“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

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