We are reading this week the “Holiness Code,” in the Book of Leviticus. It is the same portion that we in the Reform Movement read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, because it contains some of the most fundamental values of ethics and decency that are embodied in Biblical teaching. “You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind. . . You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19.14,16). The “Holiness Code” implores us to protect the poor, the weak, the elderly, and the stranger. This is a core value of Judaism.
As American Jews, we bring this core value into the public sphere in the demand we make upon our government – that its policies and precepts reflect this basic human decency. But yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, the US House of Representatives flagrantly ignored this most basic concept of decency, as it voted to vacate the Affordable Care Act, and place millions of Americans in jeopardy – the poor, the elderly, the weak, the sick and disabled, at the top of the list.
One of the primary targets of the House was Planned Parenthood. The excuse is abortion. But this is a smoke screen. In fact there already has been a ban on public funds for abortion. But Planned Parenthood provides the gamut of health care services for women, and for men: breast cancer screening, pap smears, colon, prostate, and testicular cancer screenings, birth control, infertility treatment, HPV tests, and the list goes on. For many women and men around the country, Planned Parenthood is the only source of treatment and preventative care that they have. This cut in funding to Planned Parenthood is vicious, and could have deadly consequences.
If I may admit to it, I have to say that have never been able to understand this dynamic in American politics during the election cycles of the past several decades. With regard to health care in particular, it has always seemed as though the very people who stand to lose the most in our country have repeatedly voted against their own best interests. Latest estimates put some 24 million Americans in jeopardy of losing their health coverage. Those with various “pre-existing conditions” will be running up medical bills that will threaten their very stability, and that of their families. It simply defies reason.
As a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I proudly stand with the statement it issued yesterday in its condemnation of the “American Health Care Act.” Please take a moment to read it.
We at Union Temple Planned share with you, and join in sentiments expressed in the Parenthood Clergy Advocacy Board statement and interfaith prayer in response to the violence at the Colorado Springs health center:
In the wake of the violent assault on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We pray healing for the injured, comfort for those who mourn and give thanks for the devoted staff of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountain and first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to protect and defend their fellow citizens. We stand with Planned Parenthood and their continued commitment to provide care in the safe, supportive environment that millions of people rely on and trust for quality healthcare. We also pray for an end to the climate of violence and polarization that grips our nation — asking for the will and wisdom to overcome hatred with hope, fear with trust and violence with compassion.
And so we pray with heart and mind that God of many names, Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that all nations and peoples may make known your values of love, hope and justice. Amen.
This week we begin again our yearly cycle of Torah study. The Torah portions of this week and next week concentrate on primordial history: the creation of the world and human beings, and the nature of human beings and their potential to do both good and bad (the yetzer hatov – the good inclination, and the yetzer harah – the evil inclination). These parashiyot (Torah portions) also attempt to provide an etiology for why things are the way they are. For instance: Why do snakes crawl around on their bellies, and seem so repulsive and dangerous to most humans? According to our text, the snake originally stood upright. But it manipulated the first man and woman (Adam and Eve) to give into the temptation of eating the forbidden fruit, and thus its punishment was that it was condemned to crawl around on its belly throughout all time to come. Whatever the real evolutionary reason, this is a satisfying story nevertheless, and teaches us an important moral lesson.
Along with the punishment of the snake is the punishment of the humans for giving into temptation. The Torah appears to ask: Why is it that we have to work the earth for our nourishment in this life, and why is it that women experience pain in childbirth?
The Torah’s response:
Genesis, Chapter 4
16) And to the woman, [God] said, “I am doubling and redoubling your pains of pregnancy; with pain shall you bear children, yet your craving shall be for your man, and he shall govern you.” 17) Now to the man, [God] said, “Because you hearkened to your wife and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘Do not eat of it,’ the soil is now cursed on your account: Only through pain shall you eat of it, as long as you live. . . 19) By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, till you return to the earth – the earth you were taken from. . .’ (and then one of the most well-known statements of the Torah) ‘for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.'”
I am always fascinated by this section of our text, because it could be construed, and has indeed been throughout much of history, as a justification for the subordination and condemnation of women, particularly with regard to their reproductive lives. But it is particularly painful to read now at this time, in light of the recently ramped-up battle against Planned Parenthood. During the Congressional hearing last week, featuring the intense grilling of PP President Cecile Richards, the baggage of centuries upon centuries of misogyny was fired at Richards during the entire day, by mostly male members of Congress. The age-old specter growing out of this Biblical tale as it has found its way into the human psyche, which portrays the woman as the “evil temptress,” who must bear the burden of her ability to reproduce, reared its ugly head during this hearing in a way that I can only characterize as openly hostile and outrageous. Richards said in an interview after the hearing: “In this coming presidential election, Roe v Wade is on the ballot. The battle lines were drawn last week. This isn’t about Planned Parenthood or fetal tissue. . . . it’s about whether abortion is going to be legal any more in this country.”
While there is a great deal more to say on this subject, I offer this brief commentary as food for thought during this rather painful time in American politics.
The photo to the right was taken on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Though the signs look blank from the camera angle, they actually contain the signatures of over a million Americans. The women carrying them are Suffragettes. On August 19, 1920, 95 years ago, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. While the Women’s Suffrage Movement was officially initiated in 1848, the battle for women’s voting rights had been waged for over a century in this country before that August day in 1920.
During these weeks in the Book of Deuteronomy we see the effort to construct a society within Ancient Israel that was concerned with fair treatment of the people within that society, based on the rule of law. Obviously many of the specifics of that time and place would be considered outmoded and inappropriate in our own time and place. The powerlessness of women is one of the most glaring of these. Nevertheless, American women have had to fight for virtually every civil right, including the right to vote.We have secured property ownership rights. But we’re still working on equal pay for equal work. We’re still working on employment non-discrimination, and parity in elected office and CEO positions. We’re still working on harassment prevention. We’re still working on anti-trafficking laws. We’re still working on paid pregnancy and maternity leave as a universal right. We’re still working on unimpeded access to health care and family planning. Despite decades of demonstrating, petitioning, and sustained pressure, there is still no Equal Rights Amendment within our Constitution. 95 years – fully an entire century – after being guaranteed the right to vote for the people who will decide our fate in state houses and the halls of Congress, and we are still fighting for basic civil rights. The battle over funding of Planned Parenthood continues to escalate, particularly as presidential politics continue to heat up. But women’s health care and family planning are not bargaining chips in presidential politics. They are the most fundamental rights that every woman ought to expect to take for granted.
While American women do indeed live in far better circumstances than many others in the world, there are still glaring insufficiencies in our legal system regarding women’s rights and protections. Within various non-white communities, the disparities are more glaring still. As the election season moves into high gear, women’s equality should be one of the top priorities in anyone’s platform. Anything less is unacceptable.