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Sweet 'n' Sour Home Alabama

05/20/2019 05:10:05 PM

May20

Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss

As many of you know, the Hausman-Weiss’ lived in Birmingham, AL for 12 years.  And most often, we connect nonetheless positively to this historically troubled place.  “Some of my best friends are from Alabama!”  But today, in the wake of that state house’s draconian anti-choice law just signed by the governor, its especially difficult.  I know that Alabama is not alone, that it is joined by other states that clearly smell blood in the water as relates Roe v Wade and the longevity of a woman’s constitutional right to her own body.  And here I do indeed tip my hand. As a Rabbi, I will almost never publicly advocate or criticize a politician or political party.  However, when there are issues in the political sphere about which Jewish tradition, I believe, established wise and still deeply relevant precedents, thousands of years ago, as a Rabbi, I must speak out. 

Ironically, even though horrifically, the Alabama law that outlaws all abortions as well as criminalizes doctors to be liable for up to 99 years in prison if they perform one, is at least “honest.”  The Alabama law is based upon the premise that Abortion = Murder.  That the fetus, no matter how far along in gestational development, is a human being that therefore deserves the full protection of the law – this is the essence of the law, de jure, if not de facto.  Therefore, by this rationale, it makes perfect sense that their bill does not even make an exception for rape or incest.  By their reasoning, if you met a living child who was the product of rape or incest, no one would rationally consider ending their life.  And if this fetus, no matter how old, is indeed a life, then it isn’t “his or her fault” how he/she came into being.  It would indeed make for quite a TV news broadcast though, if Alabama starts jailing doctors who have performed an abortion and (as the Georgia law is written), women who have undergone one, even in a state where it is legal.  But if indeed the lawmakers in these states and others, truly believe that these lives are equal to all lives, then they should indeed hold fast to their values. 

That said, I do recognize that much of what drives Alabama politics is a sometimes tangential and a sometimes “in your face” biblical proof texting that drives these arguments and enthusiastic support from its constituents.   There is just one little problem, at least from the Torah’s perspective. While the Torah and significant aspects of traditional Judaism do not condone abortion at all times and in all places, here’s the simple part – according to the basic reading of the Torah, ABORTION IS NOT MURDER.  And this is where we need to spend just a little bit of time. 

Here’s the Torah verse: Exodus Chapter 21, Verses 22-23:

22 When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman's husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. 23 But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life…

By recognizing this miscarriage as a Capital Crime ONLY if the pregnant woman dies, and as an act requiring compensatory damages if ONLY the fetus is lost, Jewish law establishes a de minimis recognition that abortion is not murder.  Admittedly, there is so much more that surrounds this issue, however this is the place where I encourage you to start.  We need to be able to communicate to our neighbors, the worlds we live in, that from the Jewish perspective, ABORTION IS NOT MURDER.  Additionally, if while you are sharing this with someone, they retort, “well it’s in the 10 Commandments, Thou shalt not kill,” you can kindly remind them that that isn’t what the 10 Commandments say.  The Fifth commandment states, Lo Tirtzach, which in Hebrew means, “You shall not murder.”  This isn’t to say that Judaism approaches the idea of “killing” with any kind of levity – not in the least.  But it does in multiple ways draw important distinctions between the two – killing as an act of self-defense; killing as an act of saving a life; killing animals for eating; all of these different aspects of “taking life” are permissible, but only within strict moral and ethical guidelines. 

At the end of the day, for me, what is truly so troubling about abortion politics in our time is that it is the legislation of an act of faith. For Catholicism and most of Christianity, the soul is believed to enter the body at the moment of conception and so to end this life according to Christian faith, is to expel it to eternal damnation (as it would never be born and therefore never be able to be “saved”).  For Jews, however, the soul doesn’t enter into the body until birth, thus giving the entity in a mother’s womb a very different legal status than that of a full human being.  It is not a nefesh (the Jewish legal term identifying the legal status of a live person).  This is not at all to suggest that Jewish law is lackadaisical when it comes to protecting this potential for life.  However, and I know I repeat myself when I write this, for Judaism, Abortion is NOT MURDER.  In the Jewish tradition, the question is not, “When does life begin?” The question is, “When does life begin to be human?” Determining the answer to that question is both existential as well as intimately personal. And is therefore, I believe, not the purview of any governing body, other than that of the mother.


Events for the Week of 5/21/2019

  • Rock 'n' Roll Shabbat, Starring Kelly Dean, Jeremy Samuels & Lenny Golub - Friday, May 24, 2019 - More info + video
  • Kosher Pretzel Yoga - Saturday, May 25 - More info
Sun, August 18 2019 17 Av 5779