The Jewish Teaching That Supports Abortion & Trans Rights

A trans rabbi's perspective on how Judaism protects bodily autonomy.

I am a transgender, non-binary person with a uterus. I am also a rabbi, the co-director of the Trans Halakha Project and an Advisory Board Member of National Council of Jewish Women’s Rabbis for Repro. I have dedicated myself to learning Torah and Jewish law that celebrates and affirms trans identity — and to serving as a moral voice amplifying the teachings within our tradition that support reproductive justice. Judaism honors bodily autonomy and self-determination, codifying those values into law. This can, in turn, inspire us in the long, hard fight for gender justice.

Waves of anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation are currently targeting my body, my autonomy and my identity. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced that he plans to ban Medicaid coverage on gender-affirming healthcare for trans people of all ages. In Alabama, a federal court recently stepped in to block a bill that would criminalize parents who seek to get essential medical care for their transgender children’s needs. And in Oklahoma, a near total-ban on abortion just passed, even as we await the Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which will likely overturn Roe v. Wade and make abortion inaccessible in 26 states.

At first glance, it might appear that those directly impacted by these legislative attacks — people who can get pregnant and trans people — are two distinct, unrelated groups. Yet transgender and non-binary people need access to reproductive healthcare and abortion. For many of us, the potential gender dysphoria related to carrying an unwanted pregnancy to full term could be devastating. And the connection between these attacks runs even deeper: The root of anti-trans discrimination is the same misogyny and desire to control people’s bodies that is at the source of the efforts to limit access to abortion.

These attacks share a foundation in fundamentalist Christian values, often falsely framed as shared “Judeo-Christian values.”

The same right-wing Christian nationalist organizations moving to restrict abortion access are also working hard to restrict access to gender-affirming care for trans youth — and, increasingly, as DeSantis’ move has shown, trans adults. In this ideology, both people who seek abortions and those who wish to express a gender other than that assigned at birth are seen as rejecting a “normative” or “right” way of expressing gender, being in relationships and building families.

Judaism can help us resist these efforts to force us back into a state of legal subjugation that seeks to undermine, or even erase, our very existence.

The discussion of who is permitted to eat on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, has much relevant wisdom to offer. Most Jewish people observe Yom Kippur by incorporating prayer into a set of rituals that includes a 25-hour fast. But what happens if someone is ill and cannot fast on Yom Kippur? The Talmud invokes a verse from the biblical Book of Proverbs, “Lev yodea marat nafsho,” or  “The heart knows the bitterness of its soul,” to teach that the sick person is actually the expert who should make this decision. The text of the Talmud even says that nobody can possess more expertise on such a question than the sick person themself.

Two later commentators moved to strengthen this perspective. In the 11th century, Rashi states that the expertise of those who might contradict the individual is tantamount to nothing when compared to an individual’s self-knowledge. Rabbeinu Tam, a 12th-century commentator, clarifies that Jewish tradition trusts an individual’s knowledge of their own body even when they are not in life-threatening danger.

In this way, Judaism’s principle of “Lev yodea marat nafsho” authorizes as experts both pregnant people who want to end a pregnancy and trans people seeking gender-affirming care or the right to live as their true selves.  It demands that we honor the self-knowledge of those individuals.

Their decisions to express their gender, or have an abortion, are as transgressive, as permissible, and — if those decisions will improve their lives, a standard only they can determine — as necessary as the decision not to fast on Yom Kippur.

I call on all of us to heed Jewish tradition and take action. First, we must not forget that there are real people at the center of these legislative debates; our experiences must be central in the crafting of legislation. And second, Jewish tradition provides a framework for us to work together as partners in the fight for gender justice and individual autonomy. Our hearts know the bitterness of our own souls and the ways in which those souls are connected.

A unified response to these and related attacks can be a source of strength, reminding us that the work toward trans self-determination and complete access to reproductive health can be mutually reinforcing. What is at stake in each of these conversations is a person’s agency, their dignity and, ultimately, their life.

Rabbi Becky Silverstein

Rabbi Becky Silverstein (he/him) believes in the power of community, Torah, and silliness in transforming the world. He strives to build a Jewish community and world that encourages and allows everyone to live a life that reflects their inherent divinity / dignity. Becky is a member of the faculty at SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshive and co-director of the Trans Halakha Project.

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