As the United States continues to grapple with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. WadeI can’t help but think of how the court used a legal system built entirely by men to reduce women – once again – to nothing more than a vessel to produce babies.
I am a rabbi in a legal system that has excluded women for thousands of years, just like the legal system that the Supreme Court relied on in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. But unlike the American legal system, the Jewish tradition, in some respects, including abortion, has found a way to craft laws based on the equal dignity of women.
When I read the majority opinion of Judge Samuel Alito in Dobbs vs. Jackson, I was struck that he chose to rely on a judicial system that was at best indifferent to women’s health and at worst hostile. Alito wrote: “The inescapable conclusion is that the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the history and traditions of the Nation. On the contrary, an unbroken tradition of prohibition of abortion under pain of sanctions criminal law persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.
When I became a rabbi, I knew I was fighting against a nearly 6,000-year-old tradition that didn’t see women as equal to men, but I also loved how the Torah and later rabbinic sages fought. for a fairer world. My favorite story is about five brave sisters in the book of Numbers. After the death of their father, Zelophehad, they protested to Moses that it was unfair that they could not inherit the land simply because they were women. Moses took their call to God and God sided with the sisters; daughters in their place could indeed inherit. A rabbinic interpretation in an ancient text called Sifre Bamidbar, explains the story: “The mercies of God are not like the mercies of people. People care more for men than for women. But He who spoke and brought forth the world is not like that, rather God’s concern is for men and women. God’s concern is for all. (Sifre Bamidbar 133) God has more compassion, is more committed to equality than the ‘man.
It is perhaps in this spirit that the rabbis recognized that a woman’s life takes precedence over a fetus. They took this lesson directly from the Torah. There are two verses in Exodus 21:22-23, which tell the story of two men who fight and hurt a pregnant woman, resulting in her miscarriage. The verse explains that if the only harm caused is the miscarriage, then the perpetrator must pay a fine. But if the pregnant person is seriously injured, the sentence will be life for life, as in other homicides.
“The mercies of God are not like the mercies of people. People care more for men than for women. But the One who spoke and brought the world into being is not like that, rather God’s concern is for both men and women. God’s concern is for all.” (Sifre Bamidbar 133) God is more compassionate, more equal than man.
The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that the men did not commit murder and the fetus is not a person. The main concern of the verse is for the woman who was injured. Later rabbinical sources state that the beginning of a child’s life is at birth. The fetus, after the first trimester, is life, but it is not yet endowed with the same rights as a person who breathes. A fetus is considered a physical part of the pregnant woman’s body (Gittin 23b). The fetus is not considered separate from the parent’s body until labor and delivery begin – traditionally, not until “most of the child has emerged” during the birthing process . (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6) And if the life of the mother is in danger, the pregnancy must be terminated.
What would it be like for a woman to grow up surrounded by a community that cared for her body not only as a vessel for children, but for all her ambitions, whatever they might be? It is in this environment that I grew up. From the age of 13, I was raised by a single mother, with my two sisters. I grew up believing that I could do anything as a woman; this was proven to me by watching my mother run her own business, own her own home, vote in elections, and manage her own bank account. Rights that I did not record, until later in life, have been fiercely defended by generations of women. When I left home, I faced the reality that carrying a child into the workforce is an extremely difficult thing to do.
In my second job outside of rabbinical school, I started my job when I was six weeks pregnant. My husband and I had moved to a new town and he was a graduate student. Our health care and income came solely from my work. For the next 12 weeks, I wore baggy clothes for fear that someone might find out that I was pregnant.
Pregnant working women are stigmatized. It can be difficult to advance in your career, it can cause fear that those you work for will think you are not committed to the job. And that’s before we even talk about parental leave. My boss – in a religious institution – gave me two weeks off after the birth of my child. During childbirth, I had third degree tears in my vagina. I could barely sit for three weeks. While I was recovering, I suffered from postpartum depression. All this after the birth of a deeply desired child.
I took eight weeks of “leave” from work, without pay, and came back unprepared and sick.
It wasn’t the first time I learned that America has a complicated relationship with women, with women and work, and with women and their bodies. Pregnancy and childbirth are not easy, painless or emotionless. Neither does abortion.
The Supreme Court chose to rely on the laws of a political system that excluded women. But we now have the power to organise, to vote and to lead. I saw and contributed to the modernization of a much older legal system: Judaism. I know it can be done. Just as God commanded Moses to treat the daughters of Zelophehad the same, and just as the rabbis insisted on protecting pregnant women above all else, we too can make this change.
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt is the Co-Chief Rabbi of Congregation Adas Israel in Washington DC.