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Women and Choice

11/11/2021 03:25:33 PM


Shabbat Shalom!

I hope everyone had a great week.  Join me tonight as we continue our discussion of biblical values.  Tonight, I will be discussing “What does the bible actually say about Gender?”.  For the past few weeks we have discussed in this forum and for my sermons what the bible and Judaism have to say about abortion.  One thing struck me and was brought up to me about my take on this discussion.  Since I am not a woman, my arguments are intellectual not personal.  A woman’s voice, the necessary voice, was missing from our conversation.  With that in mind I asked Jodi to weigh in.  Here is Jodi’s Shabbat message on abortion and choice:

Rabbi Micah has asked me to present another viewpoint on Judaism and abortion, a topic he has been discussing with us for the last few weeks in light of new restrictions.

“We have been lost to each other for so long.

My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.

This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father, Jacob, and the celebrated chronicle of Joseph, my brother. On those rare occasions when I was remembered, it was as a victim. Near the beginning of your holy book, there is a passage that says I was raped and continues with the bloody tale of how my honor was avenged.

It's a wonder that any mother ever called a daughter Dinah again. But some did. You guessed that there was more to me than the voiceless cipher in the text. Maybe you heard it in the music of my name: the first vowel high and clear, as when a mother calls to her child at dusk; the second sound soft, for whispering secrets on pillows. Dee-nah.” (From The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, 1997)

When The Red Tent was released in 1997 it became THE book for women to read. The reimagining of the life of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, who in Torah was presumed to be raped by a Canaanite prince. Her brothers, bent on exacting revenge, even though the prince wants to marry Dinah, insist he and all his men be circumcised. While they are recovering, the brothers go in and kill them all. Dinah’s voice is never heard.

How amazing, then, that groups of women suddenly started questioning the events in Torah and the few female voices within. I attended three book groups discussing The Red Tent, one comprised of non-Jewish agemates, a second my mother’s book group consisting of Jewish and non-Jewish women and lastly one with our TBD Sisterhood women. Each group came away feeling emboldened to question where women’s stories were in biblical literature and ultimately how Diamant’s book was part of this discussion. (It is interesting to note that a book called Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross was published a year earlier. Based on a medieval legend, it imagines that a woman, hiding her gender, ascends to the papacy.)

Whatever your view is on the authorship of Torah, it is apparent that women’s voices are conspicuously absent. Yes, we have our matriarchs, recently added to the Amidah (and woefully omitting Bilhah and Zilpah), and certainly we have strong women in our tradition: Judith, Deborah and Ruth come to mind. But those matriarchs that we mention, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah are not the biological line of our people, and some might say are important simply because of their fertility and thus the continuation of the earliest Jews. This makes sense in a time where the survival of a people depended on increasing future generations.

How does this fit into our congregation’s discussion with Rabbi Micah the last few weeks on the issue of abortion? Rabbi Micah pointed out that the Torah says extraordinarily little about when life begins and even less about abortion. He cited Exodus 21, v. 22-23:

“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take a life for a life.”

 The person who caused the miscarriage is not liable for murder, so we can posit that a fetus is not considered a person, or a nefesh, at this point. Of course, a second quote:

 “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5)

This can be seen as more evidence of “non-personhood” prior to being a fully formed person. And yet, like any piece of sacred writing, we see this quote also used by anti-abortion groups as evidence that life begins as soon as God speaks a person into being.

I believe that our Torah does help us form a moral framework as we go through this messy business of life. We can take great lessons on how to treat our children, how to care for our earth, how to welcome the stranger, but in the end the choice is left to us. The issue of abortion is not something that our (primarily) patriarchal tradition should even be discussing.

 When life begins may be scientifically calibrated, but to me, losing two wanted pregnancies at around the seventh week, felt like true loss. Yet how dare I, or anyone else for that matter, dictate to another person how she should define her pregnancy? To sway a woman at her most vulnerable time either way is not anyone’s business except from those whom she chooses to receive counsel.

Many years ago, one of my dear friends worked at a women’s health clinic in Boston. She happened to be taking the day off when a gunman entered the building and killed the receptionist. The terror of killing while purporting to cherish life is an irony few can miss. Several summers ago, my daughter worked at a Planned Parenthood in DC, under the auspices of the Religious Action Center, and was harassed daily by an old man who spent his days outside the locked entrance. I feared more for her safety at her workplace than when she traveled abroad by herself. This is not the America we should live in and these notions of men threatening women for their very personal and often gut-wrenching choices should not be condoned by any religion.

The Reform movement has been at the forefront of supporting women’s health issues (and so many other human rights issues) and for that I am proud to be a Reform Jew. It is imperative to both men and women that we continue to explore who has the right to be an “expert” on issues. Women’s voices should be given the same attention as the words of Torah and the lessons within.

However, given that until the last fifty years or so women were not given the opportunity to question the patriarchal structure of our religion, we must continue to allow those who were previously voiceless to tell their own story and create their own life’s path.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jodi Harris

Mon, December 5 2022 11 Kislev 5783