When Louisiana legislators ridiculed Jewish law

The Louisiana State Capital in Baton Rouge..Art Deco Architecture by Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth and completed in 1932.

Louisiana Capitol. Photo by David Brossard/Wikimedia Commons

With the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and returning the issue of abortion to the states, many Jewish groups have been vocal in the fight to preserve personal choice.

Rather than reproductive rights or privacy, much of the current advocacy focuses on how Jewish law emphasizes the health and well-being of the woman over that of the unborn, which in Judaism does not have the same status as those who have been born — meaning that abortion bans can prevent Jews from following Jewish law about protecting women’s lives.

The emphasis on Jewish law also fights back against the view that opposition to abortion is the default stance of those who take religion and the Bible seriously, and demonstrates that there is a moral argument for providing access to abortion.

The willingness of so many in the Jewish world to make that assertion is a very new phenomenon — because when Rabbi Robert Loewy of New Orleans made that argument before the Louisiana Legislature in 1990, he was met with ridicule.

In June 1990, the Louisiana Legislature was debating what was the most restrictive anti-abortion bill in the country, as the only exception was to save the life of the woman, not for cases of rape or incest. Gov. Buddy Roemer would eventually veto the bill because of that omission.

In his 1994 book “Jewish Power,” longtime Jewish journalist JJ Goldberg said that Loewy’s arguing the abortion issue as one of Jewish religious freedom had “never been done in a public forum before.”

“Whether or not it was one of the first times, I don’t know,” Loewy reflected. “It was the first time I gave that argument.”

Loewy, who had been rabbi at Gates of Prayer for six years at the time, was chair of the Community Relations Committee and said “it was an issue that we cared about deeply.” He and his wife, Lynn, went to Baton Rouge to testify, and at the time they were expecting their third child.

For them, “This was a personal issue, a moral issue, a religious issue and a political issue,” Loewy said. “Which it is for many people.”

Loewy explained to the legislators, who largely came from a background of “life begins at conception,” that Jewish law regards the fetus as “a drop of water” in the first 40 days, part of the mother’s body during the rest of the pregnancy but not allowed to endanger the mother, and having an independent right to life only upon emerging from the birth canal.

Even with that, because of the high prevalence of infant death in past centuries, mainstream Jewish practice has been to not have the typical mourning and burial rituals for an infant that does not make it to 30 days, though such rituals are now becoming more common.

Part of their testimony was about how their pro-choice beliefs were shaped by the death of their first child. Their son was “seemingly fine” when he was born, but it soon became apparent that there were degenerative neurological problems “that were never fully diagnosed.” He died after six months.

If there was a way to know about catastrophic degenerative conditions, which are much more detectable now than they were in 1990, “we would want to choose abortion if need be,” Loewy said. “Both from a personal perspective, we would want that as a right, and from a religious perspective, it was appropriate.”

After Loewy’s testimony, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Louis “Woody” Jenkins, told reporters that “we heard from a religion that believes in killing babies” and “doesn’t even think that babies are people after they’re born.”

A few days later, Loewy addressed another committee, where Sen. Mike Cross was waiting for him. Loewy said the irony of the senator’s name did not escape him. “I got clobbered by the senator.”

As Loewy spoke about his family’s experiences, Cross interrupted him to ask if he supported a woman’s right to choose to be a prostitute or to use illegal drugs. Loewy spoke about how in Exodus, the killing of a fetus and homicide are treated differently, and that is the Biblical basis for the Jewish view on the status of a fetus. Cross retorted that those verses in Exodus are “not in my Bible.”

A reporter at the time called the exchange the “rabbi’s roast.”

Reflecting on the hearings, Loewy said “It was a different time.” That was also the time when Loewy’s House district was represented by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Loewy fretted that he had not been able to sway any of the senators, but he said that Leslie Gerwin with the Louisiana Coalition for Reproductive Freedom later “indicated some of them had been.”

Still, after the hearings he stopped advocating on the issue, figuring it was pointless in Louisiana. Now, he says, “we have to continue to advocate, we have to continue to make our voices heard. Silence suggests acceptance of a position we find abhorrent.”

Because the Jewish community is a small minority, he said it is important to build coalitions with like-minded faith groups and advocacy groups. “We can not allow one religious view to dominate when there are multiple religious views,” he said. Those whose faiths proscribe abortion can choose not to have one, while those who feel it is sometimes “appropriate and necessary” should have access.

He is watching the lawsuit by Rabbi Barry Silver of L’Dor Va-Dor Congregation in Florida, which states that Florida’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks violates the state constitution’s freedom of religion clause.

Loewy said the religious argument should not be the sole reasoning. “There are pluses and minuses to being able to say that you need to allow this because my faith says it is so. That can be a slippery slope… Some faiths allow for things we believe to be reprehensible from a Jewish perspective.

“The argument shouldn’t solely be ‘my faith says we can do it’,” he added.

For now, the battle will be difficult, especially in this region. Loewy figures it will take a national effort in Congress, or the Supreme Court changing to become more reflective of the American public.