Avi S. Olitzky

See Your Neighbor and Do Not Judge Them

In my role as a rabbi, I am frequently asked to make decisions for others. “Can I eat this?” “When should I recite this?” “Can I do this?” Part of my role as a Jewish spiritual leader is to add my link to the chain of Jewish tradition and interpret God’s Will and our covenant as transmitted through the rabbis. This is what it means to be a posek—a legal decisor.

Over the years, women have come to me as their Jewish spiritual guide to help them decide whether an abortion is permissible. We often study our textual tradition together.

Sometimes we look to the Babylonian Talmud, when Rashi explains on Sanhedrin 72b that when “a woman is experiencing difficulty giving birth and is in danger…the midwife extends her hand and cuts it up and extracts the pieces as the entire time that the fetus has not gone out into the air of the world, it is not considered a soul (or better translated, a living thing), and so it is permissible to ‘kill it’ and to save its mother.”

An even earlier source in the Mishnah offers a similar ruling, but clarifies further that the mother’s life comes before the life of the fetus (Mishnah Oholot 7:3).

Sometimes these pregnant women prefer to look to the physicians in our rabbinic history, like Maimonides, who offer: “when complications arise and a pregnant woman cannot give birth, it is permitted to abort the fetus in her womb, whether with a knife or with drugs” (Hilkhot Rotzeach u’Shmirat Nefesh 1:9).

Or, to Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg, former consulting rabbi to the doctors at Shaare Tzedek Medical Center, who taught “a Jewish woman was permitted to undergo a therapeutic abortion, even though her life was not at stake…this permissive ruling applies even when there is no direct threat to the life of the mother, but merely a need to save her from great (psychological) pain, which falls within the rubric of ‘great need.’ Now, is it possible to imagine a case in which there is more need, pain, and distress, than the present one, in which the mother is confronted by the [prospect of a] suffering child whose certain death is only a few years away and nothing can be done to save it?” (She’elot U’Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 13:102).

Already 2,000 years ago, the great rabbinic sage Hillel taught, “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in their place” (Mishnah Avot 2:4).

When we make decisions for someone else, two things happen: (1) we judge, and (2) we take away their free will.

But here is the rub: I help make those decisions in a religious capacity. This is not a conversation to be meted out in a legislative chamber.

This is why I’m enraged by the seemingly sudden attack on reproductive freedom in our country’s legislatures. We’ve seen it recently in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio. In Alabama, specifically, the state has effectively banned abortions at every stage of pregnancy and criminalized the procedure for doctors.

As former Associate Justice Potter Stewart once wrote, “Freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life is … protected [by the 14th amendment].” Our government, be it federal or state, not only crosses the constitutional line, but also commits an abuse of power, when it seeks to regulate our reproductive freedoms.

And this is why I feel a categorical moral imperative as a rabbi to speak truth to such power: leave women alone! Leave men alone! Leave us all alone. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so tactfully challenged, “The emphasis must be not on the right to abortion but on the right to privacy and reproductive control.”

Jewish tradition takes such privacy very seriously. 1000 years ago Rabbenu Gershom Me’or Hagolah even went so far as to decree “one should not read their friend’s letter without their knowledge and without their permission.” That is, even another’s mail is their own private matter; surely one’s body, the choices we make, and the interactions we have with our physicians must be that much more important.

But even without Jewish tradition, the government has no authority to play the role of a religious decisor. This is the “wall of separation between Church and State” that Thomas Jefferson lauded over 200 years ago.

We must engage and challenge our leadership and remind them when they overstep their bounds. Indeed, we must do this by way of the ballot box, but more pressing is to do so with protests, with rallies, with letters, with phone calls—and with community.

I say “community” because there are so many dimensions of support this movement is necessitating:

These measures are slanted heavily toward women and taking away their rights. These measures disproportionately impact communities of color and taking away their rights. These measures are biased toward reproductive health care access, especially for those who do not have financial means. These measures assume a uniform right-wing Christian stance as the default for our legislature.

It is our obligation to speak out that much louder against this wave of legislative prejudice.

I implore all those willing to look beyond themselves – all those willing to see their neighbor and not judge them – to join me in this call to speak out and to uphold the values of Roe v. Wade.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He graduated from the Joint Program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003 where he was awarded a BA in Sociology and a BA in Talmud and Rabbinics. Rabbi Olitzky went on to receive an MA in Midrash in October 2007 and his ordination as a rabbi from JTS in May 2008.