(JTA) — On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, in my second year of rabbinical school, while working at my first-ever High Holiday pulpit, I accidentally conceived.
I had my first bout of morning sickness in our introductory Talmud course, and my first pregnancy craving during Hebrew Literature and Grammar (I still swear that pickles on pizza is a million-dollar idea).
I took my pregnancy test on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, and whispered the blessing “asher yatzar et ha’adam b’chochmah,” who created human beings with wisdom, when it read positive.
That night, I attended a required class Shabbat program at Kehilat Romemu on the Upper West Side, where I discovered that morning sickness could indeed happen at night in a shul bathroom.
I prayed. I read every piece of Jewish literature on abortion that I could find. I read every opinion article on the internet about “why I’m happy I had an abortion” or “how I came to regret my abortion.” I made a pros and cons list. I consulted the would-be father and my rabbinic mentor, Rabbi Jen Gubitz. I cried on the phone with my mom. Ultimately, I made the choice using the instinctual wisdom inside myself, heeding nobody’s opinion but my own. And perhaps God’s.
We Jews are commanded, in lines that appear in this week’s Torah portion: “I have put before you today blessing and curse, life and death. Uvacharta v’chayyim, Choose life.”
That commandment has been coopted as a rallying cry for those who support restrictions on abortion, such as the Texas ban on abortions after six weeks that went into effect this week when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block it. But for me and so many others, this verse is a clear rebuttal to that law, the most significant infringement on abortion rights in America since the Roe v. Wade protected a women’s right to choose 48 years ago.
I chose life when I left Literary Artistry of the Bible early on a Thursday afternoon to walk the few short blocks from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s New York campus to the Margaret Sanger Planned Parenthood on Bleecker Street. I took the first pill in a quiet office, sitting across from a doctor who looked just like me. The next morning, my Medieval Jewish History class took a field trip to the Met Cloisters. Our professor was late because she had to prepare her brisket for Shabbat dinner. I felt so sick I could hardly stand. That night, I livestreamed Shabbat services while holding the four Misoprostol pills in the four corners of my mouth, waiting for them to disintegrate. I bled all night.
A week after the bleeding stopped I went to the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, with ImmerseNYC, a liberal mikveh project founded by Rabbi Sara Luria. I did an adapted version of a post-abortion ritual written by Rabbi Tamar Duvdevani. I listened to Debbie Friedman’s “Sow In Tears, Reap In Joy” on repeat the entire way there and the entire way home. I looked at my naked body in the giant mirror in the preparation room and saw every change that that short pregnancy had wrought. I felt weak and I felt strong. I sang to myself because I was still scared, as I dipped under the water and came back up: “Elohai n’shamah shenatata bi t’hora hi,” My God the soul you have given me is pure.
The next morning, our class took a field trip to that same mikveh. I asked five of my classmates, now colleagues, to come early. They were pretty much my only friends in New York at the time and some of the only people that I had told about my abortion. We stood on the corner of 74th and West End Avenue on a windy morning with a challah that I had baked and a little bit of honey and finished the ritual together. We dipped the challah in the honey, a symbol of sweeter times ahead. I cried. We stood in a circle and they wrapped their arms around me. “Hazorim b’dimah b’rinah yiktzoru,” I repeated, “those who sow in tears will reap in joy.”
You may have noticed that my abortion story is very Jewish. Everything from the timing of the accidental conception to the decision and procedure itself was brimming with my Jewish practice, learning and living. It is impossible to extricate my Judaism from my abortion.
And yet you might also assume that my abortion would not have been Jewishly “okay,” permissible under halacha, or Jewish law, because I simply did not want to be pregnant — because mine is the kind of abortion that anti-choicers most disdain. The standard Jewish line on abortion is that Judaism traditionally permits abortion when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. This derives from Mishnah Ohalot 7:6, which states that “[for] a woman who is having a hard labor — makshah leiled — they cut up the fetus in her womb and remove it limb by limb, mipnei shechayeiha kodmin l’chayyav, because her life comes before its life.” Chayeiha kodmin l’chayyav, her life comes before that of the fetus.
What does it mean that the life of the pregnant person comes before that of the fetus? Over the centuries, various rabbinic authorities have offered their answers. It means that her physical needs and pain levels are prioritized over the birthing of the child (Rabbis Josef Trani and Jacob Emden). It means that her mental health is prioritized over the birthing of the child (Rabbi Mordecai Winkler). It means that her dignity and her honor are prioritized over the birthing of the child (Rabbi Ben-Zion Ouziel). It means that the primary consideration in the Jewish question of abortion is the needs of the person giving birth, their life, their health and their dignity.
The Texas abortion ban, SB8, denies human dignity. This ban not only removes the option of safe choice for individuals seeking abortion care in Texas, but it also empowers and incentivizes individual citizens to report and pursue legal action against those who aid people seeking abortion, from doctors to family members to cab drivers.
As a result, it criminalizes care — something that in itself violates Jewish law. As Jews we are commanded over and over again to care for those on the “margins” of society; the poor, the widowed and orphaned, the queer, the people of color, people with disabilities, the systemically oppressed. These are the people who are already and will continue to be most devastated by this abortion ban and by the abortion bans that anti-abortion activists hope will follow all over the country. The lack of care for those in our society who need it most is a prophetic call to us as Jews.
Americans who want to fight back against SB8 can do many things. We can donate to organizations such as the Lilith Fund and the Buckle Bunnies Fund, which provide financial assistance to those in Texas seeking abortion, or to Jane’s Due Process which provides teens with abortion care and birth control, or Fund Texas Choice which provides out-of-state transportation and accommodations. We can share websites like abortionfinder.org or needabortion.org, which direct people to safe clinics. We can call our legislators and lobby for the federal Women’s Health Protection Act, which would protect women and people of all genders against state-level legislation such as SB8.
As Jews, another strategy is available to us. If anyone, ever again, tries to argue that abortion restrictions are justified under the prerogative of religious freedom, we can explain that our religious freedom demands that we have access to abortion care when it is needed and wanted.
There is nothing more sacred than the right to live one’s life as one chooses — and to choose life, and to choose blessing. In having an abortion, I chose my life. Now I will do what I can to ensure that others — including the countless women, nonbinary individuals and trans men affected by SB8 in Texas — can retain the sacred choice to make their own choices and their own blessings.