The rabbi whose progressive synagogue sued the state of Florida over a bill that would ban abortions after 15 weeks, arguing that it infringes on religious liberty, has created an initiative to help other faith organizations — and atheists — push back against anti-abortion legislation across the U.S.
Rabbi Barry Silver's initiative, Helping Emancipate Abortion Rights Today (HEART), seeks to "restore abortion rights in a post-Roe v. Wade world" and defy the "theocratic tyranny" of laws that clash with the Jewish belief that abortion is a basic right and life begins at birth, not conception, he said in a phone interview Tuesday.
"The initiative is designed to be able to allow any person of any belief system to challenge the anti-abortion laws on religious grounds," Silver said. "It's the height of chutzpah for people to tell the Jewish people what the Bible means and lecture the Jewish people on the sanctity of life."
Silver's synagogue, Congregation L'Dor Va-Dor, sued this month challenging Florida's anti-abortion law, which is scheduled to take effect Friday. In the Jewish legal tradition, the suit says, "abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman."
Silver said HEART will allow religious and atheist leaders in other states to essentially copy the text of his lawsuit, editing it as needed to fit the specifics of their communities and state laws. HEART will also be on hand to advise anyone who is interested in fighting anti-abortion bills on religious freedom grounds.
The synagogue's lawsuit also argues that the law, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, violates the state constitution's privacy protections. DeSantis has recently emerged as a key figure in the modern conservative movement, and he is widely expected to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to a voicemail and an email requesting comment on the lawsuit this week. In an email to Reuters this month about the legal challenge, the governor’s office said it was "confident that this law will ultimately withstand all legal challenges."
Silver, a former Democratic member of the Florida House and a civil rights lawyer, said Tuesday that he has heard from Jewish leaders across the country who are interested in filing lawsuits against anti-abortion measures in their states. He hopes he can start a trend.
"When life begins is a fundamental religious question, and the government now is trying to answer that for everyone, based on fundamentalist Christianity," Silver said.
In the eyes of many Jewish leaders, anti-abortion laws are particularly distressing because they contradict Jewish halakha — the laws drawn from the Torah, the Mishnah and the Talmud, the most sacred and authoritative texts in the tradition — according to Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Los Angeles.
The American Jewish community has likewise traditionally supported abortion access in overwhelming numbers.
In a 2014 survey, Pew Research Center found that 83% of more than 800 Jews surveyed said abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Seventy-five percent of Jews polled by the 2022 National Survey of Jewish Voters said they were concerned the Supreme Court would toss out Roe.
In general, Judaism’s Reform and Conservative movements tend to take more liberal positions on social issues in American life. But the picture is more complex among those who practice Orthodox Judaism, whose adherents tend to be more politically conservative and Republican-leaning than other Jews, according to Pew.