Rabbis in States with Abortion Restrictions Find Hope in Interfaith Work

By | Dec 06, 2022
Latest, Women
Rabbi Nancy Kastan speaks in front of a group advocating for reproductive rights.

Is interfaith activism a key piece of the puzzle in advocating for abortion and reproductive rights in the United States?

Although lawmakers in red states have emphasized religious ideals as a rationale for their restrictions on abortion, many Jewish leaders disagree. In some cases, rabbis in these states have built alliances with their counterparts from other faiths, and they hope that by doing so they can better advocate for reproductive rights in their communities.

“Those are the conversations we can have in an interfaith and multifaith setting that reflect the diversity of who we are as a country and reflect true religious pluralism,” says Rabbi Nancy Kasten, a leader of Faith Commons, a group that promotes interfaith work on a host of liberal issues in Texas. The group’s leadership includes a reverend, a rabbi (Kasten) and an imam. Kasten believes there is a “common good” in interfaith work surrounding abortion rights. 

“Claims about when life begins are theological claims, and that impacts Jews, Muslims, secular people and many others who may understand this biological process differently,” Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg wrote earlier this year in a “Moment Debate” on whether a ban on abortion would curtail Jews’ religious freedom. Shlomo Brody, co-dean of Tikvah Online Academy, argued the “no” position, but agreed that an abortion might be required according to Jewish law if the mother’s life is in danger. “Abortion in general, at least abortion at will, is not mandated by Jewish religious law,” wrote Brody. “Some argue that it’s in the best interest of the Jewish community that abortions stay legal and safe, in order to give women the freedom to have abortions in cases where it is mandated or permitted by halacha.”

The Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jacksons Women’s Health Organization, leaked in May and issued in June, overturned the long-standing legal precedent which enshrined abortion access as a constitutional right under Roe v. Wade, and returned the power to legislate the hot-button issue to the states. There is a near-total abortion ban in Texas, where Kasten works, with exceptions in the event of the mother’s life being endangered, according to the American Civil Liberties Union-Texas. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. 

Faith Commons is considering whether to help women in Texas who are seeking abortions manuever around legal barriers in the state. “Taking a risk and going out on a limb to help people is a good thing,”says Rabbi Kasten. “But you may undermine your own ability to continue to do that work if you’re shut down legally, or if you’ve created yet another notch in the belt of right-wing conservatives.”

The Faith Commons website expands on the interfaith organization’s values surrounding reproductive rights. “Some of us believe that women have the right to full reproductive health care, including abortions. Some of us regard the unborn child with a sanctity that should be preserved at all costs. All of us want to see ‘pro-lives’ policies that support women in the journey of pregnancy, birth and raising children, like healthcare, paid leave and childcare.” In an interfaith setting, individuals can have in-depth conversations about abortion, including when life begins and how abortion is health care, says Rabbi Kasten.

“For far too long, the conservative Christian right, the evangelical Christian Church, has monopolized the conversation regarding abortion,” says Rabbi Kelly Levy from Congregation Beth Israel, in Austin, Texas. “Many, many people of faith support abortion, including Jewish people, and including other faiths as well.”

Interfaith initiatives are also underway in other states. In Oklahoma, where abortion is banned except in life-threatening cases or in instances of rape or incest, Temple B’nai Israel has a long-time relationship with a United Church of Christ congregation in their area. According to Rabbi Vered Harris, the two houses of worship co-teach their fifth and sixth graders in a reproductive rights curriculum. 

Rabbi Craig Lewis, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, says he is part of a “multidenominational group of interested and passionate clergy.” While this group has not yet taken collective action for safe abortion access, individually “[they’ve] all taken stances, signed letters, and done teachings at [their] places of worship,” he says.

Back in 2016, Rabbi Lewis signed an amicus brief in favor of protecting women’s reproductive right to terminate a pregnancy in accordance with her faith, along with leaders from  Catholic, Methodist and other religious communities. The document was put out in response to Texas House Bill No. 2 which greatly limited abortion rights in the state.

Nationally, Rabbi Hara Person, Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), a national organization aiding rabbis who serve Reform Jews, says that CCAR works closely with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) to put out statements and provide resources to those in need of safe reproductive care in the Washington, DC, area.  Person was invited and attended an event at the White House alongside other faith leaders at which they discussed the different religious groups’ responses to the Dobbs decision with policymakers.

“It’s really important to come together with other faith groups and faith leaders who share values, like abortion access, so that we can actually speak out in a unified fashion and show that together we’re actually the majority, not the minority,” says Person.

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