Meet the rabbi fighting Florida’s anti-abortion laws

“This law threatens the integrity of Jewish family by saying, ‘We’ll decide on what a Jewish family is,’” says Rabbi Barry Silver.

Courtesy of Barry Silver

When Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed his state’s newly enacted 15-week abortion ban into law this past April, he made a special point of invoking the bill’s theological underpinnings, not only holding the event at an Evangelical church, but adding in a statement rife with medical inaccuracies and conservative moralizing that “life is a sacred gift worthy of our protection.”

On a purely superficial level, it’s a relatively benign sentiment; life is, indeed, a largely good thing worthy of respect and preservation. But when deployed as part of a larger Republican effort to deny people their bodily autonomy by restricting reproductive rights, the “sacredness” here is meant to be understood within an expressly Christian context — one which, according to a newly filed lawsuit against DeSantis and other state officials behind the anti-abortion bill, curtails the religious freedoms of Florida’s non-Christian residents.

“This law runs roughshod over the rights of Jews and everybody else for that matter,” Rabbi Barry Silver tells Mic. He and members of his Boca Raton-area synagogue petitioned a Leon County court to nullify the abortion restrictions on constitutional grounds last week.

“The reason,” Silver says, “is because the law of abortion and when life begins is radically different for Jews than it is for the people that wrote this law.”

That core difference between how Judaism traditionally views pregnancies sits at the heart of Silver’s suit, which not only takes up the familiar abortion rights claims of bodily privacy, but claims also that the new law “prohibits Jewish women from practicing their faith free of government intrusion and thus violates their privacy rights and religious freedom.”

As Silver explains, “a Jewish woman, if her health is threatened, even her emotional wellbeing — if that is threatened by the fetus, she is not only entitled to abortion, she’s required to have abortion.”

“She cannot sacrifice herself or her well-being for the fetus,” he adds.

Silver, who has led Congregation L’Dor va-Dor (literally “from generation to generation”) since 1996, is uniquely positioned to lead his synagogue’s lawsuit: In addition to being a rabbi, he’s also a practicing civil rights attorney and a former member of the Florida House of Representatives. At his synagogue, it’s a combination that plays right to the community’s dedication to social justice.

“In one of our discussions about the horrible abortion law that was passed, I was indicating that this a serious violation of Jewish law in addition to all the other problems,” he explains. “[The congregants] said, ‘What can we do about it?’ So I said, ‘You could protest, you could write letters, or you could file a lawsuit,’ and they were intrigued. So I explained to them the pros and cons, I presented it to the board, and the board agreed to become a plaintiff in the lawsuit.”

Since the suit was initially filed last week, Silver says he’s heard from a number of local groups interested in being added as plaintiffs. “I’ve had enthusiastic support, not only from the congregation but from a lot of Jewish groups who’ve said, ‘It’s about time that we stood up for the rights of Jews and the rights of all people,’” he says.

Which isn’t to say the suit has been met with universal praise. There has been some pushback from people both outside and within the Jewish community.

“I've received some hate mail, some people saying nasty things, but that’s how I know I’m doing a good job,” Silver tells Mic. “If you don't get some people that really don’t like what you’re doing, then you’re really not doing much.”

“It’s mostly from Christian fundamentalists,” he continues. “But there are some Jewish people who have contacted me who are opposed to it, but not many. Many of them are just ignorant about Jewish law.”

It makes a not small degree of sense that the most intense criticism Silver has received comes from the fundamentalist community, given that they’re expressly called out in the text of the lawsuit. Florida’s anti-abortion law, the suit states, “reflects the views of Christian nationalists who seek to deny religious freedom to all others, under the arrogant, self-righteous notion that only they are capable of understanding God’s law and judgments and the religious views of all others are false, evil, and not entitled to respect or constitutional protections.”

But, as Silver stresses, “to the extent that I can, I engage with everybody. If somebody sends me even hate mail, I’ll send them something explaining my position.” Nor does Silver seem particularly worried about any potential blowback the suit might bring, explaining that while he raised the possibility of threats to the synagogue board, “we decided to move forward anyway.”

“I’ve done abortion cases before, and had my life threatened before,” he adds.

On L’Dor va-Dor’s website, the synagogue says it strives “to help build the Judaism of Tomorrow today.” If that’s the case, then perhaps more synagogues — along with other centers of faith and worship, no matter the religion — will answer the challenge put forth by Silver’s suit, and meet the growing conservative Christian theodoxy with a different, inclusive, expansive notion of what religious freedom can truly mean in this country.