Judaism & Abortion (Again!)

With Justice Stephen Breyer announcing his retirement, it’s no surprise that women’s reproductive rights – and the government’s role in protecting those rights – is once again front and center in the national conversation.

As such, it’s a good opportunity to review the Jewish approach to abortion.  In no small coincidence, we read in this week’s parashah one of the passages that has influenced our posture on this subject over the years.

“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.” (Exodus 21:22-23)

I have always found it interesting that the Bible does not consider this a capital offense.  After all, it appears that the responsible party has caused a loss of life.  In fact, in the following verse, we find out that if the woman died as a result, then it became a capital offense.

However, the Torah – and the rabbis who followed – always understood an unborn fetus to be a potential life, not an actual life.  Now, that potential life is precious – and it should be guarded – but it does not have the same status as a fully formed human being (i.e., an actual life).

This view of pregnancy has helped to shape the Jewish approach to abortion over the years.  In the 2nd century CE, the Mishnah (Ohalot 7:6) taught:  “If a woman has a [life threatening] difficulty in childbirth, one dismembers the embryo within her, limb by limb because her life takes precedence over its life.  However, once its head [literally: its greatest part] has emerged, it may not be touched, for we do not set aside one life for another.”

This clearly does not give permission for an abortion simply for the sake of convenience.  However, it also indicates that an abortion is not the equivalent of murder.

Taking into account this teaching and subsequent rabbinic rulings on the subject, the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has taken the view that “an abortion is justifiable if a continuation of pregnancy might cause the mother severe physical or psychological harm, or when the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective.  The fetus is a life in the process of development and the decision to abort should never be taken lightly.  Before reaching her final decision, the mother should consult with the father, other members of her family, her physician, her spiritual leader and any other person who can help her in assessing the many grave legal and moral issues involved.” (November 1983)

Please note that the government is NOT on the list of those whom a woman should consult.  

So, while we do not oppose abortion universally – as some other faiths do – we acknowledge that it is a weighty decision.  And we trust women to take into account all of the factors and make the right decision for her.

Obviously Jewish law and Christian law differ on the question of terminating a pregnancy.  In fact, different rabbis have different answers to that question and different Christian clergy have different answers depending on their denominational teachings.  Needless to say, though, there are cases where Jewish law would permit an abortion and Christian law would not.

So, in our country with freedom of religion being one of our core values, should a Jewish woman have to make her decision based on Christian doctrine?  Should our federal government favor the position of one religious tradition and subjugate the others?  

I would suggest that a Jewish woman in this country ought to have the right to make such a decision based on her own religious tradition.  And other non-Christian women are equally deserving of that right.  The coming months and years may determine whether or not that right will be preserved.

Shalom, RAF.

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Listen to Yitro

Even though we are reading the Ten Commandments from the Torah this week, our Torah portion is called “Yitro” – named after Moses’ father-in-law, who was NOT a part of the covenant with God.  He was the Kohen(Priest) of Midian.  

Last Shabbat had a special nickname “Shabbat Shirah” (Sabbath of Song) because the Torah portion contained the Song of the Sea and Miriam’s Song.  This week has no such nickname.  It’s just “Yitro.”

So, why do remember Yitro, when we should be thinking about Moses, God and the Ten Commandments?  

The easy answer is that the rules of naming a Torah portion are clear.  We simply use the first unique word to appear in the text of the portion.  We don’t name a portion “He Said” or “Don’t.”  And since Moses appears in virtually every portion from the beginning of the Book of Exodus through the end of Deuteronomy, we don’t use his name either.  But, other than that, we choose the first unique-but-easily-identifiable word at the beginning of the portion.  

We could end the discussion there, but it seems like the rabbis who created this system are sending us a message by challenging us to think about Yitro instead of God, Moses and the Ten Commandments.  So, what’s the message?

Perhaps, we get some insight to what Yitro represents on his second day in the Israelite camp.  He spent the whole day watching Moses serves as magistrate from dawn until dusk.  At the end of the day, he turned to his son-in-law and asked him, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people?” (See Exodus 18:14.). He then proceeded to teach Moses how to recruit more people and to set up a legal system that would be good for the Israelites AND good for Moses.  He shared his experience from the outside world with Moses in order to make life better for the Israelites.  Perhaps, if he had not done so – and if Moses hadn’t listened – the Israelites would have never made it to Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.

