Rosh Hashanah 2022/5783
The morning that the Dobbs decision was expected to be released, I was sitting in my office, refreshing the Supreme Court’s website over and over and over again. And then, it happened. The decision was posted, and even as my stomach started to churn, I got up and started walking to the Sanctuary where I was scheduled to help lead Camp Emeth’s Shabbat service.
For the next half an hour, I put all of my energy into engaging with the kids – who only wanted to ask questions that could stump the rabbi and sing songs about eating ice pops on Shabbat. I think I did a pretty good job of compartmentalizing… until the very last part of the service when the new youth choir came up on the bimah and presented the song that they had been working on all week.
As we sing we link ourselves, to those who came before,
And we’re one with all those yet to come, our strength it will endure. *
Be strong, let us strengthen one another.
Be strong, let us celebrate our lives.
Be strong, let us strengthen one another. Chazak, chazak, V’nitchazek.
I had moved to the back of the sanctuary to take a photo of the choir as they stood on the bimah. But, I ended up just standing there- watching these children sing about the future and crying.
In that moment, I was so moved by their earnest, hopeful voices, and I could feel a part of my heart breaking as I realized that their futures were less protected than they had been – even a few hours ago.
When I was their age, it was the era of Girl Power, Buffy the Vampire Slayer saving the world, and the Spice Girls telling us that friends were way more important than dates. I identified as a feminist from my early childhood… but I also, from my place of privilege and in my ignorance, thought that the work of the feminist movements was… pretty much done. Sure, there were still a few things that I wanted to straighten out, but most of what I thought needed to change was about individuals’ behaving badly rather than systemic injustices. As a kid and a preteen, I thought that the majority of the systemic injustices had already been fixed. Of course, these incorrect assumptions about the world fell away... one by one… as I got older and started to actually experience the world.
For example, in 11th grade, I went to Washington DC on my temple’s post-confirmation trip to the Religious Action Center. While we were there, my classmates and I were given the opportunity to speak with a staffer working for one of our state’s representatives and to share the Jewish perspective on a piece of contemporary legislation. That year, one of the options was a bill that would have allowed someone to be charged with two counts of murder if their alleged victim was pregnant. I don’t remember all of the details of the bill, but I do remember choosing to join that group and then sitting with my classmates late into the night, pouring over the Jewish texts that clearly distinguished between the full life of a pregnant person and the potential life of a fetus. We read and discussed and decided that the proposed bill didn’t reflect our Jewish values, and then we wrote a speech explaining exactly why the legislation conflicted with our beliefs.
The next day, we got up, we got dressed in our Capitol Hill bests, and we headed to the legislative seat of power for our country. I don’t remember everything about our speech, but I do remember that we were thoughtful and detailed. And I remember that, in our presentation, we focused a lot of time and energy on our concern that if the bill became law, it would establish a precedent that could be used to try to outlaw abortions in our state- which we explained would be very much against our Jewish values.
I remember feeling proud of our remarks.
And.. I remember that this staffer laughed at us, dismissed the Jewish values we had shared and especially our concerns about precedent, and then told us that if people didn’t want to become pregnant, then they should not have sex.
In the months since the Dobbs decision was released, I’ve thought about that moment in DC often. As an adult, I can see that underneath that man’s apparent disdain for the opinions of teenagers, was an absolute certainty that his understanding of life and his religious values were more important than ours. His words were very clearly meant to put us in “our place” as teens and, more specifically, as Jewish citizens in this country.
In his chronicle of American Judaism, historian, Jonathan Sarna, concludes his chapter on the first Jewish communities on this continent by explaining that Jewish people living in various colonies in North America received repeated messages to remain “out of sight and out of mind” and to practice their religion “in all quietness” in order to avoid angering their rulers. Sarna says that these consistent reminders created a legacy that was passed from generation to generation in the Jewish community, explaining that, “Years… after all the restrictions had been lifted, many Jews continued to look upon ‘quietness’ as a principle conducive to Jewish group survival. Their instinct, rooted in a history most no longer recalled, was to keep their Judaism as private as possible lest they provoke their neighbors.” I agree with part of Dr. Sarna’s assessment. For as long as Jewish people have lived on this continent, we have been promised peace if we would just keep quiet, just allow any conflicts between our own faith and the faith of those in power to go unremarked upon, and just stay out of sight even when doing so comes at the expense of our ability to live fully according to our own religious values.
And yet, in the months since the Dobbs decision, I have drawn strength from the incontrovertible proof that for the 368 years that Jews have lived in this part of the world, we have time and again refused to remain silent when doing so would sacrifice our liberty or the liberty of others.
The very first Jewish people to arrive in North America were fleeing the Inquisition. They came from the colony of Brazil, where there had been a thriving but short-lived Jewish settlement. However, when the Portuguese retook Brazil from the Dutch, the Jewish community was immediately in danger as Portuguese rule brought with it the reestablishment of the Inquisition and the Inquisitorial courts.
In early September 1654, a group of Jewish refugees arrived in the Dutch controlled colony of New Amsterdam. They were penniless and entirely at the mercy of the Dutch colonial officer and Director of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, who absolutely hated them from the very first moment they stepped off their ship. He immediately sent a letter to his superiors at the Dutch West India Company begging them to expel the Jewish people from the colony. In that letter, he wrote, “The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but learning that they (with their customary usury and deceitful trading with the Christians) were repugnant to the inferior magistrates… [we] deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart.”
