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Dear Friends,

I almost got on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Radio yesterday. Almost… Here’s what happened.

Lehrer started the last segment of his show by stating,

“If you’re a person of faith, any faith, and you support abortion rights, how do you respond to others who share your faith, who think it’s not okay because it’s taking a life? Give us a call…”

So I called. When I finally got through to the screener, she asked what I wanted to share. I told her, and she asked me to hold so she could get me on with Lehrer.

As I waited to speak to him, I listened to the show. In response to comments from a caller who identified himself as Orthodox, Lehrer asked,

“Why should the government basically impose your version of Judaism [with regard to reproductive rights] on the general public over the Reform version of Judaism or any other, rather than staying out of it?”

When the man pushed back, Lehrer responded by quoting my colleague Rabbi Julie Zupan who expresses the Reform Movement’s position when she writes,

“We believe that life is sacred and that the life and well-being of an existing life must be prioritized over the possibility of potential life, beliefs that are grounded in careful reading of Jewish text and tradition.”

Unfortunately, by the time I was next in the cue, the show ended. I never got a chance to share my thoughts with the show’s host. Had I been given the opportunity, this is what I would have said:

Lehrer: Caller, who are you, and what do you want to share.

Cohen: My name is Dan Cohen, and I am a Reform Rabbi from South Orange, New Jersey. The first thing I want to say is that your question to the second to last caller was the right question when you asked, ‘Why should the government take your side rather than the Reform Jews’ side as a matter of state law?’ Of course, the answer is, they shouldn’t. The government shouldn’t side with Reform Judaism or Orthodoxy. And that’s the point. The government shouldn’t be taking the position of any religion or denomination. And because different religions have different definitions of when life begins and different perspectives toward women’s bodily autonomy, short of protecting the rights of all people to exercise their religious and moral values, the government should simply stay out of the issue. That is effectively what Roe did!

Which leads to the next thing I want to say. The people pushing to overturn Roe and whatever other rights are in their sights claim they are doing so in the name of Religious Liberty or Religious Freedom. But what they want to impose restricts my religious liberty as a Jew because their standard isn’t mine. So they are actually doing the antithesis of what they claim, and their hypocrisy is going to adversely affect tens of millions of women.”

Lehrer: I see. So you are claiming that what opponents of abortion rights want to put into place restricts your religious freedom rather than protecting it.

Cohen: Exactly

Lehrer: My screener put you through because of the way you define your position. Can you speak to that a bit?

Cohen: Certainly. I told her that I am 100% pro-choice and I am also 100% pro-life. I’m pro-choice because my religious teachings lead me to be and because I believe that each person, created in the Divine image, deserves autonomy over his, her or their body. I’m pro-life because I support universal healthcare so that every baby born has the opportunity to grow up healthy. I support universal pre-K, so all children get the same educational start. I support gun reform so kids don’t have to go to school worried they might be the next victim of our gun-violence epidemic. And I support social programs so that no child in America goes without lunch or goes to bed hungry. Pro-life doesn’t mean forcing each pregnancy to term. Pro-life means supporting policies that protect those children AFTER they are born. And yet, much of the time, the same people who want to overturn Roe also want to eliminate the social safety net. I’m not sure how their position can be called pro-life.

Lehrer: You make an interesting point, but I’m not sure everyone would see it that way. Do you have any last thoughts?

Cohen: Yes. You framed this conversation as one exploring differing religious approaches to reproductive rights. So let me share this.

Judaism does not believe life begins at conception. There is debate over when a fetus is considered a “person” and has “rights,” but the weight of the tradition takes the position that a fetus does not gain full status as a person until birth. To impose a definition of life beginning at conception is an imposition on my religious liberties.

And Jewish law has always allowed for abortion and prioritizes the life of the individual who is pregnant over the fetus. The case being made to overturn Roe is coming from a vocal chorus of those seeking to impose their religious worldview on the nation. And that is as irreligious and undemocratic as anything I have ever heard.”

That’s what I would have said… had I gotten on the show.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen