Daphne Lazar Price
Daphne Lazar Price
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American Orthodox rabbis: The complicity of silence

American political lines align Orthodox Jewish groups with Christians when it comes to abortion, taking an approach that contradicts their own rich rabbinic literature

One of my very first acts as executive director of JOFA back in February of 2019 was to help draft and issue a statement on behalf of the organization applauding the New York State Legislature on the passage of the Reproductive Health Act. For those who may not remember, this law protects health care providers and ensures and safeguards protections for the life and health of a pregnant woman at any stage of her pregnancy. JOFA’s position is aligned with my own, namely that women and couples should consult their health care providers and halakhic advisers when making these types of decisions without the involvement of the government. We (JOFA and I) support every woman’s legal right to make decisions about and have control over her own body. Period.

halakha, as it relates to abortion, is complex and psak (Jewish legal ruling) is always informed by the specifics of each case. 

The other half of that statement alluded to the statements issued by the Rabbinical Council of America, the National Council of Young Israel and the Agudath Israel of America, each decrying the passage of this bill. They all used inflammatory and divisive language that lacked in any nuance and that demonstrated shocking insensitivity to women and couples who, for a variety of reasons, are forced to consider whether to seek and undergo an abortion. We urged those umbrella organizations to reconsider their rhetoric in the hopes that they might engage in this discussion in a manner which acknowledges a woman’s right to consult her health care provider and halakhic advisor and make the best and most appropriate decisions for herself and her family. Because halakha, as it relates to abortion, is complex and psak (Jewish legal ruling) is always informed by the specifics of each case. 

I have long been baffled and dismayed by the wholly “unholy” alliance between Orthodox rabbinic umbrella groups who represent a gamut of Orthodox (right wing, centrist and modern) rabbis and American Christian values as they pertain to the Christian majority’s ethos on reproductive rights and maternal health.

I have been in my position for two and a half years now, and unless I missed it, I do not recall any of these male-led organizations revisiting their statements or engaging in public education efforts on abortion as it relates to halakha. And to be clear, the Torah, the commentaries, the Talmud and rabbinic thinkers have explored and staked out positions on these complex matters – always prioritizing the health of the mother, and when necessary, mandating termination. I have long been baffled and dismayed by the wholly “unholy” alliance between Orthodox rabbinic umbrella groups who represent a gamut of Orthodox (right wing, centrist and modern) rabbis and American Christian values as they pertain to the Christian majority’s ethos on reproductive rights and maternal health. On its face it is antithetical to halakha. Roman Catholic and Evangelical teachings firmly prohibit abortion, whereas the halakhic approach does not. In fact there are times when halakha prescribes pregnancy termination.

And while these rabbinic groups are quick to decry other laws and ordinances that interfere with religious practice, they have chosen to stay silent on this issue.

This week, Texas enacted Senate Bill 8, which notoriously bans abortion after six weeks — when most women are not even yet aware that they are pregnant. Moreover, it deputizes private citizens to become bounty hunters so that they may sue medical care providers and anyone else who facilitates access to abortion, including those who provide counsel to terminate. This could include the halakhic adviser who provides halakhic guidance to a woman to terminate her pregnancy rather than risk her own life. This Texas law is a direct breach of a woman’s religious freedom. And while these rabbinic groups are quick to decry other laws and ordinances that interfere with religious practice, they have chosen to stay silent on this issue.

I’m so tired of hearing women’s health described as a hot button political issue.

I’m so tired of hearing women’s health described as a hot button political issue. Women’s bodies and their (our!) health are not political and should never be considered as such by anyone. But because of the American current political climate especially vis-a-vis the politics of abortion, there are Orthodox groups who have been allying themselves with the Christian majority. In their bid for relevancy in the Christian public sphere, Orthodox rabbinic groups have negated their credibility with the Jewish individuals and communities who support them and who they in turn are supposed to support. That these rabbinic fraternal organizations have not yet spoken up in defense of women’s health especially as it pertains to religious freedom is exacerbated by the fact that they will not make space for women to join their ranks. It makes male rabbis and rabbinic organizations that much more irrelevant to women and to the men who support women. People will simply cease to ask for rabbinic guidance.

What happened in Texas last week has shaken Texans, its rule of law and the American legal system writ large. Those who have been at the forefront of women’s health issues have been loud and clear, and many people who have never considered themselves to be activists are suddenly galvanized because the stakes are so high. The message too many American Orthodox rabbis are sending in not taking a stand in support of women’s health in the name of protecting and exercising our own religious freedom is also loud and clear. There is complicity in this silence.

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About the Author
Daphne Lazar Price is the Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and an adjunct professor of Jewish Law at Georgetown University Law Center. She is active in the Orthodox community in her hometown of Silver Spring, MD, where she lives with her husband and two children.
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