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Hazzan Steve's Message

Sweetheart, You Are In Pain

Although I am on vacation and had not intended to contribute anything this week, I find that I cannot be silent. I always strive to be grounded in Torah even when my thoughts out of necessity are political. Not all of what I want to say is ready to be said, so I limit myself to a few observations. While they have political implications, by no means do I intend to be partisan.

The last few weeks (or the last few years) have given most or all of us plenty about which to be emotionally and spiritually disquieted. Let me name it more precisely, at least for me – plenty to be very, very angry about. So I say to myself, “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” These are the words of Sylvia Boorstein, Jewish Buddhist (or Buddhist Jewish) teacher and therapist. They are meant to say to yourself. To notice disquiet, take back control of aspects of the body and from there the mind, and then (and only then) plan for what comes next.

I begin by noting that our CBI community is small, more like an extended family than might be a larger community. None of us has the luxury of interacting only with people who agree with us about most everything, let alone only with people we consider friends. But all of us are “b’tzelem Elohim”, in the image of the Holy One. Torah demands that we treat everyone with respect, especially when we disagree.

There is no Jewish pope, and no single Jewish take on difficult societal problems. Not all non-Jews understand this. Not all Jews understand this. Our Jewish way of being embraces complexity. It is easy to be irritated with or dismissive of people who advocate what we see as simplistic answers to complex questions. Torah demands that we treat everyone with respect. Especially when we disagree.

So let us get to Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned nearly fifty years of law and adapting American cultural norms. There is no single Jewish take on abortion. For us, this is a complicated social and religious issue. That a zygote or an embryo or a fetus is alive is for us the beginning of the conversation, not the end. The Jewish discussion never leaves out the interests of the mother. It has been so for at least a couple of thousand years. Many of the relevant texts (and I am by no means an expert on this) phrase the discussion in terms of when the child acquires a human soul. I understand this as grappling with (not avoiding) the difficult balancing of the interests of the mother and of the developing child in utero. I understand that the Jewish way is to give much greater weight, for a longer period of time, to the interests of the mother than would most who identify themselves in the ongoing American discourse (or discord) as “pro-life.”

The laws of the states that prohibit (and criminalize) abortion from conception or early in gestation, particularly if those laws do not take into account various aspects of the life of the mother, seem to be at odds with the Jewish way. Whether that conflict rises to the level of interference with constitutionally protected “free exercise” religious rights is an important question. I do not know the answer, but I am confident it is not a simple question. For some, this is going to be an urgent, dangerous question, rather than an academic one.

We have not always lived in places where we have the right to participate in politics and government. As tattered and beleaguered as aspects of American democracy are at this moment, we have both the right and the duty to participate. I try not to be prescriptive, but here I will be: Communicate respectfully with your elected representatives, especially with the ones who disagree with you. Participate in the ways available to you in elections at all levels of government. If you are eligible to vote, vote in every election. Put your time or your money, or both, where your heart is.

We have a sense of a world to come that will be better, but also the understanding that it is upon us, Aleinu, to act in the here and now to bring about the future we envision. Let me return to where I started. Notice your anger or disquiet. “Sweetheart, you are in pain”. Breathe. Reflect honestly on what is actually happening. Then figure out what, if anything, you can do. Then begin the work.

Call me, or call Reb Lisa, if you need us in this difficult time.

With blessings where they will do the most good this week,

Hazzan Steve

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