Recent weeks have brought the issues of birth control, health care and other reproductive rights into the forefront of political debates. Behind these debates is a steady stream of voices saying that women are being left out of these discussions. As a woman and a rabbi, I wanted to speak out, to teach about Reform Judaism's views on some of these issues. In doing so, I come from a place of religious education, not preaching or endorsing any political position.
The Reform movement has been discussing issues related to abortion since 1967. But answers to questions about when life begins according to Jewish tradition can be derived from the Torah itself and are clearly discussed in the Talmud, including by noted thinkers such as Rashi and Rambam. In every case, there is no question that Jewish law understands life to begin when the head or a majority of the body enters the world.
Exodus 21:22 details that causing a miscarriage is not murder and we read in the Mishnah, written around the year 200 C.E., that if the mother's life is in danger, her life takes precedence over an unborn fetus, until the time when a majority of the fetus's body enters the world. Rambam explains that the unborn fetus is like one who "pursues" and the mother must act in self defense. Later rabbis understood that there are many ways to ascertain whether a mother's life was in danger, either mentally or physically.
In 1967, the Reform movement first weighed in on the subject, issuing a humane plea against the toll that illegal abortions at the time were taking on women. In a 1975 resolution, the movement declared: "The Supreme Court held that the question of when life begins is a matter of religious belief and not medical or legal fact. While recognizing the right of religious groups whose beliefs differ from ours to follow the dictates of their faith in this matter, we vigorously oppose the attempts to legislate the particular beliefs of those groups into the law that governs us all."
While all these matters are deeply personal, one must understand that the current political climate is attempting to turn back the tide and legislate when life begins. This is a clear violation of our religious beliefs. Speaking with a voice of compassion, the Reform movement has consistently discouraged attempts to impose restrictions on abortions.
In Pennsylvania, such restrictions have existed since a 1994 law required that a woman be shown pictures and be given information about her fetus's development prior to the termination of a pregnancy. New legislation being proposed in the state legislature (the Pennsylvania mandatory ultrasound bill -- House Bill 1077) would require an invasive ultrasound prior to abortion. These laws do not consider the emotional state of the woman or the circumstances by which she became pregnant. They also clearly lean toward a belief that life begins at conception.
All streams of Judaism believe in the sanctity of life. Because of this belief, the termination of a pregnancy is viewed as both a moral and correct decision under some circumstances, according to the Reform movement. This same sanctity underscores the need for medically accurate education and high-quality family planning services, both of which are also under attack.
As we approach the holiday of Purim next week, we know that Megillat Esther places a unique focus on women and women's voices. Vashti and Esther both teach us to stand up for what we believe -- Vashti to preserve our dignity and Esther to preserve our Jewish identity. As a woman and a Jew, I feel compelled to speak out against the current tide that is sweeping our country and our state when it comes to these issues of health care and reproductive rights. I hope others will join me.
Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler is director of religious education at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.