Rabbi Yair Robinson
Repro Shabbat-Parashat Mishpatim
Like many of you, I watched the Superbowl this year with more than a little detachment (conflicted feelings about Tampa’s quarterback notwithstanding). In a year that has been so out of the ordinary, engaging in this ritual of American life seemed even more bizarre. Nevertheless, my family and I sat down together to watch the game, and of course, the commercials, which are often a cultural touchstone for us as a society.
One of the most powerful was a Jeep commercial featuring Bruce Springsteen in a beat up old Willys and a cowboy hat. You know the one. He begins by talking about a chapel in the center of the lower-48 states, and invokes the idea of meeting as a country back in the middle, seeing each other as neighbors and not enemies. It’s a powerful piece; one person on Twitter declared that clearly Jeep should run for president. But as a columnist at the JTA pointed out, it was primarily a powerful moment and image for Christians. The Chapel is a Christian Chapel with a cross on the wall. The imagery, the language all evoke a particularly Christian approach to civic life. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s something that, as a religious minority, we tend to notice in ways that others don’t. That when we talk about religion and us a religious society, the default is Christianity, and all the nuances of Islam, and Buddhism, and Hinduism, and Jainism, and Zoroastriaism and Bahai and Druze and yes, even Judaism, is lost.
This may seem like sour grapes, but I think it’s important to raise on this Repro Shabbat, a shabbat where Jewish organizations and synagogues are reaffirming reproductive rights and health. So often, too often, we are told that the default religious perspective is that abortion, contraception, and reproductive health care are wrong; that engaging with them is, at best, an unfortunate necessity, and at worst, an outright sin. That is the language of Christianity. That is not the language of Judaism. In Judaism, as we know, the right to bodily autonomy and dignity, including abortion rights and contraception access, are part and parcel of our tradition. To be sure, as Reform Jews, we have long advocated for reproductive rights, comprehensive sex ed, abortion and contraception access, inspired by the middah, the value of kavod ha-briut, honoring people’s dignity. But you don’t need to look to Liberal Judaism alone. The Talmud, the Shulchan aruch, and other traditional texts all clearly state that abortion is health care, life affirming care, that allows us to preserve the life of the mother whose life is no less sacred or essential. Yes, there are some who call themselves Orthodox who have taken a harder line on the Halakha, and to be sure, the Talmud is as paternalistic and sexist a document as you’re going to get. Nevertheless, there is clarity from our religious perspective; that a mother’s life and well-being is sacred, that abortion is health care and sometimes profoundly necessary, and that to delay necessary and essential care or life-saving procedures is a violation of our religious values.
What does it matter? It matters because we are told again and again that religious freedom means Conservative Christian religious freedom, which means reduction of access to life saving medical care. We are, like that ad, told in subtle and not so subtle ways to center a Christian narrative, much as that Christian chapel is centered on the continental United States. That doesn’t mean that Christians are bad, far from it! But it’s long since time that we remind those around us that for us, as religious Jews, as Reform Jews, that reproductive rights and reproductive justice are our values, and they will not be subordinated because we are in the minority. At the center of our covenant are the words we spoke as one people, in one voice at the foot of Mount Sinai: “All that God has said, we will do.” Not in conformity and uniformity, not necessarily all the same way. But we shall do. And in doing, we shall affirm the dignity of the individual and their rights to care. I know many of us have lifted up our voices for years, and many of us—feeling conflicted and knowing that this issue can be fraught for many—choose to avoid it, in order not to hurt feelings, or be yelled at. We cannot let our voices be silenced. Too many of us have stories—important stories, powerful stories—about our own struggles with reproductive rights and justice. Last year, Beth Emeth participated in a postcard-writing effort as part of the She Decides Delaware campaign, signing postcards at Purim no less, working to strengthen the rights and access here in Delaware. That effort continues, and if you are so moved, I urge you to email me directly so we can facilitate this important advocacy. And, if you’re comfortable sharing your story, even if it means you want to do so anonymously, I strongly encourage you to do so, for it is in sharing our stories as people of faith and justice that transformation can take place.
This Shabbat we honor the memory of Rabbi Drooz, who advocated himself for the dignity of others, and worked hard to teach our Christian neighbors to see other religious stories as valid and powerful. So it is with his words that I ask our blessing on this effort:
O God and God of our fathers and mothers!
Thou hast created us in thine own image,
Guide and focus us that we, a true reflection be
Of thy justice, goodness and mercy,
That will make thy world at peace and free. Amen.