Visiting God’s creations
I had the good fortune this summer to travel to Venice and Greece with Nancy and four longtime friends ahead of our “Double Chai” (36th) wedding anniversary next month.
The 10-day respite offered me the opportunity to witness the kind of natural beauty I had only seen in movies or on postcards. We stood atop soaring mountains that drop precipitously into white beaches, then descended to wade in azure seas that caress the shore. The experience brought to mind a story told of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the nineteenth century founder of Neo-Orthodoxy. Reflecting on the end of life, he is said to have taught: “When I stand shortly before the Almighty, I will be held answerable to many questions. But what will I say when God asks – and he is certain to ask – ‘Shimshon, did you see my Alps?’”
Unlike the monastic traditions elevating a religious life that rejects the earthly pleasures of our physical world, Judaism embraces and celebrates creation as a reflection of the divine. We recite particular blessings upon seeing natural wonders and upon witnessing human achievement. We honor those who give honor to God’s creations.
Of all that I enjoyed taking in on this journey, there were two experiences that left a deeper impression on me than any of the ancient ruins or medieval artistry we saw. The first occurred in a glass shop on the island of Murano off the coast of Venice, where I met a glass blower named Luciano Orovetro. He shared his handiwork with us, telling us—with a child’s wide-eyed exuberance—about this profession that had run in his family for generations. The joy and pride he exuded in describing his creative process made it clear to me that his physical work was a spiritual endeavor. The beauty of his creations reflected that divine light.
The second experience occurred in a place of natural beauty on the Greek island of Kefalonia. Melisani Cave, known in Greek mythology as the Cave of the Nymphs, opens from above to an underground lake fed by subterranean waters. Seeing the marvel of clear sun-lit spring waters that filled the cave from a boat that seemed to be floating on air would have been enough. But what transformed the time on the water was the “captain” of our boat, a master oarsman with 35 years of sharing his sense of awe and appreciation for the passage of time, and its effects on the walls, the water and the world within the natural wonder. His fifteen minutes of guiding a group of tourists—something he probably repeats thirty times a day—lifted our spirits, transporting us in wonder and joy to a realm that we rarely visit.
I can’t tell you that Rabbi Sampson Rafael Hirsch actually believed that God expected us to travel to Switzerland in our lifetimes. But I can appreciate the sentiment that we need to visit that which is beyond our familiar surroundings, to meet and experience those whose interests and passions are different than our own, and to search for and recognize the wonders that are all around us.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
A Blizzard in Summer: After SCOTUS Overturned Roe v. Wade
Consider that feeling of waking up on a frosty January morning to find that three feet of snow has fallen. The Weather Channel predicted a blizzard all week, yet when we see the landscape completely transformed, we feel shocked. And then, of course, we have to get out the shovels and start digging out.
We knew that Roe v. Wade was going to be overturned. Justice Alito’s majority opinion had been leaked. Every news article and radio talk show began with: “In the likely event of the end of Roe v. Wade protections…” And still we were shocked when the SCOTUS opinion was issued. Two weeks later, it is time to start working.
Together with Rabbi Scheff, Rabbi Hersh, and more than 1500 Jewish clergy from across the streams and across the States, I signed the NCJW-sponsored Rabbis for Repro pledge. #RabbisForRepro. This statement says that I pledge to use my voice as a rabbi to teach, write, and speak out about reproductive rights and Judaism in the United States and in the Jewish community.
Yesterday in synagogue, I started fulfilling my pledge by educating our Shabbat minyan about Jewish law and reproductive freedom. Today I continue by writing this blog with three basic points about abortion in Jewish tradition and a list of resources for you to begin taking action. I’ll continue taking action together with Rabbi Scheff as we plan a year of education around issues of Judaism and pro-reproductive health and abortion access.
