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Is Reproductive Choice a Jewish Value?

By Laurie Tamber

On September 1, 2021, the Texas Fetal Heartbeat Act went into effect. This new law passed by the Texas Legislature mandates that an abortion cannot be performed once embryonic cardiac activity is detected, usually at six weeks of gestation. There is no exemption for rape or incest. Other states are rolling out similar laws. 

In framing the reproductive choice argument, we are often presented with an argument of religion vs secularism. However, a 2014 Pew Research study on religious opinions about abortion showed that 83% of Jews surveyed believed that abortion should be legal, a higher percentage than almost any other group. Even mainstream Protestants polled at 60% favoring legal abortion. Evangelical Protestants, however, polled at 63% opposing abortion. A majority of people in this country, religious as well as secular, believe that women are constitutionally entitled to the right to choose; it should not be a close question. We should also ask where this leaves the separation of church and state. A decision to terminate a pregnancy, should rest solely with the women, her partner, and her physician. Lawmakers and lifetime judicial appointees who may have extremely conservative religious views should be excluded from the equation.

Let’s take another look at SB 8 the Texas law that is at the heart of the controversy (no pun intended), which is being heralded by its proponents as protecting the right to life of the pre-born. A majority of doctors have opposed the term “fetal heartbeat,” which is used in the statutory language. At this early stage of pregnancy, there is no heartbeat. There is, however, a collection of cells and electrical activity. For those who may think that SB 8 has no historical precedent, (turning people in for money) look at how the Nazis and Stalin came to power. Each of those tyrants weaponized duly enacted laws to turn family members against family members and neighbors against neighbors. What was the motivating factor: money? Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The fabric or our democratic society, ever so fragile, can easily be ripped asunder.

Theologically, Judaism questions whether the fetus can be considered a living person. The Talmud refers to a fetus of less than forty days as “mere water.” Even after those first forty days, our writings tell us that the fetus is not considered a person. Jewish law tells us that the soul is not infused into the body until the time of birth when the first breath is taken. In the Jewish religion, abortion is permitted in many cases, and even required if the life of the mother is at risk. While the branches of Judaism may differ on the details, there does exist agreement that the life of the mother takes precedence over all else.

NCJW’s scholar in residence, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has written and spoken widely on the issue of reproductive choice and is a passionate defender of the right to choose. Rabbi Ruttenberg has said that: “The establishment clause states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Much of the argument for abortion access has been rooted in a very specific Christian perspective; those who seek to restrict abortion rights are seeking to impose their religious views on others, which is inherently unconstitutional.” Rabbi Ruttenberg further states that, “The majority of people of every religious tradition believe in abortion justice—and not despite our religious or spiritual or faith commitments, but because of them. Because we are called to pursue a more just world and know that abortion bans deepen every inequality that exists in our society. Because we know that every person has the right to dignity, autonomy, and self-determination. Because we believe in a world based in liberation, not one based in oppression.”

To further their goal of reproductive justice, the National Council of Jewish Women is sponsoring a movement known as 73Forward. Individuals from all branches of our faith and from partner organizations are coming together to fight for the right to choose. The movement seeks to “rewrite the narrative” around abortion access and make the conversation far more inclusive. To better understand NCJW’s argument, read the NCJW position paper on abortion, click here.

In what was a breach of the sanctity of the chambers of the Supreme Court, a first draft of a decision overturning Roe written by Justice Samuel Alito has made its way into the public sphere. What is the endgame here; and why was the decision leaked?  Those that favor the demise of Roe are focused on the leak rather than the core issue of the right to choose. For them, it is far better to get folks to ‘look over there’. Those of us who continue to support reproductive choice and women’s health, should not be distracted from our mission while the supporters of this decision are already claiming victory for their extremely conservative Christian views, in spite of the fact that a majority of Americans of all faiths, support a woman’s right to reproductive choice.

The Bat Mitzvah Girl

by Laurie Tamber

When I was young, our family’s conservative synagogue educated boys and girls together in its Hebrew school, but only the boys received a Bar Mitzvah. So, when my Hebrew school education was cut short because we couldn’t manage to form a carpool, no one in the family was particularly upset, certainly not me. I had more time for girl scouts and music lessons. Times change quickly; by the early 1960s Jews began to question why girls learning alongside boys were not being treated the same. By the time my younger sisters reached Hebrew school age, girls were being given the option to be called to the Torah at a Friday evening service and to become a Bat Mitzvah. To me, it seemed as if the scene shifted overnight like magic. Who knew that this “overnight sensation” was decades in the making? 

