“Saving Lives and Protecting Religious Freedom”

A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5783

Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD

Vassar Temple

The news reports of the start of a new Supreme Court term this week may well have triggered feelings of anger, fear, and anxiety in many of us, bringing us back to the announcement of decisions from the last term, most especially Dobbs, the reverberations of which are ongoing.

Today in America, abortion is illegal in thirteen states, some with minimal exceptions.   Some states criminalize traveling to a different state for an abortion, others subject anyone who assists someone getting an abortion to criminal charges, which can be brought by anyone and for which bounty is being offered.

Fourteen states are considered “hostile,” meaning that they are on a path towards prohibition or severe restriction, and three are “not protected” which means abortion is still accessible, though without legal protections.  Twenty of the fifty states do protect abortion:  nine are considered “protected” states, meaning that there are some limitations on access to care, and eleven states, including New York, have expanded access to full reproductive care.[i]

More than 100 bills restricting abortion access were introduced this year; some would establish fetal personhood, while others would ban particular abortion methods, allow medical providers to refuse care, restrict insurance coverage or restrict access to telehealth services for medication abortions.  Some bills await passage, others are being adjudicated in the courts.

At the same time, this summer we witnessed the people of Kansas rejecting a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have made abortion illegal.  Similar ballot measures may be forthcoming in other states; Michigan just included one for this November.

Sara Rosenbaum, a health lawyer and professor of public health at George Washington University, who signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief in Dobbs analyzing “Medicaid’s role as the country’s leading health insurer for millions of vulnerable pregnant women, children, people with disabilities” recently commented, a  year later, that “the harms she and her colleagues laid out — particularly the disparate impact on marginalized people — are already beginning to come to pass. 

“We’ve never lived through anything like this.  We are now living in a world in which if my daughter was a resident of Texas or Oklahoma or Tennessee or Idaho or any of the states with these bans, I would tell her: Do not get pregnant… If she were a physician, I would tell her: Do not practice obstetrics or gynecology. You are suddenly in a world that is impossible to navigate, either as a patient or a physician. We have made the world completely unsafe for people who want to have a baby or who practice in a lot of states.”[ii]

The right to abortion is now dictated by geography and that poses tremendous danger to millions.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide:

“the Dobbs decision has resulted in a chaotic legal patchwork that, as of August 2022, leaves some 22 million US women of reproductive age living under highly restrictive laws more typical of low- and middle-income countries than of high-income countries…

Evidence from countries around the globe suggests that, although restrictive abortion laws in many US states are unlikely to substantially lower the incidence of abortion, they will likely increase the proportion of abortions done under unsafe conditions.”[iii]

With studies showing that one in four American women will have an abortion by age 45, you can do the math to determine just how many women’s lives are at stake (and that may not include all who can get pregnant, meaning those in the LGBTQ population who do not label themselves as women). 

I would imagine that this information is not new to most of you, nor is it the first time many of you have heard me speak about abortion rights.  Yet, on this most holy day of our Jewish year, when we recognize just how precious life is, when we fast and contemplate the very meaning of our existence, I feel compelled to speak to this topic once again because of this most dangerous situation in our country and because it is, for a number of reasons, so very much a Jewish issue, one that demands our on-going concern as well as action.

Our Torah reading this morning, taken from Parshat Nitzavim, near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, includes a covenantal affirmation ceremony with the younger generation of Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.  In exhorting them to follow the mitzvot, Moses reminds them that ultimately the choice is theirs: “life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse.  Choose life – so that you and children may live, by loving, obeying and staying close to Adonai your God.”[iv]

“Choosing life.”  In the context of reproductive rights, the language around choice to be “pro-life” was most cleverly usurped by the anti-abortion movement when it took form fifty years ago after Roe.  Judaism is very clear that the obligation to choose life in the case of a pregnancy, means choosing the life of the woman over the that of the fetus.  There are circumstances when abortion is not only permitted, but is demanded, because in Judaism life begins at birth and NOT at conception.

We learn this in Exodus, Chapter 21, which describes the case for damages when a pregnant woman miscarries as a result of being pushed. The responsible party must pay damages. If that pregnancy loss would have been considered murder, the penalty would have been life for life.

The Mishnah, codified in 200 CE, clarifies that life begins when the largest part of the fetus emerges in birth. Up until that point, if the mother’s life is in danger, one must abort. As Jewish law develops, opinions vary on situations when abortion is called for: the most stringent legal opinions limit abortion to cases when the mother’s life is physically at risk, while others – even within the Orthodox community – will permit abortion based on the mother’s physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing.  One case in the Talmud required abortion where the woman’s child could only have her breast milk which was not available while she was pregnant.  The principle here is that the pregnancy is to be terminated to save an existing life.  Certainly, within Reform Judaism, which is predicated on the principle of individual autonomy and choice that is informed by tradition and conscience, we support the right of individuals to make this most difficult, personal decision, based on any number of factors that impact their lives and the lives of their families.