Many people begin thinking about abortion access at a very personal level. Would I? Could I? While those are natural and perhaps interesting questions, those are not the right questions to address the recent shut down of our personal freedom regarding autonomy and choice. The questions are more universal. When does life begin? Who should have control over people who need abortion access – the patients and their intimate partners and doctors or police and courts? The overturning of Roe v. Wade affects not just a person considering whether to continue or end a pregnancy, but patients requiring every kind of reproductive medical care from managing miscarriages, fetuses with stopped heartbeats, ectopic pregnancies, rape and incest victims, dangerous results of self-managed abortion attempts, and people seeking fertility treatments. In what ways will the overturning of Roe v. Wade threaten an entire category of personal freedoms? We all heard Justice Clarence Thomas loud and clear. Next in his sights are frozen embryos, contraception, intimate partners, and same sex marriage.
It is essential to state unequivocally that our tradition and Jewish law protect the right of a woman’s control of her own body in opposition to those who use religion as an excuse to restrict this right. What follows are three sweeping educational points. Keep in mind that we will be teaching the details of throughout the year. If you would like to study on your own, I recommend NCJW Abortion Access Resources or Rabbinical Assembly Resources on Reproductive Freedom.
Point 1. ABORTION IS PERMITTED AND SOMETIMES REQUIRED BY JEWISH LAW.
Rabbinic opinion from Talmud to modern day responsa depends upon Torah verses in Parashat Mishpatim https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.21.22?lang=bi&aliyot=0 that require capital punishment for causing the death of a pregnant person, but only monetary damages for causing a miscarriage. From the ultimate understanding that a fetus does not have the status of personhood, halakha consistently teaches that the life of the pregnant person takes precedence over the existence of the potential life within. Abortion is considered self-defense when the pregnant person’s life is at stake, a situation that many modern responsa interpret broadly.
Point 2. ABORTION ACCESS IS AN ISSUE OF PIKUACH NEFESH (Saving Life).
Forcing people to give birth regardless of the situation is not only unjust, it endangers lives. Doctors, fearful about legal ramifications, deny medical treatment. Emergency rooms turn away women in the midst of miscarriages. In the most extreme of cases, we read about a ten-year-old victim of sexual abuse who had to be taken 12-15 hours out of state for abortion care. Sadly, the United States has the highest rate of maternal mortality among industrialized countries, with Black Americans and Native Americans three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white Americans. Denial of abortion access will continue the shameful patterns of systemic racism in American health care.
Point 3. ABORTION IS A JEWISH ISSUE.
As I said in synagogue yesterday, some congregants would rather hear from your rabbis about loving kindness and Torah law on a Shabbat or in a blog post. We teach about those topics very often. Sometimes, however, we must raise up our voices with “moral authority”. We study Torah and find within our particular texts certain universal values. So, yes, abortion is a Jewish issue.
One in four people who can become pregnant will have an abortion by age 45. This includes Jews, and therefore members of our Jewish community. Abortion is highly stigmatized in our culture, and this impacts Jewish spaces where the stigma is perpetuated by talk about Jewish “continuity.” Signs now hang in your rabbis’ offices ensuring that those who need abortion access will feel supported as they attend to their reproductive health care. Together over the next year we will learn how to avoid harmful and stigmatizing language. We will make space for the range of experiences that people have with regard to abortion: conflicted, clear-minded, grieving, relieved, grateful, or liberated.
WHAT CAN WE DO NOW?
- Contribute or plan to raise money for the Jewish Fund for Abortion Access. 100% of the money raised goes directly to support those who need care through a hotline, travel funds, or money to pay for an abortion.
- Learn as much as we can about the implications of the decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Sign up to attend the NCJW Community briefing on Thursday, July 14 at 1:30. We will learn what the decision means, about the state of abortion access now, and what our synagogue community can do to adapt to this new reality. Register here for #JewsForAbortionAccess briefing.
- Contact Rabbi.Drill@theojc.org and Rabbi.Scheff@theojc.org if you are ready to roll up your sleeves and establish a committee at OJC to lead our efforts in education, action, and advocacy.
We have looked at the snow on the driveway for long enough. It is time to get out our shovels and begin digging out.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill