“Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu,” chanted Cantor Julie Yugend Green, “melech hoalam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”
“Blessed are you, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.”
So began the Shabbat service last Friday at the Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion as it does most every Friday evening. What made this service different was that the synagogue on Harlem Avenue was joining with other Reform temples nationwide in celebrating reproductive rights in an event called “Repro Shabbat,” sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women.
What also made this Shabbat different was that the sermon was not given by one of the temple’s two rabbis but by Dr. Allison Cowett, medical director of Family Planning Associates in Chicago and an obstetrician/gynecologist and complex family planning specialist on the faculty at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine — or, as one of her three daughters once referred to her, an abortion doctor.
In her sermon, Dr. Cowett began by showing how reproductive rights are deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. She pointed to the 21st chapter of Exodus which states that if two men are fighting and a pregnant woman gets pushed causing her to miscarry, the men will be fined, but if the push causes the woman to die, the rule will be an eye for an eye.
“The difference in those two penalties underscores the value placed on them,” she said. “The fetus is not considered a person until it is born, and therefore the penalty for causing a miscarriage is a fine. It is not considered to be murder. Judaism holds that personhood begins at the moment of viable birth, the moment of the first breath when the soul enters the body.”
“Judaism from the time of the Torah,” Rabbi Max Weiss explained, “has recognized that a fetus and child that has been born do not have the same status. In rabbinic tradition when the life of the mother is at risk from the fetus, the mother’s life is given precedence. The woman’s life comes before that of the fetus.”
In her sermon, Cowett said that, especially in the 20th century, rabbis have broadened the interpretation of the health and life of the mother to include mental health. “Abortion is permitted to safeguard both the physical and mental health of a pregnant person and for any reason identified by the pregnant individual.”
She said the Talmud even describes an abortion as an act of self-defense, framing the fetus in some cases as the pursuer endangering the mother’s life.
The 20th-century rabbinic writings,” she added, “expand the circumstances in which abortion is permitted. Almost any reason is sufficient, a teaching consistent with our modern, progressive understanding of abortion rights in the United States. Abortion is permitted for the physical and mental well-being of women, to preserve human dignity and bodily autonomy.”
She contrasted Jewish values with what she referred to as Christian values and the abortion stigma entrenched in our culture that abortion is shameful, a negative life experience which should be carefully hidden from society.”
“Abortion restrictions endanger the lives of pregnant people,” she added, “causing delays in care for pregnancy complications such as bleeding and infection. The restrictions currently in place throughout the country are largely based on the Christian value that life begins at conception which is antithetical to Jewish teaching. Restricting abortion care is a matter of religious liberty.”
Cowett then got personal regarding the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court in the Dobbs Decision. “Because of Roe,” she said to the 30 people seated in the synagogue’s chapel, “we came of age with a sense of control over our reproductive lives. We could dream; we could achieve; we could realize our potential whether that included motherhood or not.”
“The overturn of Roe has led to chaos,” she lamented. The caseload at her clinic has doubled, with many of patients traveling from states that ban abortions. She added that the necessity to travel in order to get an abortion places an unfair burden on the poor. Cowett ended her talk by challenging her fellow temple members, declaring that as Jews they have an obligation to speak out.
At the bottom of Cowett’s emails are printed the following two quotes:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.” (Pirkei Avot)
“I will choose what enters me, what becomes flesh of my flesh. Without choice, no politics, no ethics lives. I am not your cornfield, not your uranium mine, not your calf for fattening, not your cow for milking. You may not use me as your factory. Priests and legislators do not hold shares in my womb or my mind. This is my body. If I give it to you, I want it back. My life is a non-negotiable demand.” (Marge Piercy)