In Jewish law, the fetus is considered to be part of the woman and not a separate entity.  That is why when a pregnant person converts to Judaism, the baby born is Jewish.   Rashi, the great biblical and Talmudic commentator of the 12th century, ruled that a fetus has no legal rights.  Even as a fetus is considered a life in development, Judaism rejects current notions of fetal personhood. 

Judaism teaches that human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  Therefore, all life is sacred and pikuah nefesh, saving a life, is our greatest obligation.   It is that principle that guides us in the debate about reproductive rights.  Today, protecting the lives of pregnant people means ensuring that they receive and have available to them, where they live, complete health and reproductive care, including abortion.  It means that medical personnel must also be able to treat their patients with all tools available to them and to provide their patients with their best medical advice.

The right to abortion is also a matter of justice.  As Jews, we are commanded to pursue justice:  “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof, Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” screams the Torah in Deuteronomy.[v] 

We cannot have a just society when women do not have full autonomy and control over their reproductive decisions, decisions that impact their lives and the lives of their families, when we are not allowed the dignity of being able to make these decisions privately, in consultation with our chosen advisors, without the threat of government interference.

We cannot have a just society where “barriers to health care place any individual’s autonomy, health, economic security, or well-being at risk.”[vi]

The populations hit hardest by current abortion restrictions are those who are already marginalized:  low-income women, who compromise 75% of those who get abortions; black and brown women; young people, 60% of women who get abortions are in their 20s; members of the LGBTQ population; and people with disabilities.  These are among the populations who cannot afford to travel cross country, who don’t have sick days available to them, who need childcare (59% of women seeking abortions already have one child), and who don’t have the financial resources to pay privately for safe reproductive services.[vii] These are the women whose lives are most at risk and the ones who may be forced to bear a child against their will. 

The danger of Dobbs extends past the physical, emotional and economic threats it poses for pregnant people.  Together with other recent Supreme Court decisions, it weakens that most precious wall that separates church and state in this country, the fundamental principle that ensures freedom for people of all faiths – or no faith – not to be bound by the religious beliefs or practices of another faith.  The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” guarantees freedom of religion.  The determination of when life begins is a matter of faith.  My faith teaches me that that life begins at birth and that the life of the pregnant person must take priority.   Laws outlawing or limiting abortion access deny my freedom of religion. 

Jews living in thirteen of the fifty states in this country are currently denied free expression of their religious freedom; they may soon lose that freedom in seventeen others.

But we are not powerless; we can fight for change and protect our rights and religious freedom.   Though we may be a minority, we can join in coalitions with others who support reproductive rights as part of a just society and believe in the preservation of the first amendment.

We can advocate for federal legislation in support of reproductive choice:

As the Women’s Health Protection Act seems out of reach for now, efforts in the Reform movement are focusing on the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act (EACH) that would repeal the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal insurance coverage, such as Medicaid, for abortions, with very narrow exceptions, thereby limiting abortion access for poor women.

We need to ensure that the broad protections and access currently in place in New York State remain that way, which is where our vote comes in!  There are efforts underway to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to our State Constitution.  It already passed in the legislature earlier this year but needs to pass another legislative vote before going to the ballot in the November 2024 election.  The ERA would protect New Yorkers from discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, creed, religion and sex, and it will provide explicit protection of reproductive autonomy.

Al ta’mod al dam re’echa, “Don’t stand idly by while your neighbor reads.”[viii]  We will read this commandment from the Holiness Code of Leviticus this afternoon.  While we live in a state with expanded abortion protection and that welcomes and assists people from other states to come here for health care services, it is upon us to assist those who are not so fortunate.  A National Network of Abortion Funds has been established to ensure that patients get the care they need even when they have to travel far from home.  You can find out more about these funds and other opportunities to take action on the Women of Reform Judaism or the Religious Action Center websites.[ix] 

Local planned parenthood clinics are always looking for more escorts to help create a safer experience for their patients, who are coming to the clinic for any number of reasons, who must pass by protestors saying horrible things in an attempt to intimidate and frighten them. 

We must speak out on this issue, otherwise the only voices out in the public square, the only ones getting out the vote and speaking with their representatives, will be Conservative Christians and those who would like to suppress other religious voices.

