On Abortion and the Mystery of Life

I recently went to get my pre-Rosh haShana haircut, and my hairdresser, who is a devout Catholic, was very excited to see me.  She sees it as a good omen when I am on her schedule.  We talk about a few things, our families, the royal family, and then she asks, “So, what are you talking about for the High Holidays?”  I hesitate, not knowing how she is going to react.  “Abortion.” I say.  “Great!” she says enthusiastically. “Why, great?” I ask. She says, “Well, if you can’t talk about it, who can?”

So that’s what I am going to talk about today, I guess!  And here is why I think it’s proper and important to discuss it today, in synagogue, on Rosh haShana, the birthday of the world, in case you aren’t my Catholic hairdresser and are wondering.  Abortion is a religious issue, and one we avoid talking about because it’s become a political issue too.  I’m glad that we as a congregation will be talking about further in a few weeks, to learn a bit more about the Jewish textual sources that underpin our current and historical attitudes concerning abortion.   

But our texts, laws, and history are just part of what makes it a religious issue.  Religion comes into play whenever we talk about the meaning of life and its mysteries.  How did this world come to be?  When does life begin, and when does it end? Why is each creature and indeed every creation on this Earth unique, even ones that share the exact same DNA?  Is there a soul?  What is our purpose in the short amount of time we are granted on this earth? These are fundamentally religious and spiritual questions and in particular, these are the questions we ask during Rosh haShana, when our liturgy declares, “Hayom harat olam – Today the world (or eternity) was conceived.”

One of the main functions of religion is to encourage us to find meaning in the liminal places. Liminal is an adjective from the Latin that literally means, “on the threshold.”  It is that transitional, ambiguous space that can often make people feel scared or vulnerable.   The moment of death is certainly a liminal space, but so it is birth.  Beginnings are fraught with uncertainty, like starting a new year.  The liminal place can be a place of transformation if we are able to open to it – to explore, wonder, and be curious. 

Religion seeks to imbue us with a sense of wonder about those liminal moments.  On Rosh haShana, we tell the story of the creation of the world. And this is the way our Torah begins, “Breishit bara Elohim” – “In the beginning, when God began to create…” Everything was tohu v’vohu, a jumbled mix, and God came and created order from chaos, discerned darkness from light, day from night, sky from earth, and earth from water. And God created life in its incredibly diverse forms and said “it is good.” And that culminated in the creation of human beings, b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Every religion has its account of what happened in the beginning, how the world came into being.  But I don’t believe the Torah comes to tell us what actually happened, or to explain away the mystery.  Rather, I find that the more one studies the text, the more mystery and ambiguity one finds.  Were days then like days now?  Was there a kind of big bang?  

A religious person is drawn into mystery, and to marvel at the mystery of life and its origins.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century prophet and activist wrote about the proper function of religion: “It is not utility that we seek in religion, but eternity. The criterion of religion is not in its being in agreement with our common sense but in its being compatible with our sense of the ineffable.”

I am aware that for others, religion is where they come for concrete answers to life’s big questions and where they find a sense of certainty in a very uncertain and fast-paced world.  But for me, the function of Judaism and religion as a whole is not to build walls of certainty; rather, through Torah, it provides us with a mirror with which to reflect and look deep within the self and in humanity as a whole.  

Take the story that we are reading today for Rosh haShana – the traditional telling of the birth of Isaac after Sarah, having given up on ever becoming a mother, becomes pregnant in her old age.  Subsequently, Sarah convinces Abraham to banish Hagar, the maidservant Sarah gave to Abraham to procreate with so that he would have an heir with whom to build a nation as God promised.  Now Sarah has a son, she feels threatened by Hagar and her son Ishmael, who is older than Isaac.

There are many ways to read this story, as you have heard me share over the course of many years and many Rosh haShanas!  And this year, I see an enslaved woman, whose very name Hagar means “foreigner,” forced to lie with Abraham and then to give birth. She is not given any choice in the matter. Just look at the verbs that get used in the process of her son Ishmael’s conception: 

וַתִּקַּ֞ח שָׂרַ֣י אֵֽשֶׁת־אַבְרָ֗ם אֶת־הָגָ֤ר הַמִּצְרִית֙ שִׁפְחָתָ֔הּ מִקֵּץ֙ עֶ֣שֶׂר שָׁנִ֔ים לְשֶׁ֥בֶת אַבְרָ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַתִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֛הּ לְאַבְרָ֥ם אִישָׁ֖הּ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃ 

So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her enslaved-woman, Hagar the Egyptian—after Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan ten years—and gave her to her husband Abram as wife.

