The National Council of Jewish Women, URJ, Reform Action Center, and Women of Reform Judaism are part of an interfaith coalition, headed by the Religious Institute, which has selected this Sabbath as a National Weekend of Prayer and Reproductive Justice. This week, when we study Ki Tisa, the portion from Exodus recounting the story of the Golden Calf, we are reminded of the power of betrayal to shake society to its roots. Fearful and anxious at the prolonged absence of their leader Moses, the people panic, forge a golden calf, and credit it with having delivered them from Egypt. God and Moses are devastated. How couldn’t they be beside themselves at this utter betrayal? Just as the Golden Calf represents the ultimate embodiment of apostasy, the renewed assault on reproductive rights represents an embodiment of tyranny.
Here in Kentucky, in Texas and around our nation, we are on the verge of betraying our debt to history with the same recklessness with which those who built the golden calf betrayed theirs. Our freedom, our rights, and liberties were not given to us without years of struggle, protest, and sacrifice. At times, Moses berates the people for having betrayed the faith of their fathers. Sometimes it seems that we, as a generation, deserve to be berated for forsaking the faith of our mothers.
How is it possible that people in this day and age want to turn back the clock on reproductive rights? Have we forgotten the pain and poverty of the past? Do we really need to be reminded of the consequences to individuals and families when society demands the right to regulate women’s bodies? How is it even possible that there are elected officials who argue that a women should be compelled to give birth even when their pregnancy is the result of rape or when their own lives are in danger? The most recent attempts to pass legislation forcing counseling and requiring women to watch videos showing the termination of fetuses before they can have an abortion are an affront to decency and democracy alike. We make choices about life and death every single day. There are no legally mandated, “must-see” videos for countless other procedures with vast implications for patients making other similar decisions. We can’t simply criminalize all choices we don’t like. History shows what happened and what still happens when women don’t have access to safe, legal and affordable abortion. The legal, medical, economic, emotional and spiritual toll is immeasurable. We cannot go back to that past, and recent legislation is trying to do just that.
In a recent piece in The Forward in which he calls upon Jewish communities to pray and preach about reproductive rights, Dr. Jay Michelson, notes that “one might believe abortion to be against religious or moral principles but still support reproductive justice.” One of the many reasons that we, as Reform Jews, should speak out on this issue is that it is a matter of religious freedom. Within own tradition, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, abortion is permissible in some circumstances, and a mother’s health and life always takes precedence over that of a fetus. If we are to value religious freedom, we need to make room for a range of interpretations to exist, allowing women to do with their own bodies what they believe is right for them.
Despite being furious with the people for their behavior, Moses refuses to betray them even when God offers him the opportunity to do so. “I’ll wipe them out and give you a new people to work with.” Like a patient and gifted counsellor, Moses “talks God down” from this drastic threat. The argument for doing so isn’t that the misdeeds of the people are trivial, or that God’s anger is undeserved. The angle Moses takes goes deeper than this. “Don’t do that, God, because the nations of the world will malign you for giving your people so many miracles only to destroy them in the desert for their disobedience.” The implications of these words are tremendous. Relationships are about more than the sum total or net worth of our deeds. The ultimate value of our existence is that we value each other. For God to wipe out the people for the sin of the Golden Calf would escalate the level of betrayal rather than lower it. Thanks to the crisis intervention skills of Moses, the people are saved from destruction and the God of liberation does not revert to being the terrifying God of The Flood. Neither God nor Moses betray their betrayers. Neither should we. We ask our opponents on this issue to increase their renunciation of violence and decrease their attempts to use the law as a weapon to control women’s bodies. The freedoms we cherish may or may not be ordained by Heaven. Torah deplores and defends slavery, depicts women as persons and as property, rejoices in the unity of humankind and relegates fellow human beings to the status of other. It’s complicated. What isn’t all that complicated is the debt we owe to those who came before us. We owe our freedoms to them: their blood, sweat and tears. Our freedoms are the hard won fights of history. We owe it to our mothers and grandmothers, our fathers and grandfathers, our spouses and our children to defeat these attempts to turn back the clock. Anything less is a betrayal of conscience, one with devastating consequences not only for us, but also for many generations to come.