God Is More Committed to Gender Equality Than We Are | Opinion

As the United States continues to come to grips with the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, I cannot stop thinking about how the court used a legal system built entirely by men to diminish women — once again — into nothing more than a vessel for producing babies.

I am a rabbi in a legal system that excluded women for thousands of years, much like the legal system that the Supreme Court relied on in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. But unlike the American legal system, the Jewish tradition, in certain respects, including abortion, found a way to craft laws grounded in equal dignity for women.

When I read Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson, I was struck that he chose to rely on a legal system that was at best indifferent to women's health and at worst hostile. Alito wrote, "The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation's history and traditions. On the contrary, an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973."

When I became a rabbi, I knew that I was wrestling with a nearly 6,000-year-old tradition that did not view women as equal to men, but I also loved how the Torah and later the rabbinic sages fought for a more just world. My favorite story is of five courageous sisters in the book of Numbers. After the death of their father, Zelophehad, they protested to Moses that it was unjust that they were not able to inherit land just because they were women. Moses took their plea to God and God sided with the sisters; daughters in their shoes could indeed inherit. A rabbinic interpretation in an ancient text called Sifre Bamidbar, explains the story: "The mercies of God are not like the mercies of people. People have more concern for males than females. But the One who spoke and brought forth the world is not like this, rather God's concern is for both males and females. God's concern is for all." (Sifre Bamidbar 133) God has more compassion, is more committed to equality, than man.

Perhaps it was with this mindset that the rabbis recognized that the life of a woman takes precedence over a fetus. They drew that lesson directly from the Torah. There are two verses in Exodus 21:22-23, which recount a story of two men who are fighting and injure a pregnant woman, resulting in her subsequent miscarriage. The verse explains that if the only harm done is the miscarriage, then the perpetrator must pay a fine. But if the pregnant person is gravely injured, the penalty shall be a life for a life, as in other homicides.

Abortion-rights activists demonstrate
Abortion-rights activists demonstrate outside a Planned Parenthood clinic as they safeguard the clinic from a possible protest by a far-right group on July 16, 2022, in Santa Monica, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that the men did not commit murder and that the fetus is not a person. The verse's primary concern is for the woman who was injured. Later rabbinic sources instruct that the beginning of the life of a child is at birth. The fetus, after the first trimester, is indeed life, but is not yet endowed with the same rights as a breathing person. A fetus is considered a physical part of the pregnant individual's body (Gittin 23b). The fetus is not viewed as separate from the parent's body until the onset of labor and childbirth — traditionally, not until the "greater part of the child has emerged" during the birthing process. (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6) And if the mother's life is in danger, the pregnancy must be terminated.

What would it look like for a woman to grow up surrounded by a community that cared for her body not only as a vessel for children but for her full ambitions, whatever they may be? That is the environment I grew up in. From the age of 13, I was raised by a single mother, along with my two sisters. I grew up believing that I could do anything as a woman; proven to me by watching my mother run her own business, own her own home, vote in elections, and oversee her own bank account. Rights that I did not register, until a later age, were hard fought for by generations of women. When I left home, I faced the reality that to bear a child in the workforce is an enormously difficult thing to do.

In my second job out of rabbinical school I began my position while six weeks pregnant. My husband and I had moved to a new city and he was a graduate student. Our health care and our income came solely from my work. For the next 12 weeks I wore loose-fitting clothing in fear that someone might find out that I was pregnant.

Working pregnant women are stigmatized. It can be hard to advance in your career, it can invoke fears that those you work for will think you are not committed to the job. And that is before we even discuss parental leave. My boss — at a religious institution — gave me two weeks off after the birth of my child. During birth, I had third-degree tears to my vagina. I could barely sit for three weeks. As I healed, I suffered from postpartum depression. This all after the birth of a child that was deeply wanted.

I took eight weeks "off" of work, unpaid and returned unready and unwell.

It was not the first time that I would learn that America has a complicated relationship with women, with women and work, and with women and their bodies. Pregnancy and birth are not easy, painless, or unemotional. Neither is abortion.

The Supreme Court chose to rely on laws of a political system that excluded women. But we now have the power to organize, vote, and lead. I have seen and helped bring about the modernization of a far more ancient legal system — Judaism. I know it can be done. Just as God commanded Moses to treat the daughters of Zelophehad equally, and just as the rabbis insisted on protecting pregnant women first and foremost, we too can make this change.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt is the Co-Senior Rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington DC.