The Torah portion Kedoshim begins with the charge
קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
“You shall be holy, for I, your God יהוה, am holy.”
What does it mean to be holy? What does one do to become holy? What is the source of holiness? Is holiness something that is bestowed on us by external forces, or is holiness a state that we can cultivate? Is holiness relative? Is it defined differently in other religious traditions? And when are you supposed to be holy? All the time? When you pray? Visiting the sick? Cooking dinner? Scrubbing the bathtub?
Dictionary.com offers several definitions, two which I offer here:
- Specially recognized as or declared sacred by religious use or authority; consecrated – holy ground.
- Dedicated or devoted to the service of God, the church, or religion: a holy man – saintly, godly, pious, devout – a holy life.
It is the second definition, dedicated or devoted to the service of God, that is articulated in our Torah portion. Parashat Kedoshim contains a series of “must-do” commands. It lays out a foundation, a roadmap, of actions to be holy: revere your mother and father, leave the edges of your fields for the poor, and treat each other with kindness (do not insult the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind), abstain from forbidden sexual relationships, and treat one another fairly, whether in business or in judgement.
Over time, our tradition developed more practices, ways of interacting in the world, to elevate even the most private moments. We say a blessing after we use the restroom to thank God that everything opened and closed the way that it should. We prepare ourselves for intimate relations with dips in the mikvah.
I ask these questions as the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and a key issue is when does a fetus become an entity with the right to life?
|The Talmud teaches that a fetus, up through the first eight weeks after conception, is “like water.” This means that Jewish law permits abortion on demand through eight weeks. From that point, until the head emerges, the mother’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus. In cases of threat to the mother’s health such as cancer or ectopic pregnancy, there is complete agreement that the mother’s life should be preserved.|
Jewish law also accommodates abortion in cases involving threats to maternal well-being growing out of psychological distress. Jewish law permits a woman, in consultation with her Rabbi, to determine if the psychological harm is sufficient to permit an abortion. There are cases where such permission is automatic, such as those involving rape, incest, or a fatal fetal anomaly. We understand Jewish law to permit abortion in such instances[i].
I live my life according to the precepts laid out in the Torah, and I am guided by the lens of Jewish tradition, and Jewish tradition teaches that abortion is permitted much later than what will become the law of this land. That doesn’t mean that I take abortion lightly but should I be faced with the necessity, I rest a bit easier knowing I am living a life of holiness, even in the most difficult moments.
I’ll give you three vignettes that are floating in my mind as I stand more on the sidelines of this sea change, more passive than I might have at other times in my life.
#1) It is 1976. I am 15 and I have just begun to date. Abortion is legal and easy and safe, and for me, a seemingly breezy option. I was a boundary-tester as a teenager. I was a bit “in the doghouse “ as I had stayed out much later than I should have with the boy I was with. I turned to my mom, the authority figure, and asked, “What would you do if I came home pregnant?” She looked at me and said “Darling, you are asking the wrong question. What would YOU do if YOU came home pregnant?” Truth be told, I don’t know what I would have done but I stopped staying out late.
#2) I am 32 and have had my first child. I am working at Stanford Hillel. I head out to my car and as I get in, I see there is a flyer on my windshield. I grab it and glance down, assuming it is for a student program. My mind doesn’t comprehend what I am looking at immediately, and then I realize it is a picture of an aborted fetus. Light, breezy option, gone forever.
#3) I am the block parent to all the young adults in our circle. A young woman from a devoutly Catholic family comes to me. She has had an abortion that her parents didn’t know about and now she was trying to reconcile what her faith community taught her growing up with the reality of her real-life decision. She feels she has sinned by taking a life. She is too scared to contact the church herself, lest her parents find out. She asks me to I reach out to the local parish priest who recommends the Valley Pregnancy Center, a Christian organization whose mission is “to empower women in making confident and healthy life choices.” As I get to know them, I come to understand they will never counsel someone to have an abortion, but if one has already occurred, and like my young woman, the person is struggling afterwards, they will help them find resolution with kindness and understanding.
So, what do Roe vs. Wade and “Tihyu Kedoshim, you shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy” have in common? Each of these vignettes, taught me something. The first, that no one else can make these decisions for me, even if I don’t want to make them. It is my life and my body, and I am the one to make the decisions over what happens to it. The second experience shocked me into understanding that abortion this isn’t a light, breezy decision. At some point, there is a life involved. And the third experience taught me that people of good intention, and of strong faith, reach very different conclusions and those conclusions frame their thinking when they vote and when policy is created.
What is the role of our faith traditions to inform our policy decisions? Are medical developments that lead to increased chance that fetuses will survive earlier in their gestational periods what should drive our policy decision? What about socio-economics factors?
These are complicated issues but the personal choices that I have made, were just that, personal. As we are charged to lead lives of holiness, let us strive to build a society where we respect difference, where our faith traditions give us wisdom but do not mandate the way for everyone.
Quoting from our parasha, as we strive to be holy,
לֹא־תַעֲשׂ֥וּ עָ֙וֶל֙ בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹא־תִשָּׂ֣א פְנֵי־דָ֔ל וְלֹ֥א תֶהְדַּ֖ר פְּנֵ֣י גָד֑וֹל בְּצֶ֖דֶק תִּשְׁפֹּ֥ט עֲמִיתֶֽךָ׃
let us not render an unfair decision, and let us judge our kin kindly.
Ken yihye ratzon.
[i] Excerpted from Clergy Letter of Abortion from Kol Emeth, Palo Alto, May 6, 2022