We Won't Go Back: A Shabbat Sermon
A week and a half ago, Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp signed what was at that point the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the country. This new legislation stops women from accessing abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. On his campaign website, Governor Kemp wrote,
“I support a ‘Heartbeat Bill’ that outlaws abortions after six weeks. In fact, I am the only candidate for governor to signal support for the bill that was just passed in Iowa. ...it’s just common sense to me. As the father of three, I remember listening to the heartbeats of my girls. We were knitted together in our mother's womb and protecting His craftsmanship at six weeks is certainly worth the inevitable courtroom battle.”
Because I know that it is impossible to convey capitalization while speaking, I just want to clarify that the “H” of “His craftsmanship” is capitalized indicating that Governor Kemp is speaking about protecting divine craftsmanship.
On Wednesday, the governor of Alabama signed a bill that would completely bar girls, women, and pregnant people from accessing their constitutionally protected ability to seek an abortion. Governor Ivey released a statement that said,
“Today, I signed into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act, a bill that was approved by overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.”
And, then today, Missouri passed a bill through the House with a huge margin that restricts access to abortion after the 8th week of pregnancy. The following excerpt from that bill makes it clear that the motivation for legislation is explicitly religious.
“In recognition that Almighty God is the author of life, that all men and women are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life... it is the intention of the general assembly of the state of Missouri to: (1) Defend the right to life of all humans, born and unborn [, and to]; (2) Declare that the state and all of its political subdivisions are a ‘sanctuary of life’ that protects pregnant women and their unborn children…”
In a statement issued after successfully passing the bill, Missouri’s Speaker of the House, Elijah Haahr commented,
“Today, the Missouri House stood for the unborn… We value the life of every Missourian and... In passing this bill, we took a powerful step forward to show this includes the unborn. Our children will remember the moral, not political, vote members took today to protect the voice to the unborn.”
Let me pause here to say that I do not recognize the God that Governors Kemp and Ivey are invoking and that I am unfamiliar with the specific kind of morality that Speaker Haahr refers to. When these politicians speak of religion, they are not talking about Judaism.
The Jewish tradition has more than two thousand years of precedent to offer this conversation- the vast majority of which states clearly that the person who is pregnant is a full life and that the fetus she carries is considered to be a part of her body until it is delivered and is separate from its mother. Within Judaism, the idea that a fetus is not a nefesh, a soul, until it is born is not a contemporary innovation. In fact, it is clearly established in the Torah, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. The idea that those who seek to deny women the right to make their own decisions would justify their machinations with the language of religion infuriates me.
I am a rabbi, a Reform Jew, and a woman, and I am deeply offended by their hubris and their ignorance of our tradition’s nuanced teachings and millennia of legal precedents.
For more than half a century, the Reform Movement has been publishing statements in support of expanding women’s access to safe abortions.
In 1975, the Central Conference of American Rabbis argued that,
“...the proper locus for formulating these religious and moral criteria and for making [the] decision [to terminate a pregnancy] must be the individual family or woman and not the state or other external agency. ...[Just] as we would not impose the historic position of Jewish teaching upon individuals nor legislate it as normative for society at large, so we would not wish the position of any other group imposed upon the Jewish community or the general population.”
Just this week, the Women’s Rabbinic Network issued a statement that reads in part,
“We trust women. The ability God gave to women to carry potential life comes with power and responsibility, and we trust women to carry out the blessings and questions that come with this extraordinary capacity. While not every woman is able to or chooses to have children, it is nonetheless certain that legislation which diminishes women's right to choose thereby questions women's ability to be moral, ethical, loving, and thoughtful about life and its potential.”
The idea that to be religious one must be anti-abortion is incorrect on every level and reflects a high level of ignorance for both religious diversity and human complexity.
The laws that been recently passed were given titles like the, “Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act,” the “Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act,” and the “Alabama Human Life Protection Act.” But these titles are disguises. These pieces of legislation are not high minded attempts to protect life; they are bare-knuckled attacks on the autonomy and personhood of all women.
Unfortunately, the strategy of using the language of God and morality to limit women and their choices is deeply rooted in the consciousness of Judaism and those traditions that have evolved from Judaism.
One of the articles that I read this week provided a link to the website for Alabama’s Pro-Life Coalition. I was curious what religious language they were using in their mission and clicked over onto their page. First, I found that instead of a mission, they have a Statement of Faith which explains their belief that the Holy Scriptures were given by God and, “are the only supreme authority in all matters of faith and content.”
I personally disagree with their understanding of biblical authority, but their stated belief is one that I know many religious people share, and, in and of itself, it does not explain the work that they are doing. I scrolled down until I saw the most significant bullet point which is as follows,
“Adam and Eve's union as man and woman modeled God's design for marriage and perpetually stands as God's loving and righteous will for human sexual intimacy. Sex outside the marriage relationship as designed by God, is condemned by Him.”
I suspect that Alabama’s Pro-Life Coalition is hoping that the casual reader assumes that the organization is referring to Adam and Eve’s idyllic life in the Garden of Eden, a time when a man and his helpmate flitted around as they enjoyed a perfect world.
