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Between Our Souls and Our Breath | June 26, 2019

Rabbi Allison Berry

In Hebrew word for “breath” is intertwined with the concept of “life.” Early in Genesis, God breathes life into Adam: "Then God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." The final word of this phrase, nefesh - means two things: “soul” - as it is translated here, but it can also mean, “breath” or even “life-force.” 

In an essay in the Huffington Post, Tamara Mann explains this idea further: “The [Jewish] definition of life can also be understood through our definition of death. At the end of life, the Talmud speaks almost exclusively about breathing. Breath was used as an indicator for life. The Shulchan Aruch says to test for a dying person's breath to know whether or not they are alive. So, if death is the absence of breath, life is the presence of breath. Life, personhood, is marked when a baby takes its first breath…”

 According to Rabbi Dov Linzer, the presence of a heartbeat, in itself, is not an important Jewish legal marker in determining the viability of life in utero. Even in the strictest ruling, the fetus has to be able to live for a day outside of the mother's womb to be considered a viable life. As he shares, the definition of potential life, "is fully dependent on it being able to be born."

Over the past two months, we have watched a wave of new laws pass in states like Georgia, Missouri and Alabama. Some of them have been called “heartbeat bills.” These bills ban abortion once the heartbeat of a fetus can be detected - around the sixth week of a pregnancy. The result is essentially a ban on abortion and the determination that a woman who chooses to have the procedure (along with the medical personnel who support her) commits a criminal act, punishable by law. 

The Bill passed by the Missouri House of Representatives reads: “In recognition that Almighty God is the author of life, that all men and women are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life... it is the intention of the general assembly of the state of Missouri to: (1) Defend the right to life of all humans, born and unborn [, and to]; (2) Declare that the state and all of its political subdivisions are a ‘sanctuary of  life’ that protects pregnant women and their unborn children...”

Legislation like this is predicated on a particular religious understanding of when life begins. In fact, when you unpack its language the Bill suggests that in order to be a “good” religious person in America today, you must subscribe to the premise that abortion is a-moral, and therefore should be illegal. 

Language like this, voted into law does a disservice to all of us sitting here this evening. Religion is not a one-size-fits-all construct. We too, are people of faith. And, in Jewish tradition - the question of when life begins is answered in one word: nefesh. The soul and breath are intrinsically connected to one another.  

My colleague, Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin shares: “In a discussion of a dangerous pregnancy, the rabbis of the Talmud determined that if the mother is having ‘makshah layleid’, trouble giving birth, and the fetus is still in the womb then the pregnancy should be terminated for the sake of the mother. However, if the head of the infant has emerged, it becomes a case of ‘nefesh mipnei nefesh,’ choosing one soul over another. In other words, one may not harm the child whose head has emerged because it has become a nefesh, a being with the same soul-breath that gave Adam life. From this point on in Jewish tradition, the rabbis are quite clear that the life of the mother is paramount until the baby is born.” 

What is less clear, both for the ancient rabbis and for us now is what situations qualify as legitimate threats to the life of the mother. In other words, Rabbi Barkin questions, “does ‘makshah layleid,’ ‘trouble giving birth’ just mean physical difficulty?” She goes on, “Does this euphemistic ‘trouble’ include a birth mother’s mental health, or her financial health, or the way that she became pregnant? Does it apply to a pregnancy for a wanted baby with a fatal or painful prognosis? Does makshah layleid account for every heartbreak, every fear, every gut-wrenching reality that informs so many stories of abortion? These questions are too detailed, these cases too personal, these situations too enmeshed in the uniqueness of the souls and heartbeats of the living for any sort of clear cut, overarching, ‘always’ answer.”

Woven into the weft and fabric of Jewish law the rabbis found room for nuance. There is respect for individual decision making. There is space to acknowledge that when it comes to the question of life’s beginning, each situation is unique - just as each of us, in our own complexity and fullness is unique. This point of view is deeply, fully and legitimately religious. 

A few weeks ago, in a statement released by the Women’s Rabbinic Network - my thoughtful colleagues wrote, “The ability God gave to women to carry potential life comes with power and responsibility, and we trust women to carry out the blessings and questions that come with this extraordinary capacity…legislation which diminishes women's right to choose thereby questions women's ability to be moral, ethical, loving, and thoughtful about life and its potential.”

Reform Judaism teaches that when it comes to reproductive rights, we must trust and respect the right of each individual to make their own choices. 

Legislation that removes a woman’s right to choose compromises our own humanity and negates the Jewish understanding that all of us are created equally and fully in the image of God. Women’s rights are human rights and legislation that diminishes the rights of one, diminishes us all. 

Nine years ago, when Micah was born, he struggled to take his first breath. His lungs weren’t quite ready. I remember the moment we took him off the ventilator. We were gathered round him filled with anxiety as we waited. After what seemed like forever - but in actuality was a few seconds - his lungs filled with air. He let out his first cry. In that heartbeat of time between the removal of life support and his beautiful and glorious wail, I became a mom. It was my choice to bring life into the world. And it was my choice - with support from my husband and our doctors - to remove life support and trust Micah would breath on his own. 

I am grateful every day for the power of choice. I am grateful I can choose to enter the workforce, open a credit card, and travel without a male relative’s permission. I am grateful to those who made room within the embrace of Judaism to support my ability to choose. I am thankful that our Reform Jewish tradition understands I am a living, breathing human being who can decide for myself what is right and moral and just. 

On Monday, the Massachusetts Joint Judiciary Committee began hearings on the Roe Act. The Roe Act is a comprehensive bill designed to protect and expand reproductive rights in the Commonwealth. It is the antidote to the “heartbeat bills.” The Roe Act is designed to protect every woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body. 

I am proud to share that many Jewish groups turned out on Monday to support this legislation. Rabbi Abrasley was part of the delegaton from the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA) that testifed at the State House, and members of our Sisterhood were also present on behalf of our Movement which includes the Religious Action Center and Women of Reform Judaism. Each of these groups have made reproductive justice a top legislative and moral priority. And yet, despite tremendous support, it was clear from the loud and vociferous debate that took place that there is tremendous work ahead. We will share more news with you in the coming months and invite you to get involved. 

This Shabbat, we read from Parashat Be’ha’alotcha in the book of Numbers. Near the end of the portion, Miriam and Aaron pose an important question: “Has God spoken only through Moses? Has God not also spoken through us?” I think this statement refers to all of us. The Torah makes clear, our leaders are not the only ones who have a voice. We can speak for ourselves. And it is imperative to speak out as Jews who have a clear understanding of what Reform Judaism teaches. 

In the days ahead, let us be bolstered by Jewish teaching and work to uphold the dignity of all people. Let us trust the people we love to choose their own path. Let us celebrate our nafshot - souls and breaths - and appreciate the complexity and uniqueness of every living being.

1.2. Genes 2:7
3. and and 
5. Mishnah Oholot 7:6
6. Both this quote and the one to follow are from a sermon written by Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkan, Congregation Beth Israel, May 31, 2019.  
7.Women's Rabbinic Network Statement on Women's Rights
9. Numbers 12:2

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