(This post is excerpted from remarks shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. Here is the link to the larger blog post, “Roe vs. Wade at 40 years: Real Lives and Vulnerabilities of Women.”)
In the recent election cycle, it was common for us to hear from those advocating their position on reproductive rights in national, state and local law. Some advocated that Roe vs. Wade should be struck down by the Supreme Court. Others suggested persuasively that a court’s definition of life is not nearly as important as what each of us learns from searching our own conscience.
Ideally, as we in Reform Jewish congregational life approach this month’s 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, this would be a time for each of us to step back from the stigma attached to public discussion of reproductive rights. For no matter how volatile this conversation can be at the Supreme Court or our state legislature, Jews and Jewish communities can elevate the conversation to focus on real issues women and men face.
I know abortion is not an easy topic to raise. When it comes up, especially in faith institutions, heated debate can arise, based on the political climate. That Jews hold very personal views about whether they would personally seek an abortion is without a doubt. Yet it is also clear that often people in our Jewish community carry a paucity of information about what Judaism actually teaches to guide us in when an abortion is warranted, permissible or mandated.
Indeed it is common knowledge that our Reform Jewish movement advocates publicly to national leaders supporting reproductive rights. But an understanding of texts that underscore such advocacy is hardly found among us. According to a 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute, as many as 1 in 3 women in our country have an abortion or a procedure classified as an abortion during their lifetime. This reminds us how common it is. And it is why we need more than the talking points of political parties to participate in honest reflective discussion.
At the very least, I want my synagogue, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, and others around the country to offer to congregants a better grasp of Jewish teachings on this topic, before an unwanted pregnancy occurs in our families, or before a new legal restriction is imposed here in Ohio. In the coming weeks, I hope congregations in our movement will do as we are here at Anshe Chesed, and facilitate discussions on abortion and Jewish law in the settings of classes and workshops offered to our community, to improve their knowledge of our own Jewish texts regarding this issue.
In addition, I want to share information with fellow congregations about a critical campaign that has been launched called “My Abortion, My Life.” I learned about this campaign during a gathering at a neighboring Clevelander in association with Preterm, a local nonprofit clinic here in our community. “My Abortion, My Life,” is a national campaign to encourage thoughtful, respectful discussion of abortion experiences. The goal of the campaign is to help us learn from one another, and reduce the stigma and shame associated with abortion. When invited to a neighbor’s home for this house-meeting, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But during the course of a short program and discussion which followed, I learned a great deal from a diverse group of Clevelanders discussing abortion in a non-political way. I left moved to be a catalyst for such respectful conversations, in my personal life and in advocacy as a congregational rabbi. Indeed this is precisely the kind of work we ought to be doing in terms of expanding the nature of our advocacy regarding reproductive rights.
During the upcoming anniversary of Roe vs. Wade on Tuesday, January 22, 2013, we will host a reception for a community coalition gathering to reinvigorate our efforts to assure freedom of choice for women in need of an abortion.
Among our guests that evening will be state representatives and senators who are likely to see bills return to the state legislature in January which seek to defund Planned Parenthood, or to outlaw abortions in the case where a fetal heartbeat has been detected. It is indeed important for us to play a role in continuing to speak out at our congregation for choice and reproductive rights. But it is only part of our work.
On the Friday which follows the 40th year anniversary, Friday, January 25th, 2013, we will share a Shabbat evening service ay, Jan. 25 when both secular and Jewish perspectives on women and reproductive rights will be offered. This will include a presentation by our Cantor, Sarah J. Sager on the midwives in Exodus, Shifrah and Puah, and their response to restrictive laws in Egypt. We have also invited a representative from the “My Abortion, My Life,” campaign to speak, so as to encourage thoughtful, respectful discussion of abortion experiences within the circle of our temple families and their friends. If we can do more to advocate for choice, while also reducing stigma and shame associated with abortion, we will be fulfilling our historic mandate to pursue a more just and peaceful society in which the dignity, health and well-being of our citizens is at the top of our agenda.
Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk is the Senior Rabbi at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, OH.