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Repro Shabbat (Yitro)

02/14/2023 09:04:17 AM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

Before I start, I want to remind everyone that we are marking "Repro Shabbat" today. The topic I will be talking about - abortion - is emotionally fraught. For many of us, talking about abortion brings up past losses, disappointments, fear and anger. If you find that this topic is too emotional for you right now, please don't be abashed to take a break.

This is also a politically fraught topic. Our ethic of Tikvah - of hope for the future - lies in being able to hear multiple viewpoints with curiosity and humility. I have a strong opinion on the subject of abortion access. My opinion emerges from intensely personal experiences, which I will tell you about today. You have your own experiences. If you see things differently from me, I want to be in conversation with you. I respect you, and I respect our differences.

When our ancestors stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, what they saw and heard and felt was so beyond ordinary human experience, it could not be expressed in words.

וְכׇל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם וְאֵת֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר וְאֶת־הָהָ֖ר עָשֵׁ֑ן

And all the people saw the sounds and the torches and the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking.

How do you see sound? And how can there be torches without something physical to burn? The impossibility of this description is meant to give us a sense of the impossibility of the experience. 

The Talmud takes the effort much further. For example: 

"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, for each word that emerged from the mouth of the Holy One, the entire world was filled with fragrant spice."

According to this teaching, not only were the eyes and ears aroused, the sense of smell was evoked, too. And though the locus was this people, at the foot of this mountain, the impact was felt worldwide. Another teaching from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi:

"For each word that emerged from the mouth of the Holy One, the souls of the Jewish people left their bodies. So how did they hear the next word? God rained magical dew upon them that revived them."

Not just the physical senses were involved - the experience of hearing God's voice grabbed their souls.

But when Moses attempted to record the words that they actually heard - amidst the sounds and the torches and soul extracting experiences - what he shared was very much of this world. Don't kill. Don't steal. Don't worship idols. Keep Shabbat. The basics of living a decent life and a Jewish life. 

The next three week's Torah portions go on to share what God said to Moses when the two of them are alone on Mt. Sinai, and the content is even more nitty gritty. No mysteries of the universe there. On Mt. Sinai, Moses received the basic framework of a civil and criminal legal code, and detailed instructions for building a physical Tabernacle.

Centuries later, the three major religions inspired by our Torah all grappled with understanding how an infinite, almighty God can interact with our finite, imperfect world.

Christianity, imagined that God took the form of a human being, and then released humanity from the ritual laws that the Torah had previously suggested are necessary for us to experience God on earth.

Rabbinic Judaism went the opposite direction. Our sages delved deep into the details of rules and rituals. They debated every one, and preserved every opinion. For each law discussed, the rabbis examined how it might apply or not apply in different contexts. God may be absolute and perfect, but in our human world - no value is absolute. Context is everything.

On the same page of Talmud as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's midrashim, we read: "Rabbi Yishmael taught: Just as a hammer breaks a stone into fragments, so too, each word that emerged from the mouth of the Holy One divided into seventy languages."

70 is the canonical number that means "a lot". The Torah itself is perfect, but for us limited humans to understand it, it must be broken open and contextualized into our distinct languages.

"Rabbi Chananel ben Papa taught: Why are matters of Torah likened to a king? To teach you that just as a king has within him to kill and to grant life, so too, words of Torah have within them to kill and to grant life."

If we miscontextualize it, the Torah can be fatally dangerous. Elsewhere, the Talmud teaches: "The Torah is a potion of life and a potion of death."

We Jews have lived for centuries - nearly two millennia - under governments that saw themselves are representing God's will on earth. We know that the mixing of church and state is a recipe for turning Torah into a potion of death.

Out in the arena of American discourse, Christianity sets the framework for discussing abortion rights. Much of the conversation revolves around the question of "when does life begin" - which really means, when does the body become ensouled. Our sages were also interested in this question. They discuss it in the Talmud. But in their eyes, musings about the soul belong in the realm of theology - explorations into the impossible to comprehend. That question does not come up in any Talmudic discussions about practical issues, like abortion or birth control. Those discussions are grounded in actual human experience.

I have been asked numerous times over the past year: what does Jewish law say about abortion? Well, there have always been many opinions. The individual context of each decision is critical. The historical context of all of those opinions is also critical. For most of history, birth control was totally ineffective, there were no tests that could verify an early pregnancy, procedures to terminate a somewhat later pregnancy were risky. Pregnancy itself was incredibly dangerous - one in 8 women died in childbirth. And you had to have a lot of pregnancies to build the population, because half of all children died before adulthood. It was a whole different ball game. 

But one thing is clear to almost all Jewish authorities - governments should not be involved in these decisions. That is why even the OU released a statement last June expressing disapproval of the supreme court's overturning 5 decades of abortion protection.

