Monthly Archives: May 2019

We Support Abortion Rights Because We Are Pro-Life – Behar 5779

My primary rabbinic mission is to make the words of Torah relevant – that is, I want everybody who hears me teach to come away thinking, “Oh, that was useful and meaningful to me today.” I must say that there is so much going on in the world right now that is just begging for a meaningful Jewish framework.

I could speak today about the war of terror on American synagogues that continues, with a firebombing of a synagogue in Chicago and two in the Boston area the previous week.

I could speak this morning about the recent report released by the UN on biodiversity, and the coming extinction of a million species on the planet; coupled with the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to roll back emissions controls on power plants by downgrading the estimates of deaths caused by particulate pollution. This one fits nicely with Parashat Behar, since it details the requirement to give agricultural land a shemittah, a seventh-year rest. This suggests a fundamental sensitivity in our tradition to God’s Creation. (Also, my first job after graduate school, in environmental consulting, required that I use computer models of air pollutant distribution in permit applications for things like power plants, so I actually have a little professional expertise there.)

I could speak this morning about slavery, which Parashat Behar describes in detail, and how slavery is still a real thing in our world. There is a great sermon to be given on this subject regarding speaking truth to power, since there were rabbis in slave states in the early 19th century who actually used the words of Torah to support the type of slavery that drove the economy of the American South.

I could speak about the grossly inaccurate retelling of history by Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who suggested on a podcast that Palestinians provided a safe haven for Jews fleeing the Holocaust. (The historical record shows that their leaders actually fought against this, and their efforts led directly and indirectly to the deaths of more Jews.)

Alas, I will not be giving any of those sermons today. Rather, we need to talk about abortion and Jewish law, because as efforts multiply around the country by state legislators to deny abortions to women who need them, we the Jews should know what our tradition teaches us on the subject, particularly since this will, I am certain, be very much a part of our national discourse in the coming years.

As a sort of preamble, let me point out that this is an issue which is important not only to women, but to all of us. While it is true that the progressive Jewish movements have done an admirable job in approaching full egalitarianism in Jewish life, the perception remains, not unreasonably, that Judaism is not entirely fair to women. It is only within the last century, for example, that Jews began celebrating bat mitzvah; it is only within the last half-century that synagogues started calling women to the Torah and counting them as equals in minyan (the quorum of 10 Jews needed for certain parts of religious services), and inviting them to lead services. It is only 34 years since the Conservative movement ordained Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first female Conservative rabbi.

Female Conservative rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2013

But the Jewish case for permitting abortion highlights the fact that we are, in fact, “pro-life,” and in particular, pro-women’s life.

What do I mean when I say that we are pro-life? Judaism is an ongoing celebration of life. Every morning we express gratitude for our lives as the first words of tefillah / that emerge from our lips. Every day we thank God for the ability to open our eyes and behold the sunrise and start our day with all of our body parts functioning properly. Every day we ask for peace, multiple times, so that more people in this world will be able to thrive. On this day of Shabbat, we emphasize life through words of prayer, for example A few minutes ago, we recited an Aramaic prayer for “zar’a hayya veqayama,” – living, thriving children, but also we highlight life implicitly by celebrating with meals and family time together.

And not only that: we celebrate life at all of its transitional moments: birth, bat/bar mitzvah, marriage; even funerals and mourning customs are forms of celebration of the life of the deceased. We celebrated life today when our bar mitzvah stepped forward into direct relationship with the 613 mitzvot / commandments of Jewish life.

We are indisputably pro-life. And abortion is understood in Jewish tradition, going all the way back to the Mishnah in the 2nd century CE, as promoting the life of the mother (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6):

האשה שהיא מקשה לילד מחתכין את הולד במעיה ומוציאין אותו אברים אברים מפני שחייה קודמין לחייו יצא רובו אין נוגעין בו שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש

If a woman’s labor becomes life threatening, the fetus is dismembered in her womb and then taken out limb by limb, for her life comes before (the life of the fetus). If most of the child has emerged [naturally] it is not be be touched, for one life is not put aside for another.