She  is taken, and she is given – she is not asked, and she has no agency in the matter.  Then, when we see Hagar and Ishmael pushed out into the wilderness because Sarah does not want Ishmael to share an inheritance with Isaac she again has no voice, choice, agency.  We see Abraham give her a bit of food and water and send her out into the wilderness with no recourse, no means of survival, no way to save her son. 

You could say this is “just” an interpretation, but we always read scripture through the lens of our lives and our concerns.  Enslaved Black people in colonial America read the theology of liberation in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, just as Jews persecuted in medieval Europe read Abraham as a model of absolute faith in the face of crisis. 

Today, as a Jewish woman in a post-Roe America, I see both Hagar and Sarah as women without full personal bodily autonomy fighting each other for supremacy in a world where only men have power and agency.  Of course, in a biblical patriarchal society this is assumed, but from my vantage point  it is poignant and painful to see echoes of their drama still playing out today, even though ostensibly we live in a very different kind of society.

I see women today facing immense pressure and also quietly struggling to become pregnant, and it is not uncommon.  I see women and girls becoming pregnant when it wasn’t their choice, and facing immense social stigma.  I see people of color shamed for having many children, and then also shamed for wanting to limit their family size.  I see women and couples  suffering through miscarriage and stillbirth, not knowing how to handle their grief or even understand their feelings.

Josh and I tried for years to become parents.  Getting pregnant for us wasn’t the hard part – it was the staying pregnant part.  We suffered several miscarriages before conceiving our oldest child, who is now ten.  And we suffered through more miscarriages after her birth as well.  One time, the last time, I suffered what is called a “missed miscarriage” where the pregnancy was no longer viable after a certain point, but weeks later, my body hadn’t receive that message.  

Waiting for a miscarriage to happen naturally when you know your pregnancy isn’t viable can take an emotional toll. And, if the miscarriage doesn’t happen spontaneously, or it happens but incompletely, it can be a dangerous situation for the pregnant person.  So what is the treatment for an early miscarriage?  You could take a pill, which causes your body to miscarry over the course of a few days, but this can be in the comfort of your home.  There is also an outpatient procedure to surgically remove the pregnancy, known as a “D&C.” We chose to have a D&C, because we didn’t want to prolong our grief a minute longer, and so too our healing.

A D&C is a common and necessary procedure, since as many as one quarter of pregnancies result in miscarriage, and a missed miscarriage is also common.  But that procedure has become a political hot potato, because about 90% of early abortions are performed using this procedure.  Doctors now worry whether they will be under scrutiny for recommending or performing any D&C.  A missed miscarriage is just one of a thousand different healthcare scenarios where a D&C might be considered as part of a person’s care. And now, with every state having different laws and those laws being challenged, in-flux, and misunderstood, there is fear, confusion, and despair.

Now, my story is not unique or remarkable.  But it was a very emotionally difficult decision for us to make.  And now I realize how very fortunate and privileged I was – to have a loving and supportive spouse, to be gainfully employed, and to be able to have a D&C as an affordable option not far from my home and to receive full and accurate healthcare information and advice. Even back then, a few years ago, as I bounced around from clinics and offices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, I could see an enormous difference in care based on the laws of the particular state.

Reading of Hagar’s  exile and how she cries out to God,  in some ways I feel that tragically not much has changed.  Hagar, the maidservant, gives voice to the people who are impacted most, harmed most, even if their stories are not told, even if they do not make the media as much.  These are Black, Indigenous, people of color, immigrants, youth, people in rural communities, those living below the poverty line; they are trans and nonbinary people.  

Abortion access is about the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities. This is a basic human right. The physical, spiritual and emotional burden that comes as part of the amazing ability to grow a human in one’s body that should be able to be shared by one’s community, one’s family, one’s doctor, and one’s God.  It should not be made heavier by societal stigma and shame or frankly misogynistic laws that liken necessary, medically and emotionally time-sensitive healthcare to murder.  

I do realize that for those on the religious right, abortion is a huge issue.  And they are very vocal about it because they believe that life begins at conception and stopping the development of a pregnancy is murder.  And they have every right to be vocal, if they do it legally.

(It must  also be said that Christians hold a multiplicity of attitudes about abortion, which my hairdresser also let me know about.  She, as a devout Catholic, believes that, as a religious issue, abortion is a matter of conscience and shouldn’t legislated by the courts. She also told me to tell you all that she is not alone in this thinking among her Catholic friends and community.)

For what it’s worth, the majority, accepted Jewish position, based on a number of legal texts I won’t get into here, is that life begins at birth.  But I don’t believe the right question here is “when does life begin?” We can never know exactly the moment life begins, no matter what any religion claims.  

