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Parashat Mishpatim

February 9, 2024
30 Shevat 5784
Exodus 21:1 - 24:18

Dear Friends,

The prayer book I grew up with has a reading that starts, “When Torah entered the world, freedom entered it.” As we read the Book of Exodus and enter the joyous month of Adar, this time of year is perfect for considering Torah’s promise of freedom. What are our aspirations of freedom? Which ones do we experience? And how can we enact the others?

As a child, I only interpreted the idea that Torah and freedom are equated as being about freedom from slavery. But Torah, whether the Five Books of Moses or Jewish teachings writ large, sows the seeds of many freedoms. Among those freedoms are reproductive rights. From the freedom to choose whether and when to have children to the freedom to access knowledgeable reproductive health care, from the right to termination of pregnancy for medical reasons to the right to miraculous solutions to infertility, Jewish tradition affirms the values of reproductive rights, health, and justice. Rabbinic tradition asserts bodily autonomy in a multitude of ways and contexts. Many of these Jewish values, and more dealing with reproductive rights, health, and justice, are rooted in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) That’s why the National Council of Jewish Women designates this Shabbat as Repro Shabbat, a time to celebrate Jewish approaches to reproductive freedom.

An example of text relating to reproductive rights in our text is Exodus 21:22. The verse both differentiates a fetus from an infant and demonstrates the anguish of miscarriage. This verse contributes to the conclusion in Jewish tradition that, to use common parlance in the US, life begins at birth.

While thirteen states had trigger laws imposing abortion bans as soon as the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, my home state of Indiana was the first state to pass a new abortion ban in response to this judicial overhaul. Multiple lawsuits were filed against the new total ban. One of interest was brought on behalf of four anonymous women and the organization Hoosier Jews for Choice; this lawsuit, now a class action, claims that the total abortion ban violates the state’s guarantees of religious freedoms of those whose religious beliefs permit abortion and/or advise or require termination in certain instances. It’s worth noting that the very people who wish to restrict access to abortion are often the same people who wish to restrict development of and access to birth control and fertility treatments. Hoosiers are currently fighting hard for their reproductive freedom, with Jews at the vanguard.

That’s the thing about freedom; it doesn’t just happen. We make it happen. There’s a saying that, from the time we enter the month of Adar, we increase in our joy. Our societal discourse and current situation - in terms of reproductive health and in general - can make it seem like there’s no room for joy. Yet, taking joy in thousands of years of our tradition valuing the life, health, and agency of women and all who decisions choices regarding pregnancy adds to conversations around reproductive freedom and reduces stigma around reproductive choices. Reproductive freedom is only aspirational for an estimated 40% of the world. But if we envision it, we can work toward it together.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jay Stanton

Wed, May 22 2024 14 Iyyar 5784