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Opinion | Abortion Rights Are a Religious Freedom for Progressive Jews – The New York Times

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Ms. Seltzer is an editor at Lilith, a feminist Jewish magazine.
Nearly 30 years ago, my mother was one of the hundreds of thousands of people who attended the 1992 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. It was a pivotal moment for abortion rights at the Supreme Court, which was about to hear arguments in the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Though she left me at home, the words on her sign — “Every child a wanted child” — made an impression. So did the fact that the buses to Washington were chartered by our synagogue. When she returned, I wore the neon pink “Choice” hat she’d bought to my classroom at Jewish day school and began to spread the word.
That anecdote is not unique in the Jewish American experience: For many Jews, abortion rights are an ethical value, passed on from parent to child, with community support. The latest Pew Religious Landscape Study, from 2014, found that 83 percent of Jews surveyed supported legal abortion in most or all cases, more than any other religious group surveyed.
A firm commitment to abortion rights isn’t just one of the socially liberal stances that progressive American Jews take. It’s also a belief rooted in our sacred texts, which — despite differing interpretations across time and denominations — consistently prioritize the ultimate well-being of the pregnant person over that of the fetus.
That’s why, as the right to an abortion stands on another legal precipice, thanks to laws in Texas and Mississippi being heard before the Supreme Court, so many Jewish feminists are furious and ready for a fight.
Today when we think about faith and reproductive rights, it’s easy to begin with the idea that religious groups oppose abortion. The modern anti-abortion movement, after all, arose as a coalition between conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics.
But the Jewish stance is more complex, with roots in the Book of Exodus, where feticide is not treated as murder. The Talmud, where much of Jewish law is interpreted and where practice is hashed out, defines life as beginning when the baby’s head emerges from the mother’s body. Even in the once male-dominated rabbinate, the question of whose life takes precedence is clear.
“The principle in Jewish law is tza’ar gufah kadim, that her welfare is primary,” wrote Rabbi David M. Feldman for the Conservative movement of Judaism back in 1983, referring to the pregnant person. “The fetus is unknown, future, potential, part of the ‘secrets of God’; the mother is known, present, alive and asking for compassion.”
Her welfare is primary. In Jewish tradition, the pregnant person’s needs are central to the moral equation.
True, Orthodox Jews (and Orthodox Jewish organizations) are far more likely to take a political stand against abortion compared to Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews. But in recent years, as when New York State liberalized its abortion law, Orthodox Jews were divided as much on gender as on politics on the question: Interviewed by JTA, some Orthodox Jewish women expressed that they wanted the right to discuss the need for abortion with their rabbi and doctor, not with their political representatives.
As some Orthodox Jews have aligned themselves with the right on other issues, from Israel to immigration, so too have they moved toward the anti-abortion position. Still, even the strictest interpretation leaves room for the life of the mother. As Dr. Immanuel Jacobovits, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote in 1965, “as defined in the Bible, the rights of the mother and her unborn child are distinctly unequal, since the capital guilt of murder takes effect only if the victim was a born and viable person.” That, he explained, doesn’t mean abortion is never a grave offense, but “this inequality, then, is weighty enough only to warrant the sacrifice of the unborn child if the pregnancy otherwise poses a threat to the mother’s life.”
One of the core principles of Judaism is pikuach nefesh: the preservation of life above all else, even Shabbat observance, which is otherwise sacrosanct. What could be more worthy than focusing on the need for the pregnant person, if suffering, to end that suffering, to live and contribute to the world? It is her life, her soul — “present, alive and asking for compassion,” as Rabbi Feldman put it — that is more worth saving.
We are far from the only religion to take a nuanced stance on abortion. But a religious group that dictates a sweeping, intractable view of right and wrong when it comes to abortion may have an easier time getting attention than, for instance, the religious organizations that recently filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, asking fervently for careful, circumstance-based consideration in the upcoming abortion case out of Mississippi.
And so a number of Jews are starting to make noise to rectify this imbalance. A new campaign called 73Forward, led by the National Council of Jewish Women, is gathering activists from secular to Orthodox to defend abortion access from an explicitly Jewish perspective. Rabbis have pledged to join the fight in Texas.
Feminist organizing has always attracted Jewish participation, while within our communal world, groups like the N.C.J.W. and publications like Lilith (organizations where I worked and now work, respectively) have carried the abortion rights banner for many years. But what is notable today are the particular ways Jews are organizing as Jews.
Gen Z and millennial Jewish leaders also point to the reproductive justice movement led by women of color — which connects abortion to racial, economic and social inequality — as the beacon for their own activism. This holistic framework has inspired Jews to fight for abortion access as a crucial part of repairing the world, or tikkun olam, a value that has animated Jewish activism for decades. Many Jewish feminists say they now feel called to support abortion access for those who need it the most, while reminding the country that our own religious freedom is at stake.
Jewish leaders aren’t on television each weekend screaming, “Get your laws off our religion!” But as a minority religion, we naturally favor a true separation of church and state. And there’s another reason. When I write about Jewish attitudes toward contraception or abortion, I always receive an onslaught of vitriol in my inbox. It starts with the horrifying comparison between abortion and the Holocaust that equates millions of thinking, feeling, Jewish lives cut down in their prime to embryos and extends to the idea that 83 percent of American Jews in support of abortion rights are perpetuating the very mass murder that devastated my grandparents’ generation.
Harassment facing Jews who support abortion often goes back to one of the oldest lies in antisemitic history: the lie that Jewish people ritually sacrifice children. This trope, known as blood libel, has historically posed mortal danger to members of our community. In 1990 an article by my colleague Susan Weidman Schneider at Lilith detailed a disturbing trend: the increasing use of antisemitism in fliers distributed by people harassing abortion clinics. The piece noted how intrinsic the trope of the Jewish abortion doctor profiting off innocent blood was to the zealous anti-choice movement of that era. It was a sadly prescient observation. In 1998, Dr. Barnett Slepian was murdered after returning home from synagogue, where he was praying for his dead father. In a world where many hate us for who we are, it may be daunting for Jews to speak out instead of blending in.
But, regardless of potential backlash, this moment is perilous for religious and bodily freedom, and it calls for courage. “There is a loud group of people using faith as a weapon. We can’t stand by and let that happen,” says the N.C.J.W.’s C.E.O., Sheila Katz. She’s right. As my mom’s old protest sign reminds us, reproductive rights — including abortion — give us the chance to create families, and individual futures, that are wanted, cherished and loved. What value is more Jewish than that?
Sarah M. Seltzer (@sarahmseltzer) is an editor at Lilith magazine.
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