This week, after Colleyville, the American Jewish community feels a little like Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness.  We’re flailing a bit.  We know that we need some help if we want to enjoy the beauty of our tradition.  We are grateful that there are experts outside our community who are willing and able to help us.

While we were participating in Jewish life from the comfort of our homes in order to slow the spread of COVID, it was understandable that we put all other threats to our community out of our minds.  The terrorist who held four Jewish worshipers hostage in a synagogue last Shabbat reminded us that we have to be well-organized and we have to turn to outside experts in order to enjoy our tradition while minimizing these threats.

Although we’ve done many things to improve our security over the last three years, we will now re-double our efforts.  The most important components of any security system are the people – you and me.  We saw that in Colleyville.  

The Secure Communities Network – which is the central security organization for the American Jewish community – has set up a training called “BeAware: An Introduction to Situational Awareness.”  It will take place next Thursday.  It is designed for every member of the community, and no background in security is required.   If you are interested in signing up, you can click here.

God, Moses, Mt. Sinai and the Ten Commandments are all great.  But, if we don’t listen to what Yitro has to say, we’ll have a hard time getting there to enjoy the experience.

Shalom, RAF.

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Imagine going through a challenging period of time, thinking that things were about to get better and then getting slammed with another challenging period of time.  I know, I know… nothing like that could ever happen to us today.  But, it happened in the Torah.

The newly-freed Hebrew slaves survived the crossing of the Red Sea and were ready to begin their new lives outside of Egypt.  They subsequently wandered three days in the Wilderness of Shur without finding any water.  They were ready to turn around and go back to Egypt when they came to a place called Marah, which had water.  The only problem was that the water in Marah was bitter and undrinkable.  In fact, the word “marah – מָרָֽה“ means “bitter.”

Suddenly, things did not seem so promising.  

Fortunately, Moses was not going to let them turn back so easily.  He reached out to God and God gave him a solution.  In Exodus 15:25, we read: “and the LORD showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.”  That piece of wood was there the whole time, but Moses had not seen it or did not know what to do with it.  Once, Moses saw it, he could act to make the situation better.

Very often, there are solutions to our problems close at hand, but we don’t see them.  We need a little help identifying them.  And, like Moses, we shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help in our search for those solutions.

We’ve been through a lot these last two years, and many of us thought that better times were close at hand.  Yet, this latest wave of COVID has forced us to return to some of the stricter mitigation measures that we had tried to leave behind.  It’s frustrating.

Fortunately, we have resources at our fingertips.  We are still blessed by the technology that brings us together even when we cannot be in the same place physically.  We have services that are accessible both in person and via Zoom.  Our schools are continuing to provide programs and education for our children. 

If we look around, we’ll see that we need not settle for bitterness.  We can sweeten our lives despite the many challenges we face together.  But, if you can’t find what you need, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask.  That’s what makes us a community – we’re here to help one another in challenging times.

Shalom, RAF.

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Sweet Dreams!

Do you have trouble falling asleep at night?  Do you wake up in the middle of the night?  Then this is the Torah portion for you.

We are getting very close the end of the Egypt story in this week’s portion.  We read about the final three plagues, the first Passover offering and the Israelites literally walking out of Egypt.

As God was sending the final plague through the land of Israel and it was passing over the Israelites’ homes, the Torah tells us that “Pharaoh arose at night.”  (See Exodus 12:29.). Of course, this is not the first time that we have heard about a Pharaoh’s sleep issues in the Torah.  

This whole Egypt narrative began when the Pharaoh had disturbing dreams that his advisers and dream interpreters could not understand.  Joseph was brought from prison, correctly interpreted the dreams, and became the second-most powerful man in Egypt.  The rest, as they say, is history.  The Pharaoh simply needed the right person to interpret his dreams, and then he could go back to sleeping peacefully.

So, now a new Pharaoh was awake in the middle of the night, but this time, it was NOT a dream.  God’s punishment was spreading across the Pharaoh’s land, and he was powerless to stop it.  The original sleepless Pharaoh lifted Joseph up from imprisonment to great power and led to the survival of his family.  This second sleepless Pharaoh had tried to crush that very same family and there would be no cure for his insomnia.

It seems to me that these two Pharaohs are sending us a message.  If we are lifting others up, seeking solutions to problems and asking for help from others, then we should be able to get ourselves back to sleep.  If, however, we are holding others down and making the world a less good place, then we deserve our insomnia.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.

So, in these challenging times which inevitably impact our sleep, I wish you all sweet dreams.

Shalom, RAF.

