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K'doshim 2022

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

This week’s portion is K’doshim. The portion contains a myriad of commandments, right from the outset, as we read, k’doshim t’hiyu ki kadosh ani Adonai eloheichem – “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal God, am holy.” That’s the overarching theme. Then we get to the specifics.


A few verses later we read, v’ahavta l’rei-acha k’mocha. These three Hebrew words are sometimes called the “Golden Rule:” Love your neighbor (or fellow or friend) as yourself.


Many people think this is our greatest principle. They recite the story of a potential convert first going to Shammai and asking to be taught Judaism on one foot. Shammai hits him with a stick and sends him away. So the potential convert goes to Hillel and asks the same question. Hillel says: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor (or fellow or friend). All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”


One might conclude from this, truly, that loving one’s neighbor or refraining from doing what is hateful to one’s neighbor is a huge deal. And yet, there is another Torah principle that receives just as many “most important principle” votes – so much so, that the rabbis have debated for centuries which one is greater. The other principle is b’tzelem elohim – that God created each person in God’s image.


Rabbi Akiva says: “And you will love your fellow/friend as yourself” is a greater principle in the Torah. Ben Azai says: “in God’s likeness God made him/Adam” – this is a greater principle.[1]


And then the two argued their positions again.


Ben Azai makes the point that if you are despised, you wouldn’t conclude that your fellow should be despised, too. Rather, he suggests, neither should be despised because both were made in God’s image. Rabbi Tanchuma adds, if you do despise your friend, then you are really despising God, for your friend was made in God’s image.


Ultimately, the rabbis agree with Ben Azai, and not the great Rabbi Akiva.

All people are of one image, sealed and stamped with the likeness of God. Thus, we must treat another with the honor and dignity due God, and never shame our fellow.


I thought about this machloket, rabbinic debate for the sake of heaven, in light of the leaking of what is supposed to be the Supreme Court’s decision to over­­ rule Roe v. Wade, a decision of nearly 50 years ago, that gives women autonomy over their bodies to decide when and if to terminate a pregnancy. No matter one’s personal view on abortion, Judaism is clear: Access to abortion must be allowed. Based on another part of the Torah,[2] our rabbis teach:


• A fetus is the limb of its mother;[3] that is, it does not exist independent of the mother.


• If the life of a woman giving birth is endangered by the unborn fetus, the fetus must be cut up in her womb and removed, for her life takes precedence over its life; if its greater part (head or body) has already come forth, it must not be touched, for the claim of one life is not greater than that of another life.[4]


• As long as the child did not come out into the world, it is not called a living being (nefesh) and it is therefore permissible to take its life in order to save the life of its mother. Once the head of the child has come out, the child may not be harmed because it is considered fully born, and one life may not be taken to save another.[5]


• Abortion is to be permitted if it is necessary for the recuperation of the mother, even if there is no fear of the mother’s dying as a result of the pregnancy and even if the mother’s illness has not been directly caused by the fetus.[6]


My professional association, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, issued a statement on May 3, as follows:


The Central Conference of American Rabbis is deeply disturbed by what appears to be the decision of a majority of justices of the United States Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Though we are aware that the leaked draft by Justice Samuel Alito in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health is a draft at this point, cause for concern is real, given the known views not only of Justice Alito, but also of Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett—and at least to a degree, of Chief Justice Roberts. If it were to become a Supreme Court decision, the leaked draft would lead to the severe restriction or elimination of abortion rights in about half of U.S. states.


The CCAR proudly participated in an amicus curiae brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of the respondent, Jackson Women’s Health, and of reproductive freedom. Until the final moment of a Supreme Court decision, Reform rabbis will continue to advocate for the preservation of Roe v. Wade. If, indeed, a decision similar to the leaked draft is the Court’s decision, CCAR rabbis will continue to oppose state laws that restrict abortion rights. The CCAR will support its members who are in need of abortion care, wherever they live, just as Reform rabbis will be present for members of the communities they serve and for all Americans in need of abortion care—again, wherever they live.


Abortion access is part of comprehensive healthcare. Overturning Roe v. Wade will not stop abortions. What it will do is increase the occurrence of illegal, dangerous abortions, thereby causing unnecessary deaths and suffering. We know that low-income women and all gender non-conforming individuals who can become pregnant will suffer the greatest burden of state abortion bans triggered by a reversal of Roe v. Wade.


Moreover, the decision apparently contemplated by a Supreme Court majority would violate the religious freedom of Jews and others whose religious traditions, like ours, permit abortion.


The CCAR, its members, and communities will not rest in our ongoing struggle for reproductive liberty, working with National Council of Jewish Women, Jews of other movements, women’s and LGBTQ advocacy groups, interfaith partners, and all Americans who join this work for individual bodily autonomy.


The Central Conference of American Rabbis, in the strongest terms, urges the Supreme Court not to restrict abortion rights and certainly not to reverse the groundbreaking and liberating decision in Roe v. Wade. If, however, the leaked opinion is in fact a harbinger of a Supreme Court decision soon to come, CCAR rabbis will grieve; and then, without delay, we will act.


If I v’ahavta l’rei-acha k’mocha, love my neighbor as myself, and I’m an individual who cannot get pregnant, isn’t of child bearing years, or doesn’t plan on becoming a parent through birth, then I might not notice my neighbors who may be deeply affected by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. If the loss of abortion access won’t affect me, but my friend whose life might be at risk if she becomes pregnant is affected, loving my neighbor as myself won’t necessarily move me to advocate on my friend’s behalf.


But if I – or we – see all people b’tzelem elohim, created in God’s image, then we must move beyond our own zones. We must notice others. We must embrace them. We must care about them. And we must heed the many centuries old Jewish teaching that demands that people who are pregnant have the ability to terminate their pregnancies when appropriate.


Similarly, in a house of worship made up of people of different cultures, political persuasions, and ethnicities, b’tzelem elohim allows us to see the person across the aisle as another child of God, someone like me, someone with whom I share holiness. Loving that person as I love myself has real limitations. What if I don’t like myself? What if I don’t believe myself to be worthy? What if I simply don’t believe in myself. Do I project onto the other person my fears, my limits, my anxieties? I’m not likely to love that person very much.


Our ancient rabbis were wise – wise beyond our wildest imaginations. Their debates may seem heady, theoretical, and esoteric. But when we dig deep, we see that their arguments were made for the sake of heaven – and for the earth, its inhabitants, and how those inhabitants ultimately treat one another.


Shabbat shalom.



[1]Torat Kohanim, Sifra Q’doshim, 4:12, 42b.


[2]Exodus 21:22-23


[3]Bavli Gittin 23b


[4]Mishnah Oholot 7:6


[5]Rashi commentary on Sanhedrin 72b


[6]Responsum, Maharit pt 1, no. 99

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784