But did those Jewish people depart, in a friendly way or otherwise? No. No, they did not.
Instead, they wrote to their fellow Dutch Jews and asked for assistance. And they stayed; they built lives and communities; and, they kept up constant pressure on Stuyvesant and the Directors of the West India Company… pushing and pushing and pushing for more freedom to live Jewishly and refusing to bow to their rulers’ pressure to stop being a thorn in their sides.
Zooming 200 years into the future, we find yet another example of Jewish communities refusing to be quiet when their freedoms had been infringed upon and identities disrespected. In 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous Order No. 11 expelling Jews living in his military district which included parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. President Lincoln was quick to pressure another Union general to rescind the order, but the Jewish communities in this country did not forget Grant’s actions.
Six years after he issued his order, Grant was running for president, and Jewish communities- especially in the areas that he had targeted- refused to stay quiet. One such community, in Memphis, put out calls in the newspapers for all of the “Isaelites of the city” to gather to discuss what should be done.
This resulted in a large conference where a man named H. M. Loewnstine got up and delivered an incredible speech that was transcribed and published in the local newspaper. Here is what the article captured from Loewenstine’s remarks:
“For the last eighteen centuries our ancestors fought for religious freedom in every clime. Look at the histories of Spain, England, Germany, and see the martyrs of our creed stand up, displaying the banner of freedom of religion and the doctrine of religious equality, before the law... Fanatic tyrants and cowardly despots have sought to persecute the Jews in every country. Finding them in a minority, it became an easy matter to cause them to suffer indignities and cruelties that disgrace their authors and consign their abettors to everlasting infamy. But here in the land of freedom, we all thought the bigotry of the fourteenth century had ceased; that the spirit of liberty inspired the sons of America, and that none could be found in our day so ingoble as to play the tyrant of the past ages.”
In 1868, these Jewish people saw themselves as the continuation of past Jewish generations’ pursuit of freedom. They knew that their minority status made it easier for their beliefs to be dismissed and their freedoms to be limited. And yet, they refused to back down or be quiet. They spoke loudly and often.
Moving forward again almost 200 years, we come to today, when all across this country, sweeping, oppressive abortion bans have been built on definitions of life which are in direct conflict with our religion’s teachings. Judaism teaches that life begins at the first breath after birth- not at conception. Jewish law also definitively states that the potential life of the fetus and the full life of the pregnant person are categorically different. In Judaism, there is no question that the full life of the pregnant person should be protected in all situations - even when that protection comes at the expense of the potential life of the fetus.
And so, as both state legislatures and our national institutions seek to further and further restrict pregnant people’s abilities to protect their own lives, we as Jews are once again in a position where we can either be quiet lest we anger our neighbors, or we can lift up our voices and demand our right to practice our religion freely.
In multiple states, Jewish organizations and individuals have filed legal complaints alleging that specific abortion bans are violating the religious freedom that all American citizens are guaranteed.
In their complaint filed in the in Miami-Dade-County of Florida, Rabbis Gayle Pomerantz, Robyn Fisher, and Jason Rosenberg allege that, “Since time immemorial, the questions of when a potential fetus becomes a life and how to value maternal life during pregnancy have been answered according to religious beliefs and creeds. [The legislation named in this complaint] codifies one of the possible religious viewpoints on the question, and in its operation imposes severe burdens on other believers including Jewish clergy and people.”
Another complaint was filed in Indiana by Hoosier Jews for Choice and five anonymous plaintiffs who write that they are acting on their own behalfs and on behalf of others similarly situated.
In this complaint, the plaintiffs allege that while, “...some religions… believe that human life begins at conception (however defined), this is not the theological opinion shared by all religions or all religious persons.” The complaint then goes on to detail a number of religions that do not teach that life begins at conception and whose adherents’ rights are being infringed upon by legislation codifying one faith’s definition of life.
These legal complaints are just two examples of the many ways that Jewish people are refusing to be quiet right now. Many, many contemporary Jews are feeling the same pressure that our ancestors did to be silent rather than endangering whatever fragile peace we’ve been told we’ll enjoy if we just don’t rock the boat.
But my hope is that despite that pressure, we will be yet another generation of Jewish people who refuse to be silent, who lift up our voices, and who demand the freedom we are entitled to.
And to be clear, our decision to use our Jewish voices does not come from a desire for Judaism to be named the official religion of our country or for Jewish beliefs to be the basis of new legislation. Our goal has not been, is not, and should not be power. Our goal has been, is, and should be freedom- not just for ourselves but for all people.
On this Rosh Hashanah, I pray that we will refuse to be quiet. I pray that we will follow in the footsteps of Jewish generations from two hundred, four hundred, and even two thousand years ago by lifting up our voices and seeking the welfare and betterment of our cities, our country, and the world. I pray that our voices will ring strongly and will herald an age of increasing freedoms for us and for everyone.
Chazak. Chazak. V’nitchazek. Be strong. Be strong. And let us strengthen one another.
And together we say: Amen.