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D’var Torah: Parashat Lekh Lekha and the Fight for Reproductive Rights

Watch Felicia’s D’var Torah in full or read the transcript as written below:


Last week in a virtual gathering of multifaith clergy, we spent time in small groups where we were asked to respond to the question: What are we grieving? 

Beyond my personal grief, I shared that I was mourning the stripping away of a woman’s right to choose, the misogyny and hypocrisy that is part of the process, and the undemocratic so-called democracy that is allowing it to happen.

I was a baby when Roe v. Wade was decided. I did not grow up wondering, should I ever need an abortion, whether I could safely and legally get one. I grew up believing that the decisions about my body were mine to make. But I am grieving that my 9-year-old daughter, Sivan, might not grow up with those same guarantees.

I chose to get pregnant as a single woman. I can still remember sitting in the office with the results of the genetic consultation  and the doctor rattling off the list of diseases that run in Ashkenazic Jewish families.  What would I do if I was a carrier? Would I need to contemplate the termination of my pregnancy? I was blessed to have an uneventful pregnancy and birth a healthy child in April of 2010 and Aiden will shockingly become bar mitzvah in a year and a half. 

A little over a year later, I was eight weeks pregnant and the mom of a one-year-old when I went for an ultrasound at my fertility clinic. The doctor could not find the heartbeat. The pregnancy was no longer. I could either wait for my body to take its natural course or go for a D&C, the procedure that clears the uterine lining of abnormal tissue. We were about to leave for our family vacation in Rhode Island. Rather than postponing, I decided to have the procedure at Planned Parenthood in Providence. When I called to schedule it, I was told to call the clinic when I arrived and someone would escort me from the parking lot. There would likely be protesters. Sure enough when my mom and I got there, there was a protester, only one. He had a sign (I don’t remember what it said) and he made comments about killing babies as we made our way inside the clinic. The protester assumed I was having an abortion. He did not know that my body had made its own decision about the viability of the fetus growing inside of me. He knew nothing of my story and yet he chose to impose his moral certainty on my grieving body and soul.

The book of Bereshit that we are reading now is dominated by grieving, barren women. Leah is the only matriarch that conceives easily. The tradition takes note of this devastating consistency and the midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 16:4) asks the heart wrenching question: Why were the matriarchs barren? 

The midrash answers the question with a list of reasons:

  • Because the Holy One of Blessing yearns for their prayers and supplications, In order that God could “see your face… hear your voice.”
  • So that their husbands might cling to them in their beauty. 
  • So that they might pass the greater part of their life without hard work. 
  • So that their husbands might derive pleasure from them, for when a woman is with child she is disfigured and does not care for her appearance. 

And to top it off, the midrash says: The ninety years that Sarah did not bear, she was like a bride in her canopy. 

It’s not surprising that a patriarchal tradition offers up these unsatisfying answers to the vexing question of why. And of course, infertility is exclusively the responsibility of the woman in the Torah. The primary locus of attention is less on the pain and grief of the matriarch and more on what God or her husband wants and desires. However, underneath these answers, there are also some powerful acknowledgements of the impact on the life of a mother—both in physical and emotional burden and the complications of pregnancy and mothering.

There is also commentary that places a value judgement on a barren woman. It comes through the voice of another woman, Sarah’s maidservant Hagar. In this week’s parashah, Sarah can no longer tolerate her barrenness and she instructs Avraham to have a child with Hagar. 

וַיָּבֹ֥א אֶל־הָגָ֖ר וַתַּ֑הַר וַתֵּ֙רֶא֙ כִּ֣י הָרָ֔תָה וַתֵּקַ֥ל גְּבִרְתָּ֖הּ בְּעֵינֶֽיהָ׃

 He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem

Why did Hagar think less of Sarah?

Rashi teaches that Hagar said [of Sarah], “her conduct in private can certainly not be like that in public: she pretends to be a righteous woman, but she cannot really be righteous since all these years she has not been privileged to have children, while I have had that blessing from the first union” (Genesis Rabbah 45:4).

Hagar’s self righteousness offers a deeply problematic equation that infertility is a punishment for bad behavior and conceiving is the reward for being good. One could say that this judgement by Hagar is potentially discredited by the tradition because Hagar is not our ancestor. There may even be a desire by the tradition to lay some groundwork for the justification of Sarah’s harsh treatment and banishment of Hagar in this week and next week’s parashiyot. Yet, the impact of infertility (amongst many other tragedies in life) often awakens that very question: what is it that I’ve done wrong to experience this? 

While the Torah often devotes less attention to the stories of women—and there is a debate on whether the commandment to be fruitful and multiply actually applies to women—a significant part of the book of Bereshit holds the grief of women who can’t conceive and the struggles of those when they do.

Sarah has to wait until she is 90 to have a child. It is mentioned twice that she is without children over the course of two parashiyot. She is full of desperation and despair. 

Rivka is also referred to as barren, and when she finally conceives her pregnancy is uncertain, scary, and painful.  

