Every Woman’s Right to Choose

Tuesdays were perfect.  I had no commitments at all.  No classes, no lessons, no gigs, and so I knew that that was my chance.  Each week I got up at 9, slipped into sandals and drove the hour and a half to the beach in Malibu where I could walk for miles without interruption.  I always seem to go to the water when I have a big decision to make.  And walking along, my feet marked the smooth blankets of sand that bordered the water with oval prints that later washed into the sea with the rising tide.  The ocean like the ebb and flow of my own thoughts.  For a journal I used an old beat up spiral notebook, the original maroon peaking through the stickers strewn about the cover: Lou’s Records, Fender Guitars.  As I scratched words onto wire bound paper sheets, I discovered all those thoughts hastily stuck into the empty crevices of my mind during the busy week.  Memories and experiences laid out linearly, logically.  Once frantic words now resting on lines printed with engineered precision.  When my pen stopped moving, I would pick myself up and continue walking down the beach, making more spots for the waves to wash away.

Professional music just didn’t seem right to me anymore.  I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I had this deep feeling.  I reviewed my thoughts over and over again, all the pros and cons of staying in the music industry, all the reasons to continue and all the arguments for leaving.  I never did come to a conclusion.  The discussion weighed too heavily on both sides.  It made perfect sense for me to stay, and at the same time I knew I had to leave.  In the end, I went with my gut, and ended my career in Jazz.  It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made, but one of the best.  That led me to the rabbinate, and I love every minute of what I do.

Making choices is one of the most difficult things we do in life, and the bigger the decision the harder it is.  I read a fascinating article this past year that explained that Steve Jobs always wore the same thing, because it would keep him from having to make even the small decision of what to wear every day, and allow him to focus his energy on his projects at Apple and Pixar.  Our own Talmud, features collections of thousands of transcripts of the deliberations of great minds engaging in big decisions.  Conversations on topics that rarely came to a definite conclusion and that often included stories to further illustrate the complexities and the feelings involved with those debates.  Through these texts we see a spark of the passion these teachers had for deep questions and their reverence for each minority opinion.  As Reform Jews we understand this to mean that we are called to make our own decisions about how we want to practice as Jews, placing the most intimate and impactful parts of our lives in our own hands, not the hands of a distant community leader.  As Reform Jews, we make our own decisions about our lives.

Memories of walking up and down Malibu beach came back to me this past week as I listened to a recent episode of Radiolab.  I love this program, it often presents things that I chew on for days and weeks well after they finish reading the credits.  Among the many things in the episode 23 Weeks 6 Days, that really stayed with me was the words of a young mother talking to her partner.  She said we rarely make important decisions based on reason.  I immediately thought back to the decision I made years ago, that was it!  I couldn’t possibly have made that decision based on what some scribbled notes, cold words, could have told me, this was a decision that needed to be made deeper, in my heart, in my soul.  The only thing was, she wasn’t talking about changing careers or lifestyles.  It wasn’t something so simple as moving cities or starting over.  She was talking about whether or not to follow through with the birth of their baby / , who, due to complications, had a very low likelihood of surviving after birth.  I can’t imagine what making that decision would have been like.  Holding in one hand the very real chance of using up a tremendous amount of resources, not the least of which is their own hope, on a child that is likely to never breathe her first breath of air, and on the other hand the vision of their own child passing through the milestones of life, all the sweet potential moments together hanging in the balance of one word: yes or no.

This podcast came riding on the heels of the passing of HB 13-37 in the Indiana House of Representatives.  One of the most restrictive bills in the country concerning abortion.  I could feel the pain in my bones as I read about the bill on a national news feed on my phone.  A break in the broadcast cycle about the presidential race so that the entire nation could view with the same shock as my own that our state would so violently strip away women’s rights.  This bill is getting national attention because of its draconian, and anachronistic approach to human rights.  A bill that tells every woman in Indiana what she can and can’t do with her body, signed into law by a group of 74 people, 64 of whom are men.  This is a bill that embodies what we, a people who were once slaves in Egypt, should know instinctively: that it is a violation of our deepest values to allow one person to control the body of another, men controlling women’s bodies.

As Reform Jews, who champion the right of every person to make their own decisions about their spiritual life, and their body, how do we reconcile this state law?

This bill among other things makes it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion if they suspect that the person is terminating the fetus because of its sex or because of a disability.  Among the number of things that challenge me about this bill, is the vagueness of its language.  How exactly does a doctor determine what a woman’s motives are for having an abortion?  In what way can you prove that she made her decision based on those criteria?  A daunting task, and one that leaves doctors making their decision based on what they feel is the woman’s motives.

To be clear, Jewish law does not prohibit abortions.  In the eyes of Judaism there is no life involved until the moment the child is born,[1] but more importantly the physical and emotional safety of the mother is paramount and always takes precedence in our tradition.[2]  There are real physical challenges posed by the birth of a child, but there can also be significant problems posed by the responsibility to take care of another life when you yourself have trouble finding your next meal.  A challenge all too clear to the black community in Indiana, and so every single black member of the Indiana House of Representatives voted against this bill, making up 8 of the 23 opposed.

This is a real problem, not a challenge that we can take lightly.  An abortion is a tremendous decision in anyone’s life.  One that is fraught with emotion and I cannot imagine is ever made carelessly.  This is one of those important decisions that won’t be made with reason, it’s something that every person has to make for themselves based on how they feel, but it is a decision that should be made by the mother, based on her own feelings, not based on the feelings of the doctor, or the courts, or 74 people that she will never meet, sitting in a room she will never enter, discussing one of the most important decisions she will make in her life.

And so we gather, tomorrow at 1pm at the statehouse over 3000 people will assemble to oppose this bill.  A decision that each one of us has made on our own.

And as we gather in that moment we will stand together, to give our voice to making positive change in this world.  Speaking our with our bodies, to go one step closer to our vision of a world where every person is free, where no one is forced out of the choice of what to do with their own bodies, a world where each person can and does make their own decisions on how to be.  And our world will be a better place for it.

Shabbat Shalom.