Rather, I believe we should be asking “how can we honor life?” Our response to that question will clarify our priorities, spur our actions in our community, and amplify our voice in the public arena.   And Jews should speak just as loudly on this issue, because as my Catholic hairdresser knows, this is a religious issue. 

We should not let one religion claim to be the definitive religious voice on this issue.  And that’s why I am proud to have been asked to serve on the clergy advisory council for Keystone Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit that provides education, programs, and advocacy for youth and adults throughout Central and Eastern PA. 

What might a Jewish religious response to reproductive healthcare sound like?  As with any questions I have, I turn to our holy text.  I read about Sarah’s laughter when an angel first comes to tell her that she will bear a child in her old age.  I also relate to Hannah, who we just read about in our Haftarah, in her tears and distress about not being able to conceive as she bargains with God and fate.  This is a common trope found throughout the Torah, known as the motif of the barren woman – virtually all the biblical matriarchs have difficulty either conceiving or being pregnant.  

Why? What is the message here?  Perhaps the text is telling us: life – it is not in your control; it was never in your control.  The beginning of life and the timing of death are completely out of all of our hands, no matter what science or politics wants to say about it.  Perhaps this is why we read this text on Rosh haShana, of all days.

What does it mean if, like Sarah, you give up on being able to carry a child yourself and decide to use a surrogate? What does it mean if, like Hannah, you can’t get pregnant? What does it mean if you lose the pregnancy, or if it isn’t viable? Or what if you are unable to carry a child to term without great risk to your own life?  Could it mean that God doesn’t intend for you to become a parent, at least at that moment? If this is so, then why were you created?  When the biblical matriarch Rebekah was at last carrying twins after a period of barrenness, and the twin pregnancy was causing her great distress, Rebekah cries out, “Lama anochi? Why am I?”

Why indeed?  Why are we? It is exactly these weighty questions that we must face at the beginning of a new year. And what if you feel that now is not the right time to bring a child into the world, or that you aren’t meant to be a parent at least right now, or that it would be too harmful to continue a pregnancy – those are deeply individual discernments and decisions that aren’t for anyone else to pass judgment on.  Again, that is also why abortion is a religious issue and a right, similar to one’s right to wear a kippah or hijab in public or to circumcise your child.

We typically think of Rosh haShana as the “birthday of the world,” a cosmic birthday party, if you will. But if that were all it was, we should be centering our prayers not so much on ourselves and teshuva but on the natural world and our relationship toward it – to respect, protect and tend to it.  This is deeply necessary work, especially in an age of climate crisis. 

But if you notice, the liturgy of Rosh haShana focuses much more on doing the work of repentance, repair, return.  It centers on teshuva, the idea that you can change your fate and alter the course of your life for the better.  Why is that?  

Because, Rosh haShana is also considered the birthday of humanity. There is a debate in the Talmud about the exact date the world was created.  Some sages maintained that it was the first of Tishrei, that is, today.  But other sages assert that in fact, the world was born on the 25th of Elul, six days ago.  That would make today in fact the sixth day of creation, which is the day human beings were created.

If so, then today is the day we are reminded that all people are created in the image of God. Today we celebrate humanity in all its messy and glorious diversity, and today we celebrate our choice, our freedom, our agency, our lives.  

The central message of Rosh haShana is that you have agency, more power than you know – to make mistakes, to own up to them, and to choose how you live your life in the best way possible going forward. Rosh haShana comes to tell us that you can start anew, you can create your destiny – you are not slaves to your past and thus you have a responsibility to your future, and the future unfolding of the world.  

So, if we must expect this for ourselves, so too must we make it possible for everyone to have agency, to choose the course of their lives, to discern their lives’ purpose. 

When I struggled with miscarriages, one after the other, I questioned if God meant me to have children. Perhaps my true purpose lay elsewhere.  And, then, as Josh held our first child as she cried in protest at being yanked from the comfort of the womb, I sang to her a song that I had sung throughout being pregnant with her. With a look of startled recognition, she instantly quieted down.  In that moment, I instantly saw that my life’s purpose was forever altered.

On Rosh haShana, we examine our lives and we ask: Why are we? How can we honor life? What are we meant to create and to birth into the world? 

The first line of our Torah portion today is Genesis, Chapter 21, “Ve’Adonai pakad et Sarah,” meaning God took note of Sarah as promised.”  On Rosh haShana, we humbly ask that God take note of us, heed our prayers, and help us honor life.  May we be blessed with a renewed sense of life and clarity of purpose. 

Shana tova u’metuka