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Time to Confront Anti-Sex Theology

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 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, have been able to organize enough political support from organizations that support other forms of subjugation (against Black and Latinx voters, LGBTQ 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…

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.

Augustine powerfully affected many leaders of the Christianity of his time. 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. 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.

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…

So what should we do? We need to organize. 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.


Rabbi Arthur Waskow on The Lilith Blog, September 2021