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Fl. lawsuit argues Supreme Court abortion decision violates Jewish beliefs

SHANNON BOND, HOST:

Lawsuits are being filed around the country to try to restore abortion access following the Supreme Court's decision. One in Florida argues that banning abortion is a violation of Jews' First Amendment right to practice their religion. Deena Prichep reports on how Judaism is fairly united in its support for abortion access.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: At Brooklyn's Congregation Beth Elohim, about 50 people are gathered around the temple steps. Rabbi Stephanie Kolin leads them in the ritual of havdalah, marking the separation between the sacred sabbath and ordinary time - and between Roe v. Wade and what comes next.

STEPHANIE KOLIN: From a time where we felt a little more stable, to a time when we feel just a little bit less so. But we have tools for this.

PRICHEP: With this modern political frame, people engage in an ancient ritual...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Hebrew).

PRICHEP: ...They sing, light candles and affirm, as Rabbi Rachel Timoner says, that abortion rights are a Jewish value.

RACHEL TIMONER: I want to make sure that everyone gathered here understands that Judaism requires abortion when a pregnant person's life is in danger.

DAPHNE LAZAR PRICE: So Jewish law places the importance of life before everything.

PRICHEP: Daphne Lazar Price heads the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and teaches Jewish law at Georgetown.

LAZAR PRICE: And when it comes to pregnancy, the life of the mother comes before the fetus. And that should be not a question of debate.

PRICHEP: Lazar Price says that in Jewish law, or halacha, a fetus becomes a person at birth - not at conception, not at a certain number of weeks. And until then, this potential life should not be allowed to threaten an actual one.

LAZAR PRICE: And then there's the continuum of, what does it mean to pose a threat? Is it a direct threat in the imminent moment? Is it something that could cause harm to the mother, either her physical or her emotional health?

PRICHEP: Different rabbis will have different answers. This is, after all, a faith with a strong tradition of debate. But on the whole, even the most Orthodox rabbis say that putting the fetus on equal standing with the person carrying it is against Jewish law.

LAZAR PRICE: It is sometimes a requirement - it is a religious action - to have to terminate a pregnancy. And denying the right is a violation of religious liberty.

PRICHEP: Of course, Jewish law is not the only factor in Jewish life, says Michal Raucher, who teaches Jewish studies at Rutgers University.

MICHAL RAUCHER: So it's kind of more of an anomaly that Jewish groups today are relying on halacha for their positions on abortion because that hasn't necessarily been the way Jewish groups have participated in the public discourse.

PRICHEP: Raucher says that Jewish values, Jewish identity, Jewish history also shape Jewish life, many of which lead American Jews to be, on the whole, more liberal and more supportive of abortion access.

RAUCHER: I know rabbis across the country were rewriting their sermons in order to talk about this exact topic, to give space for people to mourn this decision and to think about how to move forward together.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Hebrew).

PRICHEP: At the havdalah service at Brooklyn's Congregation Beth Elohim, there is a sense of sadness. But as Rabbi Stephanie Kolin leads the gathered crowd through the ritual, they're also lighting candles and finding hope in the midst of darkness.

KOLIN: And so we'll fill a cup of juice or wine, and we'll lift it. And then we'll taste some sweetness because we will demand it of this world.

PRICHEP: That demand can take the shape of a religious liberty lawsuit or appointed service marking the end of sabbath because Judaism is a faith that wrestles with the divine - and with the world - until they bestow the blessings of justice. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Hebrew). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deena Prichep