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Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

Aloh Na’aleh: Let Us Go Up!

The legal battle over reproductive freedom is significant on its own, and grows in importance because it is the front line expression of a struggle over what kind of nation we want the United States to be. Will America be a nation where some people hold the power and impose it on others, where one religious viewpoint forces its theological claims on everyone else. Or will we birth an America that is truly a place where all are created equal, everyone endowed by their creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Today, abortion has become the focal point for that encompassing struggle. But the battle is bigger than abortion alone.

Religion & Abortion

My first affirmation is the extraordinary consensus among Jews across ideologies, denominations, and organizations that abortion is not murder, that Jewish law permits abortion for a variety of medical, physical, and even mental conditions. You can see that consensus at play here. If “religious freedom” is to be more than a mask for fundamentalist Christian domination, then know that Jewish wisdom – like the Torah itself — affirms the permissibility of abortion, some rabbis with more caveats and some with less.

There may be consensus across Judaism, yet in a democracy, scriptural quotations and religious doctrine are not really relevant. Sure, they can convey wisdom and inspire the faithful. Should they choose to do so, it is each person’s right to seek guidance and insight from their own faith (or from anywhere else they can find it). But democracies run on reasoned conversation, on evidence, on convincing and being convinced. The teachings of a religion can inspire the people. But public debate lives in the open air of logic, fact, persuasion, and policy outcome. In that way, the teachings of Judaism (as of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or any other conviction) are irrelevant unless and until they can be translated into logic, fact, or persuasion.

Policy and law around abortion cannot be the imposition of any particular doctrine or doctrines. How we argue must itself emerge from a common commitment to fact-based truth (which no one can monopolize), to reason (which is accessible across cultures), and to measuring outcomes.

Law & Democracy

Judaism in its earliest period was a raucous confederation, a society of minimal government intrusion, voluntary leadership that reflected the consensus of Israelite society. Before monarchy, in our formative years, we modeled democracy (long before the Greeks!). Our traditions, and our self-interest, both coalesce around strengthening democracy, human dignity, and liberty.

There is a recurrent impulse throughout American history to expand the circle of human dignity, freedom, and personal liberty. But there has also been a strong despotic reaction, in which privileged groups justify their disproportional power at the expense of marginalized people (Native Americans, People of Color, women, Jews) in which those same self-interested groups impose their own power and perspective, treating their views are the only civilized options.

Self interest cloaks itself in the rhetoric of natural law and moral virtue. Slavery was established and maintained in this way, as was the assault and extermination of Native Americans, buttressing the assertion of White supremacy along the way. Men wrote laws that banned women from owning property, testifying in court, (even attending meetings without their husbands’ consent). As much as the history of this country is one of expanding the circle of rights and freedom to embrace ever growing circles of diverse people, it has also been a battle by some to exclude, to impose, to oppress.

The core of democracy is the principle that all people are created equal, that all people have equal right to self-expression and self-determination, that there must be one law for the citizen and the alien, that it is the business of society to care for the marginalized, the poor, the weak (the Torah speaks of the widow and the orphan). We may differ about how to best achieve those goals, but about the goals themselves, no lover of democracy can dissent.

Abortion rights is one of the front lines of this perennial battle. Can women (especially poor women, women of color) make decisions about their own bodies, or will men step in to legislate their bodies and to force them to give birth. The Forced Birth Movement (they are NOT pro-life!) is one contemporary assault on the heart of democracy. Some want to coerce others to risk their lives, give birth and raise these children (that are often unintended, often the result of rape, incest, assault). Those same groups often oppose healthcare for these mothers and children, oppose programs to feed them or make their schools safe. By and large, those same people oppose paying the poor a living wage or making sure they and their children have access to affordable housing. They often oppose legislation to provide clean air and water so those children can grow healthy. Such a moment is not pro-life. But it is forcing mothers to give birth.

We must stand up, publicly, against this latest assault against women and their humanity. On these points, the richness of Jewish tradition insists on the equal dignity of all people reflecting God’s image, its insistence that God’s compassion and mercy start with the poor and the needy, with its mandate that there is one standard of justice for all, embodied in law. Those convictions dovetail with the brilliant experiment that is democracy: people have the capacity to be self-governing; people can make their own decisions and all society will be better for it. As a society, we all benefit when we unleash the capacity of everyone to thrive and to make their own decisions.

Choose life, my friends. Not in a constricted narrow way that is really a descent back into despotism by the few. Instead, let us walk into a sunlight that enlightens us all: centering and empowering everyone so we can determine our own lives, freely chosen, and can share our distinctive contributions for the benefit of us all.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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