“There is no law without story.”
This was Rabbi Aviva Richman’s refrain during the Hadar Institute’s two-day conversation about Jewish perspectives on abortion. This is how she explained why, in addition to traditional and contemporary rabbinic rulings, this conversation included the voices of modern scholars and health-care professionals, those who had struggled with infertility and perinatal loss, and those who had themselves faced the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy.
Throughout our tradition, in the Bible and the Talmud, we see authority figures making rules about how we should live in the world. But just as often, we find stories that acknowledge the “messiness of our lives and our bodies,” particularly when it comes to pregnancy, birth, and raising children (Rabbi Aviva Richman, “Stories We Know and Don’t Know: A Quest for Agency and Dignity,” Panel, August 3, 2022).
This morning, we read the story of Abraham’s willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice. One reason this story resonates so deeply is because Isaac was a long-awaited child, his conception and birth the product of divine intervention.
Some Jewish communities read a different passage this morning: the chapter about Isaac’s miraculous birth and its aftermath. In this part of the story, we learn that even a much-wanted child has the power to break a family apart.
Prior to Isaac’s birth, Sarah had long considered herself barren. Knowing that her husband is destined to have offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky, she provides Abraham with a surrogate, an enslaved Egyptian woman named Hagar. Sarah intends to adopt this child as her own, something that was legally possible at the time. But the story turns out to be much more complicated than that.
We have no sense of whether Hagar wanted, or even consented, to conceive a child with Abraham. But once she becomes pregnant, Hagar’s inflated sense of importance angers Sarah. When Hagar flees Sarah’s abuse, an angel tells her to return home and “submit to Sarah’s harsh treatment,” because Hagar will soon give birth to a son, whose name means “God has paid heed to your suffering” (Genesis 16: 9-11).
Although Ishmael’s birth is celebrated, Sarah’s own miraculous geriatric pregnancy threatens the family dynamic. Sarah views Abraham’s older child as a threat to her own son’s future. She demands that her husband send away “that slave woman and her son,” and Abraham agrees. Only divine intervention prevents Hagar and Ishmael from dying of thirst in the desert.
This story reminds us of the pain, both physical and emotional, that our ancestors went through to build their families. And it reminds us of what can happen when none of the choices we have are good ones.
We often speak about contraception and abortion as a matter of reproductive choice. But what we really need to be talking about is reproductive justice. Loretta J. Ross and Richie Solinger define reproductive justice as “the right not to have a child; the right to have a child; and the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments … reproductive justice demands sexual autonomy and gender freedom for every human being” (Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch, The Social Justice Torah Commentary, p. 308).
In a story rooted in reproductive justice, Sarah and Abraham might have chosen to build their family through birth, surrogacy, or adoption, but not without Hagar’s consent. Hagar would not be forced into surrogacy, nor would she fear for her safety at home, as many pregnant people do, even today. Both women might have been able to raise their children without fear of either child being deprived of their father’s love, resources, or covenantal destiny. Hagar would not have been cast out by her son’s father, fearing for her own life, and for Ishmael’s, as they searched for water in the desert.
Throughout the Bible, we see many instances of women who desperately want to be pregnant. But we also find plenty of women who are not thrilled by the experience. Even Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, whose pregnancy comes after twenty years of praying, finds herself overwhelmed by the turmoil going on inside of her body. She goes as far as to inquire of God, im ken, lamah zeh anochi, “If so, why do I exist?” (Genesis 25:22).
God tells Rebecca that she is pregnant with twins, two nations that will be constantly at odds with one another, hence their constant wrestling in utero.
But the rabbis suggest that Rebecca is not only concerned with her children’s futures. She wants to understand, and make others understand, the pain that she is enduring in this moment. Some say she went around to all the women she knew, asking, “Did you experience pain like this?” Others say she confronted God directly saying, “If this is what it takes to give birth once, I’d rather not be the mother of all twelve tribes,” a role that is later shared by her daughters-in-law and their “handmaids” (Genesis Rabbah 63:6, Etz Yosef). Rabbi Chaim Paltiel (13th century French commentator) even suggests that Rebecca’s inquiry might have been a coded way of seeking to terminate a difficult pregnancy (Rabbi Tali Adler, “Matriarchs and Reproductive Justice,” Panel, August 3, 2022).
No matter how we read the story, we find a woman who is seeking care, compassion, and some semblance of control over her body and her future. Care, compassion, and control can be elusive for many pregnant people, even today. Especially today.
This June, we watched in horror as the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health overturned the landmark abortion rights cases Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Almost immediately, total and near-total abortion bans began to go into effect in states across the country. In many places, it was already incredibly difficult for low-income people, BIPOC, and other vulnerable groups to access abortion care, and other essential reproductive health care.
I don’t have to tell you how crucial the next few elections will be for our state and our nation. It is imperative that we vote, and it is crucial that we hold our present and future lawmakers accountable for protecting abortion access in our state, and in our country, regardless of party affiliation. We need to let them know that the so-called “pro-life” movement does not speak for us as people of faith: that we believe that abortion is health care, and that providing safe access to reproductive health care is consistent with our Jewish values.
One way in which we need to be especially vigilant is to stand up against PA State Senate Bill 106, which would put a constitutional amendment on our state primary ballot this coming May, “providing that there is no constitutional right to taxpayer-funded abortion or other right relating to abortion.”
When I told the reporter at the Jewish Exponent that I would be speaking on this topic today, he raised some good questions: Why speak about this on Rosh Hashana? Why is abortion access a Jewish issue? How would I respond to naysayers? And what could I say that would be different from what we hear daily from journalists, activists, and politicians?
