Does my title sound paradoxical? Well, welcome to the world of Reform Judaism.
I recently read a very disturbing blog post featured by the Times of Israel. If it was meant to be provocative, I was duly provoked.
I am going to address two aspects of that post separately even though they are deeply intertwined. One is the personal choice of Rabbi Rachel Pass to abort her unborn child/fetus/embryo/cluster of cells as she describes it. The other is the approach of Reform Judaism generally which Rabbi Pass represents.
The first observation to make is that Rabbi Pass seems quite eager to convince us that her abortion story is “very Jewish” and that getting an abortion is actually Jewishly “okay.”
You may have noticed that my abortion story is very Jewish. Everything from the timing of the accidental conception to the decision and procedure itself was brimming with my Jewish practice, learning and living. It is impossible to extricate my Judaism from my abortion.
Why is she so eager to impress her readers? The answer seems obvious. She is suffering from healthy Jewish guilt for doing something Jewishly not “okay.” Much of her post is designed to convince us (and herself) that it really, really is.
What basis do I have to think Rabbi Pass’s abortion was not Jewishly okay, you might ask? Well, there are a number of holes in Rabbi Pass’s narrative.
Right at the beginning, and again later in the post, Rabbi Pass reports that she conceived “accidentally.” This is obviously in order to absolve herself of any responsibility for getting into this predicament in the first place. The problem I have is this: How does a mature adult, knowledgeable about the biology of reproduction, conceive by accident? Details of the nature of this “accident” are conspicuously absent.
Did they try contraceptive measures that failed? I suspect not, because if they did, Rabbi Pass would have certainly told us. It would easily serve her interests to reduce the level of blame in a much less ambiguous fashion. I think it’s more likely that she and her partner were simply careless.
Problem number two is the fact that the would-be father is never referred to as Rabbi Pass’s husband – which means he isn’t. So that’s Jewishly problematic. This is compounded by the fact that the illicit act took place on the high holiday of Rosh Hashana, of all times.
It is bitterly ironic that the Biblical texts which are read on the first day of Rosh Hashana focus on Sarah and Chana, two women who were desperate to conceive and bear even a single child. And here Rabbi Pass is willingly throwing away the precious gift of fertility granted to her on Rosh Hashana, a gift that so many of her childless Jewish sisters would give everything to have.
Problem number three (which is by far the greatest) is that Rabbi Pass prefaces her attempt to justify her abortion halachicly with the following admission (emphasis added):
And yet you might also assume that my abortion would not have been Jewishly “okay,” permissible under halacha, or Jewish law, because I simply did not want to be pregnant – because mine is the kind of abortion that anti-choicers most disdain.
What does it mean that the life of the pregnant person comes before that of the fetus? Over the centuries, various rabbinic authorities have offered their answers. It means that her physical needs and pain levels are prioritized over the birthing of the child (Rabbis Josef Trani and Jacob Emden). It means that her mental health is prioritized over the birthing of the child (Rabbi Mordecai Winkler). It means that her dignity and her honor are prioritized over the birthing of the child (Rabbi Ben-Zion Ouziel). It means that the primary consideration in the Jewish question of abortion is the needs of the person giving birth, their life, their health and their dignity.
We can see that even Rabbi Pass’s cherry-picked survey of rabbinic opinions does not include “simply not wanting to be pregnant” as a valid reason to terminate a pregnancy. ALL the sources require some kind of pressing need of the mother – sorry, pregnant person – that can be objectively quantified. Rabbi Pass’s own stated reason – inconvenience – is no way Jewishly “okay”.
In fact, to claim that Jewish law sanctioned Rabbi Pass’s abortion is to make Judaism’s well-known prohibition on abortion virtually non-existent. If Rabbi Pass is correct that one is permitted to get an abortion just because one “simply did not want to be pregnant,” then in which case is having an abortion not allowed?
Getting into a technical discussion of when abortion is permitted or prohibited by Jewish law also serves to avoid having an uncomfortable discussion about the great value of human life in Judaism. We have all heard of the Talmudic teaching that one who destroys a single Jewish life is as though he destroyed an entire world, and one who saves a single life is as though he has saved an entire world. (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)
לְפִיכָךְ נִבְרָא אָדָם יְחִידִי, לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא
What is perhaps less known is the rabbinic allowance to violate Shabbat, and for a pregnant woman to break her fast on Yom Kippur, just in order to prevent a miscarriage. (Tur O.C. 617)
Nachmanides, in his classic work on illness, death and the afterlife, Toras Ha’Adam (The Torah of Man), rules that even though an embryo of less than 40 days from conception is not really considered alive, Jews are still obligated to violate Shabbat in order to save its loss. Such is the value of even the potential for life in the eyes of Jewish law.
