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Jewish Leaders: Banning Abortion is 'Absolutely' a Violation of Religious Freedom

As Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance, many in the Jewish community argue that their religion not only permits abortion access, but requires it.

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Conservatives—namely, white evangelical Christians—have long weaponized religious values as a shoddy defense for their decades-long conquest to criminalize abortion in the United States. But after a leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade sent shockwaves through the public consciousness on Monday night, a different kind of group of religious text-swinging heroes has emerged.

Coalitions of Rabbis across different sects of Judaism and a contingent of Jewish abortion activists are defending Jewish pregnant people’s right to abortion access, raising what they claim is a valid legal challenge: A national abortion ban would violate their right to religious freedom as guaranteed by the First Amendment. And as the right to bodily autonomy for women and pregnant people is threatened—largely impacting low-income Black and brown people—by conservative justices’ arguments that we should simply rewind to the good old years when women didn’t have any rights because, you know, some 17th century witch-hunter said so, Jewish communities are putting their foot down to say, “Not in my religion.”

Rabbi Sandra Lawson, who’s based in North Carolina, spelled this out to Jezebel during an interview this week: “‘Kavod HaBriyot’ translates to human dignity and ‘B’tzelem Elohim’ means created in God’s image. Both teach us that we must honor the dignity and autonomy of each person, and that includes giving each person the ability to make decisions about their bodies and their lives.”

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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women who focuses on religious texts around sexuality and bodily autonomy, admits that Judaism is a patriarchal religion and that there are plenty of places in the Torah that don’t get it right; through a reproductive justice lens, however, much of the Jewish religion can be interpreted as in support of the right to choose. “The question here is not just about abortion justice and centering those most impacted by abortion bans and their needs, but thinking about the right to have children, to not have children, to have bodily autonomy, and to raise the children you have in safe and sustainable communities,” she told Jezebel in a phone interview Tuesday. “To that end, Flint’s drinking water is a reproductive justice issue, cops not shooting your kid down in the street is a reproductive justice issue, housing, food security, and so on. When you start looking at a Torah with a reproductive justice lens, you start to see all sorts of things that maybe you didn’t see before.”

For evidence, Rabbi Ruttenberg points to the Book of Exodus in the Torah, which discusses a case where two men accidentally knock over a pregnant person and cause them to miscarry:

“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other harm ensues, the one responsible shall be fined when the woman’s husband demands compensation; the payment will be determined by judges. But if other harm ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”

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The Hebrew Bible, she says, does not regard the fetus as a person, for the Torah doesn’t specify how long the woman has been pregnant when the miscarriage happens. Another annotated text states, “If she is found pregnant, until the fortieth day it is mere fluid,” meaning the fetus does not have agency for at least forty days of pregnancy. For that reason, some interpretations of Jewish law say that personhood begins with the first breath. “It’s not murder, basically, and the Talmud lays that out really explicitly,” she says.

Of course, different sects have translated the word “harm” in a number of ways. A more liberal reading of the passage might suggest that “harm” could mean harm to mental health or economic status, or that any general negative impact from an unwanted pregnancy would be grounds for abortion, while a conservative or more traditional definition might simply mean physical or medical harm. But the Mishnah, the second-most authoritative text after the Torah, says that the mother’s life takes precedence over the fetus’ life very clearly, Rabbi Ruttenberg says. “Abortion is explicitly not only permitted in Judaism, but required when the pregnant person’s life is in danger,” she clarifies. “We do not push up one life for another.”

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Rabbi Andrue Kahn, a Reform Rabbi, notes that equal rights, and women’s rights in particular, are one of the most fundamental building blocks of the Reform movement since its founding in the 1800s, which labels women as “co-equals in the religious community.”

“In the actual lived experience of the vast majority of Reform Jews, which is the most numerous sect of Judaism in America, regardless of what the legal briefs say, there should be full freedom of choice for women, period,” Rabbi Kahn says. While of course not every Jew supports the right to choose, he points to more conservative religious texts and groups like the Orthodox Jews as proof that even traditional interpretations of Jewish law do not permit the outlawing of abortion.

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The Central Conference of American Rabbis released a statement this week urging the Supreme Court “not to restrict abortion rights” in hopes of supporting their own religious freedom. The Orthodox Union also stated they “cannot support absolute bans on abortion—at any time point in a pregnancy—that would not allow access to abortion in lifesaving situations,” as well as that they “cannot support legislation that permits ‘abortion on demand.’” Ultimately, they conclude: “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.”

Gathering those perspectives, Rabbi Kahn says that all Jewish religious freedom is “absolutely” violated when abortion is banned outright.

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As all signs point to the imminent dismantling of Roe v. Wade, Rabbi Ruttenberg says that the NCJW is mulling the idea of filing a lawsuit against the pending abortion ban on the grounds of religious freedom. “We have been having these conversations with the exact right people we should be seeking, and we are trying to figure out if we are going to move forward with a case,” she said. “But we won’t move forward unless that case is as solid and as watertight as humanly possible and unless we are sure that case will not have unintended consequences.”

Steph Black, a writer and Jewish abortion access activist in DC, says that her fight for reproductive rights is both interwoven with and a foundation for her deep religious belief. “The more I learned about the repro movement, the more I realized that my Jewish values were pulling me,” she told Jezebel in a phone interview Tuesday. “I found myself clinic-escorting on Saturday mornings and then heading to my synagogue for services. I found myself wanting prayers to be able to say over the patients that I was escorting into clinics. I was praying for the safety of providers as they faced harassment, and it really began a journey of not only deepening my feminism, but deepening my Jewish practice, too.”

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A former employee of the National Council of Jewish women, Black played a fundamental part in organizing a united front of pro-abortion Rabbis called Rabbis for Repro. She recalls tearing up as she watched the signatures roll in, over 1,600 in total, across denominations of Judaism. “I just couldn’t believe there were that many religious leaders who were willing to publicly say the word ‘abortion’ who agreed to spend their synagogue budget on reproductive justice speakers and training on practical support,” she said.

As evidence of the inextricable link between reproductive justice and Judaism, in a piece she wrote for Hey Alma, Black points to a techine or “a non-traditional prayer written by women” by Ariana Katz in support of Planned Parenthood: “Ribono shel olam, bless these sacred spaces of decision.” She cites another prayer written in 2013 by Deborah Eisenbach-Budner and Rabbi Susan Schnur to support the former during her abortion: “Bless You, Rahamaima, Compassionate Nurturer of Life, who helps us choose life. Amen.” Here, Black says, “choose life” is not in support of the fetus, but of the pregnant person.

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At the end of the day, Black hopes fundamental Christianity won’t always stand in the way of other people’s religious practices. But as one of the few Rabbis of color, Rabbi Lawson knows the “universality of one belief,” or the privilege that allows people to believe that their belief is the norm, and its link to white supremacy will prevent that from happening any time soon.

“The normal belief is whatever white people think or whatever men think, and when people talk about religion in our country, they’re talking about a particular lens of one religion,” she says. “Christians do not represent all religions and their perspective is not universal of other religious traditions.”

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Despite the ugly religious fight that conservative politicians have waged, and though Black and brown people have been disproportionately impacted by abortion bans popping up across the country over the last several years, Jewish women and people with uteruses have both an opportunity and a responsibility to use their privilege for action.

“We the Jews are here to say not so fast,” Rabbi Ruttenberg says. “We’re here not despite our religious commitments, but because of them.”