Thoughts on Roe vs. Wade

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 13, 2022 / 12 Iyar 5782

Since the leak of the Supreme Court draft document that would overturn Roe vs. Wade, many of us have been riding a wave of shock, a shock that momentarily silenced me. I seem constitutionally built in such a way that I not only “see” multiple perspectives, but very often also feel the moral dimensions of complicated issues. I see the woman in the back alley, forced to revert to dangerous and illegal procedures to maintain autonomy over her own body, and my soul cracks. I watch the heartbeat of a fetus moving, and I see its reality. Its smallness and vulnerability make me feel protective.

Morality is messy. The most momentous moral choices we make often involve difficult and sometimes impossible choices, choices we must live with. During the moral high-water marks of our lives, we are forced to act and then live with the consequences of our imperfect options.

I’ll never really know what it is like to be a woman, but if we take that further, none of us can ever stand in anyone else’s shoes. Assuming we understand someone because we believe we have had the same experience is a path to misunderstanding. The best we can do is engage in an imaginative act of empathy in which we trust that our souls and mirror neurons can move us a little bit closer to someone else’s challenging reality. We have a duty to do that much.

How are we supposed to navigate such agonizing moments? Let there be no doubt, this leaked draft document from the Supreme Court places any of us who care about America, personal freedom, religious rights, protection of the weak, and institutional integrity in a place of turmoil. If we remain lost in our thoughts, we suffer “paralysis from analysis.” If we rush in headstrong and certain, we are liable to create a series of harmful unintended consequences that produce or magnify the very outcome we fear.

I have sat with all this, trying not to revert to my old thinking about abortion. Most of the time, when people ask us our opinion about something, we tell them what we have already thought about, share where our thinking last ended, and lose the impulse to novelty which the present moment demands. Judge Alito’s leaked draft demands that we all approach this time by looking for what we previously missed.

This is also a moment where I am grateful for my faith. First, the Torah permits abortion. Period. Full stop. That’s not a political or partisan statement but a fact. This normative reading of the Torah is inscribed in our Jewish legal system. Are there minority opinions against it? Of course, but they are the minority. Judaism’s clarity provides me some ease and direction.

But I am less concerned here with the Torah’s legal reasoning. I am instead grateful for the moral life raft that belief can offer. Faith at its best provides us the strength to endure deep challenges and find a measure of peace whenever we find ourselves faced with what is excruciating. One of the most compelling features of Judaism is how God repeatedly entrusts us to make difficult choices in all walks of life. Other people will second guess our choices. Knowing that God trusts us to make the best decisions we know how is powerful. It gives us the courage to do what is right for ourselves and our families regardless of those who disagree with our actions.

If the right to an abortion reverts to state’s rights, women in Oregon may not see much change in their reproductive health choices. Although Judaism places the largest part of our moral obligations on caring for our own town or city, it also requires that we address more distant moral hazards. Because our faith permits, and in some cases, encourages abortion, I have wondered what it would look like for our congregation to support women in states who have lost that God-given right. Could we finance some of them to come here and offer them home hospitality in the days before and after their procedure? Could we forge a relationship with some houses of worship in the south for this purpose? Ought we to engage in civil disobedience and mail “the morning after pill” to people in states where it has become illegal? Is this what God is asking of us at this moment?

In my stunned silence, I pondered what theme we should dedicate our Tikkun Leil Shavuot to this year that captures this American moment. Shavuot is the holiday when we commemorate matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, and as we all know, genuine Torah study presents difficult texts that won’t succumb to the answers provided by sound bites. We are Yisrael, the people who struggle with God. With that in mind, we will focus on “Wrestling with God and Human—the Moral Challenges of Social Issues.”

It is my hope that when we allow ourselves sufficient moral imagination, we are better able to grasp the validity of the view or position with which we disagree. That, after all, is what religious wrestling is all about, and it is fundamental to our Jewish faith. While it may be easier to live in an either/or world, that’s not the Jewish way. As we approach Shavuot—and the Supreme Court’s decision–may our wrestling lead us to take important and productive action as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Please note that due to computer trouble a more recent version of this column that included “Shabbat Table Talk” was lost.

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