"Legal, safe, and rare"

Abortions and Jewish renewal

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow, March 1, 2006

Dear Chevra,

We've all heard people say that we need to work to reduce the numbers of abortions. South Dakota has now tried to do this by criminalizing them, and the new Supreme Court may uphold most or all of its new law.

But South Dakota's strategy will only limit the number of legal abortions, because surely women will continue to seek out illegal ones: --

Like the one that killed my grandmother in 1914. She had already birthed five young boys, including my father, and evidently hoped to be able to concentrate her energy on raising those five instead of birthing more. But because abortions were illegal, instead she died -- and so was unable to raise any of them. Her absence shadowed my father's life till his own dying day.

This history teaches me that there two deep spiritual, moral, and ethical reasons for women to have the right to choose whether to have an abortion in the periods of pregnancy before the fetus becomes viable on its own.

One is that women are moral beings, possessed of moral agency and responsibility in this unique situation where their own bodies are intertwined with another's.

The other is that the lives of women are precious.

Criminalizing abortion will not make it disappear. It will simply kill women as well as fetuses. It will also result in the birth of children whose mothers are unable to care for them adequately.

The only way to make abortion very very rare is to make sure that every woman has all she needs to choose whether to conceive in the first place, and all she needs to nurture a child she chooses to birth. The knowledge, the empowerment, the money, the technology, the social support.

Is this question on the real-life agenda of the "movement for Jewish renewal" that so joyfully proclaims that women are equal in prayer and Torah study, in community and and in the authority to teach and lead? Which of our organizations, our congregations, our rabbis, took vigorous action to prevent the confirmation of two Supreme Court nominees who will certainly vote to restrict the moral agency of women, and perhaps to deny it altogether? What does it mean to ignore the world of Asiyah, Actuality, while celebrating the worlds of Emotion, Intellect, and Spirit?

Surely some Jewish-renewal individuals have been active on the Asiyah level in working to affirm in legal and political actuality the moral agency and responsibility of women -- for example, by opposing the recent confirmation of those Supreme Court justices.

But in most aspects of the world, we encourage individual action but do not think it sufficient. If we did, there would be no congregations, no association of Jewish-renewal rabbis, no ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Each of these aspects of our lives represents the importance of gathering in community to get some things done.

Surely many of us pray and meditate on our own; we ALSO create communities of prayer and meditation.

Surely many of us study Torah on our own; we ALSO create classes, retreat centers, and so on to study Torah together. And we view these as integral parts of the Jewish-renewal community.

Surely many of us give tzedakah on our own; we ALSO collect and focus our tzedakah through The Shefa Fund, Jewish Funds for Justice, and American Jewish World Service.

So I think it is important to ask how many of our congregations and organizations see the moral empowerment of women as something to embody not only in our internal forms of prayer, teaching, learning, leading — but also in the larger world of law and power that will determine which of ourselves and which of others beyond ourselves will be able to make a choice about an abortion — or will die, as my grandmother did, for trying to make that choice.

So I repeat the question, as a question, not an assertion or attack: Which of our organizations, our communities and congregations, our rabbis in their roles as rabbis, took an active effort to prevent the confirmation of those Supreme Court nominees? Or otherwise acted, in their roles as Jewish and Jewish-renewal groupings, in the Asiyah world of politics and law to attempt to protect and affirm that this legal and political issue is rooted in our own moral and religious values?

The Shalom Center did. And I view it as one aspect of our role, our mission, our responsibility, to raise these questions as we have raised questions about the Reform movement’s stance on the Iraq war; the Conservative movement’s stance on the rights of gay and lesbian Jews to full presence, empowerment, and visibility in Jewish as well as general life; the stance of the antiwar movement toward Israel, Jews, and anti-Semitism; and so on.

Shalom, Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director
The Shalom Center (www.shalomctr.org) voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life.

TOPIC: Reproductive Rights