Rabbi Hara Person: Why Progressive Faith Leaders Must Defend Reproductive Rights

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Since its inception, Ms. has been dedicated to reporting on the U.S. government’s persistence in restricting access to reproductive healthcare for millions of Americans.

This year, one such story included the July Supreme Court decision permitting employers to refuse to provide birth control by virtue of religious and moral exemptions under the Affordable Care Act.

Following the decision, many white, evangelical Christian faith leaders spoke out in support, and much of the media reported on their responses as the singular faith-based perspective on reproductive justice. What was missing from that discussion, and often from so many others regarding the intersection of faith and policy, were voices from faith-based leaders who were not men or evangelical Christians.

Ms. reporter Micaela Brinsley reached out to Rabbi Hara Person—chief executive of Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and self-proclaimed “reader, writer, feminist and challah-baker”—to hear her perspective on the need for more faith-based leaders to speak out about issues plaguing all American citizens.

“We should hear more from faith-based progressive individuals and groups that represent a large segment of Americans. We have had enough with the religious right representing all people of faith, because it’s just not accurate,” said Rabbi Hara Person. (Twitter)

Rabbi Person was ordained in 1998 from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion after graduating from Amherst College and receiving an M.A. from New York University’s International Center of Photography. She was previously the editor-in-chief of URJ Books and Music and the managing editor of The Torah: Women’s commentary, named the National Jewish Book Award Book of the Year in 2008.

Ms. spoke with Rabbi Person on the role of faith-based leaders in 2020, the importance of the separation between church and state, and her passion for advocating for reproductive justice and women’s rights.

Ms.: As the first woman to serve as top leader of a legacy institution of the reform movement, what kinds of obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them?

Rabbi Hara Person: Obstacles are a current reality for me each day in my role. To overcome some of these obstacles, I’ve had to learn to speak up loudly to ensure my voice doesn’t get drowned out by men.

Some of it is also internalized. I’ve had to teach myself to not apologize or worry about what others might think when I speak my mind, and to not listen to that voice inside my head telling me to be a “good girl.”

Sometimes leadership means saying no, or making hard or unpopular decisions, and when you’re taught as a girl to be nice and to be acquiescent, it can be hard to unlearn those behaviors. It may sound funny, but being a short woman doesn’t help. I’ve had to learn to be a forceful presence and own whatever space I’m in, whether it’s around a board table, or at a podium, or wherever.

I’ve also had to learn not to let myself be mansplained. Throughout my career, it’s been incredibly frustrating to present an idea that is overlooked, and then ten minutes later watch a man present my original idea and receive positive responses to it.

My authority is routinely challenged as a woman working in a male-dominated space, and that’s been true for my whole professional life. I’ve also often been routinely underestimated because I don’t necessarily look like someone with power.

Learning how to harness that misperception and use it to my advantage has been helpful. I have learned that some men are very threatened by women in charge, especially when I have the power to say no to something. Today I am comfortable being much more forthright than I used to be, but when I say something in a direct way, men sometimes think I’m attacking them.

But I should also say, most people have been wonderfully welcoming and supportive.

Ms.: Why do you think evangelical policies and perspectives get such disproportionate media attention (i.e. regarding reproductive justice) and how do you hope to counter that trend?

Rabbi Person: I think we have to separate right-wing evangelicals from evangelicals in general, because there are progressive evangelicals, especially among the younger generations.

Overall there are a number of issues that allow right-wing evangelical perspectives to dominate the media. Primarily, there are so many more more evangelicals than Jews. It’s easier for the media to tell their story because it’s more of a cohesive story, organized around easily recognizable institutions and figures.

The progressive world is more of a collective, made up of people from different faith communities and from the secular world, from many different kinds of organizations and institutions. It’s a messier story without one plot line. So it’s much harder to characterize or understand, and therefore it’s easier to under report.

I believe that Jewish faith leaders have to tell our story and do all that we can to get that story into the public square. We need to make sure people hear that there is no such thing as the one religious perspective or the one faith perspective on reproductive rights–we need to say loudly and clearly that there is a progressive religious voice on these issues as well as the right wing religious voice that they regularly hear. We need to make it known that the vast majority of Jews support reproductive rights, and that we have a long and textual tradition of doing so. So much of the conversation around reproductive rights is really a conversation about control over women, and as Jews we stand firmly in support of women’s agency in making their own healthcare and family planning decisions.

These are messages that I work hard to get out into the mainstream media through writing op-eds, representing a progressive religious voice on panels, talking to journalists, and partnering with allied organizations. For us as Jews, the faith perspective on reproductive rights means access to birth control and access to abortion when needed. Our religious perspective is that women should be able to decide when and why to have children.

Ms.: What do you think the government could do to better advocate for the lives of Jewish Americans following the recent rise in anti-Semitism?

Rabbi Person: One obvious thing the government could do to better advocate for the lives of Jewish Americans is disassociating itself from anti-Semites, racists and white supremacists. We have yet to hear a clear, unequivocal message against anti-Semitism from the government.

