Talking About Abortion From the Bimah

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This past weekend I went to a family bat mitzvah in the DC area. It was an intense weekend, full of family balagan, but one of the most remarkable parts about the weekend, for me at least, was the dvar Torah that Rabbi Michael Feshbach gave on Friday night.

Rabbi Feshbach spoke, among other things, about Dr. George Tiller, and about the Jewish response to abortion. He reviewed sources that stretched from the Biblical, to the rabbinic, to the contemporary, going so far as to quote Rabbi Avi Weiss, not something you expect to see at a Reform Temple. He talked about the way different Jewish denominations have responded to the issue of abortion, and about he was frank about the ways in which the Reform movement has departed from traditional halakha, and why.

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I’ll admit, I found myself squirming, at times. My 13-year-old cousin was sitting in the front row, and while I certainly want her to be educated about abortion rights and Jewish responses to abortion, I found myself wishing that Rabbi Feshbach had chosen a different occasion to make this particular speech. I’m pretty sure I could feel my great aunt cringing from half a room away. But the thing is, at many shuls, there’s a bar or bat mitzvah every week, so if the rabbi is ever going to talk about things like abortion, it’s going to have to happen at someone’s bar or bat mitzvah.And let me be clear: if your rabbis isn’t talking about these issue, things like abortion, and safe sex, then in my opinion, your rabbi is doing you a disservice. It’s hard to talk about these things. Either way you come down on controversial issues related to sex and sexuality it makes people uncomfortable. But clergy–rabbis, priests, reverends, ministers, imams, etc–have, (in my opinion) an obligation to address these issues with their congregations. These are issues that most if not all of us will personally grapple with at some point in our lives, and if we’re the kind of people who regularly show up at shul, church or mosque, then we deserve to know what our tradition says about these issues. And we need to be ready to hear things that we won’t like, and we need to be comfortable looking for new interpretations.

I didn’t love everything about Rabbi Feshbach’s sermon (why do rabbis always want to cram so much into one speech? Iran, the guard at the Holocaust museum, Pinhas and admitting mistakes were not necessary themes for his overarching point) but when it was over I was pretty impressed, not least by the balls it took to give the sermon at all. Well done.

If you want a frank discussion about similar issues at your shul, check out the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, or just ask your rabbi.

In a weird coincidence, my family and I passed an abortion clinic on our walk from the hotel where we were staying to the shul. We literally walked between the volunteer escorts and the pro-life activists on our way to daven. I kind of wish Norman Rockwell had been there to see it.

Posted on June 22, 2009

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