by Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, NCJW Member
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews all over the country and throughout the world will read the story of Hannah, a woman who is desperate to conceive a child. On her pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, Hannah feels bereft and ashamed. Seeing her distress, her husband Elkanah tries to soothe her, saying, “Is my love for you not greater than ten sons?” Later, Hannah remains in the Temple praying fervently for a child. Eli the priest, unfamiliar with her mode of silent prayer, accuses her of being drunk.
This story has a happy ending: Hannah stands up to Eli, insisting that her prayers are legitimate. Enlightened, he apologizes. Hannah conceives a child who becomes the Prophet Samuel. It is said that her prayers inspired the silent prayer practice that has become so central to Jewish prayer.
At a time when women’s ability to make their own reproductive choices are so threatened in this country, when not only women’s right to safe and legal abortions, but also access to birth control and reproductive technology are being called into question, Hannah’s story is surprisingly resonant. She faces two voices that are strikingly familiar to our contemporary ears: one man who, claiming he is acting from love, tells her he knows better than she what she needs; and another deriding her for the methods she has chosen.
Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen is an activist, writer, and teacher. She is the inaugural Director of The Center for Jewish Living at The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. Rabbi Cohen served for a decade at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s LGBTQ synagogue serving Jews of all sexual orientations and sexual identities.
The narrative we read on the first day of the New Year describes hope and possibility. Ultimately, it affirms that Hannah knew best what was right for her body and her reproductive future. For her that was wanting to conceive a child. For others it is knowing that pregnancy may not be the right choice. Rosh Hashanah challenges us to reflect on how we want to live our lives. The shofar calls us to consciousness, inspiring us to raise our voices for justice. This year, each of us can be Hannah. As we begin a year in which reproductive freedoms are particularly imperiled, let us learn from her strength and vision. However we speak the truth, whether in the still small voice of quiet prayer or in the rousing call of the shofar, let us commit ourselves to continuing the proud history of American Jews supporting reproductive freedom. Let us make 5773 a year of choosing safety, dignity, justice, and freedom for all women.