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A Message from Rabbi Eligberg

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization which overturned Roe v Wade presents the Jewish community with both a unique challenge and opportunity. The decision upholding a 2018 Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks triggered similar and even more restrictive laws in thirteen states with an equal number expected to enact such legislation in the future. These laws infringe on the First Amendment rights of American Jews by establishing as a matter of law the impermissibility of abortion in cases clearly permitted by Jewish law on the basis of a specifically Christian1 definition that life begins at conception.

According to the Torah, life does not begin at conception but rather when the embryo attains the status of nefesh adam, "a full-fledged person", when it is crowning (Leviticus 24:17). Rashi’s comment on the verse stresses that this phrase excludes the fetus, khi lav nefesh hu ("it is not yet a person"). Therefore, in Judaism, the fetus does not have the same rights of personhood as the mother, at any point during pregnancy. This view finds full expression in the Mishnah which states that, "If a woman has [life-threatening] difficulty, in childbirth, the embryo within her may be dismembered, limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over its life..." (M. Ohalot 7:6). Rambam, Maimonides, provides halachic justification for this explaining that the fetus which threatens the mother has the status of a rodef ["a life-threatening pursuer"] (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotze'ach U'Shemirat Nefesh, Chapter 1, Halakhah 9). Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, z”l, in a 20th century responsum writes regarding the permissibility of abortion in the first trimester in many cases, based on the risk to both the physical and psychological health of the pregnant person, and the rabbinic opinion that a fetus is initially considered “maya b’alma,” or “merely water.” 

This fundamental point of agreement across the Jewish spectrum results in the view that Abortion is permitted and even required according to Jewish law if the potential harm to the mother warrants it.  Through the centuries rabbis have differed regarding how to understand “potential harm to the mother”, exactly the same question with which any pregnant person contemplating abortion must grapple. Within the question of health and harm, there is an evolving consensus amongst Jewish legal authorities that mental health is a legitimate concern regarding the well-being of the person who is pregnant and can, in certain circumstances, justify an abortion.

To highlight, the broad consensus on this subject in the Jewish world I share with you this excerpt from a statement released by the Orthodox Union shortly after Justice Alito’s draft opinion in this case was leaked to the public.

Jewish law prioritizes the life of the pregnant mother over the life of the fetus such that where the pregnancy critically endangers the physical health or mental health of the mother, an abortion may be authorized, if not mandated, by Halacha and should be available to all women irrespective of their economic status. 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.2

I do not take abortion lightly and I would never define myself as pro-abortion. I am adamantly pro-choice, a choice that recognizes my right to make difficult life choices within the teachings of my tradition. My experience has been that someone facing such a choice thinks long and hard before making such a decision, that those who have come to me often struggle even when the conclusion is a clear necessity.

Judaism demands of us to stand for all life, but our tradition prioritizes the life and health of a pregnant person. Prohibiting abortion access is contrary to Jewish law and tradition as reflected in the principal value of saving a life, enshrining a specific religious definition into American law. The foundational principle of separation of church and state, which prohibits the governmental imposition of religious beliefs, is being undermined by the Supreme Court ruling which imposes a narrow religious perspective on the entire nation and has empowered the core principle’s violation by state legislatures.

We must reaffirm that we are a democracy that believes in the separation of church and state, a democracy where no religion’s view of when life begins supersedes other religions’ views, different philosophies or of those of no religion. We must reaffirm the American vision that the role of our government is to protect the health, liberty, dignity, and beliefs of all people. We must reaffirm our commitment to be active in the struggle to preserve, and where necessary restore, our religious freedom of expression.

Shabbat Shalom –

Rabbi David M. Eligberg

Below is the statement issued by the Rabbinical Assembly on the issue.

  1. I recognize that this is not necessarily a universal position in Christianity, but it is clearly the position of the Roman Catholic Church and most Evangelical Christians.
  2. You can read the full statement here: https://www.ou.org/news/statement-by-the-union-of-orthodox-jewish-congregations-of-america-on-us-supreme-courts-potential-overturning-of-roe-v-wade/

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 a Resolution 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.

 

A Message From Cantor Marx

 

  

  

   

We read in Parashat Beha’alotcha about second chances. Sometimes we all can use a second chance. Things we say and shouldn’t have said. Things we did and shouldn’t have done. Things we thought and shouldn’t have thought. 

This Parashat introduces us to Pesach Sheni – literally a 2nd Passover – it addresses people who missed the first one because when it was time to bring the offering, they were either ritually impure or away on a distant journey (Numbers 9:1-12). This was a unique situation, at that time, since it has never come up before, so no one knew what to do. Moses inquires God who tells him that these people can prepare the same offering a month later, on the next full moon, the 14th of Iyar, to be known as Pesach Sheni, 2nd Pesach. 

One can extrapolate from this situation teaches us that it’s never too late to rectify a past failing and that this day represents the power to go back in time and redefine the past.  

As much as one appreciates the concept of a second chance, in life, we do not always have a second chance. Pessach is the only holiday that the Torah offers this possibility. If we missed Yom Kippur, we can still do our own t’shuva (repentance) any day, but that majestic fast day will only come back next fall; if we were unavailable during Sukkot or Hanukkah, of course, there is going to be another one, but not next month. 

Second chances are super rare and hard to come by; and while we pray and hope, beg and bargain for them, they are usually not readily available, but rather, extremely extraordinary. 

Tue, July 5 2022 6 Tammuz 5782