Rashi, writing in 11th-century France and commenting on the Talmud’s elaboration on this mishnah, clarifies as follows (Sanhedrin 72b):

יצא ראשו – באשה המקשה לילד ומסוכנת, וקתני רישא: החיה פושטת ידה וחותכתו ומוציאתו לאברים, דכל זמן שלא יצא לאויר העולם לאו נפש הוא וניתן להורגו ולהציל את אמו, אבל יצא ראשו – אין נוגעים בו להורגו, דהוה ליה כילוד ואין דוחין נפש מפני נפש

This concerns a woman whose labor proves so difficult as to threaten her life…The midwife should reach and dismember and remove it limb by limb. For as long as it has not emerged into the air of the world it is not a nefesh/person and one is allowed to destroy it in order to save its mother. But if its head has emerged, it is not to be harmed, for at that point it is considered born, and one nefesh/person is not to be put aside for another.

And here is Maimonides, MT Hilkhot Rotzeah UShmirat haNefesh 1:9, writing in 12th century Egypt:

הרי זו מצות לא תעשה שלא לחוס על נפש הרודף. לפיכך הורו חכמים שהעוברה שהיא מקשה לילד מותר לחתוך העובר במיעיה בין בסם בין ביד מפני שהוא כרודף אחריה להורגה, ואם משהוציא ראשו אין נוגעין בו שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש וזהו טבעו של עולם

This is a negative commandment: one must not take pity on the life of a rodef/pursuer. Therefore the sages taught: if a pregnant woman’s labor becomes life-threatening, it is permitted to dismember the fetus in her womb, either by a medication or by hand, for it is like a rodef who is pursuing her to kill her. But from the moment his head emerges he is not to be touched, for one life is not to be put aside for another, for this is the natural course of things.

Here, Maimonides describes the fetus as a “rodef,” rabbinic shorthand for a pursuer who intends to kill or injure somebody, suggesting that the pregnancy is physically dangerous. His position is more stringent than Rashi’s, but even so, there are certainly cases where Maimonides permits.

With such sources in our canon, including some of the greatest interpreters of Jewish law, it is clear that:

א. Abortion is clearly permitted under some circumstances in Jewish law, since the fetus is considered a potential life, but not a full human being with the same status as the mother.

ב. The permissibility is dependent upon the mother’s life being threatened in some way.

Now, the complicated part is, what does it mean for the mother’s life to be threatened? As you may anticipate, there are a range of opinions, and they do vary in the Jewish world.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly, which determines matters of Jewish law for the Conservative movement, has published several teshuvot, rabbinic opinions on the matter of abortion, going all the way back to 1980. (In case you are unfamiliar with the way the CJLS works: it is a body of Conservative rabbis who meet regularly to consider issues in Jewish law that are brought up with new situations.)

The CJLS has generally reaffirmed that abortion is permitted in cases in which “continuation of a pregnancy might cause the mother severe physical or psychological harm, or where the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective.” I do not need to go into details about what these various types of physical and psychological harm might be, but I am sure that you could consider any number of situations in which a pregnancy could cause such harm, in which the fetus is a rodef, a dangerous pursuer.

Nonetheless, there is no question that even though abortion is not considered murder, it is not a desirable outcome. It should not be used as a means of contraception, where avoidable, and it should not be taken lightly. The CJLS has also affirmed that contraception is always a better path than abortion when pregnancy is not desired.

Halakhah is all about boundaries of kedushah / holiness, and reinforcing those boundaries is an essential aspect of what we do as Jews. If you or anybody you know is facing this question, please know that I am always available as a spiritual and halakhic resource.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are pro-life. And how do we highlight life? By valuing the actual life, and not the theoretical, by prioritizing a mother’s life over that of her unborn child. That is why our tradition understands that abortion, while never the ideal, is sometimes necessary, and should certainly be available, safe, and legal.*

Shabbat shalom.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, Shabbat morning, 5/25/2019.

