September 25, 2023 -
This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Rosh Hashanah, 2021.
This Rosh Hashanah morning I want to tell you two stories. The first was composed centuries ago early in the Bible. The second story took place about 20 years ago to a student at UC-Berkeley. But both stories touch the raw nerve of the ways women have been objectified and controlled for centuries.
In Genesis Chapter 38, we read that Judah, the son of the Biblical Jacob, arranged for a wife to marry his first-born son. But the narrative does not build a romance out of their marriage. What happens to them is tragic. No sooner do we meet Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, then her story is disrupted by a tragic series of events striking down the men in her family and her freedom to live as she chooses.
First, we read that Tamar’s husband Er commits a crime of such tremendous yet shamefully secretive bearing that Er’s life is ended immediately. Then Judah orders his next son, Onan, to follow Biblical law and marry his sister-in-law. This is called levirate marriage in ancient Israel. But Onan apparently resents his levirate duty. He too commits a capital offense. The Torah explains that Onan has sexual relations with Tamar but on purpose physically assures his seed goes to waste, and he dies instantly!
You’d think this series of events would cause Judah to bring a sacrificial offering to repent for the sins of his two elder sons. You’d hope he would take some step to acknowledge the pain his sons have caused others. No. Instead of taking responsibility, Judah shames Tamar, sending her back to the household of her father, while still maintaining domestic authority over her. All Tamar is granted is the assurance from her father-in-law that when her husband’s youngest brother, Shelah, grows to a marriageable age, she will be freed from limbo status and be married to the youngest of Judah’s sons.
Thank goodness, we do not still practice levirate marriage as Jews. It is an inheritance of our ancestors that we’ve abandoned. But this story can help us empathize with Tamar, imagining the emotions she must have felt while trapped within the confines of an unfair law that limited her options to go forward with a measure of dignity. Surely Tamar felt humiliated and confused. Perhaps she wondered: how did I wind up here? Who will help me? Might there be anything I can do to help myself out of this shame?
Some of the same emotions and questions were brewing within writer Sarah Tuttle-Singer, when she was a 19-year old student at UC-Berkeley sitting frightened outside a social worker’s office on the second floor of the Berkeley Student Health Center. Only Sarah’s problem wasn’t that she failed to get pregnant. Her problem was she was pregnant. She wrote that the social worker at the health center was nice enough. “She had a warm smile and a firm handshake. She was short and petite with close-cropped curly hair and kind eyes. She reminded me of my mom, and I tried not to let that bother me.”
“So,” she said once we were seated across from each other. “You’re pregnant.”
“These things happen,” she said, “and it’s my job to make sure that you have all the resources you can to make your decision.”
“I’ve already made my decision.”
“And?” she asked – her face as neutral as the beige walls….
“I’m not ready to have a baby.”
“Have you spoken with the father?”
“Any reason not to?” (Aside from the fact that I wasn’t really sure who the father was…) “No. There’s just no reason to involve him…”
“Ok. Well, we’re here to support any decision you make,” she said, reaching for a stack of brochures to her right on the desk. “Here is a list of outside doctors you can contact,” she added as I took the pamphlet. “Do you have SHIPP insurance?” she asked, referring to the student health insurance plan that most students opt into when they enroll each semester. I nodded [yes].
“Good. That that will cover some of the cost, but you will need to come up with $250.” I gulped. “It’s actually quite reasonable,” she said when she saw my baleful expression.
But $250 seemed like a staggering figure…I barely had enough extra cash to cover the month. At that moment, I had a total of $12.97 to tide me over… And I knew asking my parents for money would break their hearts. “Hypothetically speaking, what if someone doesn’t have enough money?” I asked.
The social worker looked at me, her eyes alighting on the silver Jewish star necklace I was wearing. “Are you Jewish?” the counselor asked. Now, I want to pause her story right here. For can you imagine the anxiety Sarah might have felt at the moment the counselor asked her about being Jewish? Why would being Jewish matter? Why did the counselor ask? How might she feel right now, in that moment about the Jewish star worn over her heart, and about her upbringing in a Jewish family? I imagine she’d feel the same vulnerabilities we described in Tamar: Humiliation, shame, confusion. She might wonder: how did I wind up here? Who will help me? Is there anything I can do to help myself?
Sarah’s face flushed. She looked down at her shaking hands. She thought to herself: “I taught Hebrew school at my synagogue. I received the Rabbi’s Scholarship for Outstanding Work in the Jewish Community. I even kept kosher, And [now] I am 19 and pregnant.” But this proud young Jewish woman told the counselor that yes, indeed she was Jewish. And the counselor responded:
“Ok that’s good, because there is a… Jewish women’s group that offers a scholarship of $250 to help cover costs for this. Would you be interested in that?” This made Sarah wonder if like back in temple she would have to write an essay or maybe give them her SAT scores or show them her Bat Mitzvah certificate. “How would I qualify?” she asked. “By being pregnant, and by not wanting to be pregnant. And by being Jewish.” The counselor then said, “I’ll contact the president of the organization, and have a check made out to you by the end of the week. Does that sound good?” It sounded great. (See story in Sarah’s words: http://www.kveller.com/blog/pregnancy/my-jewish-abortion/
Did that ending surprise you? It did for me, but in a good way. It reminded me that neither of these stories are about the first women to wonder whether they qualified for society’s empathy and support. Women, all women, Jewish women, young women, trans women, women of every sexual orientation, black women, women being trafficked in our nation, immigrant women, old women, all women deserve human empathy and full equality under the law. Nothing less.
I emphasize such a point on this Rosh Hashanah because no doubt, you’ve heard about the law that went into effect in Texas just days ago. It outlaws abortion beyond six weeks into a pregnancy, and empowers anyone in Texas with an economic benefit for pressing charges against a person they can prove assisted a woman to receive abortion care. The Texas law is horrifying. But let’s be clear. Similar proposals are being drafted in Ohio which subjugate, degrade and abuse women. Such laws can be particularly cruel for those in economic distress or for whom there is no abortion care near public transportation. If you are a person who cares about women’s equality, who sees this as a Jewish and a human value, you may still be reeling from the news emerging from Texas. You may be stupefied like me by the lack of intervention by the Supreme Court. But I am telling you today from this pulpit, there is no time for shock. Now in God’s name, we must stand up, speak up and rise up against such injustice.
We’ve got to begin to imitate the women’s group that helped Sarah Tuttle-Singer afford her abortion. Those women took their vision of equality and translated it into generosity for women they would never meet. Their activism was born of compassion and kinship and new laws like the one in Texas, and similar proposals nationwide, they bury our compassion under the soil of societal revulsion, scorn, and collective punishment.
What’s worse?! This moment in women’s history was not unforeseeable! We’ve seen here in Ohio how legislators have used punitive measures to close many of our centers for safe abortion care. This is a deliberate strategy enacted by lawmakers. But it has been catalyzed by dangerous religious leaders who’ve used their pulpits to wield shame and stigma against anyone who doesn’t want to continue an unwanted pregnancy. Their argument begins with the supposition that there is only one way to morally speak about reproductive rights, and that is to be against abortion. But this is just not true.
While I certainly respect those who believe abortion is wrong, as a rabbi, I simply cannot stand silent and pretend there is morality in laws that ban abortion before most people even know about a pregnancy. I will not pretend such bans are consistent with a principled or moral structure. They are not. And my reading of these matters is not novel! What I am preaching about this Rosh Hashanah morning is consistent with centuries-old Jewish wisdom. In Judaism, our legal codes recognize life as beginning only when a fetus emerges into the world and takes its first breath. Before that time, a woman’s life, safety, and well-being are always the priority. Multiple rabbinical rulings favor a woman’s right to an abortion if a pregnancy causes harm to her physically or brings about emotional anguish to her, or if the fetus carries a harmful disease, or if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest, or some other oppressive act. While not every Jew agrees with these teachings, it is fair to say that encroaching on a Jewish woman’s right to choose abortion contravenes both her constitutional rights and impedes her ability to practice her religion freely.
In addition, laws like the Texas law will cause women to accept inferior, ill-advised options to end pregnancies. Worldwide we’ve seen how obstacles in front of women seeking to end their pregnancy do not diminish the number of abortions. These obstacles only encourages unsafe, illegal abortions, causing death and permanent damage to women’s bodies and souls. How is this morally defensible? The answer is: it’s not! A fetus in utero should not be a cudgel against a woman’s safety nor should carrying a pregnancy to term punish a person who is experiencing emotional anguish due to being pregnant. Judaism clearly prioritizes a woman’s life. But the legislatures and courts in power do not want to readily accept such a principle, because their goal is not the protection of life. What they are after is controlling a woman’s agency over her body. What they want is to treat women who need abortion as morally contemptuous. But this morning, let’s tell the truth about them.
Cantor Lapin reminded me that we were in the midst of Erev Rosh Hashanah last fall when I stepped off the bimah to receive a message that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had just died. I remember Justice Ginsburg’s confirmation hearings almost 30 years ago. I bet you do too. Wasn’t RBG a force with which to be reckoned? In her confirmation hearings, she said: “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity…When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.” https://www.aclu.org/news/reproductive-freedom/for-justice-ginsburg-abortion-was-about-equality/
The record should reflect there were many legislators who disagreed with her on a personal basis about abortion, but who refused to allow that to inhibit them from voting for such a remarkable justice, who understood settled law and the constitution and the way laws affect the lives of real people. Among those who disagreed with her about the personal morality of abortion but who agreed that its legality should remain clear and that women’s choices should be honored were our current U.S. President and then US Senator Joe Biden. He was part of the majority who voted her to the court by a margin of 96-3.
Her testimony about reproductive rights occurred in the final days of Elul in the year 5753. Friends, today is the first day of Tishrei in the year 5782. Almost 30 years later, I stand here at this pulpit in a congregation that throughout history has been a stalwart foe of injustice. Today I think about the prescience of Justice Ginsburg’s argument about the threat of our government controlling women’s decisions and the stifling of a woman’s full and human dignity. Oh, how she would shudder today to see the court fail to intervene in Texas. For our nation is now on a clear trajectory where safe access to care terminating a pregnancy will be the privilege of only those who can afford to go where abortion is still legal in the world. In other words, this will be one more way that women in poverty will be thwarted in their achievement of full equality by an unjust immoral public policy stacked against them.
In such a moment, there is no longer time for us to opine on an intellectual level about what America with or without Roe vs. Wade will look like. It is now a time for action. Surely, Judaism supports advocacy in our own voice to protect women’s full access to health care. Please speak up. But don’t pretend that advocacy to your legislators and voting in our democracy is going to be enough to meet this moment. No, this Rosh Hashanah I beg that each of us review our resources, our passions and concerns for women’s dignity and equality, and decide what role we’d each be willing to take in an underground railroad to get persons from one state to the next or one country to the next, to help them safely end a pregnancy they do not desire nor feel able to carry. Could you drive someone? Could someone stay in your home? Could you donate your time or energy to help women in other parts of our state or our country to see and gain counsel from physicians willing to help them choose for themselves whether to continue with a pregnancy or to end it based on their choices and their conscience alone?
I know abortion is not an easy topic. While I personally oppose the Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene in Texas, I do recognize there are a range of views about abortion on the court, just as there are a range of views in our temple. I also know heated debate can arise in faith institutions when issues of reproductive freedom are laid bare. That Jews hold very personal views about whether they would seek an abortion is not in doubt. I respect your personal views. I promise. But I also know that many in our community carry a paucity of information about what Judaism actually teaches to guide us as to when an abortion is warranted, permissible, or even mandated. Also, according to the Guttmacher Institute, who’ve carefully tracked U.S. abortion data for fifty years, approximately 1 in 4 U.S. women will undergo an abortion before the age of 45. (https://www.guttmacher.org/united-states/abortion) This makes me realize that our temple must be a place where honest discussions occur about reproductive rights and our experiences with abortion. These discussions require courage and bravery.
At our Milton & Ruth Stern and James A. Samuels Social Action Lecture next week on Yom Kippur, we’ve invited Rev. Elizabeth Hagan to speak. She is the author of two books. One is called Birthed: Finding Grace through Infertility and her latest book is called: Brave Church: Tackling Tough Topics Together. Reverend Hagan is a highly respected pastor alongside whom I traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2011. She has established training for how synagogues and churches can address morally vexing issues, without coming apart at the seams. Reverend Hagan’s approach is one with a record of strengthening congregational life and as one of your clergy, I know we can use her help to be a brave synagogue.
All of us want our community to be a place where we can gain a better grasp of Jewish teachings on any topic. But we should also be able to learn from fellow congregants speaking openly, without shame and judgment. It takes bravery and courage to learn from one another, to find out where others stand and that for which they will not stand.
Speaking of such bravery and courage, I think I had better conclude the story I began to tell you this morning about Tamar. For I left her predicament hanging. And why? Because I wanted you to take notice of the painful limbo in which the composers of Torah placed her. Remember how Tamar felt? What did she do? Do you recall? Did she await the growth of her brother-in-law Shelah to adulthood, when Judah said Shelah would marry her and father her children?
Yes, actually, Tamar did wait quite a while. She waited and waited and endured the injustice of an antiquated legal system that didn’t take into account her fulfillment or her control over her destiny. She surely waited. But after years of being subjugated and diminished, Tamar took a very unusual and courageous step, risking her life to release herself from the narrow limitations confining her.
The Torah tells us (Genesis 38:14), Vatasar Bigdei Almenutah, Tamar removed her widow’s clothing. She covered her face in an alluring veil and posed as a prostitute. Then Judah, who was recently widowed, traveled toward Timnah, and sought comfort in Tamar’s bed. This trick was quite a deliberate and risky plan on Tamar’s part. And why? Why would she do this? Why go undercover to conceive a child with Judah? Because Tamar saw with her own eyes that her brother-in-law Shelah had grown up and that Judah never fulfilled nor did he ever intend to fulfill his promise to bring the two of them together in marriage! She saw the lies of the patriarchy for what they were, just as easy as any of us today can see the falsehoods libeling women when they seek an abortion in the U.S.
In other words, in a situation where no one will look out for her, Tamar made a difficult, permanent, choice. She did frankly, whatever she felt she had to do to no longer be stuck awaiting the validation and permission of the man controlling her. She secured proof of Judah’s identity as a pledge for his payment as his prostitute, and when judged harshly as a pregnant woman without a husband three months down the line, she endured the harassment of others and faced potentially severe punishment. Then at a moment of truth, Tamar confronted her accusers, the ones who judged her so harshly, and showed them Judah’s proof of identity, his rod and seal he left with her as payment, unimpeachable evidence of his own complicity in her degraded circumstance. When she did all of this, Judah realized how responsible he’d been for shaming Tamar, for truly as long as he’d ever known her. Tzadkah Mimeni, he admitted in public. Tzadkah Mimeni means, “she is more right, more right than I am.”
On this Rosh Hashanah at a very fraught juncture in U.S. history, I think Judah’s understated admission just won’t do. Tamar is not just more right than he. Tamar is right and he is wrong, and to this day, no woman’s body and spirit should be controlled by a patriarchy embedded in power. As Justice Ginsburg said almost thirty years ago, “the decision whether or not to bear a child is central to [her] life, to her well-being and dignity…When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human…” Justice Ginsburg’s rabbi, Lauren Holtzblatt, recently wrote as the Justice’s first yahrtzeit approaches that her words “should act as our North Star, the sails in our collective ship, our marching orders. Just as Justice Ginsburg never gave up on her commitment to human dignity and the expansion of rights to every inhabitant of this country, we too must not give up. We carry on Justice Ginsburg’s legacy in the private acts of promoting dignity in our personal relationships, and when we collectively fight for reproductive rights, even when we are up against enormous barriers.” (https://forward.com/opinion/475165/ruth-bader-ginsburg-yahrtzeit-reproductive-rights-legacy/?utm_source=Iterable&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=campaign_2829234)
I don’t know about you, friends. But I think we will need God’s help to fight against the barriers that have been erected in Texas and around our U.S. We will need faith in one another, but we desperately will need God to provide comfort and strength and encouragement to us if we are to fight back against this injustice. So on this Rosh Hashanah morning I pray: Nachamu, O God, comfort us. Give us the determination we need. Help us build our resolve to build a society of full equality for all persons. To push back against a patriarchy, we will need to do so in our lives, in our communities, in our synagogues and in all our institutions. For if our goal is the achievement of full equality for all women, we will need to tap abundant bravery and courage. O God, we will need your help. Nachamu, be our healing balm to soothe the pain and degradation we have wrought in our world. Nachamu O God, comfort us. Comfort us and strengthen us, help us do what is right and just in the New Year ahead.