Categories
Social Justice

‘I Will Keep Fighting for Our Rights to Control Our Bodies and Our Lives’: Rabbi Hara Person’s Remarks at the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington, D.C.

In response to the draft of a United States Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which leaked to the public in early May, the Central Conference of American Rabbis—which believes that abortion access is a Jewish value, a human right, and part of comprehensive healthcare—cosponsored the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice, presented by National Council of Jewish Women, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Chief Executive, was asked to address the thousands of attendees in Washington, D.C. Here, we share her remarks.


I stand here today, a Reform rabbi and the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in tribute to my great-grandmother, Lena.

I stand here 100 years after my great-grandmother Lena had two knitting needle abortions on her kitchen table. She turned to the best of bad options because she could barely feed the children she had. My great-grandmother was one of the lucky ones. She lived to tell the tale. When abortion became legal in this country, she made sure her family knew her story.

Taking away access to abortion is not pro-life. Banning abortion is about taking power away from and punishing people with uteruses.

I am here to say proudly that Reform rabbis and the Reform Movement believe that abortion access is essential healthcare, a basic human right, and a Jewish value.

Today we have safe options for abortion, and these options must be protected and accessible to all. Taking away abortion access goes against our most deeply held American values of religious liberty and equality. It goes against our Jewish belief of prioritizing an actual life over a potential life.

Reform rabbis and the Reform Movement believes that every one of us should have the right to make personal healthcare decisions based on our own faith and values.

In memory of my great-grandmother, Lena, I will keep fighting for our rights to control our bodies and our lives. The fight will be difficult but what a blessing to be in it with all of you.

Categories
Poetry Rabbinic Reflections

‘Confessional to the Women We’ve Failed’: A Poem about Reproductive Justice

In response to the leaked draft of the decision of a majority of justices of the United States Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, CCAR member Rabbi Zoe Klein wrote a poem entitled “Confessional to the Women We’ve Failed,” styled after the Viddui, a prayer meaning “confession,” recited just before Yom Kippur. The Central Conference of American Rabbis has long supported reproductive rights and, in the strongest terms, urges the Supreme Court not to restrict abortion rights and certainly not to reverse the groundbreaking and liberating decision in Roe v. Wade. If the leaked opinion is in fact a harbinger of a Supreme Court decision soon to come, CCAR rabbis will grieve; and without delay, we will continue our ongoing struggle for reproductive liberty.


Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman with kidney disease whose doctors say her pregnancy is
life threatening,
the woman who has high blood pressure whose doctors say her
pregnancy may kill her,
the woman with clinical depression and suicide ideation who is criminalized for saving herself,

the woman who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because of heavy spotting,
the woman who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because of an irregular period,
the girl who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because she has only just started puberty,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman suffering an ectopic pregnancy who is called “murderer”
on her way to her appointment,
the parents who are told their baby will be born with anencephaly,
without a brain, and are called “murderers,”
the woman who is told there is no heartbeat and is called “murderer”
on her way to the clinic,

the woman who miscarries and is criminalized because she cannot
prove it was natural,
the parent who is told that if born, their baby will live in excruciating pain and won’t survive past infancy,
the girl who is ostracized, shamed and criminalized
while he who impregnates her is free,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the family who doesn’t have health insurance
and barely survives paycheck to paycheck,
the woman living in a rural, remote town who cannot afford
the transportation, hotel and time off for a procedure,
the partner who loses their job for taking the days needed
to travel over state lines for their spouse’s care,
the children who are not taught sex education and are not
given access to birth control,
the families who are not given paid parental leave or affordable childcare,
the woman who religiously took birth control to prevent pregnancy,
but the birth control failed,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman who is a victim of reproductive coercion
by a domestic abuser,
the woman who is impregnated as a victim of sex trafficking,
the girl who is impregnated through sexual violence
and then retraumatized by the court,

the girl who is overpowered by a relative or person of authority,
the woman of color who faces racial and ethnic disparity in medicine, and less access to quality contraceptive services,
the Ukrainian woman refugee who was raped by the same Russian soldier who murdered her children,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…


the mother who is imprisoned for acquiring misoprostol
to end her teen daughter’s traumatic pregnancy,
the mother who is imprisoned for having an abortion in order to better feed and care for her children,
the woman who is imprisoned for terminating a pregnancy
that was not conceived in love,

the daughter who suffers long-term agony from terminating her pregnancy in unhygienic environments, at the hands of untrained individuals,
leaving her to suffer vaginal and rectal tearing, future infertility,
uterine perforations, hemorrhage, sepsis, blunt trauma, poisoning, and ruptured bowel, the daughter who is too scared to ask for help and dies of torturous infection and blood loss from the rusty tools
of a medical charlatan, the daughter who doesn’t have any reason
to trust lawmakers and adults, and suffers excruciating, unnecessary death.

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

For all of our failures to protect you, our daughters, mothers,
partners and friends,
Don’t forgive us. Don’t pardon us. Don’t lead us to atonement.