Only one hundred years ago, in March 1922, the United States saw its first Bat Mitzvah ceremony, thanks to the perseverance of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Through his studies of philosophy, religion, and history, Kaplan began to challenge many of the tenets of orthodoxy. The cornerstone of Kaplan’s view of religion was that “the ancients have a voice, not a veto.” He thought that Judaism needed to be an evolving religion, and that prayer and study should be only one part of the services offered by a synagogue. He also became a champion of the movement for equality of women. Perhaps it was because his own father, an orthodox rabbi, educated both his son and his daughter equally. After a schism developed in his congregation over his radical positions, he left and started the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. That same year, Kaplan’s oldest daughter Judith was turning thirteen. 

To place things in context, we must remember that this was the era of the first wave of the women’s movement. While Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first women’s rights movement in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote was not passed until 1920 after decades of marches, meetings, and arrests of the women who became known as the suffragists. It was into this world that Judith Kaplan came of age and her father suggested that she take her rightful place in the Jewish community. 

Houston’s own Dr. Daniel Musher, grandson of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, said that Judith was an extremely bright young woman, well versed in her religious studies. Despite both grandmothers’ disapproval and Judith’s ambivalence, the entire family walked to their Synagogue on a Saturday morning in March. After the Torah service, Judith came to the front of the room, but not onto the bimah where the Torah scroll sat. She read the prayers and the Torah portion in Hebrew and English, but from her Chumash, not from the Torah. After that, she sat down, the Torah was returned to the ark, and the service continued as usual. Rabbi Kaplan’s other daughters also became Bat Mitzvah when they reached the age of thirteen. In fact, Hadassah Kaplan, Daniel Musher’s mother, was the second Bat Mitzvah. 

What happened next? Initially not much. After a slow start, the Bat Mitzvah did catch on in Reform and Conservative Judaism in the 1960s with the second wave of the women’s movement. Along with that came another innovation of Kaplan’s: allowing women to have an Aliyah to the Torah. As years went by another development began as well. Women who had never had a formal Jewish education began clamoring for adult education courses on all things Jewish. Along with folk dancing, Jewish cooking classes, and Jewish traditions, women began requesting courses in Hebrew, Jewish liturgy, and Torah study. Starting in the 1980s, many congregations began offering study which led to an adult Bat Mitzvah. In 1992 when my New York temple hired a new rabbi, he polled the membership to see if there were any adult congregants interested in studying for a Bat Mitzvah. At this point my husband was president of the Temple, I was intimately involved in the life of the Temple, and our daughter was studying to become a Bat Mitzvah. I had all the prayers memorized but I couldn’t read Hebrew, so what could be more perfect! Fifteen of us signed up for the classes. Along with the Rabbi, we studied in each other’s homes for a year and a half and became fast friends. We were each other’s tutors and cheerleaders. What an incredible sense of accomplishment when we ascended the bimah one Shabbat and led the entire service. In our Dvar Torah presentations we spoke of the profound impact this study and its accompanying ceremony had on our lives and our sense of ourselves as empowered Jewish women. In the ensuing years I have seen women from their thirties through their eighties complete the adult Bat Mitzvah classes with that same sense of pride in their achievement. 

In today’s world there are many reasons for women to choose to study for a Bat Mitzvah in adulthood: lack of opportunity in childhood, a non-observant family, childhood learning disabilities, setting an example for her children or grandchildren, a Jew-by-choice; the reasons are numerous. NCJWHOU’s member Beverly Sufian became a Bat Mitzvah in 2021. Once her grandson Joseph received his Bar Mitzvah date, her daughter suggested that Beverly take the opportunity to share the occasion with her grandson and have the Bat Mitzvah that was not available in her youth. The process of preparing took months rather than years. Beverly had been educated in Hebrew as a youngster and had regularly attended Shabbat services as an adult. In addition, she had studied Torah and Talmud. She also had the advantage of having a friend who taught her the trope for reading the Torah. She describes the experience of having her Bat Mitzvah with her grandson as extremely moving and meaningful. Like Beverly, most women discover tremendous support from friends and relatives alike after making the decision to “go for it.” As one of my friends put it: “I will be your coach and I will be there to catch you if you fall.”