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Choosing Life Means Having the Power to Choose

Rabbi Allison Berry

Nitzavim D’var Torah, Yom Kippur 2021


Last week, in the Times of Israel, my colleague Rabbi Rachel Pass publicly shared the story of her abortion. “I took my pregnancy test on...the first night of the month of Cheshvan.” [It was positive]. I prayed. I read every piece of Jewish literature on abortion...I could find. I made a pros and cons list. I cried on the phone with my mom. Ultimately, I made the choice using the intellectual wisdom inside myself, heeding nobody’s opinion but my own. And perhaps God’s.” 1

I am awe-struck by Rabbi Pass’s courage and bravery. Tragically - for a person today, much less a rabbi, to publically admit they have chosen to have an abortion feels like a subversive act.

It’s for just this reason that I’ve chosen to raise this topic today on Yom Kippur. I’ve been waiting for this moment when I have your attention and this pulpit to not only speak out, but to cry out in protest.

This morning’s often mis-interpreted Torah portion will be my call and my answer.

In Parashat Nitzavim, as our people stood underneath Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, God commands them: “This day I call heaven and earth to witness regarding you: I have put before you [my laws and precepts], blessing and curse, life and death. Uvacharta v’chayyim, choose life.” 2

This text from Deuteronomy has been used again and again by anti-abortion activitists and religious leaders to shame and control those who seek access to safe and legal abortions.

Using our Torah in this way - to manipulate and reproach - wounds me deeply. When we tell a person at a profoundly vulnerable moment that God disapproves of their choices; that they haven’t chosen life, but in fact the opposite; is a perversion of our sacred texts.

For the words, ‘choose life,’ come after multiple chapters of Torah explaining what it actually means to “choose.” From earlier in Deuteronomy: “Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger….[and]...Cursed be he who strikes down his fellow countrymen.” 3

These are two small statements, but there are many more. And yes, they are just a little bit scary. But they are also an expression of some of our most central Jewish values.

From them we can infer:

Choosing life does not mean we can impose our own narrow understanding of the world onto others.4

Choosing life does not mean we can strike our fellow human being or worse, hunt our fellow human being down.

Choosing life is choosing to live by our highest aspirations: love and understanding, fairness and kindness; the values and ideals that are truly commanded by God.

There is so much more I’d like to say about Judaism’s understanding of reproductive rights. About how the new law in Texas is antithetical to Jewish teaching. About the fact that religious people can be passionately pro-choice.

I know you have opinions and feelings to share as well.

Our time is short, so please note that in the days ahead members of our community who have been advocates for reproductive rights in the past will continue their work. We are happy to direct you if you’d like to get involved.

I also hope you will want to learn more about the Jewish understanding of abortion. As a start, in 2019 I gave a sermon about it that’s currently posted on the Temple blog.5  Late next week, we’ll share it again on social media. I also encourge you to read Rabbi Pass’s essay as well.

“There is nothing more sacred,” Rabbi Pass teaches, “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 countless women, nonbinary individuals and trans men...— can retain the sacred choice to make their own choices and their own blessings. I must say this unequivocally: Choosing life means having the right to choose.”

On our most sacred of days and every day, Ken Yihi Ratzon, May this be God’s will.

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1. Thank you to Rabbi Rachel Pass for her bravery: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/i-am-a-rabbi-my-abortion-was-a-sacred-choice/
2. Deuteronomy 30:19
3. Passages pulled from two places in Deuternomy, chapter 27 (there is a long list of horrific things human beings can do to one another, alongside the idea that if we do, God will curse us)
4. Thank you to Rabbi Joe Black for the inspiration: https://rabbijoeblack.blogspot.com/2021/09/standing-up-for-choice-parashat.html?fbclid=IwAR1r8e9z7KW NsSWegFKJ-LK8mV9jBxl1bvt-mQgsIBaR6Nyo6ZBh7pMZX6s&m=1
5. https://www.templeshalom.org/blogs?post_id=889493

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783