Parshat Mishpatim: The Torah of Reproductive Freedom

Rabbi Marcy Jacobs
Rabbi Marcy Jacobs (Courtesy of Jacobs)

By Rabbi Marci Jacobs

June 2022. Like many of my friends and colleagues, I was reeling from the Supreme Court’s unsurprising but devastating decision in Dobbs v. Jackson. Searching for a way to respond both as a feminist and as a rabbi, I was grateful when a friend and colleague sent around a Facebook message inviting me to participate in a Havdalah gathering. The plan for the evening was to support each other, holding each other’s pain and fear, and also to strengthen each other, fleshing out some plans for ongoing advocacy and action. It was a powerful gathering, with dozens of people, many of whom had never met each other before, singing together the Havdalah blessings, wishing sorely needed light into the new week.

Of course, abortion access isn’t simply a feminist or political issue. It is a religious issue, as the religiously laced arguments that have led to total abortion bans in 14 states since the Dobbs decision make clear. Judaism also has an opinion on abortion, one which has often been overlooked in the national conversation about reproductive rights.

We find the basis for our Jewish laws and procedures vis-à-vis reproductive health care in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Mishpatim. The Torah paints a scene of people fighting with each other: “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:22-25)

In other words, if someone unintentionally causes a miscarriage, the punishment is monetary reparations — the situation is not treated as manslaughter or murder. Later sources, including the Talmud and our foundational texts of Jewish law, expand on this idea, explaining that a fetus is part of its mother’s body, and that pregnancy complications or extreme distress endangering the pregnant person permit or even require one to terminate the pregnancy. These rulings include a recognition of the emotional and moral dimensions of ending a pregnancy and grapple with how to render a decision that expresses our deepest Jewish values.

Since 2021, the National Council of Jewish Women, in partnership with many other Jewish organizations, has set aside the Shabbat on which we read Parshat Mishpatim as Repro Shabbat. It is an opportunity for learning, for hearing people’s stories and for strengthening our commitment to pursuing reproductive justice in our communities. I am proud that my synagogue, Chevrei Tzedek Congregation, is a participant in this nationwide initiative.

However you celebrate Shabbat, I invite you to participate in Repro Shabbat in whatever way works best for you. Attend a service, study some of the sources about the Jewish views on reproductive rights, learn more about the inequality of access to maternal health care that now exists in our country, contact your lawmaker — there is no shortage of things each of us can do to give voice to our Jewish values on this issue.

The essential message of Parshat Mishpatim here, as refracted through the lens of our textual tradition, is that the decision to end a pregnancy, private and painful as it may be, is one that we are empowered to make as members of the Jewish people. May this Shabbat help us secure that same freedom for all who seek it.

Rabbi Marci Jacobs, a Baltimore native and graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the spiritual leader of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation and the middle school Jewish life chair for Krieger Schechter Day School.

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