We have an opportunity literally to be in the public square this coming Saturday, when there will be a Women’s March downtown as part of a National Day of Action, marking a month before the midterm elections.  The march will step off from the corner of Market and Main streets at noon and head to Waryas Park.  Our Civic Engagement committee is organizing a group to march together.   I will be joining them after services and encourage others to add their voices and presence.

In June the Supreme Court opened a door that has the potential to take our nation backwards to half a century ago.   Many states have already followed that path and others are prepared to follow.  Our individual rights, our religious liberties, are under siege.   It is hard to remain optimistic even as bright moments of hope do occasionally appear.  But ours is a people of great hope who despite overwhelming odds even of our very survival, has never given up, has never lost sight of that vision and promise of a better time, a world that is whole and at peace, that is yet to be.  Ours is the task to be God’s partner and take part in bringing that day about, to be relentless in our pursuit of justice.

And we have never given up on our commitment to the ideals of this great nation.  It is a long-standing Jewish practice to pray for the welfare of the country in which we have lived, “for in its prosperity you shall prosper,” taught the prophet Jeremiah.[x] Thus I close with part of the prayer for our country included in our mahzor:

God of holiness, we hear Your message: Justice, justice you shall pursue.  God of freedom, we hear Your charge: Proclaim liberty throughout the land.  Inspire us through Your teachings and commandments to love and uphold our precious democracy.  Let every citizen take responsibility for the rights and freedoms we cherish.  Let each of us be an advocate for justice, an activist for liberty, a defender of dignity.  And let us champion the values that make our nation a haven for the persecuted, a beacon of hope among the nations.

We pray for all who serve our country with selfless devotion – in peace and in war, from fields of battle to clinics and classrooms, from government to the grassroots:  all those whose noble deeds and sacrifice benefit our nation and our world.

We are grateful for the rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness that our founders ascribed to You, our Creator.  We pray for their wisdom and moral strength, that we may be guardians of these rights for ourselves and for the sake of all people, now and forever.[xi]  


[i] https://reproductiverights.org/abortion-trigger-bans-take-effect-in-three-states-tomorrow/

[ii] https://19thnews.org/2022/09/100-days-since-dobbs-decision/

[iii] https://www.guttmacher.org/article/2022/08/undoing-roe-v-wade-leaves-us-global-outlier-abortion

[iv] Deuteronomy 30:19-20

[v] Deuteronomy 16:20

[vi] https://www.ncjw.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Jewish-Values-and-Reproductive-Justice-.pdf 

[vii] https://www.guttmacher.org/united-states/abortion/demographics

[viii] Leviticus 19:16

[ix] www.wrj.org or www.rac.org

[x] Jeremiah 29:7

[xi] Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, p. 286


A “Victim-Centered” Approach to Teshuvah

A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5783

Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD

Vassar Temple

Video technology, such as zoom has had many positive impacts on our lives, including our ability to connect with so many people for these services who might not be able to attend otherwise.  Personally, I am also grateful for this technology for the learning that I have been able to do without leaving my study.  I honestly can’t remember if in the days before COVID my rabbinic organization, the CCAR, offered as many online webinars as it does now.  Especially in the weeks leading up to the Yamim Noraim, hundreds of rabbis took advantage of the opportunities provided to us to learn from and with colleagues and from experts in different fields, exploring various current issues and topics about which we might preach and teach during these holy days.

One such presenter, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, writer and scholar-in-residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, shared some new approaches to thinking about repentance.  She spoke about writing her recently published book, On Repentance and Repair:  Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, in the aftermath of the #Me Too revelations.  After engaging in multiple online discussions on the question of repentance, she decided to immerse herself in the writings of the major Jewish authority on repentance, the 12th century rabbinic scholar Moses Maimonides.  Her book applies that guidance to all kinds of situations –interpersonal relationships, public figures, institutions, even nations.

Maimonides’ steps for repentance include:  taking ownership of the wrongdoing, committing to change, making amends, apologizing and, finally, making different choices so as not to repeat that sin again.  Now, Maimonides’ steps for repentance are probably familiar to many of us. What I found different and really thought provoking in Ruttenberg’s book was the focus that she brought to the victim of the hurt.  For repentance to be effective, it must be victim centered.  All of these steps must be less about what it means for the perpetrator, the harm do-er, and more about the impact upon and needs of the victim.  On the one hand, this seems so obvious, and it probably was to Maimonides, but I fear that that focus is lost to most of us today, that we are not taking the needs of the victim of our hurt into account even as we may take on the steps of repentance.

Certainly, we do not see this in most public apologies – think back to the early days of #MeToo with men like Louis C.K. or Bill O’Reilly, who did not take ownership of their actions or acknowledge the hurt they caused.  Did Cleveland Browns Quarterback Deshaun Watson really take the needs of the women into account in his public statement: “I want to say that I am truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation.”

It is not uncommon for some Jews, while sincerely trying to follow the obligations of Yom Kippur, to go up to people they know with the following apology: “If I’ve done anything to hurt you in this past year, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”  Good intentions may be there, but without taking responsibility for their actions or having even an awareness of anything specific they’ve done, it is hardly a step in the process of repentance.

Then, of course there is the “I’m sorry if you were offended” in which the perpetrator takes no responsibility for their actions and, in fact, blames the victim for their hurt feelings.

So what does it actually mean to be “victim centered” in our repentance?

First, we do have to do the internal, personal work of acknowledging and owning what we have done wrong and committing to changing our behavior.  To be done seriously and meaningfully, these processes take reflection and time.

Only after we have done these initial steps in repentance, can we turn to that which ought to involve the one we have harmed:  making amends.

A key teaching on repentance is from the Mishnah, from 2000 years ago: “For sins between one person and another, the observance of Yom Kippur does not affect atonement until one has first appeased the person harmed.”[i]  Maimonides expands on this basic principle: “For instance, [if] one injures another, or curses them or plunders them, or offends them in like matters, [it] is ever not absolved unless they make restitution of what is owed and beg the forgiveness of the other.”[ii] Furthermore, he taught, that if one injures another physically, one “must pay damages on five fronts:  for the injury itself, the pain suffered, the medical costs, the time away from work, and the humiliation.”[iii] One can extrapolate from this premise to all kinds of situations and the different levels of restitution that ought to be made today.

Ultimately, proper restitution must be determined in consultation with the victim of the harm.  What does she need?  What does he require to feel whole?  As Ruttenberg points out, “the focus is the mental and emotional needs of the victim, not the boxes that a perpetrator needs to check in order to be let off the hook.”[iv]

Having realized and taken responsibility for our actions, we may be so anxious to absolve ourselves of our guilt that we lose sight of the needs of the victim, even of his or her readiness to speak with us about the hurt.

While I am not a fan of public apologies offered by public figures, I was curious to see Will Smith’s apology about slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars that was posted online this summer.  He took a few months to process the events before he made this public statement.  In his statement, he did recognize that Rock is not ready to speak with him yet and offered to do so whenever Rock is ready.  I would hope that when and if they do speak, they will reach an understanding regarding steps that Smith can take to make amends.

Smith also apologized to other people who were hurt by his actions, including Rock’s family and other nominees.  When we hurt someone, those who witness that event are also victims; and, we never know when our actions could also trigger something deeper in a witness, bringing up a previous injury.  That is why in some cases, public apologies, especially for a public act, are appropriate (and Maimonides actually encourages public confessions) as long as they do not replace the personal apology and other work of repentance.

“Deciding the correct course of action must always hold the twin poles:” writes Ruttenberg, “the desire to be fully accountable and care and concern for the needs of the victim.  Certainly, we all, when we mess up, want to feel forgiven and absolved.  But real repentance demands that we concentrate not on our own emotional gratification but rather on repairing, to the best of our abilities, the hole in the cosmos that we have created.”[v]

It is only once we have done the initial steps of repentance:  accepted responsibility for our actions, made a commitment to change, and appeased the person we have wronged, that we reach the appropriate moment to apologize.    Without doing that hard work, we cannot really understand the impact of our actions on the victim and repair that hurt.

“.. a true apology must be an interaction that honors the full humanity of the other; it is not transactional”, teaches Ruttenberg.  “There’s a difference between saying you’re sorry because you realize that a thing you did had a bad consequence, and doing so because you really understand that you hurt someone – and that person’s feelings, experience of the world, safety, and self all matter profoundly.

A true apology is about trying to see the human being in front of you, to connect with them and communicate to them, to make it clear – abundantly, absolutely, profoundly clear – that you get it now, and that their feeling better matters to you.  Your apology is a manifestation of genuine remorse.  It demands vulnerability, and it is a natural by-product of all the work of repentance and transformation that you’ve been doing up until this point.”[vi]

That sounds like a pretty tall order.  And with so many bad apologies out there, it can feel pretty overwhelming to figure out how to apologize correctly, remembering that the focus should be “on what the victim receives rather than what the perpetrator puts out.”[vii]

After enduring too many ineffective and even insulting apologies over the years, two Jewish educators, Lauren Cohen Fisher and Andrea Hoffman, decided it was time to find a better way.  They took a deep dive into studying Jewish teachings about apologies and overlaid a business model from the 1980s called “SMART” goals, designed to help ground aspirations in reality.[viii]  Note how this model centers on the victim of the hurt:

S – be Specific.  An effective apology must address the action that was hurtful.  “I’m sorry for what happened” doesn’t indicate ownership of behavior or awareness of it.  “I’m sorry I insulted you” does.   If you’re not sure what you did, take the time to ask the person.

