Monday, September 16, 2013

Drasha Diamond Number 3

Rosh Hashanah 2013: Earlier this month (see Drasha Diamond Number 2) and back in April (see Drasha Diamond Number 1), Abq Jew highlighted two exceptional drashot that he felt deserved to be brought to the attention of a wider audience.

And Abq Jew invited any and all of the reported 24 ordained rabbis who currently reside in the Land of Enchantment to join in the fun. And here we go!

This drasha - by Rabbi Deborah J Brin of Congregation Nahalat Shalom, Albuquerque - is truly a jewel. It appears on the Rabbi's Reflections page of the beautiful, new Nahalat Shalom website, and is reprinted here by permission. Rabbi Brin's got the copyright; all rights reserved; may be used with attribution.

Drasha Diamond Number 3
Rosh Hashanah Morning 2013
Rabbi Deborah J Brin
Congregation Nahalat Shalom

What Do We Stand For?

It has been eight years since I moved back to Albuquerque from Iowa.  In that time, I have found myself standing at Civic Plaza twice: both times were last month.  The most recent one was on Tuesday, August 27th.  It was the day that Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the Bernalillo County Clerk, began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

I was in the Court House that morning watching and cheering as couple after couple emerged with a license.  And I was thrilled to offer a blessing during the mass wedding at noon in Civic Plaza.  The excitement and the deep joy are still reverberating.

A week earlier I stood at Civic Plaza, too.  It was August 20th and I stood with about 300 other people, some of you were there, too. We had gathered to stand for protecting the rights of women to make decisions about their reproductive health and to rally against Operation Rescue’s presence in Albuquerque.

While in Albuquerque, they had assembled outside the Holocaust Museum, where they outrageously appropriated and twisted the use of the word ‘holocaust’ for their own insensitive and hateful propaganda.  They consider that anyone born after 1973, after the Roe v. Wade decision, is a survivor of what they call the ‘American abortion holocaust’.

While here, they also mobbed a birthing center while a woman inside was in the process of giving birth.  And they carried on outside a physician’s home for several hours, yelling that he should stop providing abortions, and that he should convert to Christianity.


This is a departure from my usual style of sermon for the High Holy Days.  I tend to avoid speaking of political issues from the pulpit, mindful that we have a multiplicity of views, opinions, positions and stances on the issues that affect us whether they are close by or far afield.  We do not all agree about the conglomerate of issues surrounding women’s reproductive health, birth control and abortion.

 With Operation Rescue targeting our city I cannot be silent.  My purpose in speaking today is three-fold: to teach about these concerns from a liberal Jewish perspective; to urge each one of us to think about where we stand on these issues; and to urge us to take action.

Another personal story: One of the things that you may not know about me is that when I was born, I was three months premature.  I weighed 2 pounds 5 ounces.  The year was 1953.  They didn’t even have incubators yet, so they put me in something called an isolette.

One of the doctors gave my mother devastating advice: he told her to go home and play with her other children because it wasn’t a viable birth.  A few days later, the head nurse, a woman, told my mother that I was a fighter and I was going to survive.  I grew up hearing stories about my birth, my fragile hold on life, and my fight to stay alive.

Interestingly, from the perspective of Jewish law, my precarious birth story is illustrative.  What is ‘viability’ when dealing with pregnancies and babies?  And when is a person considered to be a person?  In order to answer those questions, I’m going to introduce you to some key legal concepts in our Jewish tradition.

Let’s start with the Book of Genesis.  We have two creation stories for human beings.
  • In the first one, on the sixth day of creation, God makes human beings in God’s image; they were male and female.   [Gn.1:27].  
  • In the second story, [Gn.2:7 – 25] God decides to make a human being and forms a human body from the dust of the earth.  The Hebrew word for earth is “adamah” and the word for this first earthling is “adam”.  The text says that: “God formed man [sic] from the dust of the earth. [God] blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”
This idea, that God blew the breath of life into that primordial human creature is critical, as is the idea that it was the breath of life that made it a living being.

The Hebrew is “nefesh chaya”, a living being.  “Nefesh” is also one of the Hebrew words for soul.  In Jewish thought, a fetus becomes a person, is a ‘nefesh’ at birth.

To be specific, once the baby’s head has emerged from the birth canal, or if it is a breach birth and a majority of its body has emerged, it is then considered to be a separate person, a nefesh, with its own legal status.  Prior to that moment, it is considered to be a part of its mother’s body and has no legal status. [B. Talmud Hulin 58a; Gittin 23b].

Christian theologians are very concerned with the idea of ‘ensoulment’, the question of when does human genetic material begin to have a soul?  By and large, the ones that are fighting to have their beliefs codified into our legal system within the United States are those who affirm that conception, the moment when the egg and the sperm unite, is also the moment when the soul is united with the physical aspect.

This is quite a different principle than the Jewish one - that the baby receives its soul when the head completely emerges from the birth canal and breathes.

