I was taught, as an historian and as a rabbi, always to be clear what in my own life was pointing me in one or another direction, to allow others a chance to weigh my thoughts in light of that framework – rather than pretending I can be “neutral” about any serious issue.
My brother and I were adults and Roe v. Wade was decided before my mother’s mother told us the circumstances of my father’s mother’s death. Having birthed five sons and begun rearing them, she became pregnant again. Feeling it impossible to raise a sixth child, she found someone willing to do an illegal abortion. She died as a result. Her death cast a shadow over my father’s life.
By the time I learned this, not only had Roe v. Wade greatly lessened the stigma of abortion, but I had learned enough Jewish tradition to know that the Torah treated an abortion, even if against the mother’s will, could result in civil damages at the discretion of a court, but was certainly not murder. Only once the fetus had been born, its head had appeared outside the mother and it could take a breath on its own, was it deemed a human life. And if the fetus was a threat to the mother’s life (and some rule, her psychological health, it is not merely permissible but obligatory to kill the fetus to save the woman. That is exactly the opposite of official Catholic law.
And then I learned that one of my crucial rabbinic teachers, Rabbi Max Ticktin, before Roe v. Wade had had been part of a secret network of “the Janes” who had arranged for illegal but safe abortions by qualified doctors. For years he could not enter the State of Michigan because of a warrant for his arrest.
And then I learned that another of my major teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, knew that his mother had arranged an abortion in order to make it possible for the family to flee Vienna when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss in 1938. Reb Zalman said the abortion had “given new birth, new life to the whole family.”
So everything in my own family history and the history of my teachers accorded with Jewish law that understood Torah put the life and welfare of women higher than that of an unborn fetus.
Yet the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Christian movement, in both of which men make the decisions, ignored the clear biblical text (Exodus 21: 22-25) to come up with their description of abortion as murder.
In fact, these two religious groupings have been able to organize enough political support from organizations that support other forms of subjugation (against Black and Latinx voters, GLBTQ communities, Muslims, immigrants, and Earth itself) that the State of Texas has now legislated a system that turns everyone (not only Texas residents) into a potential paid informant like the Stasi network in Communist East Germany to imprison doctors and all others who assist in any way for an abortion later than about the sixth week of pregnancy? The Supreme Court, without a hearing or internal discussion, refused to prevent the law from taking effect.
Why and how have these large religious bodies been able to mobilize such political power, and what should the rest of us – including many of their own members who disagree — do about it?
First of all, let’s be clear: Abortion is not the only issue, though the US press often reduces it. The Conference of Catholic Bishops makes clear that what is at stake is much larger: “Shortly after Mr. Biden’s election in November, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the unusual creation of a working group to address conflicts that could arise between his administration’s policies and church teaching,” the NYtimes reported. “On Inauguration Day, Archbishop Gomez issued a statement criticizing Mr. Biden for policies “that would advance moral evils” especially “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender” (emphasis mine).
So what is really at stake is a theology of sex, especially impressed on Christianity by the sex-obsessed Augustine of Hippo (I will not call him a saint) who died in the year 430 CE. What is this sin?
Augustine powerfully affected many leaders of the Christianity of his time. They must have shared much of his tightened strum of tension. Ever since, Christian thought –at least until the Protestant rebellion, and even in some Protestant churches –- has suggested that the mistake of Eden was sexual. According to this sexual hysteria, the sin has entered into all future humans because Adam and Eve passed it to their children through intercourse and procreation – like a permanent genetic defect carried not in the genes but by the very act of passing on the genes. Since then, most Christian dogma has seen pleasure in the sexual act as not only the bearer of Adam’s sin but the nature of the sin itself.
In this theology, Augustine’s “original” sin was original not only because it was the first, but because it was intimately involved in the origin of the human species and in the origin of every human being. It was and is indelibly imprinted in the human condition. It was and is the “sin of all,” of the entire world. Since sex was necessary to keep the species alive, the dogma became that sex was acceptable if it led to procreation (though not as holy as chastity). So abortion, contraception, homosexuality, masturbation – all became sins. Hence Archbishop Gomez’ warning.
Through the centuries, some Christian thought – today, a great deal of Christian thought — and most Jewish thought, has refused to believe that the sin of Eden (whatever it was), made sex or sexual desire or sexual pleasure in itself sinful, or that the mistake of Adam and Eve delivered that sin into all human souls and bodies.
My own understanding of the sin of Eden comes partly from the deep imprint still on me of 1968, of seeing Pharaoh in our own generation, and of the joyful alternative if we could only cross the Red Sea into the Promised Land, the milk-and-honey Garden. I am haunted by the Bomb and the Climate Crisis, and at the same time inspired by the vision of an ecologically delightful planet. And that brings me to look at the birth of humankind, and at this powerful mythic parable of our beginning.
What should we do? We need to organize.
1. Right away, in honor and emulation of Rabbi Ticktin and the other “Janes,” we should be organizing networks for “illegal” distribution of safe chemical means of inducing abortion, led by rabbis and other spiritual leaders, and prepare to support them financially, legally, and with nonviolent civil disobedience if the State of Texas (and other states that are exploring the same system) and its informers attack them.
2. In every synagogue and every church and religious order and department of theology where spiritual leaders teach, the Augustinian theology against sex and for the subordination of women should be stripped of its legitimacy and denounced for its destructive effects.
3. We need to lift up a theology of the Song of Songs as a vision of Eden for a grown-up humankind, not allegorized as meaning only love between God and the Jewish people or between Christ and the Church, but infusing love for God into love between human beings of all genders and sexualities, and of love between human earthlings and Earth.
We are not used to mobilizing against the theology of any other tradition. Liberal and progressive religious traditions have customarily appealed to their own values and let others go their own way. But this is different. We are facing an attempt to impose a reactionary, retrogressive theology upon the whole American people,. We need to name and oppose the pernicious anti-sex, anti-woman theology that distorts the Bible and perverts human society. This effort to impose an anti-woman, anti-sex theology is a national danger.
We need to say that the real dangers to the human species are the H-Bomb, the burning of fossil fuels, the over-population that takes over all living-space for humankind and crowds other species to extinction. The fear of women and of sex distracts us from facing the powerful forces that are threatening Earth and Humanity.
We need to look at the biblical passage that says, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill up the Earth, and subdue it,” and say ”DONE! Now what?”
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and author of 27 books on public policy and religious life. His most recent book is Dancing in God’s Earthquake : The Coming Transformation of Religion (Orbis Books). He has undertaken protests for justice, peace, and healing of the Earth-Human relationship that have resulted in 26 arrests.