressed the need to ensure abortion access to all, especially women of color or those with limited incomes.
Congregation Shir Tikvah Rabbi Ariel Stone wrote about the need and ways to protect the vulnerable.
"Roe v. Wade should have been codified into law before now, and now is the time to demand it for all. Our struggle for a better world does not allow us to give in to panic. Our Jewish people have learned over many generations how to keep our eyes on the path and look for the holy, and we must demand it. The mitzvah of this moment requires empathy. As it is said, rich women are always able to get an abortion. Now is the time to reach out to the most vulnerable members of our society – trans people and those of color. As you are able, contact your representatives and urge them to do justice, join in standing with abortion providers who may come under physical attack and support those who are most affected."
Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in Vancouver, Wash., says she is proud to live in a state that supports a woman’s choice.
“I am proud to live in a state that actively supports a pregnant person’s choice to terminate a pregnancy regardless of the reason, because abortion is health care. As a Jew, the health and safety of those living in states willing to protect our health is not enough. I feel obligated to work to ensure that safe and legal abortion is available everywhere in our country. Jewish text and tradition all teach me that a pregnant person’s life is valuable and that supporting that life even when it means ending a pregnancy is the ethical, moral and Jewish thing we must do. I believe the Jewish community has a clear obligation to support the organizations fighting this ruling and support those who desperately need abortion services.”
Havurah Shalom Rabbi Benjamin Barnett agrees that action is needed.
“The Supreme Court’s decision last Friday was an assault upon our collective freedom and safety. This decision is part of a frightening backlash against the expansions of dignity and humanity in our country, and emotions like despair and fear are understandable. Let’s channel our despair and fear toward action.
… As a progressive religious community, our moral voice is vital. And for those of us with abundant access to health care and other rights, as well as ample resources, there are many pathways to act in solidarity with those most impacted by this decision.”
Rabbi Barnett shared a list of some of those organizations: The National Council of Jewish Women, a leader in the Jewish movement for abortion access; The National Network of Abortion Funds, resources nationally for abortion access; the Northwest Abortion Access Fund, regional resources and support; and Sister Song, a reproductive justice collective led by women of color.
Rabbi Eliyahu Weisman of Congregation Beit Yosef shared a traditional perspective on abortion:
"From the classical Jewish perspective, abortion is considered murder for non-Jews. This is explicit in Sanhedrin 57b and codified by Maimonides, Kings 9,4: 'A Noahide who murders a soul, even a fetus in its mother's womb, is killed over it.'The Minchas Chinuch 295 states that a non-Jewish doctor may not save a woman's life by aborting her fetus.
Non-Jews should be encouraged to follow the Divine Will for them as reflected in the Noahide laws. Hyping the tragic crime of rape to allow murder is unconscionable. One crime does not justify another.
Perhaps, if our society chooses to reject cruelty, and moves to foster the compassionate defense of our most vulnerable lives, the cavalier mass murderers that have come to plague us would also heal, and develop a healthy aversion to murder through the broader recognition of the sanctity of all human life, as endowed with imago Dei."
Historic, rabbinic and medical perspectives on court overturning Roe
“Abortion bans are against my religion,” said Rabbi Rachel Joseph during opening remarks at the June 30 panel discussion “Overturning Roe v Wade and the Jewish Response.”
Also on the panel were Judith Arcana, a Portland poet and essayist who was a member of Chicago’s pre-Roe underground abortion service, and Dr. Sharon Meieran, a Multnomah County commissioner and emergency room physician. Hundreds of people attended online and in the auditorium at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. The program was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and Congregation Beth Israel, where Rabbi Joseph serves as associate rabbi.
During the Q&A session, Rabbi Joseph elaborated on her opening statement.
“My religion, the God of my understanding, says abortion is OK and sometimes mandated,” she said. She added that over the past 50 years, “We have ceded religion to the evangelical Christians and the religious right … who do not speak for us.”
She serves on the boards of Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon and is a member of the National Clergy Advisory Board for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
She said it is important to be explicit on her views: “I am religious, and I believe in all aspects of reproductive freedom. I believe in abortion.”
Arcana, who appears in the new HBO documentary “The Janes,” provided firsthand historical perspective on living when abortion is illegal. She was one of about a half-dozen “Janes” who “learned the medical stuff” and performed low-cost and free illegal abortions in the late 1960s until a couple months after Roe v Wade made abortion legal in 1973.
“When abortion is not health care, it is homicide … it was in Illinois, and I’m betting it will be again,” said Arcana.
Dr. Meieran said the abortion issue is front and center with all her identities. Though she does not consider herself religious, she said that as a Jew, those who argue that abortion is a religious issue “are violating my religious freedom.”
As an ER doctor, she treats “people who have fallen through the cracks of the social system that is supposed to protect them. …I see the consequences for people who have not had reproductive health care.”
States where abortion is now illegal have threatened to prosecute doctors who perform abortions on those who travel to states where it is legal.
“This is the scariest time I have experienced,” Dr. Meieran said. “We are going to fight back.”
When asked how to fight back, Rabbi Joseph said “Voting is number one.” But she added it is important to engage communities in conversations for reproductive freedom that go beyond abortion to include “access to all we need to raise happy, healthy families.”
Arcana said that pre-Roe, she learned there are simple things we can do. Not everyone has to be a strategist. “Do the grunt work – sign up, show up and do simple things that are necessary.”
She also noted that just three years after Roe, the onslaught on abortion rights began. Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except to save the life of the woman or if the pregnancy arises from incest or rape. The relentless attack on the right to an abortion took 45 years.
“Now it has to be done in reverse,” said Arcana.
The panel was moderated by Reed College Professor Steven Wasserstrom.
OJMCHE has posted the recorded panel discussion on its website: ojmche.org/events.