Abortion is a Jewish right and a rabbi says his was a blessing
- Rachael Pass became pregnant during her second year of rabbinical school and chose to have an abortion.
- She described her experience as “deeply Jewish” and filled with religious studies and rituals.
- After becoming a rabbi, she began sharing her story in sermons, calling her abortion a blessing.
As issues of health care and religious freedom spark nationwide protests, Rabbi Rachael Pass says her abortion was a sacred choice — a choice she staunchly fights to help protect others.
In 2017, as a second-year rabbinical student, Rabbi pass accidentally crafted the second night of Rosh Hashanah. She took a pregnancy test to confirm her suspicions weeks later on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, a Jewish holiday that occurs at the start of each month in the Hebrew calendar, marked by the new moon.
“The very first thing I thought of doing after reading the positive pregnancy test was to say the blessing you say after using the bathroom,” Pass told Insider, describing a prayer of gratitude for a healthy, asher yatzar. “Like, everything about my decision was Jewish.”
Pass said her religious study and rituals were at the heart of her pregnancy, the decision to abort, and ultimately her decision to have an abortion: she prayed. She consulted her own rabbi. She studied the religious texts of the Torah, Mishna and Talmud for any reference to abortion.
The Torah, also called Written Jewish Law, contains the five books of the Hebrew Bible and is more commonly known to non-Jews as the “Old Testament”. The Mishnah is the first major work of Jewish literature and contains oral traditions and commentaries known as the “Oral Torah”. The Talmud is the main source of Jewish religious law and Jewish theology.
Faith and the First Amendment
Jewish law does not support the belief shared by many opponents of abortion that life begins at conception. A Pew Research 2015 survey found that 83% of American Jews believe abortion “should be legal in all/most cases” – more than any other religious group. Even in conservative readings of Jewish texts, faith largely protects—and in some cases, demands—abortion. As such, many Jewish organizations have argued that extreme abortion bans are violations of their First Amendment rights to practice their religion freely.
“Bodily autonomy is extraordinarily important and is extraordinarily valued in all walks of Judaism,” Pass said. “And so the fact that the Dobbs decision limits access to abortion, it really affects the First Amendment right of Jews to freedom of religion.”
After careful consideration, as she held four misoprostol pills in the corners of her mouth to induce her abortion, she hummed a liturgy streamed by Central Synagogue Services, a Reform congregation in Manhattan.
After her abortion, Pass visited a Jewish ritual purification bath, usually visited by observant women seven days after their period, called the mikvah, and ate challah and honey – a symbol of milder times to come.
“The challah and honey was kind of the last piece of this ritual. I mean, reallyit was all Jewish and it was Progressive Judaism in some sense,” Pass said. “But also, the more I learned and studied, the more I discovered that it was as if my decision was also in line with more conservative Judaism. .”
Although Pass said the Jewish people may face a unique violation of their religious freedom by the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, removing choice in reproductive care is everyone’s business.
“My concern for Jews is the same as I have for anyone with a living womb in America.”
Without access to abortion, Pass said, her life would be totally different. She worries for people who have lost their choices in reproductive care and for those whose physical and mental health will suffer under the new laws.
Others also had ‘deeply Jewish abortions’
Although she was raised in a pro-choice family and felt both sure of her decision and believed it was the right one for her, Pass said she experienced feelings of secrecy and shame after her abortion that she attributed, in part, to a sense of pressure and the internalized “Christian hegemony” of growing up in Kentucky, which is 76% Christian.
It was when she started to feel like she was keeping her abortion a secret, rather than just a private matter, that she decided it was important to start sharing her story and wrote essay on abortion rights for a Jewish publication.
As Pass began to share her experience, in sermons and at community events, she said feelings of shame were replaced with feelings of purpose. She had originally been inspired to attend rabbinical school after her own rabbi advised her in times of need, and found she was able to afford that support while advising people on the abortion and faith as they made their own choices about pregnancy.
“My abortion was profoundly Jewish and I am certainly not the only one [who has had one],Pass said. “I know a lot of other Jews that I talk to, both in my research and in writing my articles, and just by people I know who have also had deeply Jewish abortions. “
Since the cancellation of Roe v. Wade, she felt more compelled to organize, fundraise, and share her perspective — that abortion can be a blessing and a choice born of great faith — with others.
“I think it’s really important for people to hear a rabbinical voice who chose to have an abortion,” Pass said. “Not because of some horrible medical reason, but because the pregnancy wasn’t right for me for a lot of other reasons.”