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Dear Friends,

Last weekend Israeli Prime Minister Bennett traveled to Europe to mediate between Russia and Ukraine and bring an end to the utter destruction and suffering Russia’s aggression is causing in Ukraine. The timing of the Prime Minister’s travels is rather interesting when one considers that it took place over Shabbat.

PM Bennett is an observant Jew who follows the traditional Shabbat restrictions against travel, work, and using electricity. And yet, he boarded a plane on Shabbat and held a series of meetings once he arrived in the region. He was able to do so due to a Halachic concept known as Pikuach Nefesh. Pikuach Nefesh instructs that all but three Jewish laws may be broken in order to save a life. So, for example, if someone is having a heart attack, even the most ritually stringent Jew is not only allowed but REQUIRED to transgress Shabbat and get that individual to the hospital. (Of course, once at the hospital, the urgency of the crisis is over and, I suspect, the individual who had “transgressed Shabbat” would not able to drive back home until Shabbat ended.)

PM Bennett, most likely in consultation with his rabbi or rabbis, had determined that his actions could have a direct impact on saving the lives of countless Ukrainians and was therefore permitted to break the laws of Shabbat observance.

I am proud to be part of a tradition that sets forth strict guidelines for Shabbat observance but never loses sight of the importance of each and every life. What other religious tradition says, in effect, “Here are the laws you must observe. But if a life is at risk, feel free to all but ignore them if you can help save that life.”?

That’s the power of Pikuach Nefesh. It reminds us that each and every human life is precious, and everything possible must be done to save lives when they are at risk.

That is the lens through which I see Texas’ recent legal enactments with regard to transgender teens, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, and Iowa’s pending anti-transgender legislation. Each of them seeks to turn the clock back to a time when countless Americans were forced to hide who they were. The results were devastating. Rates of depression and suicide among members of the LGBTQ+ community were significantly higher than the overall national average.

According to a PBS report from 2017:

“Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second for people aged 10 to 24. But young [LGBTQ+] people are particularly affected, attempting suicide at four times the rate of straight youth, according to the Trevor Project, an organization that works to prevent suicide among [LGBTQ+] youth. This new research ‘helps us better understand why we might see elevated rates of suicide attempts among [LGBTQ+] adolescents’, Julia Raifman, the study leader and a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said.”

That same Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study found that,

” . . .  the implementation of state laws legalizing same-sex marriage was associated with a significant reduction in the rate of suicide attempts among high school students—and an even greater reduction among gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents…
The researchers… estimate that state-level same-sex marriage policies were associated with more than 134,000 fewer adolescent suicide attempts per year. The study compared states that passed laws allowing same-sex marriage through January 2015 to states that did not enact state-level legalization.” 

In other words, as our society has moved toward ever greater social and legal acceptance of and protections for members of the LGBTQ+ community, the suicide rate among teens dropped precipitously. The enactment of marriage equality on a national level and laws protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans has saved lives.

These new laws will have the opposite effect. They will result in an increase in teen depression at a time when every single person in this country is already dealing with the stress of an ongoing pandemic. And, if past studies are any indication, I fear they will lead to an increase in teen suicide.

To deny someone their right to be who they are is bad enough (particularly when our tradition makes it clear that gender is not, nor has it ever been, binary). But to do so knowing that your actions will directly impact the rates of self-harm with no regard to the implications of such efforts and laws is callous at best, if not criminal.

So leaving all other factors aside, Pikuach Nefesh is reason enough to fight these draconian laws. Lives are at risk, and law makers in countless states will be directly responsible for more teens struggling and, in far too many cases, harming themselves. And that is simply unacceptable.

You can learn more about these current “legal” assaults on the LGBTQ+ community here.
Trevor Project

To all of our LGBTQ+ members, especially our teens, please know that you are seen, you are valued, and you are loved. And the ugly bias we are seeing in numerous pockets around our nation will not be allowed to make its way into our community.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Daniel Cohen