Repro Shabbat, a Shabbat Dedicated to Study about Jewish Tradition & Abortion

Rabbis from around the country have signed on to teach for the National Council of Jewish Women’s “Repro Shabbat” this weekend. The goal is to create conversation about reproductive health access, rights and justice, and to learn more about Judaism’s approach to these issues. For me, this was an easy yes. Thank God, I have never been faced with the difficult choice of having to terminate a pregnancy. But my belief that pregnant individuals have the right to their own health decisions feels no less urgent or personal.

A recent Pew Research Center study says that 83% of American Jews are in favor of legal abortion. Like me, you may be wondering, if 83% of us already support reproductive freedom, why do we need a Shabbat dedicated to this topic?

My first answer to this question is that we should know what Jewish wisdom says about the topics most relevant to us. Repro Shabbat intentionally coincides with Parshat Mishpatim because this week we read one of the foundational pesukim (Torah verses) on this topic. The Torah says, “if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet she doesn’t die, he shall be surely fined…. But if she dies, then thou shalt give life for life.” Here, the Torah teaches that the fetus does not have the same “personhood” status as the mother. This text paves the way for other permissive statements.

For example, Mishna Ohalot says that if a woman has a life-threatening difficulty in childbirth, one dismembers the fetus within her because her life takes precedence. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, an ultra-Orthodox contemporary commentator, adds that “it doesn’t matter what type of pain and suffering is endured, physical or emotional, as emotional pain and suffering is to a large extent much greater than physical pain and suffering.” Here, Rabbi Waldenberg acknowledges that prioritizing the parent’s health means taking into account both their mental and physical state. Our tradition supports a pregnant person’s right to prioritize their mental and physical health over their unborn child.

Second, there is a new Supreme Court and currently over 450 restrictions on abortion access passed since 2011, and at least 18 cases in lower courts that could come before the Supreme Court. Coupled with this is the statistic that one in four people will terminate a pregnancy before the age of 45. This means that there are people in our own community for whom this is not a theoretical conversation.  It is incumbent upon us, as a camp community, to provide loving and welcoming spaces for people who need support.

Above all, this Shabbat, I am inspired to step out of my own needs, community, and awareness zone. I have a commitment to reproductive freedom but not a deep understanding of how this issue truly affects those in more marginalized communities, such as people who live in poverty, are in abusive relationships, and immigrants. We know that limiting reproductive health access disproportionately affects these communities and that high rates of unsafe abortions are directly associated with laws restricting access to critical health care. It is time to elevate the voices of those who suffer the consequences of limiting care. We need to move past why this issue matters to “me” and toward why it matters to “us.” Much of Parshat Mishpatim is dedicated to ensuring that those most marginalized in society are protected. We cannot stand idly by while barriers to healthcare are being erected instead of torn down.

I encourage you to join me this Shabbat for additional study and reflection on this important topic. Please click here for NCJW’s Repro Shabbat Study Guide.