July 1, 2022
As we move into the July 4th holiday weekend, a time when we celebrate the founding of our country, many of us are treading lightly. Over the past couple of weeks, the revelations of Congress’ Jan 6 oversight committee and the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court, at the very least, have made it clear that American democracy is in great peril. This is demonstrable from many angles, as has been covered in multiple trusted media outlets (it is not my aim to enumerate them here). So as we fire up our barbecues and look forward to a little extra r & r over the next few days, the celebration will be muted for many. What, exactly, are we fêting with our fireworks?
As ever, I am interested in the Jewish angle. I’ve been finding it hard to comment on current events lately – the news is so grim that I’m really not sure what to say – and identifying the “Jewish” is not always cut and dried. When the Supreme Court draft of the Roe v. Wade decision was leaked, I made the case that we were looking at the “Christianization” of America – that one group’s religious values (a group that by no means represents all of its co-religionists, let alone a majority of Americans) were being mandated upon the whole country – and that this would come into conflict with, at least, Jewish law. And indeed, since the court’s ruling last week, we have already seen Jewish groups sue to restore abortion rights because the court’s ruling represents “theocratic tyranny” and clashes with Jewish understandings and halacha around abortion (see Rabbi Barry Silver in Palm Beach County, Florida, for example).
But the stripping of this right, now the reality in the United States, has other Jewish implications beyond the one I referenced earlier. Traditional Judaism has long frowned upon the notion of a gzeirah sh’ein rav ha-tzibur yecholim la’amod bah – “a law that the majority of people cannot or will not observe.” A relatively innocuous example of this, at least in the Orthodox world, is the issue of smoking. From a verse in Deuteronomy (4:15) which declares venishmartem m’od l’nafshoteichem / “…you are to take exceeding care for your selves…” – the sages understand that we may not deliberately do anything that causes harm to the body. Clearly, smoking causes harm. But smokers don’t give up their cigarettes so easily. And if smoking were to be declared assur / forbidden, it would create a situation where all of a sudden, large segments of the population would be in contravention of a commandment, creating a whole category of “sinners” today where there were none yesterday. Whatever your own position is on when life begins, everyone recognizes that people will continue to seek abortions in the United States – it’s just that now, they will be criminalized for it.
For liberal Jewish communities, there is another layer, too. The establishment of the protections of Roe v. Wade tracks more or less with the advent of egalitarian Judaism in the liberal denominations (certainly in the Conservative world). For the vast majority of Conservative/liberal Jewish communities, full and equal participation for women is a core value. This value comes from a general reevaluation of society that gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th century, an assessment of patriarchy and a (nascent) rejection of it. EMJC was nearly torn apart over this issue in the late 1990s, but somehow the egalitarian forces prevailed, enshrining full and equal participation of women in all aspects of religious and communal life in our community. This core value must be seen in its larger context; that all people, regardless of gender, should have equal access to the machinery of society, and that, as is the case with the Supreme Court decision, by denying women what should clearly be the bedrock right of self-determination, we are stripping them of that access.
The fundamentalist majority on the Supreme Court is truly, definitionally regressive. Never before in our country’s history have constitutionally protected rights been stripped away – this is unprecedented. As our society tries to move forward, lurching and heaving, this decision, atavistic in its understanding of women’s position in society, is a ball and chain on progress. I suppose that, if there is an optimistic mood to be found this weekend, it’s that this ruling lo yachol la’amod – “will not be able to stand.” Sadly, it will likely be a generation before it falls, and in the meantime, the incalculable damage that it will do to millions upon millions of women, families, and children will be on the heads of those who advocated for it.
Our Torah portion this week contains the description of a miracle (albeit a rather grim one): Korach and his fellow rebels, in an attempted mutiny against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, receive the ultimate punishment: “the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households…” (Numbers 16:31-32). The rabbis were never particularly comfortable with miracles. In Pirkei Avot, 5:8, the sages list “ten things [that] were created on the eve of the Sabbath of Creation at twilight.” The first of these is “the mouth of the earth” that swallowed Korach and his followers. The implication is that the “miracle” was actually pre-ordained – that it is not outside of nature because it was written into nature from the beginning. I like to think of the creation of this country in similar terms – not in a “Manifest Destiny” way, but in the notion that the ideas and principles enshrined in our founding documents were an inevitable result of the progression of human thought; that they were meant to create a new, glorious, benevolent, embracing vision of what human society could look like – of how humans – all humans – could govern themselves. Let that be the thing that we meditate on this weekend. Armed with our Jewish values of legislative reason and dedication to equality, let us commit ourselves to the continued effort to pull our society forward and, in the words of William Faulkner, “be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat, and a happy 4th,
Rabbi Sam Levine