But, I am anything but a casual reader, and I believe that when the Coalition says that Adam and Eve are the model for all relationships, they are actually referring to the expulsion from Eden, when God curses Eve who, in that moment, is called simply, “the woman,” as if to signal that she is meant to represent all women. In anger, God says to her, “I shall greatly increase your toil and your pregnancies; in anguish you shall bear children. To your man is your desire, and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)
In The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi writes that,
“No biblical story has had more influence on women’s lives and identity—and none has been more often reinterpreted through later cultural biases—than the creation of woman in Genesis 2 and the expulsion from the Garden in Genesis 3. The version of creation of humankind in [Genesis 1], which portrays equality between the sexes and their shared reflection of God’s image, is typically overlooked in favor the more ambiguous one in Genesis 2, which is typically read as one in which man precedes woman in time. Consequently, the first woman has been cast by later interpreters as an afterthought: second and therefore secondary in value, not essential to God’s plan. She has also been held solely or at least primarily responsible for human suffering.”
When someone uses religious language to limit women’s autonomy or personhood, they fall squarely within the legacy of Genesis 3’s curse. Additionally, it seems clear to me that when anti-abortion statements invoke Adam and Eve, they are conflating an ancient story about curiosity, maturation, and daring with the real women who will live and die based on their ability to access health care.
It is unfortunate that those who so casually reference Adam and Eve often forget the legacy of Adam’s first partner, Lilith.
Early on, the rabbis who studied Genesis realized that the creation of humanity appears twice and in different ways in the early chapters of the Torah. In the first chapter, God creates a single creature, ha-adam, which is both male and female. God splits the creature down the middle, forming a male individual and a female individual.
In chapters 2 and 3, a different account of the creation of humanity is presented. In the second version, Adam is lonely, so God places him in a deep sleep, removes a rib from his body, and then creates a woman from Adam who will serve as a helper to him.
The rabbis imagine that these two accounts are not simply versions of the same story but are instead telling us that God created two different women. They identify the second woman as Eve and the first, the one who was created when God split ha-adam down the middle, as Lilith.
The rabbi’s vision of Lilith is not kind, but it is powerful. In the Alphabet of Ben Sira, a full account of Lilith’s story is presented beginning with the moment after she and Adam were split apart. In that text, we read,
“They quarreled immediately. [Lilith] said: ‘I will not lie below you.’ [Adam] said, ‘I will not lie below you, but above you. For you are fit to be below me and I above you.’ She responded: ‘We are both equal because we both come from the earth.’ Neither listened to the other. When Lilith realized what was happening, she pronounced the [secret] Name of God and flew off into the air. Adam rose in prayer before the Creator, saying, ‘The woman you gave me has fled from me.’ Immediately the Holy One sent three angels after her. The Holy One said to Adam: ‘If she wants to return, all the better. If not, she will have to accept [a great punishment].’
The angels went after her, finally locating her in the sea, in the powerful waters in which the Egyptians were destined to perish. They told her what God had said, and she did not want to return.”
I believe that Torah is our people’s understanding of creation, and in this foundational text , the first woman tries to assert her equality and the first man tells her that he is in charge.
Dr. Rachel Adler explains,
“Genesis 1 is an account of the Creation, whereas Genesis 2–3 is an account of the creation of patriarchy—a remarkably truthful account. The world brought about by Genesis 2–3 is one in which desire is no longer joyful but oppressive....in Genesis 1, they are presented as equals. Both bear the divine image, both are adjured to hold sway…over all the earth’ (1:28). Genesis 2 and 3 tell a darker tale… [In] 2:7–3:20 the term adam refers to the man [alone]. The woman is never called adam but only ishah (woman), ‘for this one is taken from man’ ( 2:23 ). Together they are ha-adam v’ishto, “the human and his woman...”
The recent push to legislate women’s choices may employ the language of protecting God’s creations, but at the heart of each of these laws is the desire to legally re-establish that idea that a man is ha-adam, the creation made in God’s image, while a woman is simply ishto, a creature that is man-adjacent and that was created from the bit of God’s image that could be spared from Adam.
As a rabbi, a Reform Jew, and a woman, I categorically reject this interpretation of both gender and religion. We do not have to return to this brokenness. We can do so much better than this.
I’ll conclude with another excerpt from the recent statement from the Women’s Rabbinic Network:
"We believe that pro-choice is pro-gender-equity. At this moment in time, we must ensure the equal rights of women. Without the ability to control our own bodies, women are not free, not equal. After millennia of various forms of subjugation, this moment in time calls upon humanity to affirm the equality of all God’s creatures regardless of gender identity and its presentation. Legislation which limits a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body is a continuation of this subjugation."
Tonight, as I stand on this bimah, I call to mind not Eve but Lilith. I ask each of us to open our hearts and minds to her legacy and to reject with confidence and strength any idea that God has prioritized one gender over any other.
I also call on the spirits of generations of Reform rabbis and leaders who have been willing to renounce those parts of our tradition that keep women and people of all genders from reaching their full spiritual potential.
We are the inheritors of prophetic Judaism, I urge each of us to take this mantle onto our shoulders and walk back into the world with pride and purpose.
I call on those of us in positions of privilege to throw ourselves into the fight and to strive to protect the rights of those who are being targeted.
As people of faith, as people of responsibility, we must do everything possible to right the wrongs of our broken world.
Chazak Chazak V’nitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.