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As we prepare to say farewell to 2021 and hello to 2022, many of us will raise a glass with a favorite beverage.  Inevitably, that will lead to a discussion about whether the proverbial glass is half-full or half-empty.  How do things compare to last year at this time?  How about two years ago?

While our answer to the question about half-empty or half-full many not have any impact on the conditions around us, it can definitely affect the way we feel going into the new year.

So, when you raise that cup and discuss its contents, maybe you’ll think of one of these poems:

“… My cup is overflowing. 

Only goodness and steadfast love 

shall pursue me 

all the days of my life…”

Though many of us know those words by heart, we don’t often think about the meaning of Psalm 23.  It’s a reminder that our cups are fuller than we think.  Further, when think that our supply of goodness and love are running low, God is there for us to replenish them.  In other words, when think the glass is half-empty, our tradition challenges us to see it as half-full.   After all, what do we Jews say when raise our glasses?  L’Chayim!

“We will take a cup of kindness yet

For long, long ago. 

We two have run about the hillsides

And pulled the daisies fine,

But we have wandered many a weary foot

For long, long ago.

We two have waded in the stream
From noon until dinner time,
But seas between us broad have roared
Since long, long ago.”

This poem is more familiar to us in the original Scots than in English.  It’s called “Auld Lang Syne,” which translates loosely to “long, long ago.” It’s a reminder that we all have people in our lives from whom we may have drifted either physically or emotionally over the years.  But, in these challenging times, there is still a “cup of kindness” that we can share with one another to lift one another up.  I know that I’m always happy to hear from a friend or relative with whom I’ve lost touch.  I hope they feel the same way when I initiate the contact.

So, when you lift up a cup at some point this weekend to welcome in the new year, please think about how your cup is likely fuller than you think, that our tradition can provide strength when you feel you don’t have enough and that that there are people in your life who can lift you up when you’re feeling down.

L’Chayim!  And Happy New Year!

Shalom, RAF.

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He Struck Again!

As we – unfortunately! – find ourselves returning to lockdowns and quarantines in response to the spread of the Omicron variant, perhaps it would be safer to interact with literary characters rather than living human beings.  So, with that in mind, let me (re-)introduce you to Moses – the lead character in the Book of Exodus, which we begin reading this week.

Despite the evil edict of the infant-killing Pharaoh and thanks to his mother’s ingenuity, Moses survived and came to live in the harem of the very monarch who would have had him killed.  A daughter of the Pharoah plucked him out of the Nile and famously gave him the name “Moshe – מֹשֶׁה.“  The Torah explains that she chose this name because she said: I drew him (mishitihu – מְשִׁיתִֽהוּfrom the water (Exodus 2:10).”

There’s only problem with this explanation: the daughter of Pharaoh most likely did not speak Hebrew.  Moshe is actually a royal Egyptian name as we can see by looking at the names of some well-known Pharaohs.  Raamses (most likely pronounced Ria-Moshe) means “son of Re – the sun god.”  Tutmoses (or Thutmoshe) – means “son of Thut – the god of wisdom.”  Ahmoses (Achmoshe) means “son of the moon.”  With a name like that, it’s no surprise that Moshe wanted to be like God.

Just a few verses after Moshe got his name, we read about him killing an Egyptian overseer who was abusing a Hebrew slave. The Torah tells us: “vayach – וַיַּךְ” which is translated as he struck, he hit, or he killed. Because the text goes out of its way to tell us what precipitated his action, we get the impression that God approved of this violence.  It was justified.

And when we read in Chapters 7-11 that God freed the Hebrew slaves by bringing the Ten Plagues – referred to as “makkot – מכות“ from the same Hebrew root, this approval seems to be reinforced.  

But, then Moses struck again.  And this time, it was not so well-received.  In Numbers 20, the freed Hebrew slaves were complaining about the lack of water in the wilderness.  God told Moshe to speak to a rock and it would provide water.  But, that’s not what Moshe did.  In verse 11, we read: “vayach – וַיַּךְ”– he struck the rock.  It’s the exact same verb.  While there was no punishment for striking the Egyptian, striking the rock was a completely different situation.  For hitting the rock when he should have spoken to it, Moshe was banned from entering the Promised Land.  One act was justified, and one was not.  

Many of us think that we are acting as God’s representative in the world.  As Moshe shows us, it’s not always easy to know exactly what God wants from us.  It can be different depending upon the situation.  It’s important to remember that when we try to emulate God, we should be very careful to get it exactly right.