Rabbi Zoë Klein is the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. She has written multiple novels and short stories, she has written chapters in a number of collections, including The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, and she has written articles for numerous publications, including Harper’s BazaarTikkun, and Torat Hayim.  Her poems and prayers are used in houses of prayer around the country.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Torah

Abortion and Reproductive Justice: A Jewish Perspective

In light of the recent Texas anti-abortion law that has gone into effect, we are sharing this excerpt about reproductive justice from The Social Justice Torah Commentary, forthcoming in November 2021 from CCAR Press.

A study by the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of American Jews say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.1 American Jews’ widespread support for permissive abortion laws finds grounding in Jewish tradition’s approach to pregnancy and its end. Though the Torah makes no specific reference to any process resembling a modern abortion, the following passage from Parashat Mishpatim provides our tradition’s earliest guidance on the termination of a pregnancy:

When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:22–25)

The passage contrasts two scenarios in which two men are fighting and accidentally strike a nearby pregnant woman. The permutations differ only in who or what is harmed. In the first, only the fetus is lost, and the punishment is a monetary fine, paid to the woman’s husband. In the second, the woman herself is harmed or killed. There, the punishment is retributive: an eye for an eye and a nefesh—literally, “soul,” but in this case meaning a human life possessing personhood—for a nefesh. From this, we may derive the principle that a woman has the full status of a person, nefesh, while the fetus—though valued—has a lesser status.

The Mishnah expands this understanding of differential value by stating that if a woman’s life is threatened in childbirth, the fetus inside her can be destroyed, even to the point of “taking it out limb from limb, for her life comes before the fetus’s life.”2 Through the graphic language of this text, the Mishnaic author leaves no ambiguity as to whose life takes precedence. This text sets the standard from which all other halachah (Jewish law) on abortion flows. Later commentators debate in great detail the implications of this text, particularly the breadth or narrowness of the definition of a threat to the life of the woman.3 Some are more permissive of a range of emotional as well as physical impacts that could justify an abortion, while others understand the instances of permissibility with excruciating parsimony. Still, from the outset, Judaism can imagine some instances when an abortion would be permitted and even required.4

Furthermore, the Gemara concludes that prior to forty days, a fetus is not a person but rather is considered “mere water.”5  The debate about abortion in America hinges on questions related to what constitutes personhood and when life begins. But these are religious and spiritual questions, about which people of faith and conviction can disagree.

The Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that abortion is protected under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees a right to privacy, including a right to private medical procedures. For American Jews, the protection of access to abortion could also be understood under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. Because Jewish law permits abortion under certain circumstances as a morally acceptable choice, or even in some cases a halachic requirement, any law that limits a woman’s right to choose might limit a Jewish woman’s ability to make a decision in accordance with her religious beliefs. When people of faith seek to adopt laws asserting when life begins, they endeavor to enshrine their own religious understanding in law. In civic discourse, the fact that Judaism understands these issues differently can be a powerful antidote to the pervasive sense that religious voices are only to be found on one side of this debate. Judaism is unequivocally “pro-life” in that it values life in all its forms, both actualized and potential. But where that term has come to mean “anti-abortion,” then it is clear that Judaism allows for abortion under at least some circumstances and therefore calls us to advocate for civil laws that protect a woman’s right to access abortion services.

These texts and their subsequent interpretations are a vital resource for all of us who seek to affirm Jewish support for the choice to terminate a pregnancy and to advocate from a Jewish perspective for laws that protect reproductive choice. And we are called to go further; the law is only one facet of a full and holistic justice. Even as Parashat Mishpatim guides us to a choice-oriented understanding of abortion law, it also leaves us with the injustice of a silenced story.

The text in Exodus 21 begins with an act of violence perpetrated against a pregnant woman, and yet this woman is all but absent from subsequent conversation about this passage. Across the centuries, almost all of the voices of Jewish interpretation, and even many modern commentators, fail to acknowledge her story. The interpreters miss the opportunity to see her as subject, rather than object. To see the woman in this text as merely a hypothetical in a legal case study is to deny that cases such as these were very real to the people who experienced them. To reach a full sense of justice in our understanding of abortion, we must pair mishpatim (laws) with sipurim (stories). …

The full chapter by Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler and Rabbi Emily Langowitz appears in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block. To learn more and pre-order the book, visit socialjustice.ccarpress.org.


1. Pew Research Center, “Views about Abortion among Jews,” Religious Landscape Study, 2014, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape- study/religious-tradition/jewish/views-about-abortion/.

2. Mishnah Ohalot 7:6.

3. We recognize the complexity of this term and acknowledge that it is not only women who experience pregnancy and abortion and also that not all women can experience pregnancy. We offer this word for simplicity but intend it to include a broad range of experiences and identities.

4. Many trace the split between lenient and strict positions to Rashi and Maimonides, respectively. See Rashi’s comment on Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzei-ach Ushmirat Nefesh 1:9. Rashi defines the fetus as non-nefesh (in keeping with our passage in Exodus), while Maimonides focuses his discussion on the fetus as a rodeif (meaning only if the fetus is actively pursuing the life of the mother should the pregnancy be terminated). For fuller discussion of the halachic texts that flow from each side, see Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

5. Babylonian Talmud, Y’vamot 69b.


Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler serves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas.

Rabbi Emily Langowitz serves as program manager for Jewish learning and engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.