וַיַּ֤רְא יְהֹוָה֙ כִּֽי־שְׂנוּאָ֣ה לֵאָ֔ה וַיִּפְתַּ֖ח אֶת־רַחְמָ֑הּ וְרָחֵ֖ל עֲקָרָֽה׃

 God saw that Leah was unloved and opened her womb; but Rachel was barren

Leah’s ability to conceive is consolation for being unloved by Jacob, while Rachel is loved by Jacob but unable to conceive. Essentially, two chapters—29 and 30—are devoted to the unfolding of this saga in which Leah conceives seven times; Bilha and Zilpah, Leah and Rachel’s maidservants, conceive four times; and after watching her sister and concubine birthing over and over again, finally Rachel’s womb is open and she births Yosef. And of course, Rachel ultimately dies giving birth to Benyamin.

If one reads these stories with a certain amount of feminist skepticism, plus a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion, one might say that ultimately the women are vessels for a patriarchal storyline. The entirety of their purpose is for the sake of childbearing.

And it is true, an enormous amount of emphasis in the Jewish tradition and Jewish community is on birthing children, and, in some parts of our community, as many as possible. But this orientation suppresses all the complexity that is exposed in the book of Bereshit with our matriarchs: the pain of infertility, the questions of purpose and identity for women in having children, the physical and emotional burdens, and also the implications for and the invisibility of women in particular—although not exclusively of those who don’t have children.

And yet, with all that emphasis and value placed on childbearing and the desire for Jewish babies, those babies are never to come at the expense of endangerment of the life of the mother.

In the book of Exodus, we read:

“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life… (Exodus 21:22-23).”

This text is the basis for how Judaism defines life and when it begins. If a pregnant woman is inadvertently injured and she has a miscarriage, financial compensation to the husband occurs. If the woman dies, then the assailant is put to death based on the phrase nefesh tahat nefesh—life for life. The Torah only uses this phrase with regards to the woman’s life and not with regard to the fetus. The fetus is not considered a life. Life is only used to describe a baby once the majority of its body has left the womb. Rashi comments on this case, which is recorded in Talmud Sanhedrin 72b, “For as long as it did not come out into the world, it is not called a living thing and it is permissible to take its life in order to save its mother. Once the head comes forth, it may not be harmed because it is considered born and one life may not be taken to save another.”

These texts serve as the basis for Rabbi Isaac Klein’s teshuvah in 1959 that abortions can be performed for the protection of a woman’s life, whether for physical or emotional reasons. A later teshuvah by Rabbi Kassel Abelson in 1983 expands this to include the permissibility of abortion if prenatal testing reveals a defective fetus. Both teshuvot caution profoundly against the devaluing of a life and consider abortion without reason immoral. Our religious tradition recognizes the weightiness of the decision to have an abortion, though it doesn’t rule out its necessity in certain circumstances to preserve the life of the mother. As American Jews, we uphold that a pregnant woman has the fundamental right to decide on the viability of her pregnancy, not the state or country. While Judaism is in no way permissive on abortion, it should be legal. A pregnant woman should be in control of the difficult but essential decision in consultation with her doctors, rabbis, or mental health professionals about whether or not to continue a pregnancy. 

I spent a couple of years in and out of fertility clinics in the process of having my two children. As I sat in those waiting rooms, there was a hush and heaviness in the space; it was clear that inside each and every person next to me was a story, and grief that accompanied it. I, too, had my own.

And that was still true when I made my way into Planned Parenthood on that summer day all those years ago. The lives sitting in those chairs, no matter what procedure or check up they were having, were filled with complexity and struggle, grief, and hopefully joy as well.

Religion, our religion, is unequivocal on the primacy of the saving of a life, pikuah nefesh. Countless lives of women, like the women sitting with me in those chairs at Planned Parenthood, are at risk in our country right now with the pernicious chipping away or eliminating of a woman’s right to choose, made legal by Roe v. Wade in 1973. In May, the Texas Governor signed into law SB-8, effectively banning abortion in the state, and on September 1, the Supreme Court declined to block the law, even though there are serious constitutional questions. Mississippi enacted an abortion ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and that case is going before the Supreme Court this term. It is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. Should the legal right to abortion be overturned, there is data to show that approximately 26 states will ban abortion. The impact of such a decision will be wide and devastating on the lives of women, disproportionately impacting women who are poor and women of color. It is time to wake up and start acting. Ignorance, I promise, will not be bliss. And it is essential that there is a religious voice fighting for reproductive rights.

It is an awesome and daunting responsibility to know that our bodies have the potential to create life. Very few have a simple path to get there. 

When I bless my daughter with the words:

 יְשִׂימֵךְ אֱלֹהִים כְּשָׂרָה, רִבְקָה, רָחֵל וְלֵאָה

May God make you like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah

I want her to be blessed with unexpected miracles like Sarah, the power to pray to and demand of God like Rivkah, the longing and love of Rachel, and the resilience of Leah. Just as our matriarchs were complex, I want her to live courageously in the complexity of our tradition’s story and her own. I want her to be remembered by God and to know that above all, since the moment she came out of my womb, she is life. A life that is valued and that matters, a life that I pray has power to create in all its forms, and a life that should have the power to make her own decisions, and be pro-life, pro-her life.