And I responded that I am speaking about this today, as we celebrate the world’s birth, because on Rosh Hashana, we acknowledge that the choices we make can have life or death consequences for us and those around us. On these High Holy Days, we remember that we are responsible for protecting society’s most vulnerable. For so many people, access to abortion care is a matter of pikuach nefesh, preserving life. The erosion of abortion access taking place in our country right now disproportionately puts the most vulnerable people in our society at risk. But if there is one thing I can say, that might change someone’s way of thinking about abortion as a Jewish person, it is that often terminating a pregnancy is how we choose life.
I have spent many years studying and teaching about Jewish perspectives on reproductive justice. I could lecture extensively on Jewish theories of personhood and when an abortion is permitted, or even necessitated, by Jewish law.
But this year, while studying with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, an Orthodox theologian who might not always agree with me about when abortion is permissible, I realized that I have been asking the wrong question. The question is not, “When does life begin?” and it is not “Whose life matters most in this situation?” The question is “What is the most life-affirming decision we can make in this moment?” and “Who gets to make that decision?”
This may seem counterintuitive, since the idea of “choosing life” has been coopted by those who seek to block access to abortion care. Even within the framework of “reproductive justice,” we might imagine other life-affirming choices our communities can make. We could invest in healthcare and education, paid leave and childcare, pay equity, food security and affordable housing. These too might help create safer, healthier, places to be pregnant, to give birth, and to raise children.
But when we encounter the stories of the very real people who are faced with these decisions, we see that there are many circumstances when terminating a pregnancy is the best, or the only, life-affirming choice.
Sometimes, this is because a pregnant person’s life is endangered by continuing a pregnancy.
Sometimes, this is because a fetal anomaly would cause pain and suffering to all those involved if the pregnancy were carried to term.
Sometimes, this is because the circumstances of the pregnancy have brought anguish to the pregnant person and their loved ones.
And sometimes, this is because it is just the best decision for the pregnant person, their loved ones, and their future.
“There is no law without story.” In recent years, I’ve started to collect stories from people have come forward to publicly share their experiences with abortion, so that we can study them alongside Jewish and secular law. One of these testimonials comes from writer Jessica Valenti, who has been open about her two abortions: one she chose when she was a young woman not ready to be a mother; another she chose as a young mother whose life was at risk if she carried a subsequent pregnancy to term.
“That [first] abortion didn’t just allow me to create my family,” she writes, “it has had ripple effects. All abortions do. Because of my abortion, I wrote books and gave speeches; I did work that helped other women….. Without my abortion, none of that—all that was difficult and all that I’m proud of and grateful for—would have happened. Without abortion, I wouldn’t have the friends I have now, or the career, or even my very life. Because when I got pregnant again after Layla was born, the chances of my getting sick—and dying, this time—were significant. And so I had a second abortion, one that broke my heart but ensured my daughter grew up with a mother.”
None of us would envy Valenti for having to make these decisions. And I want to acknowledge in this moment that there are people in this room who have faced these kinds of decisions, or who have supported a loved one through a situation in which abortion was the way they chose life. That is why we must protect the rights of pregnant people, and their healthcare providers, to make the most life-affirming decisions that they can, and to trust them to discern the best course of action in the moment.
If this is something that matters to you, even a fraction as much as much as it matters to me, I urge you to visit the National Council of Jewish Women to learn more about what we can do to protect abortion access and reproductive freedom.
Rabbi Avi Strausberg and Adina Roth remind us that “the act of creating life is a tenuous and fragile thing, and that often, “the acts of “creation and destruction are in close proximity.”
In a midrash on the book of Ecclesiastes, we read, “ ‘God brings everything to pass precisely in its time’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Rabbi Tanhuma says, “In its season, the world was created; it wasn’t fit to create it earlier….” Rabbi Abahu said that we learn from here that the Holy Blessed One was building worlds and destroying them, creating worlds and destroying them, until God created these and said, “This is pleasing to me, those were not pleasing to me.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:11).
This is a side of creation, and a side of God, we do not always see. In this story, God knows that there is a right time for each creation to come into being, and that destruction is sometimes, often, a prelude to creation. A modern midrash by Tamar Biale imagines God here as a Being who “mourns the capacity for destruction, even as She chooses it,” and who, even as She understands that now is not the right time, “feels the strain of worlds wanting to be born” (Rabbi Avi Strausberg and Adina Roth, “When Worlds Fall at Our Feet,” Lecture, August 3, 2022).
Jessica Valenti writes that, “Anti-choicers like to pose hypotheticals about the remarkable baby a woman could have if she just didn’t get an abortion: What if they cured cancer? …. They never consider that we could be the remarkable ones, if only given the chance. The lives and experiences abortions create, though, don’t have to be extraordinary to matter,” Valenti says, “I think less about the books I’ve written because of my abortion, and more about how without it, Layla’s best friend never would have met her. …. The truth is that all abortions create something. Paths forward, lives lived, connections made. Some are hard, some are beautiful—but all are chosen. And that’s what we can’t afford to lose.”
“There is no law without story.” And these stories, ancient and modern, remind us that we do not have the right to choose when someone else brings life into this world. We can only choose what kind of world we want to create for those who choose to be pregnant, to give birth, and to parent children, as well as for those who choose not to. But most of all, we can choose what kind of world we’ll create for those whose time has come to be born.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, “Unetaneh Tokef After Roe.”