Shalom, RAF.

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Jewish and Country?!

We just finished an amazing weekend in our congregation with a visiting artist named Joe Buchanan.  If you weren’t here or don’t know what I’m talking about, Joe Buchanan grew up in Texas, chose to become Jewish as an adult and started writing Jewish country music.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking that country music and Judaism are two different worlds with no common ground.  And yet, somehow Joe makes it work.  He brings his passion for Judaism and his love of country music together and it simply works.  

And the truth is that I shouldn’t be surprised.

The final verse in the Book of Genesis – which we read this week – provides a remarkable piece of information about our ancestor also named Joseph.  We read: “Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt (Genesis 50:26).”  Obviously, living to 110 years old would be remarkable, but by Biblical standards, he was still just a kid!  What really stands out about this verse is that Joseph was embalmed (and presumably mummified) like other Egyptian nobles and placed in a coffin.  At that time, the Canaanite practice would have been to lay him to rest in a burial cave.

While Joseph clearly remained loyal to God and he was serious about the reunion with his family, he also lived in Egyptian society.  And that meant that he adopted many of the practices of the Egyptians among whom he lived.  It’s no wonder that his brothers did not recognize him when they first saw him.

Joseph shows us that we can incorporate into our lives the customs and practices of the society in which we live and still remain true to our faith.  So, it shouldn’t surprise us that someone can bring country music into our community.  It shouldn’t surprise us that this new music makes our worship more beautiful and more meaningful.

As Joe Buchanan was telling us his story about blending country music with Judaism last Saturday, I noticed that he was standing between the American and Israeli flags.  And it all just made sense to me in that moment.

Shalom, RAF.

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Getting Close

Sometimes a single word tells an entire story.  Consider the first word of our Torah portion this week – Vayigash ~ וַיִּגַּשׁ.  It literally means “he approached.”  In this case, it was Judah approaching Joseph, though Judah did not yet know that the powerful Egyptian official in front of him was actually his brother Joseph.  This verb has a hint of nearness or intimacy.

In Genesis 27:21, Isaac told his son Jacob to come near and kiss him so that Jacob could confirm he was blessing the correct son.  In Genesis 29:10, Jacob met Rachel (his future wife).  The text tells us that he came close and kissed her.  In both instances, the Torah uses the same verb as we read at the very beginning of our portion – Genesis 44:18.

So, in our story, Judah came very close to Joseph in order to bare his soul and plead for Benjamin’s release from captivity.  Despite the proximity and intimacy, he still couldn’t tell it was his brother Joseph.  Perhaps, this was because Joseph didn’t let his guard down.  He didn’t let Judah in.

In the next chapter, Joseph finally identified himself to his brothers and he said to them: “Come close ~ גְּשׁוּ־נָא.”  It’s the same verb as in the first verse – only this time, he was letting them back into his life.  Joseph gave his consent and his permission for them to be near him once again.

This reminds me of our current situation as we slowly try to inch our way back toward one another after months of isolation and a lack of physical contact among people.  As I walk around the Sanctuary for the Torah procession each week, I have a non-verbal negotiation with every person I encounter.  Who is shaking hands?  Who is bumping fists? Who is rubbing elbows?  Who is bowing from three feet away?

Even though I know that I am ready for human contact after all these months, I know that I must wait for each person to say, “Come close ~ גְּשׁוּ־נָא,” as Joseph said all those years ago.  Along those lines, Neshama Carlebach, who father’s unwanted physical contact caused much pain during his lifetime, wrote a powerful piece about her return to human touch with individuals outside her immediate family.

Like Judah approaching Joseph, we can try to get close to another human being.  However, we can never truly be near to them until they ask us to do so.

Shalom, RAF.

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I’ve already made two batches of latkes (potato pancakes) so far this Hanukkah and I suspect that I am not done.  While I know that there are those for whom sufganiyot (fried donuts) are the preferred treat during this holiday, for an Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jew like me, it’s all about the latkes.

But how did the potato pancake come to be the signature dish of Hanukkah in Eastern Europe?  After all, the potato did not arrive in Russia until the middle of the 19th century.  Surely, my ancestors ate treats on Hanukkah before then.  What did they eat?

Well, according to food historians, the original fried treat of Hanukkah was neither donut nor potato.  Instead, it all started with fried cheese – most likely ricotta cheese among Spanish and Italian Jews.  They would have fried their cheese – sometimes mixed with meal to make a pancake – in olive oil, which was widely available in their part of the world.  (A remnant of this tradition remains alive in the form of cassola – a baked ricotta cake served in Rome around Christmas time.)

