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Making An Idol Out Of The Unborn

This week’s d’var Torah on Ki Tissa and Reproductive Justice.

A few weeks ago, our community observed #ReproShabbat, an initiative of the National Council of Jewish Women. #Repro Shabbat is observed on the week we read Mishpatim, a Torah portion that briefly addresses the personhood of a fetus.

But given the mounting legal challenges to Roe v. Wade and the new restrictions on abortion being proposed every day in state legislatures, we probably need to devote more than one Shabbat to the topic of reproductive justice.

With Roe being challenged at the federal level, it is now essential that we familiarize ourselves with what’s going on in our state. One might think, living in an urban center in the northeast, that our access to reproductive health care is protected. But it isn’t.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pregnant person in Pennsylvania already faces many obstacles to accessing healthcare in general and abortion care in particular, including state-directed counseling designed to discourage abortion and a 24-hour waiting period. Public funding, including health plans under the state’s health exchange can only cover abortion in cases of rape, incest, and if the pregnant person’s life is endangered. Those on these plans who wish to have coverage for abortion care must anticipate this need and purchase an optional rider. Pregnant minors need parental consent, or a judicial bypass, to obtain an abortion. An abortion can only be performed at or after 24 weeks if the pregnant person’s life or health is endangered. And as far as access is concerned, 85% of Pennsylvania counties have no clinics that provide abortion care.

And if the existing restrictions were not alarming enough, some of our state legislators are proposing additional restrictions on abortion. Right now, there are several bills moving through our state house and state senate that not only impose further restrictions, but lay the groundwork for a fetus to be legally considered a person, and for abortion to be banned almost completely should Roe be overturned. These include a ban on all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy—when most people don’t yet know they’re pregnant (SB 378/HB 904); a ban on abortions based on the results of prenatal genetic testing (SB 21/HB 1500); a requirement to bury embryonic tissue and fetal remains after an abortion (HD 118); a prohibition on providing state family planning funds to entities that also provide abortion care (SB 152); and additional unnecessary reporting requirements for abortion clinics (HB 289).

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, doesn’t mention pregnancy or fetal personhood at all. But it does have something to say about idolatry. This week’s Torah portion includes the incident of the Golden Calf. The Israelites, who recently have entered an exclusive covenant with God at Mount Sinai, break this covenant by worshiping an idol.

In the Israelites’ case, the idol is a tangible object, a calf statue fashioned from their melted down gold jewelry. But idolatry can also be worship of the intangible. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg explains that, “Idolatry is not merely worship of stone and wood. Idolatry consists of giving absolute authority to something relative, that is, anything other than the Divine” (The Jewish Way p. 137). Whether it is our work, our addiction to technology, or our desire for material things–anything that we put above our human relationships, our physical and mental well-being, or our covenant with God, has the potential to become an idol.

And I would argue that, in legislating against reproductive freedom, the anti-choice movement is making an idol out of the unborn.

When we look at some of the legislation being proposed in our own state, we might think that our legislators’ religious beliefs align with ours. Perhaps they believe, as we do, that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and therefore they want to do everything in their power to protect human life from its earliest stages. Perhaps, for them, the injunction to “choose life” in Deuteronomy begins at conception.

But unfortunately, their commitment to the sanctity of human life often ends there as well. Which is why we see so much legislation designed to protect embryos and fetuses, but not much legislation that protects and nurtures actual living human beings, including the pregnant people they are so eager to control. If lawmakers were really so concerned with choosing life, and with the inherent divinity of each individual, we’d probably see a lot more legislation that addressed food insecurity, access to healthcare, childcare, and meaningful employment; inequities in education and the wage gap. We would see a lot more legislation that supports individuals and families both during and after the birth of a child. Instead we see legislation that places the rights of a fetus over the right of people navigating a society that doesn’t provide these types of support.

So what can we do? It is imperative that we contact our state senators and representatives and let them know that these anti-choice legislators do not speak for us. We need to remind them that we are also people of faith with deeply held beliefs, and that our faith demands that we do everything we can to alleviate human suffering, even when it means terminating a pregnancy. It is essential that we keep ourselves apprised of what is going on in our state, and how we can use our own voices and resources to make sure that everyone in our community has access to essential health care. We can support Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates and the National Council of Jewish Women in their work to ensure that reproductive rights are protected and expanded at the state and federal level, even in these tumultuous times.

In her essay, ‘What Reproductive Justice Might Look Like’, Rabbi Emily Langowitz writes:

“As people of faith, we have a responsibility to counteract the dominant societal narrative that assumes that religion is against abortion, reproductive and sexual health access, and reproductive justice. This means that the work we do is twofold: to speak out and reclaim the public narrative around religion and reproductive justice, and to continue to take action that ensures that all people have the access to the information, health care, and services that will reflect their dignity as creative agents made in the image of God” (Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority, Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice).

May our faith guide us as we tear down the idols in our political discourse. And may our own words and our actions affirm our commitment to the freedom and dignity of all human beings.

And let us say, Amen.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz