Shabbat Meant Something New After the Fall of Roe v. Wade



June 30, 2022

Alexa Kupor

I like to think about the entry of Shabbat as a blanket of peace and quiet descending on the Jewish community as dusk falls on Friday evenings. The words of “Lecha Dodi” liken the beginning of Shabbat to a bride, evoking delicate images of grace, elegance, and reverence.

Last week was different. 

As I live on the West Coast, I first read the news of the overruling of Roe v. Wade upon waking up on Friday morning. By the time the sunset signaled the start of Shabbat, I had digested countless social media posts; engaged in fearful conversations with friends; and witnessed vehement protests from San Francisco City Hall to the steps of the Supreme Court. It was the opposite of peace and quiet, and it was only through this restlessness that we could find a reasonable channel for an inkling of our overflowing anger and apprehension.

Protest against policies that promote injustice or deprive people of civil liberties is a core Jewish value, as is the broader fight for reproductive justice. Despite common assumption, Judaism provides a significant theological justification for the protection of the right to terminate a pregnancy.

For example, the Mishnah, a compilation of oral laws compiled during the first and second centuries CE, proclaims that an expecting mother’s life “takes precedence” over that of an embryo until its head has exited the womb. Likewise, a passage in Exodus, the second book of the Torah, describes a scenario in which violence resulting in a woman’s miscarriage — and no other “damage” — shall be punished by a fine, whereas only if the woman is hurt or killed should the punishment be “life for life.” This framework deliberately denies a fetus the same legal standing as a human being and clearly differentiates between a pregnant individual — and the legitimacy of their life — and the fetus, which lacks the same classification.

Prominent Jewish commentator Rashi provides further detail for when one may classify an individual as living, claiming that not until “his head has emerged” and entered “the air of the world” may Judaic law declare the existence of a human with a “soul.” That means that the state abortion bans already in place across the South and Midwest, many of which define life from the moment of fertilization and provide no exceptions for pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, directly prevent pregnant individuals from making medical decisions with their Judaism in mind. By taking away one fundamental right — that of the privacy to make essential decisions regarding one’s body — the Supreme Court has indirectly gutted another: the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion and free exercise thereof.

However, this is not to say that Jewish tradition is unquestionably committed to the principles of reproductive justice in all possible circumstances. Judaism is an intellectually diverse religion, and those who disagree with the aforementioned characterizations of abortion can often find textual and cultural support for their position. Even the ostensibly progressive belief that mental or physical health threats should be grounds for an abortion reflects an underlying belief that abortion is inherently immoral; simply not wishing to give birth and take care of a child does not suffice, in this perspective, to justify an abortion. Israeli law reflects this attitude and requires approval of an abortion committee before the procedure may be accessed, which I believe falls short of ensuring full bodily autonomy.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America’s position also reflects the ambivalence about abortion that is clear in some of our sources. It condemns absolute abortion bans and recognizes Jewish law’s prioritization of a pregnant person’s life over that of the fetus in the case of threats to the former’s physical or mental health. It also, however, emphasizes the rights that should be granted to an “unborn fetus” as a possessor of “potential life.”

While acknowledging these layers of complexity, I embrace the traditions within Judaism that support the full rights to bodily autonomy, and I remain hopeful for a Jewish community in the present and future that promotes this value, in addition to reproductive justice and basic humanity for all individuals. I have long felt guided by the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam: the call to repair the world. On days such as this, it is difficult to know where to begin in salvaging the remains of a world appearing so different from the one in which myself and my foremothers expected I would grow up.

Yes, the Shabbat that started the day Roe v. Wade fell was different from most; rather than being blanketed in a sentiment of peace and rejuvenation, it was peppered with moments of exasperation, permeated by episodes of dread and confusion, and, perhaps most importantly, filled with attempts to strategize for a better future and build coalitions committed to protecting reproductive rights in all corners of the country. And it was this loudness, this volume, this undeniable buzz of anger, sadness, and action that made it feel more Jewish than any quiet evening could have. Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Our work is cut out for us. Onwards.

Alexa Kupor (she/her) is an incoming sophomore at Stanford University. Originally from San Jose, CA, she plans to study history and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies.