Posted on July 7, 2022
I have always been an Americanophile; in case you’re unfamiliar with the term it means “a person who greatly admires of favors America or things from American culture.”1 Okay, full disclosure I didn’t actually know there was a word for this, but I googled in the hope that it would exist and there it was.
Growing up in England we were exposed to American culture in the television and movies that we watched – I wanted to grow up and be one of the Friends living in New York. When I had the choice at High School over what subjects to study, I chose a combination of British and American politics and history, learning about the foundation of this nation and the political system by which it is governed. And as a Reform Jew in England, I remember the experience of attending my first Union for Reform Judaism Biennial in Minneapolis; I was immediately impressed by the confident, joyful, and deep expression of Jewish identity that I witnessed there.
I believe that my Jewish identity has a lot to do with my affection for America and ultimately for my choice to live and raise my family here. I grew up in a country which was explicitly Christian. There is an official state religion, the Queen holds the official title: “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.”2 And at the school I attended from ages 11-18; we Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim students were expected to sing Christian Hymns in school assemblies. And while I do not recall experiencing much, if any, persecution or discrimination because of my Jewish identity; it was clear that I was a minority living in an official majority culture.
In contrast, while levels of religiosity may be higher here in America, it has as one of the bedrock principles the separation of Church and State. Jews found a home here, and it quickly became a haven for those who had been persecuted elsewhere and as such had in its very DNA an inclusivity for all, first Amendment stated: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”3 This openness to religion, alongside the absence of historic Christian antisemitism presented a unique opportunity for the Jewish community to flourish here. We embraced the American dream and the opportunities that America presented for us to live freely and openly as members of the Jewish community.
And while I am still all in on America and her potential, this last week or so has given me pause as a Jew about what the future might bring.
While for this Shabbat, my focus is on the reversal of Roe v. Wade which happened a week ago today; I will add that I am deeply troubled by the US Supreme Court’s decision on Monday to side with a high school football coach who claimed the right to pray on the 50-yard line at the end of each game.4 There is an important distinction between having a majority religious culture and having an official religious culture, and I worry about the direction we are moving in.
In relation to last Friday’s verdict, I of course have my personal perspective on what the Supreme Court ruled. I am deeply troubled about the erosion of women’s rights to decide on the best course of medical treatment for themselves. I am concerned about how the verdict will lead to blanket bans on abortion which will lack compassion for those whose pregnancies are caused by rape, or empathy for those situations where an abortion is the necessary medical course of action. And I am saddened that the phrase we have taught our daughter: “my body, my choice” now requires an asterisk in certain parts of the country where it is no longer true.
But, today I stand here as a Rabbi, I stand here as a leader within the Jewish community, and I stand here as someone who must speak out on how this verdict is troubling from a Jewish perspective. With that context it is important to note that I do not have an opinion whether Roe v Wade was well written or good law from a legal perspective. And I have not delved into the legal minutia of the decision that was made last week and the way that the Justices reached their verdict. All that I can do is offer my perspective as a Rabbi and the problems that arise from the verdict. And while people might often say: 2 Jews and 3 opinions, the outpouring of statements and condemnations from virtually every Jewish communal organization last week demonstrates that there is broadly speaking a united concern from a Jewish perspective.
To begin by being brief, I know not my normal approach, Judaism does not believe that life begins with conception. In this regard there are numerous Jewish sources which make clear that the fetus is not considered to be an independent life until the moment of birth. As a result of this understanding, when a pregnancy is dangerous for the pregnant person, their life takes precedence and priority over the unborn fetus. In these situations where the woman’s life may be in danger by remaining pregnant, it is a fulfilment of the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh – saving a life, to terminate the pregnancy. This is of course not a decision which is taken lightly, but Judaism is clear that there are times when this is the necessary response.
Almost immediately following the Supreme Court verdict, a number of States passed laws restricting abortion access. In general, these laws follow an understanding that life begins at conception and restrict access to abortion-related health care under that premise. However, we must be clear that this is not a scientific or a medical approach. Rather this is a Christian approach, and as such it is at odds with our Jewish approach which understands the beginning of life differently. The First Amendment is supposed to protect our right to practice our religion freely, and it is supposed to ensure that religious laws are not introduced as State or Federal legislation. This Supreme Court verdict and the way it is leading to changes in State legislation are challenging our First Amendment rights as Jews in these United States.
With this in mind, I think it is important that we be prepared for the strong likelihood that legal challenges to State legislation around abortion access are likely to involve Jewish plaintiffs. While there are many ways in which restricted access to abortions may be challenged, the religious angle is a particularly strong one given the First Amendment, and as such we need to be prepared. I am concerned about the way this debate will be played out in both the courts and the press – and how the Jewish community will be portrayed and impacted.
Our Jewish value of Pikuach nefesh, our Jewish understanding of when life begins, and our rights as Jewish Americans to practice our religion freely are all at stake as a result of the recent Supreme Court verdict. I take pride in being a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis who came out with an unequivocal statement condemning the Supreme Court decision and asserted the need to “work for individual bodily autonomy and privacy.”5 I am also proud that our local, cross-denominational Massachusetts Board of Rabbis wrote: “We are united in our insistence that the freedom of religious belief and practice, and the equal standing of women before the law, requires that our country maintain faith with its past holdings on reproductive choice.”6 And I am grateful that our Greater Boston Jewish Community Relations Council issued a statement supporting “the preservation of the constitutional rights to personal control of one’s own reproductive decisions.”7 Rarely is the organized Jewish community as united around an issue as it appears to be around this one.
The strength of the Jewish response is a statement about how important this issue is. It is important because our very First Amendment rights – the freedom to practice our own religion are at stake. It is important because our ability to freely follow Jewish laws and teachings around reproductive health are challenged by this issue. It is important because at the heart of Judaism is the value of pikuach nefesh – saving a life, a value which is curtailed by this ruling. And it is important because ultimately Judaism believes in the importance of bodily autonomy, especially in areas where our own medical health and well-being are at stake.
I remain an Americanophile and while I have concerns about the direction in which we are heading, I still have faith that ultimately the forces of justice will triumph. We are unfortunately once again fighting for a right that we had believed was already won and secured; but we achieved it before and we will achieve it again. We are not a people who sit idly by on the sidelines and so we will do what we can to ensure the freedom to follow our Judaism and to support reproductive health and rights for everyone.