M – empathize.  A sincere apology shows empathy for the victim of the harm that we’ve caused.  “I can see where that must have really made you feel lousy.”

A – accountability.  Our words must demonstrate that we are responsible for hurting the person, not that we’re sorry that they are hurt or upset.  This is where the “I” comes in.

R – reflective. We must take the time to be reflective before we apologize so that we actually address the issues of the hurt and commit ourselves to acting differently.

T – true.  Not only do our words have to be sincere, but we have to demonstrate that sincerity through our actions going forward by changing our behavior.

Hopefully, when one follows a SMART apology model and undergoes a process of repentance that is truly victim centered, their apology will be accepted, and they will be forgiven.  While a victim-centered approach also includes never pressuring someone to accept an apology, Ruttenberg does encourage the victim to be open to the sincere penitent:  “Just as we ask the perpetrator to actually see the hurt person in front of them, we could also ask the victim to try to recognize the hard, sincere repentance work that has been done, and to allow it to mean enough to settle accounts.  To see the full human being standing there, a sincere penitent.”[ix]

In the case where someone does not accept an apology, Maimonides teaches that the penitent should return with three friends to ask for pardon again.  If the person still refuses, they should return with those friends up to two more times.  Maimonides doesn’t indicate the reason for the friends.  On the one hand, they will serve as witnesses to the person’s apology.  Ruttenberg points out that as friends, they can offer the person the support that can be of help when making oneself so vulnerable.  They can also give feedback as to the person’s apology, how it might have been heard and suggest steps for improvement.

Sometimes this process does lead to a full reconciliation; in other cases, that’s not possible.  Indeed, there are some sins that may never be pardonable because they cause irreparable harm.  The Talmud offers examples such as slander, because one doesn’t know all the people who heard the remarks; or, a merchant who defrauds with weights and measures, because they can never know all of the people who they cheated to make amends.  We can certainly extrapolate to contemporary situations, especially on social media, where it may be impossible to do full teshuvah.

There may be another approach as well.  One of the Hebrew words for forgiveness is mechilah; it literally means to pardon or to remit a debt.  In a case where full reconciliation isn’t possible, where the hurt party is not willing or able to go back to the way things were before the hurt, they may be able offer mechilah, pardon to the sincere penitent and agree to put the event in the past so that both parties can now move forward with their lives.  Sometimes, that is the best we can do or hope for.

The steps of teshuvah, when done sincerely and with the needs of the person we’ve hurt utmost in our minds, are certainly not easy, but they are possible and can lead to healing for all parties. 

We can start to learn this path, even at a young age.  We teach it to the children in our synagogue.  One of the songs that has become very popular for young children tries to convey a message about sincere repentance.   Since it is sung by a group of children, it doesn’t get into apologizing for specific sins – hopefully, that follows in conversation with parents and siblings afterwards!

It is sung to the melody of Avinu Malkeinu:

I’m sorry for what I did wrong,

I’m sorry for what I did wrong.

I’ll try to be better, no matter whatever

I’m sorry for what I did wrong.

I’ll try, I’ll try to be,

The best that I can be.

I’ll try, I’ll try, to do what is right

And be the best that I can be.

I’m sorry for what I did wrong;

I’m sorry for what I did wrong;

I’ll try to be caring, more loving and sharing,

Forgive me for what I did wrong!

I’ll try, I’ll try to be,

The best that I can be,

I’ll try, I’ll try with all of my might

To do what I know is right.

I’m sorry for what I did wrong…

If we start with the premise of this simple children’s song and then move into SMART apologies, we will go a long way in bringing healing to our relationships and repairing holes we may have created in the cosmos.  May we have the strength, courage and wisdom to do so.

[i] Mishnah Yoma 8:9

[ii] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:9, as translated by Danya Ruttenberg 

[iii] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Personal or property injury 1:1 as translated by Danya Ruttenberg

[iv] Danya Ruttenberg, On Repentance and Repair:  Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, p. 41

[v] Ibid., p. 68

[vi] Ibid., p. 174 

[vii] Ibid., p. 41

[viii] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-year-of-better

[ix] Ruttenberg, p. 179