I suspect Rabbi Pass is aware of all these problems. Hence the desperate attempt to smother her abortion with all forms of pseudo-Jewish rituals.
But even after all the mikveh dipping and challah eating, that Jewish guilt stubbornly refuses to go away. So she takes a different tack. She goes on to make the following startling claim: “There is nothing more sacred than the right to live one’s life as one chooses – and to choose life, and to choose blessing. In having an abortion, I chose my life.”
Here I’m simply at a loss for words. No references given, no sources cited, just the most baldly self-serving declaration you could imagine: aborting a potential human life for the sake of convenience is THE most sacred thing in Judaism! Perhaps I should change that to Rabbi Pass’s Judaism. She is clearly echoing what she was taught by the Reform Movement – the autonomous self is the highest value. Not God, not the Torah, not even the Jewish People. Just the self.
Of all the attempts to Judaize her abortion with traditional Jewish concepts, rituals and prayers, I believe this one – calling it sacred – is the most offensive. For people with an intact moral compass, the termination of life, or even its potential, is a tragedy. It is at least regrettable. It is decidedly not sacred, unless you are a priest who is offering a sacrifice of life to a higher power.
And this would seem to be exactly what Rabbi Pass considers her act of abortion to be – a sacred sacrifice of her unborn child to the god of ego and self. This is the exact inverse of what we normal human beings call sacrifice. Making a sacrifice means giving up something of one’s self for someone else, or some higher ideal greater than one’s self. An abortion, according to Rabbi Pass’s own description, means sacrificing someone else’s life for my own selfish goals.
In the Biblical story of Judah and Tamar, we find just the opposite values being played out. It was very inconvenient for Judah to have unwittingly impregnated his own daughter-in-law. It will cause him severe public embarrassment and “loss of dignity” to be forced to admit his paternity and halt the public execution of Tamar and her unborn twins. Yet Judah chooses to do the right thing and endure the consequences of his actions.
Had Judah believed what Rabbi Pass believes – that “there is nothing more sacred than the right to live one’s life as one chooses” and that it is Jewishly okay for Judah to prioritize his own needs over the lives of others, this Biblical story would have ended quite differently. Needless to say, Judah would not have been regarded as a role model for Jewish leadership and personal responsibility for millennia.
Now we turn to the next topic: Rabbi Pass’s co-opting the fight for abortion rights into the overarching moral directive of Reform Judaism: fighting for social justice. Here we get a moralizing sermon about what Jews are commanded to do for others less fortunate than they. The sudden transition from self-centeredness to other-centeredness is quite jarring and frankly, incoherent:
As Jews we are commanded over and over again to care for those on the “margins” of society; the poor, the widowed and orphaned, the queer, the people of color, people with disabilities, the systemically oppressed. These are the people who are already and will continue to be most devastated by this abortion ban and by the abortion bans that anti-abortion activists hope will follow all over the country. The lack of care for those in our society who need it most is a prophetic call to us as Jews.
Suddenly, Jews – all Jews – are obligated to heed commandments and the calls of the prophets? The hypocrisy here is stunning in its lack of any self-awareness. Because when you think about it, you will be hard-pressed to find a more marginalized, systematically oppressed, defenseless and helpless segment of society than unborn children.
These lives are dispassionately terminated by the millions around the globe, and their termination is often painful and grotesque. Their body parts are sold on a market to the highest bidder, and their tissue is used as ingredients in biologics, vaccines and medical research (ex. where scientists graft fetal tissue onto mice, creating ‘humanized mice’ with human blood-forming and immune systems.)
If these were animal lives instead of unborn human ones, you’d be darn sure that Reform rabbis like Rachel Pass would be leading the call to halt such vile and inhumane treatment. But for some reason, the pro-choice abortionists, the ones carrying out the systematic oppression against the most defenseless and vulnerable among us, are claiming the moral high ground on this issue.
The reason is obvious. Reform Jews cannot dare be out of lock-step with their liberal, secular, non-Jewish counterparts. Anything the Left champions, Reform Jews need to champion. Anything the Left vilifies, Reform Jews must vilify. The actual morality of the issue is secondary. And as we see in regards to abortion, the actual morality of the issue is tragically inverted to the point where Reform Judaism champions oppression over care and protection for the most weak and helpless imaginable, inhumanity over humanity, and death over life.
It truly boggles the mind and saddens the heart.