* After hearing this sermon, a congregant suggested that the message of “we are pro-life” should translate to Jewish support for greater availability of health care for women (as well, one presumes, as for men). While of course I agree, that is a subject for another sermon, on another Shabbat. My goal here was to present Jewish sources on the halakhic permissibility of abortion.

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Torch Song for Optimism – Emor 5779

At the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in Montreal two weeks ago, I led a session for fellow Conservative/Masorti rabbis. It was the first time I had been asked to do so, although I have attended conventions for more than a decade. The chairs asked me to do something musical, so I led the attendees in a bunch of early Israeli and Mandate-period Hebrew songs, from the ‘30s through the early ‘60s, a period of music that I find particularly fascinating, particularly since the composers of the time were effectively creating the soundtrack for a new nation.

Some were about life as a חלוץ / pioneer working the land (“Mah Yafim Haleilot,” “Hora Mamtera,” etc.); some were about love and camaraderie in the time of war (“Yatzanu At,” “Hayu Zemanim”); some were reflective songs about the range of human emotion (“Ruah Stav,” “Kalaniyot”). Afterwards, one of the participants told me about how much she loved these songs, how they had transported her to, as she put it, “simpler times.”

We are fortunate this week in Pittsburgh to hear the music of one of the most hopeful artists in the Israeli pop canon, David Broza. Broza’s career now spans four decades, and while I am sure that he will display his artistry on Thursday evening in playing the Spanish music that he truly loves, there is no question that he will play, probably toward the end of the concert, his most well-known song, the anthem that put him on the map: Yihyeh Tov. This song is almost absurdly hopeful; an ode to peace and a torch song for optimism. In 1977, when the lyrics were written by the poet and songwriter Yehonatan Geffen, peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors was a mere fantasy; the text references, as we shall see, the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel of that year, which ultimately led to the Camp David Accords, signed a year later.

I must confess from the outset that this song makes me cry, not only for its unbounded optimism, but also for the tragic sense of loss that I feel when I read the lyrics closely. I don’t need to review the history of Israel’s armed conflicts since the song was written, but we all know that real peace has not yet arrived.

And the bloodshed continues, yielding so much more pain and grief and loss. Just two weeks ago, there were rockets from Gaza and return fire from Israel, with casualties on both sides.

As was pointed out at the Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day, a very somber day) ceremony that I attended at the convention, led by our Israeli Masorti colleagues, 23,741 Israelis have died fighting in Israel’s wars, and 3,146 more have died in terrorist acts in Israel.

What makes me misty-eyed when I hear this song is that for many Jews in Israel, in America, and around the world, looking forward to a vision of peace as Broza does used to be the norm. Despite the situation in the 1970s, when Israel was still at war with the entire Arab world, when you could not buy Pepsi or Toyotas in Israel due to the Arab boycott, when the “Three Nos” of the 1967 Khartoum Resolution still hung in the air: No peace, no recognition, no negotiations with Israel, even so, there was still a palpable sense of optimism. Mahar, we sang, tomorrow there will be peace.

In the final stanza, the song references Isaiah’s messianic vision of a time of peace:

וְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ וְעֵ֨גֶל וּכְפִ֤יר וּמְרִיא֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו וְנַ֥עַר קָטֹ֖ן נֹהֵ֥ג בָּֽם׃

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard lie down with the kid; The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them. (Isaiah 11:6)

Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot live in a context in which we throw up our hands and say, “We tried and failed; end of story.” I cannot live in a world in which we pessimistically believe that every option has been tried and exhausted, and there is nothing left to do; lo yihyeh tov – it will not be good.