The rhetoric about there being “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville provided dangerous validation to the white-nationalist protestors. That language sends the message that being an anti-semite and racist is acceptable, legitimate behavior to be tolerated in America. That pattern has continued over the past years, allowing hate of all kinds to be an acceptable response to diversity in this country. We need national leaders who stand up against hate and intolerance of all kinds, and who model an embrace of the diversity that actually reflects who we are as Americans, for Jewish Americans and for all of us.

“I believe that Jewish faith leaders have to tell our story and do all that we can to get that story into the public square,” said Rabbi Person. (New Why)

Ms.: What do you see as the role of faith-based leaders in the United States in 2020?

Rabbi Person: We need to get back to a healthy separation of church and state and completely change the way that religion is used politically–faith should not be used as a hammer, but rather as an outstretched hand. We cannot allow doctors, lawmakers, teachers, bakers, pharmacists, or any other profession to discriminate based on their personal beliefs. The United States is not a theocracy and no one should be making decisions for others based on the teachings of their individual faith.

Religion is used as a shield for far too many evils in this country. Discrimination, oppression, and hate in the name of religion is not what faith is about. We need to imbue the national conversation with values of fairness and compassion that are shared by all good people of faith, as well as by those who don’t identify by faith or religion at all but believe in basic values of fairness, empathy, and concern for fellow humans.  

One role we have is to be the moral conscience of this country as we embark on this surely contentious and ugly election period. We must speak out, loudly and consistently, about injustices that are happening in this country. We must call out the ways that religion is misused to hurt and harm. We must call out hypocrisy and evil done in the name of faith. And we must work together with our allies across all lines of faith and belief so that we can represent our shared values with the greatest strength.


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Ms.: Do you believe that faith-based arguments should be more widely incorporated into debates about social issues?

Rabbi Person: Yes and no.

We should hear more from faith-based progressive individuals and groups that represent a large segment of Americans. We have had enough with the religious right representing all people of faith, because it’s just not accurate. It would be amazing to have progressive faith-based voices incorporated into those debates, including reproductive rights, hunger, immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, and so many other issues. The values that we share with so many other Americans could compassionately guide us as a country on these issues.

At the same, I believe firmly in the separation of church and state. I am dismayed at the misuse of the concept of religious liberty. This is a country founded on the concept of constitutional democracy, not a theocracy. And I worry about religion being used as a way to enact restrictions that classify some as second-class human beings.

Religious liberty was created to allow people to freely practice their own beliefs, not as a way to restrict the rights of some based on the religious beliefs of others or to impose our beliefs on others. When faith gets used as a barrier to rights or a way to selectively impose restrictions, and when some religious beliefs have priority over other belief systems, we have a serious problem, and that is what’s happening right now.

Ms.: What about Judaism do you think uniquely encourages its members to advocate for social justice?

Rabbi Person: Judaism is a tradition based on the complex braiding together of text and action. The wonderful gift of our texts, starting with the Torah and the whole of the Hebrew bible, and encompassing generations of subsequent writings, is our history of textual interpretation. We encourage multiple readings and debate rather than dogma, which has given rise to a lively, constant multiplicity of ways to make meaning out of our tradition. One Jew may understand what it means to live a Jewish life very differently from another Jew. But the richness of that ongoing conversation enables us to find connections between our current reality and the teachings of our ancient tradition, so that Judaism is always relevant and alive.  

And it is that powerful dialogue between past and present that compels us to advocate for social justice. Tikkun Olam is the idea that each of us has to do our part to make the world a little bit better. None of us can fix everything, but we also can’t desist from doing what we can.

Another text teaches us that we can’t stand idly by while another is suffering. The Torah speaks of caring for the stranger, the widow and the orphan, the biblical prophets cried out against injustice, and our liturgical texts call on us to be responsible for feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

All of which is to say that our tradition demands that we take action, always reminding us that we must live in the world, and that we have a part to play in making the world a better place. We have to get out into the world and be forces for good.

Ms.: What social issues are you particularly passionate about advocating for?

Rabbi Person: I am particularly passionate about advocating for democracy in general, especially right now. It is unbelievable to be living in a time when democracy itself is under attack.

I am also particularly passionate about reproductive rights, which disproportionately impacts poor women and women of color. I come from a long line of women who believed that reproductive rights were the key to stable families and to women’s ability to get educated and get ahead. I was raised on my grandmother’s stories of her mother, my great-grandmother, a poor Eastern European immigrant, having at least two knitting needle abortions on the kitchen table because she already had four children she could barely feed.

There are many other issues I’m passionate about as well, including gun control, the environment and racial justice. As a Jew, I believe that I can’t just sit back and watch suffering and injustice. Rather, I have a responsibility to do what I can to make the world safer and more fair for everyone. I think about my children, who are in their 20’s, and I think about the mess they are inheriting. We all need to do what we can to make life livable for our future generations.


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About

Micaela Brinsley recently graduated from the Performance Studies department at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, she is a feminist theatre artist, activist and writer with a background in performance art and labor rights. Passionate about social justice, she is an avid conversationalist committed to making the world a more just place. She has been writing for Ms. since the summer of 2017. You can contact her at mbrinsley [at] msmagazine.com.