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Rabbi Sermon 5.6.22

05/12/2022 02:49:21 PM


Rabbi David Levinsky
I simply cannot describe the range emotions that I felt when my phone alerted me to the possible overturning of Roe V. Wade. I felt fear for the women whose lives will be ruined. I felt anger at that men cannot let women make decisions for themselves, rather than trying to protect them with legislation. I felt sadness at the amount of suffering that this decision will bring into the world.
When I interviewed to be your rabbi, I was clear that I would keep politics off of the pulpit. I have kept my word. I also said that I do not consider basic human rights political issues. I said that I know that some people will disagree with me but I am committed to equal treatment for all Americans. I will stand up and speak out when basic human rights are challenged.
For me, reproductive rights fall into that category. People should have the right to make their own medical decisions with medical professionals of their choice. The Supreme Court is poised to take that right away from American women.
Those are my emotions. That is my reasoning. These are the facts.
Because America has no federal abortion law, and because it’s highly unlikely that Congress can create one, abortion law will fall to the states. What does this mean for Utah? It’s pretty simple. Under Governor Gary Herbert, the statehouse passed a law whereby abortion would be banned if Roe V. Wade was overturned. End of story. No abortions in Utah. There are a few exceptions—if the mother’s life is at risk, if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, if two physicians who practice maternal fetal medicine both determine that the fetus has a defect that is uniformly diagnosable and uniformly lethal or has a severe brain abnormality that is uniformly diagnosable. That said, there will
basically be no abortions in Utah the moment the court overturns Roe V. Wade.
What does Judaism say about this issue? Tomorrow morning at Torah study, I will teach the two major threads of legal reasoning in the classical rabbinic material. I plan to follow that next week with a lesson on what contemporary Jewish legal authorities do with those classical texts. The Torah and rabbinic literature are not woke documents on this issue. Contemporary Orthodox opinions about abortion line up largely with Utah law.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan would say that the tradition has a vote and we have a veto. In this case, I exercise my veto, which is not something that I do lightly. Why do I veto the rabbinic tradition that I love so dearly? Because all of the law about women in the Jewish tradition is based on the faulty premise that women need to be protected rather than make their own decisions. The ancient rabbis, and Orthodox rabbis to this day, take agency away from women and put it in the hands of male authorities. I reject this maneuver and thereby Jewish law on this issue.
In doing so, I do not walk away from the very real emotions of people who question the morality of some abortions. I have spoken to women who had late-term surgical abortions and to doctors who have observed or performed late-term surgical abortions. Some of these women and doctors found the surgical procedure emotionally and morally difficult. I respect those emotions and I respect those moral positions. It does not affect my belief that women should be able to make these difficult decisions themselves.
For the rest of this sermon, I wish to ask some questions and offer some answers. We are Jews. We disagree. These are my opinions, and I believe that they are aligned with the vast majority of the congregation. If you disagree with us, I am not here to erase your voice. I am here to listen.
Who will this effect? It will primarily effect poor women. Women with financial resources in Utah will be able to travel to California and Canada. Women with financial resources will be able to order abortion pills from offshore sources. Poor women will not be able to access these options. Is there anything more likely to push a teen woman into permanent poverty than a forced teen pregnancy?
We live in a state where our political leaders try to craft a balance between religiously conservative beliefs and kindness. They have a difficult job on their hands this time. Will they go beyond their fiscal conservatism and design programs to help poor women who are forced to give birth to children? Maybe. We should not forget that the whole premise of these type of programs is insulting to women in as much as it cares for them rather than giving them agency to make their own choices about their lives.
Will this be effective at stopping abortions? I doubt it. How well did prohibition work? How many of you used Cannabis before it was legal? Banning things does not stop people from doing them. It usually pushes the activity underground, pushes good people into the legal system and prisons, raises the cost of the activity, and reduces the possibility of doing the banned activity safely.
Will there be any ways to work around the Utah law? Some may be reassured that we are at a moment in time when most abortions are done by pharmaceuticals in the first trimester. A woman talks to a nurse on telehealth, receives pills, takes them at home, and has her period. It’s become a very simple process.
That too would be banned in Utah. Will doctors who provide these pills have to check the GPS on the phone of the person asking for them? Will delivery of the pills have to be made in astate where it is legal? Will women have to take the pills in a state that is legal? These questions remain unanswered.
I am angry. The Jewish tradition tells me that my anger is valid when it is used to try to improve my community. What can you do if you share my anger? What can we do to improve our community?
We can try to modify law at the federal and state level through legislation. As I mentioned, it will be difficult for anything to be done in Congress. Because of the rather obscure rules of the Senate, passing that governmental body would require a super majority of 60 votes. It’s doubtful that pro-choice advocates could even get a simple majority of 51. Change in the Utah state house will be even more difficult given the LDS Church position on abortion. So yes, vote for candidates that support your views in national, state, and local elections. If those views are pro-choice, it’s unlikely that your vote will make a difference in the short-term. This will be a long game.
We can protest. We can take the issue to the streets. I am well aware of the limitations of protest. I’ve been doing it since I was fifteen. I’m still doing it today. That said, protests have a function. They keep movements energized. They let people with opposing views know how much you care. They offer a release of emotion. All of these things are helpful.
You can support people who will break the law in the name of reproductive rights. If this brief is finalized, many of the things that one can do to help the situation will be against the law. Many will choose to break those laws. Many good people will face incarceration. I will not ask you to break the law. I will ask you to consider supporting those who choose the sense of justice that dwells in their hearts over the unjust law of the world.
In 1955, at the beginning of his efforts to extend civil liberties to black people in America, Martin Luther King Jr. said these words to Montgomery Improvement Association:
“You know my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by the iron feet of oppression … If we are wrong, then justice is a lie, love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In doing so, Dr. King echoed the words of the prophet Amos. Amos lived in a time when the Northern kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam was experiencing great success. Amos saw that success consolidate in the hands of a few authorities at the expense of the regular people. He loudly spoke out against this injustice.
In 1955, Dr. King also spoke out against the injustice of segregation, against the farce of separate but equal. It took nine years, but America eventually passed the civil rights act. Dr. King’s efforts changed America for the better.
Now we face another fight. The fight for reproductive rights has entered a new stage. This one is not going to be easy. This one is not going to happen overnight. Many will suffer and some will die in the pursuit of justice. This is the hard reality of generating social change. We will not let this stop us. We will not desist. We will resist.
Shabbat Shalom
Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784