A story is told in the Talmud [Niddah 30b] about how we got the indentation [philtrum] between our mouth and our nose. It is said that while we are in the womb, an angel comes and teaches us all of Torah.  As our head is emerging from the birth canal, that same angel places its finger in that spot and causes us to forget all the Torah we learned in utero. Some say that that is why we are so hungry to learn, because we are left with an imprint and a yearning for what we once knew.  A lot happens when we emerge from the womb!

The Talmud and subsequent law codes and legal authorities express a variety of legal opinions about abortion.  Even so, it is a unanimous principle that if the mother’s life is in danger, abortion is not only permitted, but it is required.

Why? Because of the legal principle that

existing life takes precedence over possible life; 

that is, the life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the unborn fetus.

This is a quote from the Mishnah:
“If a woman [has life-threatening] difficulty in childbirth, one [aborts]   . . . [the fetus] within her . . . because her life takes precedence over its life . . . “[Mishnah Ohalot 7:6].
In the passage just quoted from the Mishnah, the time of danger for the woman comes during the childbirth process itself.  In these situations, when the pregnancy or delivery is dangerous to the mother, the fetus is considered to be a ‘pursuer’.

The Hebrew is ‘rodef’, and in most, but not all cases in the Torah, it means someone who is pursuing another person in order to kill them.

Maimonides, referred to in our tradition by the acronym “Rambam” was an extremely influential Sephardic rabbi. Born in Cordoba, he also lived in Morocco and Egypt.

Rambam stands for Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, Rabbi Moses, the son of a man named Maimon.

He was a teacher, an astronomer and a court physician who lived during the 12th century. The Rambam’s legal opinions are still quoted today as the basis for current decisions.

The Rambam said:
“It is known to be a negative precept in the Torah not to take pity on the life of a rodef [a pursuer seeking to kill someone].  
Therefore, the Sages ruled that when a fetus is causing great travail to a woman in childbirth it may be removed from her womb, either through drugs or by [surgery], for the fetus is like a rodef, a pursuer trying to kill her.  
However, once its head has emerged, the fetus may not be harmed, for one does not reject one life for another.” [Yad, Hilkhot Rozeah U’Sh’mirat Nefesh, I, 9.]
Many legal authorities since the time of the Talmud have understood that the danger a woman faces from the fetal ‘rodef’ could be at anytime during the pregnancy up to labor and the beginning of delivery - - up until the moment when the baby’s head emerges from the birth canal.

Legal questions arise: how dangerous is dangerous? 
When is a woman’s life considered to be at risk?
Are there other valid reasons for aborting a pregnancy?

There are many different legal opinions about what amount of maternal distress is considered dangerous and whether the danger referred to is only physical, or if mental, emotional and sociological stresses can be considered valid as well.

Because the legal system of the modern State of Israel is based on traditional Jewish law, recent legal decisions can be very informative.  In 1955, Rabbi Unterman, who was then the Chief Rabbi of Israel, broadened his interpretation of what a life-threatening situation might be for a pregnant woman.  In addition to physical danger to her life, he included “extreme mental anguish” as well.  [Marital Relations, Birth Control and Abortion in Jewish Law David M. Feldman, p. 284 ff].

Modern Israel has a socialized medicine system.  Since the Talmud permits abortions, they must be available in Israel.  In 1977, laws about the termination of pregnancy were passed.  They outlined the legal criteria for when the State would provide a low-cost or free abortion and when the woman or her family would have to pay for it. [Evolving Halakhah Rabbi Dr. Moshe Zemer, p.335ff]

Two of those criteria for a free abortion were:
  • if she could show that continuing the pregnancy would damage her physical or emotional health; and,
  • if she was living in economic hardship.
Due to pressure from ultra-religious parties, three years later, in 1980, economic hardship was removed from the law as a valid reason to be provided with a free abortion.  It was not eliminated as a valid reason to abort a pregnancy, only that the State would not pay for it. [].

It is interesting to note that these legal changes in Israel were in process shortly after the United States Supreme Court made its decision in the Roe v Wade case.

Here, In the United States, in the 60’s and 70’s, the debates swirled around whether a woman could make choices about her own body and its reproductive capacities, or whether women should be required by law to carry a pregnancy to full-term.

Remember, a critical difference between Catholic and Jewish views are that Catholics believe that the fertilized egg is a person and Jews believe that the fetus becomes a person at birth.

When talking about the legal debate in the United States around the issues of contraception, the morning after pill, access to abortion providers, and the health care concerns of women of reproductive age, this difference is critical.
  • Whose theology is going to be embedded in the US legal system? 
  • Should the dogmatic Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants be allowed to dictate to all women, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof?  
  • Should their theology be allowed to trump the health care decisions of doctors, midwives and nurses?  
  • What about our principle in the United States of separating Church and State?
I know that not everyone here agrees about abortion. I also know that whether it is one’s own choice or whether one is called upon to give advice and support to a family member or friend, when faced with the reality and immediacy of the need to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to full term or to terminate it, we would not all agree and we would not make the same decision or advise others in the same way.