The OU is the voice of the Orthodox rabbinate in America, and the Orthodox view is anything but liberal - especially about sexuality. Condoms are not permitted, except in very rare circumstances. Abortion is about as permissible as condoms. Other forms of contraception are more permissible, provided the man of the couple has already fathered at least one son and one daughter. Oh - and, of course, the couple must be married. Otherwise, don't ask about contraception, because you shouldn't be -

I don't know what percentage of Orthodox Jews abide by these rules. Many don't. But many do, and it is the mainstream perspective of Orthodox rabbis.

I have spoken a number of times about my break with Orthodoxy. I think many of you know that a part of me still longs Orthodox community - its close-knit warmth and the clarity of purpose. I have also shared some of the reasons that I made the painful decision to leave. Until today, I have been to shy to reveal that at the heart of my grapplings with Orthodoxy and halachah was this - the rabbinic attitude towards bodily autonomy and sex. 

I know what it feels like to cede decisions about your body to an authority who does not understand your experiences or share all of your values. That loss of control is a humiliating, dehumanizing experience. I do not wish it on anyone.

I have never had an abortion. At least not as the word is used in common parlance. But in medical terminology, any pregnancy that ends before 20 weeks is called an abortion - regardless of whether the cluster of cells that might ultimately have become a heart stop pulsating before or after the fetus is removed from the uterus. 

So by medical terminology - I did have an abortion. Two, in fact. My very first pregnancy, and my fourth one, both ended in what we colloquially call a miscarriage.

That first miscarriage was a shock. I was 28 years old. I'd been blessed with good health my entire life, and I thought I was in control of my body. Intellectually, I knew that fertility is a game of dice. Today, I understand just how cruel a game of dice it can be, and just how fortunate I have been. But at the time, on an emotional level I didn't get it - until suddenly my plans didn't work out as I'd intended, and I realized I was not in control. I cried many tears over that lost pregnancy.

Context is EVERYTHING. It was about that same time that my best friend also became pregnant. But she did not want to be pregnant. That cluster of cells growing in her abdomen was nothing to her but an unwanted growth. A growth that, if allowed to continue, would likely cause months of nausea and vomiting, then weight gain and mood swings, back pain and leg pain - sometimes so severe you can barely walk. It would also put her at higher risk for diabetes, depression, urinary incontinence, and a few other life-altering problems. Nine months later would come an ordeal so painful, the prophets use it as a metaphor for all of human suffering, and still today it hols a 1 in 10,000 chance of death.

These are the sufferings and risks people take on willingly all the time, because they want to birth a child. God bless us!

But no one should have to take that on unwillingly. Is there any other context in which lawmakers could believe they have the prerogative to block access to an easy, safe medical procedure that eliminates so much pain and risk?

Fortunately for my friend, it was 1997 and we were in Massachusetts. Her decision was easy, and the follow-through was, too.

She became pregnant again some years later, this time very happily by plan. But her nausea was so severe she had to be hospitalized, and instead of gaining weight over nine months, she overall lost weight. Thank God, the baby came out healthy and my friend also recovered. That pregnancy came at a time in her life when she could manage the hardship. And, boy, did it reinforce that her earlier abortion had been the right decision.

The stories of our lives are the context for all of our decisions, our opinions, our votes, our actions. I have shared with you today three deeply personal stories that shape my context - into a profound sorrow that sometimes boils into anger and fury as we watch decades of progress rolled back in state of our free country.

Some of you have also shared your stories with me.

I want to hear more stories about abortion, from people of all genders. Maybe you've had an abortion. Maybe you chose not to have one. Maybe you had a partner who had an abortion, or who chose not to have one - and maybe you were aligned with her decision, or maybe it was hard for you. Maybe the person who gave birth to you considered having an abortion, but gave you life instead. Maybe your mother did have an abortion, and that choice enabled her to later become pregnant with you.

In a few days, and email will go out to the synagogue with a call to share your abortion stories. (If you are reading this sermon online, follow this link to a form with more information.) You can share anonymously or with your name. You can share it right there on the form, or put it in an envelope and send it attention Rabbi Ilana. We also have volunteers who have offered to listen to stories shared orally. And of course I welcome anyone to make an appointment to share with me personally, as does Cantor Barbara and Rabbi Ezray.

On June 24th, the anniversary of the supreme court decision to overturn Roe vs Wade, we will hold a Yahrzeit Havdalah service. We will take the time then to share stories aloud - of course, only for those who wish to share publicly, and only after having shared privately first.

Each story has its own texture that deepens our understanding. Through this project, I hope to hear stories of relief and joy, and of regret and shame. Of loss and disappointment. Of anger and frustration. Of indecision and uncertainty. Of determination and hope.

Each one is an important piece of our limited human understanding. It is only when we weave together the many, many stories of humanity, that we come close to comprehending divinity.

Wed, March 22 2023 29 Adar 5783