Supreme Court’s Roe Ruling Would Trample the Religious Freedom of Every Jewish American
From the San Francisco Chronicle
Written By Daniel Bogard and Tana Senn
May 6, 2022 Updated: May 7, 2022 7:52 a.m.
Submitted by Jody Brady, AADC Member, May 2022
The Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade sent shock waves throughout our country when it was leaked this week. If the ruling stands, abortion access would be decimated in huge swaths of the country, and the rights of Americans everywhere will depend on whether they happen to live in a blue state or in a red state. Beyond being a violation of the human rights of pregnant people, limiting access to abortion is an imposition of governmental Christianity on us all.
And it infringes on the religious liberty of every American Jew.
For Jews, it is no exaggeration to say that access to abortion services isn’t just tolerated, it is a religious requirement, and has been for thousands of years.
Surprised? Let’s dig into some of the texts.
In Exodus chapter 21:22 of the Torah, we see a clear statement that a fetus is not a person: “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined.” This stands in sharp contrast with the next verse, which makes clear that if the pregnant person themselves is injured, then the punishment is “a life for a life, an eye for an eye.”
The Torah couldn’t be more explicit: A fetus is not the same as a human life.
The Talmud, a central religious text for Jews written over 1,400 years ago, makes this even clearer by stating that “a fetus is considered a part of the pregnant person’s body, equivalent to their thigh.”
Even earlier, we hear in the foundational legal text the Mishnah, written 1,800 years ago, that if a pregnant person is set to be executed, that execution should not be delayed unless the person is literally in labor, for the fetus is not an independent life until it can breathe on its own.
In a different section of the Mishnah we are told explicitly that if “a person is having trouble giving birth (and their life is in danger) they must abort the fetus, because existing life always comes before potential life. If, however, most of the child has come out already they do not touch it, for we do not push off one life for another.”
Perhaps no idea is more central in classical Jewish legal texts thinking about abortion than that of the “Rodef” or “the pursuer.” Rodef is a legal category in Judaism for someone or something that is about to kill another human being. Jewish law obligates us to stop a Rodef at any cost — up to and including taking the life of an aggressor. A pregnancy that endangers life is considered a Rodef, and thus it must be terminated.
This is what rabbis mean when we say that “access to abortion is a religious requirement for Jews.” Because there are situations where Judaism doesn’t just allow abortion. In fact, tradition requires abortion when the life of the pregnant person is threatened.
Jewish legal rulings from the last 1,000 years additionally make it clear that there are other circumstances beyond a pregnant person’s life being in physical danger where an abortion must be performed. Judaism also recognizes personal well-being, mental health and all sorts of other situations where a person might choose to terminate a pregnancy.
What we — a rabbi and a Washington state legislator — have presented here are Jewish texts showing why access to abortion services are a religious requirement for Jewish Americans. But the beauty of our country is the diversity of backgrounds and experiences which we weave together into the tapestry of America. Many Christians interpret these biblical verses differently. Which is fine! American Jews aren’t interested in imposing our faith on our neighbors; we just ask that our neighbors not impose their faith on us.
That is the exact point of the First Amendment — to protect minority religions’ free exercise of religion, including abortion. And that is exactly why this draft Supreme Court opinion, this reversal of abortion access, is so wrong, so un-American, and is a threat to the human dignity and religious liberty of us all.
Daniel Bogard is a rabbi at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. Tana Senn is a Washington state representative and co-president of the National Association of Jewish Legislators.
Click here to see this article on the SF Chronicle’s own website.