Originally posted on January 29, 2014 on the Times Union by Rabbi Matt Cutler of Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady. Rabbi Cutler is a member of the RJV Steering Committee. Click here for more on women’s equality.
It was a roller-coaster couple of days for women’s rights.
First, let’s applaud the New York State Assembly for passing the women’s equality agenda again. It might seem like old news – they did this a few months ago. But it didn’t become law—the 10-pt plan did not pass the Senate and I am skeptical it will pass this time around. Back in December, the senate broke down the plan into 10 different pieces of legislation; the one ensuring reproductive rights did not pass. As a result, this 10-point plan, which is an important piece of legislation, failed to come into being. Why not accept 9 out 10 points? Forgive me if this comes across as crass or sexist, but– a woman is not a sum of her parts, she is the total package!
It amazes me that in this day and age, we are still debating about women’s equality in our society. Isn’t it rather pathetic that we can’t pass this legislation in our own state, while many of us chastise foreign governments for not guaranteeing similar protections to women in their country? How can we not have these laws on our books?
Look at these goals—strengthening the laws ensuring equal pay for equal work, ending sexual harassment in the work place, permitting attorney’s fees to be a part of the discrimination suit, ending familial status discrimination, protecting women who are victims of domestic violence, permit women who are victims of domestic violence to testify remotely, strengthening laws against human trafficking, ending pregnancy discrimination, and safeguarding all women’s reproductive choices. These goals let women stand for themselves without intimidation and with self determination.
In Judaism, there is a strong unwavering belief that each one of us is created “b’tselem Elohim”, created in the image of God. We are all equal and therefore should receive the same equal protection under the law. This is not George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” where some are more equal than others. I believe this as a person of faith. I believe this as a father and as a husband, as well. My marriage is a partnership—we operate as a team on most occasions. My wife’s opinion is paramount in my life. I don’t operate as if I lived in a patriarchal society—I don’t know anyone who does. If our lives are rooted in partnership, shouldn’t our society reflect that by the laws we pass?
Here is where I become truly passionate on this issue. As a father, I teach my daughter that she is equal to her brothers. Her work, her effort and her opinions are just as valuable as theirs. But the thought that when she enters the workplace, she could be earning 60 to 70% what her brothers could earn boggles my mind. If [God forbid] my daughter needs protection from domestic violence, I cannot comprehend how our society could not do everything to guarantee her safety!
I know that the stumbling block with this legislation is the reproductive rights component. I firmly believe that a woman has the right to choose. Since 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision, it is the law of the land. But it is not codified in NY State. And as I write this, the US House of Representatives has chiseled away at it by passing a bill prohibiting federal funds from being used to pay for most abortions. The bill heads to the US Senate, where I bet it will be defeated. Such a law is wrong on so many levels. It is economic bigotry—thus women who rely on Medicaid, Medicare or the Indian Health Services cannot get these services unless they are raped, a victim of incest or their lives are endangered. This law discriminates based on where a woman falls on the economic ladder! Is that equality? I think not! This law also effects people with private insurance plans because the door is open for health insurance companies to eliminate abortion coverage altogether.
As a Jew, I believe that my Jewish tradition encourages our society to let women choose their reproductive options. Let me be clear, Judaism teaches that all life is sacred. Although an unborn fetus is precious and to be protected, Judaism views the life and well-being of the mother as paramount, placing a higher value on existing life than on potential life. Under Jewish law, a woman is forbidden from sacrificing her own life for that of her fetus. If her life is threatened, the law permits her no other option but abortion. In addition, if the mental health, sanity or self-esteem of a woman is at risk due to the pregnancy itself [under certain circumstances], the Mishneh [a Jewish law book from the 2nd century, Mishneh Ohalot 7:6] permits the woman to terminate the pregnancy. Since there is sanctity in all life, Jewish law understands that there are times when choosing to terminate a pregnancy is both a moral and correct decision under some circumstances. Reproductive choices are moral choices; they should not be legislated but people should be taught and given the right to choose.
The Religious Action Center in Washington D.C., the social justice advocacy arm of the Reform Jewish movement, released a press release yesterday after the US representatives passed their bill: “Reform Judaism holds the core belief that women are moral decision-makers in their own right entitled to make fundamental medical and reproductive choices. A woman should make a decision about whether to have an abortion according to her own beliefs and in consultation with her clergy, her family, and /or her doctor. Politicians and ideologues should not make the decision for her. We believe that religious matters are best left to religious communities and individual conscience, and decisions about health, including what constitutes a life-saving procedure, are best left to patients in consultation with physicians.”
Choice is essential here—by granting them this access, it doesn’t mean every pregnancy will be terminated. It means it becomes a woman’s right to decide what happens in her body.
The bill preventing federal dollars to be allocated to pay for abortions now heads to the US Senate, where it probably will fail. New York’s Women’s Equality Agenda heads to the NY Senate, where it too will probably fail. Two different pieces of legislation, yet both remind us that there are significant choices before us. We can choose to give women full equality, including the choice of what happens in their own bodies. Or we can ignore them but failing to grant them a full sense of dignity under the law. Let us choose wisely by giving woman full equality under the law!