This begs the question: why cheese on Hanukkah?

To answer that question, we must go back to the Book of Judith – which, like the Book of Maccabees, is part of the Apocrypha.  In the Book of Judith, the heroine for whom the book was named, seduced the Babylonian general Holofernes around the time of the First Temple’s destruction.  While he was sleeping, she killed and beheaded him.  According to tradition, her seduction was successful – at least in part – due to the food she brought, including milk and cheese.  Some scholars believe that this story is a censored version of events that took place during the Maccabean revolt, and it was actually about Niconor – a Seleucid general who was also beheaded.

According the Shulchan Aruch – the most authoritative code of Jewish law written by Rabbi Joseph Caro in the 16th Century – “Some say that cheese should be eaten on Hanukkah, because the miracle was done with milk, which Judith fed to the enemy (see OH 670:2).”

So, what happened to the cheese?

Olive oil was hard to come by in Eastern Europe in the 19th century.  A Jewish cook in Poland or Russia would be much more likely to cook with schmaltz (rendered chicken fat). And if one is cooking with schmaltz while observing the laws of Kashrut, then it would be impossible to fry cheese – as it is prohibited to mix meat and dairy together.  So, a substitute needed to be found.  And thus, potatoes took the place of cheese in celebration of Hanukkah.

Years later, when Jews stopped cooking with schmaltz and turned to vegetable oil or returned to olive oil, dairy came back to the celebration in the form of sour cream.

So, just remember:  in the great debate between latkes and sufganiyot, just say “CHEESE”!

Shalom, RAF.

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Thanksgiving and Hanukkah (Again!)

For the second time in less than ten years, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are crossing paths.  In 2013, we lit the first candle on Thanksgiving Day – giving birth to “Thanksgivukkah.”  This year, we will light the first candle on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend.  The proximity of the two holidays once again gives us the opportunity to compare the two.

Perhaps, the thing that they have most in common is the way that we teach these two holidays.  In both cases, the story that we tell our children has very little to do with the actual historic events.  

It’s possible that there was a shared meal on the Northeastern coast of our continent among European settlers and indigenous people in 1621.  However, it was not the beautiful moment portrayed in TV specials and elementary school books.  The current holiday of Thanksgiving is based on the proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

Prior to that, different states celebrated days of Thanksgiving on different dates throughout the year.  President Lincoln created a single National Day of Thanksgiving as a unifying act in the midst of the US Civil War.  It was one more gesture reminding the people that we were – and are – a single nation.  President Lincoln was (rightly) worried that the divisions among Americans would lead to a permanent dissolution of the Union.

In a similar way, the story we tell of Hanukkah – playing dreidel to hide Torah study, swine on the Temple altar, Maccabees defeating Assyrian-Greeks, a single jug of oil, etc. – ignores the tensions among Judeans that led to Antiochus sending troops to the Land of Israel.  

In the 2nd Century BCE – after nearly two centuries of Greek influence in the land, there were two major approaches to dealing with the invasion of Greek culture in Judaea.  There were the Hellenizers – who loved all things Greek.  And there were the Hasidaeans who sought to preserve the traditional ways of doing things.  Unfortunately for the Hasidaeans, some of the most fervent Hellenizers were the priests who oversaw the Temple and its rituals.  

One High Priest named Jason – please note the Greek name – built a gymnasium within the Temple compound.  His brother Menelaus – who bribed Antiochus to appoint him as High Priest in Jason’s place – went so far as to rename Jerusalem “Antiochia.”  So, Hasidaeans like the Maccabees were not just frustrated with the Assyrian Greeks.  They were also angry at their fellow Judeans who were Hellenizers.

As Hasidaeans – like Mattathias, Judah and their family – refused to support the Priests of the Temple, the Priests could no longer afford the taxes and bribes which kept them in good standing with Antiochus.  And that’s when the Assyrian Greek soldiers came to town and defiled the Temple.

It may not make a great children’s storybook, but it’s important for us to remember.  When we forget our roots and we divide ourselves, we become vulnerable to outside threats.  It’s true for America, and it’s true for Judaism.

So, it’s okay to keep telling the simplified versions of holiday stories – both American and Jewish – but at some point, we all need to wrestle with the real facts of these days.

Wishing you two wonderful and meaningful holidays back-to-back!

Shalom, RAF.

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