These are horribly difficult and challenging decisions to make, and no matter what the outcome of the decision, no one I have ever spoken with has taken it lightly.

What I hope we can all agree on is the need to shore up and strengthen the civility, respect and tolerance in our religiously diverse State of New Mexico. 

I hope that we can all agree that we need to participate in our legal process; to vote in elections large or small, and if moved to do so, to help others register to vote and get to the polling stations. I hope that we can all agree that the strategies and tactics of Operation Rescue are odious and abhorrent.

What are the strategies and tactics that Operation Rescue employs? They target a city and systematically harass, intimidate and terrorize the medical providers, the staff and those who seek care from places like Planned Parenthood and other clinics that focus on women’s reproductive health concerns.

I hope that we can all agree that we will stand together to stop Operation Rescue if they come back to New Mexico.


Why, on Rosh HaShannah, would I be advocating that we stand together against Operation Rescue? Because one of the prayers that is traditionally a part of the Rosh HaShannah service became so popular that it was incorporated in every prayer service that we have.

Which prayer?  The Aleinu prayer. It is customary for those who are physically able to stand, to do so for this prayer.

We stand for other prayers, too:  The Borechu, the call to worship; the Shema – the declaration that All is One; the Amidah - - the prayer whose name means ‘the standing prayer’, and the Mourner’s prayer, the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Why do we stand? We stand out of respect. We stand to acknowledge our smallness over against the vastness and Oneness of the Cosmos. When we stand up, we change our posture from sitting to standing in order to concentrate our physical and mental energies on what we are doing; on the words we are saying and the ideas contained in them.

The first word of the Aleinu prayer is, ‘aleinu’. What does that mean? It means, ‘it is upon us’.

Unlike English, Hebrew is a very compact and efficient language. It takes the preposition “upon” and adds to it a plural ending. “Al” in Hebrew, means on or upon or up, and the ending, ‘nu’ means us.

So that one word, aleinu, means: it is upon us, or it is up to us. What is upon us? What is up to us?

 It is up to us to praise God, the Sovereign of All, the Life of All the Worlds, the Light of the Universe, our Higher Power.

This Rosh HaShannah, we are called upon to reflect on who we are and what we stand for. Think about when in your own lifetime, you have stood up for something. Stood up to someone, perhaps an overbearing adult or a bully.

What difficulties have you had to withstand? When do you find yourself thinking “I can’t  stand this”? When and where did you put your own body on the line? Under what circumstances might you be called to do so again?

These are not just theoretical questions. It gets pretty personal.

Operation Rescue aroused the ire of the Jewish community by picketing outside and leafleting inside the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum. The birthing center they targeted is just up the street from our synagogue, the Dar a Luz birth and health center on 4th street in Los Ranchos.

The home of the physician that they targeted was the home of our congregants and their three sons. He is a family medicine doc and she is a nurse and midwife. They both focus on helping pregnant women and newborns. He is a researcher and teaches medical students at UNM. He specializes in how to deal with complicated pregnancies and newborn care as the primary focus of his practice. And, yes, occasionally he is called upon to perform abortions.

Aleinu – it is up to us.  

This Rosh HaShannah we are called upon to take a stand: to change our posture: to concentrate our physical, emotional and mental energies, to take a stance.

Aleinu - It is up to us:
  • To stand for the memories of our martyrs
  • To stand against the misuse and misappropriation of the Holocaust
Aleinu - It is up to us:
  • To stand for the preciousness of life and the amazing ability to create new life
  • To stand for the protection, nourishment, education and support of the children who are already here
  • To stand against the reduction of complex theological and political issues to the positions held by those who terrorize and intimidate
Aleinu - It is up to us:
  • To stand for women having access to the information and health care they need and are legally entitled to receive
  • To stand for peaceful neighborhoods and being safe in the privacy of our own homes
It is up to us to take stands again and again.  And if Operation Rescue or its offshoot organization comes back here, I will stand against them at gatherings of like-minded people.

I hope we will be standing together.


Rabbi Deborah J Brin lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is the spiritual leader of Congregation Nahalat Shalom.

It is a wonderful shidduch, and both she and the congregation are thriving. Rabbi Brin has had a rich and varied career within the rabbinate, she has served as: a geriatric chaplain, hospice chaplain, college chaplain and pulpit rabbi.

Her career has taken her to Philadelphia, Toronto, Grinnell and Albuquerque. Wherever she has gone, she has helped to create vibrant Jewish life by connecting people to each other and our shared traditions, teaching, counseling, creating new rituals for celebration and healing, empowering others to lead, and encouraging laughter and fun.

She is known for finding ways to bridge differences, increase inclusiveness and diversity and mitigate turf issues. While in Toronto she helped establish a community mikveh, and in Albuquerque she started a Hevra Kaddisha Society and is the founding president of the Rabbinical and Cantorial Association of Albuquerque [RACA].

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