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  • Writer's pictureSara Zober

You Shall Not Stand Idly By

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

This was my sermon this weekend on Parashat Kedoshim. Content warning: Infant loss, abortion

I’d like to tell you a story I heard this week from a woman in her 70s named Diana. When she was 8 years old, she came home from school one day to find her mother in the kitchen, sitting on the floor. Weak, her mother asked Diana to call a neighbor for help, because she was miscarrying and losing a lot of blood. When she reached the hospital and started the blood transfusion, the doctors found to their horror that the embryo was still attached, and by law, they were now not allowed to stop her bleeding, because the procedure would be an abortion. Even though the embryo was no longer viable, the procedure to remove it had been outlawed.

Diana’s father dragged her and her sister into a meeting room at the hospital to prove to a panel of doctors that there were other children to consider. She remembers that her father begged and sobbed for the doctors to do something to save his wife. Diana understood very little of the conversation except that whatever was killing her mother was winning their argument. The panel decided to wait, and for days, her mother hemorrhaged while the doctors transfused blood to keep her barely alive.

It took 72 hours from when Diana’s mother got to the hospital for the panel to decide to perform the abortion, end her torture, and save her life. Diana reports “Do you know what actually saved my Mom’s life? Our family doctor was Jewish. He threatened to leave the hospital if they were going to force their “Christian” values on this Jewish doctor.”

The Jewish doctor in our story knew his Mishnah, this from Oholot.

הָאִשָּׁה שֶׁהִיא מַקְשָׁה לֵילֵד, מְחַתְּכִין אֶת הַוָּלָד בְּמֵעֶיהָ וּמוֹצִיאִין אוֹתוֹ אֵבָרִים אֵבָרִים, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁחַיֶּיהָ קוֹדְמִין לְחַיָּיו. יָצָא רֻבּוֹ, אֵין נוֹגְעִין בּוֹ, שֶׁאֵין דּוֹחִין נֶפֶשׁ מִפְּנֵי נָפֶשׁ:
If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the fetus in her womb and bring it forth limb by limb because her life comes before the other life. But if the greater part has come out, one may not touch it for one may not set aside one life for another.

This is the Jewish resolution on abortion and the Jewish understanding of life - that until the fetus is mostly out of the birth canal, Chayeha kodmin l’chayav. Her life comes before the other life in potentio. This was codified for us in the second century, and only strengthened since then. And yet, we are contemplating a near future in this country where abortion is made illegal.

I very deliberately say that it will be made illegal and not abolished, because abortions will still happen - they will just be criminalized and made unsafe. Did you know that the United States already has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world? Not only that, but it’s been getting worse. Even white Millennials like myself are 50% more likely to die in childbirth than our parents were, due mostly to the fact that healthcare is so much more expensive and inaccessible to us, while people from minority races suffer even worse outcomes. Mine is the first generation in history to be worse off than our mothers in this regard, and we still enjoy the protections granted to us by Roe.

The reality is that with all of our medical advances, being pregnant and giving birth is still dangerous, hard, and unhealthy for many people. Far from protecting potential lives, when we remove safe and legal abortion from our toolbox of medical solutions, real lives are harmed. As Jews, THAT must be our concern.

People will continue to get abortions and need abortions even if Roe is struck down. We know this and have definitive data on it. Abortion bans will merely lead to more women’s deaths, whether because they get unsafe abortions, because they suffer deadly violence at the hands of abusers, or because they are like Diana’s mom and have conditions where the only remedy is abortion. A ban on abortion, can and will result in state-sanctioned neglectful murders of pregnant people, a result that no good person and certainly no Jew should be signing on to.

Chayeha kodmin l’chayav. Her life comes first.

Which brings me to our portion this week, where we read:

לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃
You shall not deal dishonestly with your people. You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. I am Adonai.

In bullying education and in Holocaust education, we talk about not being bystanders. A bystander doesn’t want to get involved - it’s not their fight, not their skin in the game. Bystanders are the ones who keep quiet in the face of abuse, who fade into the background when someone cries out for help or for justice. We are, instead, the people who cry “never again, to anyone!”

Here in Nevada, our state codified abortion rights in 1973 and reaffirmed them in 1990. In 2019, I was on the team in Carson City when we further removed outdated criminal penalties, blatantly inaccurate language on consent forms, and marital status and age requirements. Here, even if Roe falls, Nevadans will be able to access this kind of medical care the way we should be able to access all medical care - with a conversation between us and our doctors.

But our text doesn’t say lo taamod al-dammeich, don’t stand idly by YOUR blood, but al dam rei-echa, by the blood of your neighbor. All the states to our east - Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Arizona - have trigger bans on this medical procedure. They are only a few of the 23 states and territories where if Roe falls, abortion will be made illegal automatically. We have a duty to the people in those states to fight for better protections at the federal level for the lives of everyone who may become pregnant in the future.

Now let me be clear - it is permissible to be Jewish and deeply ambivalent about abortion, and to even know that it isn’t a choice for you personally. Many of us feel that way about a lot of life-saving medical procedures, like chemotherapy or brain surgery - we’re glad it exists, but it’s not right for us. But our tradition clearly tells us what needs to be allowed, and commands us loudly:

לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ
You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.

We cannot be bystanders when people are endangering lives by banning a safe medical procedure because of their personal feelings. We cannot be bystanders when people are banning a life-saving medical procedure for religious reasons. And we certainly can’t abandon half the country to the whims of Christian supremacy codified into law.

So here is my ask, regardless of your personal feelings on the topic. Act out your Jewish values by protecting the humanity of people who can become pregnant, even if you are ambivalent about abortion itself, because people’s lives are truly on the line. Get loud, because 70-80% of Americans agree that abortion should be safe and legal, but those seeking to outlaw it have been working harder than we have. Talk to legislators and friends, and push them to make the right decision to uphold Roe. Donate to organizations that are working to give comprehensive, compassionate healthcare for every stage in life, including the difficult ones. Push to decriminalize abortion, because in 48 states, people convicted of a felony cannot vote and this is a way that minorities are further disenfranchised. It is a Jewish value and Jewish tradition to keep abortion legal and accessible, as all healthcare should be.

The blood of our neighbors is in real, literal jeopardy right now, friends, and we’ve been tapped to stand up. This will be a long and a hard fight, but know when it gets hard that we are the ones protecting life. Not just life in potentio, but the living, breathing lives of our parents and children and lovers and friends.

It’s time to stop talking about it and fretting about it and act, so I’m going to leave you with words from Pirkei Avot (1:18):

וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר, אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה
Rabbi Shimon, son of the great Rabban Gamliel, reminds us: Study and words are not the most important thing, actions are.

Shabbat shalom.

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