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“The Heart Knows The Bitterness Of Its Own Soul”: Trusting The Pregnant Person

This week’s d’var Torah on Reproductive Justice and the Yoma 82a-83a.

This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to speak to the congregation since the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked. I’m glad to have had a little time to process. Because frankly, sometimes it feels like I’ve already said it all.

This Tuesday, many of my friends and colleagues participated in the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice, standing up for abortion access and other forms of reproductive justice in our nation’s capital. They reiterated that the Jewish tradition supports reproductive justice, that abortion is healthcare, and that those who ground their opposition to abortion in “Judeo-Christian” values do not speak for us.

I’ve spoken on the bimah and in the classroom (and a lot of times on Zoom) about how the Jewish tradition not only permits contraception and abortion, but in some cases actually mandates it; when the life, health, and wellbeing of a pregnant person or their family is in jeopardy. I’ve spoken about Judaism’s narrow definition of personhood, and the exceptions our tradition makes to the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.”

I’m not going to do that tonight, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m tired. I’ve been learning and teaching about this since I was in rabbinical school. I can’t even imagine the exhaustion that my mother’s and grandmothers’ generation must be feeling, having been around to witness a world without access to safe abortion care, having fought so hard to protect our right to self-determination, and having thought that fight might finally be over.

But the main reason I’m not going to talk about Judaism’s philosophical approach to abortion is because, honestly, it shouldn’t be relevant to a Supreme Court decision. While I hope that there are great legal minds somewhere developing a case to challenge abortion bans based on the idea that it infringes on our freedom to practice our religion, I don’t think that this is what the fight should be about.

The fight should not be about whose religion says what about abortion. The fight should be about who gets to decide whether or not a pregnancy is carried to term.

Right after the draft decision was leaked, a meme appeared on social media saying,

“I’m pro-Becky who found out at her 20-week anatomy scan that the infant she had been so excited to bring into this world had developed without life-sustaining organs.…

I’m pro-Melissa who’s working two jobs just to make ends meet and has to choose between continuing a pregnancy in poverty or feeding the children she already has because her spouse walked out on her.

I’m pro-Brittany who realizes that she is in no way financially, emotionally, or physically able to parent. …” and so on…

A few days later, a new meme appeared with a similar list of names. But after each name, it simply said, “whose reasons for ending their pregnancy are none of your business.”

Safe access to abortion care is a public health issue and an economic justice issue. Pregnant people die without it. Parents and families struggle to care for their children and lift themselves out of poverty without it. But most of all, it’s a privacy issue.

Terminating a pregnancy is a deeply personal decision. It is also a medical decision, like any other medical decision.

While any individual might look to their partner, family, or faith community for guidance and support, at the end of the day, the decision is between a pregnant person and their medical provider. No one else gets to be in that room. Not clergy from your faith or clergy from another faith. And absolutely not your legislator.

It is important to know that the same reasoning could be applied to bans on gender-affirming medical care, which like abortion is already subject to unnecessary government interference in many states. Ironically, this could impact regulations on infertility treatments as well. It is essential that we continue to fight to keep our legislators out of all of our medical decisions.

In addition to protesting the Supreme Court decision, we must urge both state and federal lawmakers to pass legislation codifying the right to access safe abortion care. We can also contribute to the National Council of Jewish Women’s Jewish Fund for Abortion Access, which supports abortion providers and others who help pregnant people access safe abortion care.

While I don’t think Jewish texts about reproductive health should be relevant to this fight, I wouldn’t be a rabbi if I didn’t share one. As I said earlier, if there’s a text about Judaism and reproductive rights, I’ve already preached on it. So this text isn’t about contraception or abortion. It’s about fasting on Yom Kippur.

Fasting on Yom Kippur is something that, in an ideal situation, every Jewish adult is expected to do. Even, according to the rabbis, someone who is pregnant. But of course, the rabbis recognize that we do not always live in an ideal world, and that human beings each have different needs. So if a person is ill, and fasting would make things worse, that person is commanded to eat.

Because things can never be quite this simple for the rabbis, they break this down even further. Who gets to decide if the sick person eats? At first, they say that it is at the advice of medical experts. This is especially true if the sick person refuses to eat, putting themselves in danger.

But what if the situation is reversed, and it’s the sick person saying they need to eat, and the medical expert saying it isn’t necessary. “Rabbi Yannai said: If an ill person says they need to eat, and a doctor says they do not need to eat, one listens to the ill person. What is the reason for this halakha? It is because the verse [in Proverbs] states: “The heart knows the bitterness of its soul” (Proverbs 14:10), meaning an ill person knows the intensity of their pain and weakness, and doctors cannot say otherwise” (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 83a)

By the way, this also applies to a pregnant person who feels ill or craves food on Yom Kippur. In this case, of course, the rabbis can’t resist a little patronizing, encouraging them not to eat and telling them that the child will be more righteous if they continue to fast. But the last word goes to the pregnant person. Not only can they break their fast, if their craving is for a specific forbidden food item, even then the rabbis defer to the pregnant person. Because the pregnant person is the authority on their own suffering. The pregnant person is the expert on what their body needs (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 82 a-b).

Like our legislators, the rabbis were by no means experts in pregnancy and childbirth. But they were well-versed in human suffering. And they taught that when a person tells us what they need to alleviate their suffering—be that physical, mental, financial, or spiritual—we are told to believe them, to support them, and to give them what they know they need.

Our wisdom literature teaches that, “The heart knows the bitterness of its own soul.” We must continue to remind our leaders that the only compassionate response to suffering is to trust and support people as they decide what is best for themselves and their families.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz