Hanukkah Lights and Abortion Rights

On the third day of Hanukkah, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This is one of the most consequential lawsuits in decades concerning reproductive freedom, and the first case that the Supreme Court has taken in which a state is directly calling upon the Court to overturn the constitutional right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade.

While we won’t know the outcome of yesterday’s hearing until this summer, the tenor of the arguments indicates that there is likely to be a majority of Justices who are ready, willing, and eager, to overturn Roe. If that happens, we know that half of the United States stand ready to severely limit or ban access to abortion care, and it makes it more likely that the 450 restrictive state laws that already exist – including at least nine here in Minnesota – will be strengthened and less able to be overturned. These laws erode the personal protections and rights afforded by the Constitution. They limit the power, faculty and capacity that the right to liberty and bodily autonomy should grant to each of us.

As we prepare to light the fifth Hanukkah candle this evening, let us recall the lesser-known story of Judah Maccabee’s sister Hannah. Hannah, engaged to be married, was subject to the Right of the First Night under the law of the Greek oppressors, whereby a local nobleman could opt to have sex with a Jewish virgin bride before the groom. Both bride and groom would have to comply for fear of death. When it came time for her wedding feast, Hannah tore off her garments and called out her brothers for allowing her to be raped. They were put in their place, and according to Jewish tradition, this stirred their zealotry and began the Maccabean Revolt.

Perhaps we lost track of this portion of our narrative because we are ashamed. It is painful to know that our ancestors did not stand up to prevent the theft of personal license, dignity, choice, and freedom. Hannah’s bravery, rising from the depths of her anger and heartache, would cease to be part of the popular legacy of the Jewish people passed down from one generation to the next. Yet we must reclaim this festival as “Hannah-kah.” Now is the time for us to stand up for this generation and future generations of Hannahs, preventing the rape of personal freedoms and affirming that we are in control of our bodies.

Hannah’s faith and courage changed the course of history, and at this crucial moment in time, let us honor and amplify the stories and the voices of today’s Hannahs – the powerful, often unsung heroes who are fighting to preserve rights and justice for all of us, even when theirs have been stripped away. Let us write them back into our important narratives.

The focus of yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing was the 14th Amendment, as the Court ruled in Roe v. Wade in 1973, effectively affirming this position—that is, the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant person’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. The Supreme Court invoked a fundamental “right to privacy” being violated when one’s liberty to choose is taken away. Why? People who become pregnant are no longer protected as equal to those who cannot; the government declares what they can and cannot do with their bodies; their intimate decisions are made public. 

But as we consider a future without the protections afforded by Roe v. Wade it is important to acknowledge that access to abortion is also a First Amendment issue. Different religions believe that human life begins at different stages of development. Science can explain developmental timelines, but philosophic and religious viewpoints largely determine what exactly defines “life” or “personhood” for each individual. In Judaism, terminating a pregnancy is not only permissible but at times required.

All Jewish denominations agree that a child’s life does not begin at conception under Jewish law. The Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 69b) asserts that the fetus is “water” before 40 days of gestation. Or, later, as more clearly stated by Physician-Philosopher Maimonides: Shekol arbaim yom eino ubar ela mayim ba’olam hu chashuv–For, throughout the forty days, the embryo is not considered as a fetus, merely as water (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Terumah 8:3). 

This is not just a matter of Jewish law, but of Jewish values as well. We consider preserving life and building a just society to be among our most critical imperatives. Safety, justice, freedom, and lives are at stake if we restrict or remove access to abortion care. The United States has the highest rate of maternal mortality among industrialized countries, with people of color three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white Americans. Unsafe abortions are a leading cause of death worldwide, and restricting access to this essential health care will cause unnecessary death and poor outcomes if the protections afforded by Roe fall. 

It is not our goal to enshrine Jewish laws or values in the laws of the United States. On the contrary: we believe, as the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees, that no one religion should be enshrined in law or dictate public policy on any issue — including abortion. Laws limiting or restricting access to abortion not only do not avail us of our religious rights but instead impede our ability to practice Judaism. This further violates the Establishment Clause, while simultaneously infringing upon the constitutional right to privacy found in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Indeed, there should be a healthy separation of Church and State, but the same principles of equality that this amendment invokes are the bedrock to Judaism and the social justice we as Jews are compelled to pursue. 

This is why we are terrified by — and mobilized to fight — the threat to decisions like Roe v. Wade. 

As Hannah’s faith and courage changed the face of history, we must pledge to continue her fight in the name of those whose dignity and justice have been stripped away. We must prevent future injustice and hardship. 

We will fight as anti-abortion lawmakers across the country continue their sustained and coordinated attacks on reproductive freedoms and our religious liberties. We will not sit idle while our Constitution is torn asunder—our Jewish faith compels us to pursue justice until our feet no longer walk this earth.  And pursue justice we will—and we implore you to join us. 

Beth Gendler is the Executive Director of the National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota.

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.