I cannot allow myself to think that those 23,741 Israeli soldiers will be solely martyrs to the cause of Israel’s ongoing existence rather than to the cause of peace, and that those numbers will only continue to rise. In every single Amidah, and virtually every Kaddish that we recite, the final request of God is for peace. How can we resign ourselves to eternal struggle, when we accept that people will continue to die? How can we not recommit ourselves again and again to finding a peaceful solution?

How can we abandon the visions of Isaiah, of Yehonatan Geffen, of David Broza? How can we so easily dismiss the possibility of laying down our sword and shield?

It is true that we are no longer living in the “simpler times” that nostalgic songs invoke. Nonetheless, we cannot succumb to the forces of pessimism. I am not going to resign myself to that kind of future. Will you? Will we?

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/18/2019.)

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A Din Toyre / Lawsuit Against God – Aharei Mot 5779

There is a story about Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berdichev, a prominent 18th-century Hasidic rabbi, that he brought a “din toyre” (Yiddishized Hebrew for a lawsuit) against God. In the folk song that sets this din toyre to music, he points out that all the other nations thrive; this one has a huge kingdom, that one has a powerful ruler. But the Jews, what do we have? All we have is the Qaddish, the prayer most strongly associated with mourning. All we have is suffering and mourning and grief.

As the melody rises in intensity, Levi Yitzhaq affirms proudly before God, in Hebrew and then in Yiddish:

Lo ozuz mimkoymi!I will not move from my place! (Hebrew)
Ikh vel zikh fun ort nit rirn!I will not stir from my place! (Yiddish)
Un a sof zol dos zayn!An end there must be [to this suffering]
Un an ek zol dos nemen!
It must all stop!

This song flipped through my head this week following the attack on the synagogue in Poway, a brief and painful six months following the 18th of Heshvan (Oct. 27th) in Pittsburgh. I went through some of the same emotions we all felt on the last day of Pesah when we found out – shock and horror and grief. And then I detected a new emotion in this particular swamp: anger.

I am angry. And disappointed. And frustrated. And, like Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq, I am bringing a din toyre, a lawsuit against God. I imagined us as a community similarly raising an accusatory finger heavenward:

Ribbono shel olam, Master of the Universe:

Why? Why again? Why so soon? Have we done something wrong? Have we failed to serve You adequately? Have our transgressions outweighed our fulfillment of mitzvot / commandments? Have we not sought repentance?

Look, I know You do not work that way. I know that You are not about tit-for-tat, reward and punishment. That whole “Book of Life” thing, I know that’s a human artifice to help us wrap our brains around how You function. I know You don’t even have ears, in the human sense, to hear these words. But I know You’re listening. So listen up good. Please.

On the Shabbat of the 18th of Heshvan, we continued to pray, even though we knew what was going on a few blocks away. We recited the words of Psalm 130 and Psalm 121, the words of Your servant, King David: ממעמקים קראתיך – we cried out to You from the depths, and אשא איני אל ההרים, מאין יבוא עזרי, we lifted up our eyes unto the mountains, asking from where our help would come. As funerals unfolded and tears flowed and the shock on everybody’s faces at shiv’ah houses and daily minyanim (services) reminded each other of our individual and collective pain, we continued to seek comfort and protection in the words and rituals of our tradition.

We have leaned into those words and rituals, and we have come up empty. Because here we are again.

Did that help come, as You told us it would? If so, it did not prevent the death of Lori Gilbert Kaye.

Did our voices reach up to You from these depths? If so, they did not move You to action.

And speaking of the Psalms, You may know that the Talmud remarks that when the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing, the Levitical choir used to chant a different Psalm for each day of the week, a custom that we continue to this day. The Psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92 includes the line, “Tzaddiq katamar yifrah, ke-erez balevanon yisgeh.” The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree, and grow mighty like a cedar in Lebanon.”

Eloheinu velohei avoteinu, I am sure that You still appreciate “hearing” those Psalme, but are we flourishing? Are we mighty?

Rather, perhaps we are stuck in the Psalm that is recited on Wednesdays, Psalm 94 (3-4):

עַד־מָתַ֖י רְשָׁעִ֥ים ה
עַד־מָ֝תַ֗י רְשָׁעִ֥ים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ׃
יַבִּ֣יעוּ יְדַבְּר֣וּ עָתָ֑ק
יִֽ֝תְאַמְּר֗וּ
כָּל־פֹּ֥עֲלֵי אָֽוֶן׃

Ad matai resha’im Adonai
Ad matai resha’im ya’alozu
Yabi’u yedabberu ataq
Yit’ameru ol po’alei aven

How long yet, Adonai, will the wicked —
How long yet will the evil ones prosper?
Boasting their malice,
They talk each other into greater evil.

Because the wicked are moving ahead with their plan. Why should we be frightened in Your house? Why should we continue to suffer?

So maybe we are going to have to solve this ourselves, God. Maybe we are going to have to rely on guards, and silvered glass, and electronic door locks. Maybe we are going to have to learn self-defense. Maybe we are going to have to rely on law enforcement. Maybe we will have to implore our political representatives to protect Jewish institutions, to spend even more resources on cracking down on the forces of hatred. Maybe the dark web is beyond even Your reach.

Nonetheless, I am not going to let You off the hook entirely, because I know that You did not make these people do this. I know You did not intend for humans to create assault rifles, devices crafted only to kill people quickly and efficiently, and make them available to the civilian public. I know that You did not create sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred; that was also a human invention. I know that You do not want Your people to murder each other. I know that You did not create anti-Semitism, or white supremacy, or the concept of “white genocide,” or the whole “Jews will not replace us” thing.

But, Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu ve-imoteinu, we have trusted You. We will continue to offer the words of the Psalmist, and the words of tefillah, and welcome the weekly redemption of Shabbat and argue over the words of Your Torah.

But please know this: we feel betrayed.

So please, Ribbono Shel Olam, mima’amaqim qeratikha Adonai. We continue to call out to You from the depths.

Shema qoleinu, Adonai Eloheinu. Hus verahem aleinu. Hear our voices. Have mercy upon us.

We have grieved for too long; our wounds are fresh.

Help us find the human and political will to save our people. Steady the hands of those who protect us, those who seek out the resha’im, the evil people in this world who foment hatred against others and urge the weak of spirit to kill.

Because, like Levi Yitzhaq of Berdichev, we are not going anywhere. We will not be frightened. We will not be huddled into bomb shelters or safe rooms. We will not back away from doing what we do proudly as Jews.

On the contrary, we are just going to pray louder and harder, until You hear our voices.

That’s my din toyre, my lawsuit against God.

A footnote: We marked yet another Yom HaShoah this week, another Holocaust Remembrance Day, now nearly seven and a half decades after the Nazis were vanquished by the Allies. But you may know that the official name of that day, the 27th of Nisan, is “Yom HaZikaron LaSho’ah veLaGvurah,” the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism.” In abbreviating the name, we are actually emasculating it somewhat. It is not merely the day of the Sho’ah, a day on which we recall the destruction wrought by the Nazi regime, the efficient murder of 6 million of our people, but also a day on which we remember the gevurah, the heroism of those who fought against it: Jews, non-Jews, partisans, industrialists, farmers, diplomats, ordinary righteous folks who knew right from wrong. And we remember those who survived, and that we as a people continue to survive, due not only to our own tenacity and loyalty to our heritage, but also to partnership with other good people around us.

The jury is still in recess, but we will not wait to do what we have to do to – to protect ourselves, to urge our leaders to act, to partner with others of faith who care and understand the need to stamp out the evil in our midst, the ancient hatred, invigorated by modern technology, that has emboldened killers.

Now is the time to work for the redemption of the world from hate. We cannot wait for God to act; we must do it ourselves.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/4/2019.)

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