Recently, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau visited Winnipeg. CBC reported that his trip involved promoting the federal budget, meeting with students, trade workers, apprentices and the mayor. The visit included celebrating with members of the Jewish community for Passover, as it fell during the holiday. I was at home and jokingly looked around my living room … nope, Trudeau wasn’t visiting our house! After he left the city, there was a photo published from the Simkin Centre, Winnipeg’s Jewish care home, with Trudeau wearing a kippah and shaking hands with residents. If anybody gets the honour of a visit with the prime minster, it should be our elders. I was pleasantly surprised.
However, the most interesting Winnipeg moment appeared on Twitter and in the news. In it, Trudeau speaks to an anti-abortion University of Manitoba student who says he’s a People’s Party of Canada supporter. Any educator trained in the Socratic method could recognize Trudeau’s response. This student engaged the prime minister in discussion while Trudeau was greeting people and shaking hands. Trudeau responded just as a good high school teacher would. He took the student’s comments seriously, carefully voiced them back and asked direct, probing questions to lead the student to the next step. They covered dental care, religious freedom, and then went on to women’s health care. Trudeau’s questions were things like “Do you believe women should have the right to choose what happens to their own bodies?”
The student later responded, “I think if they’re sleeping around they shouldn’t be allowed to abort the baby, personally.” The student conceded, in a few more steps, that he hadn’t quite decided whether a woman who had been raped should have access to abortion. Trudeau then encouraged him “to do a little more thinking – and praying.”
This clip circulated quickly through social media and brought up many issues. The thing that stuck with me was the student’s assumption that if a woman was pregnant and sought an abortion, it was because “they’re sleeping around.” Not something like the pregnancy might be a danger to the mother and, as such, needed to be terminated, or the fetus had grave abnormalities and wouldn’t live. There are viable reasons to need an abortion. While it’s not always simple, Judaism supports the mother’s right to health and well-being above that of a fetus.
Most surprising: the student failed to acknowledge facts he should have gotten in sex education. Facts like it takes two people to make a pregnancy happen. There was no assumption of any male responsibility.
This parallels something I’ve been studying while doing Daf Yomi (a page of Talmud a day) and am now reading about in Tractate Sotah. This tractate explores the Sotah ritual spelled out in the Torah, which identifies a woman accused of adultery by her husband. There’s not a lot of evidence to show this ordeal was ever practised historically, which hopefully it wasn’t. It involved a series of acts, including the priest at the Temple giving a meal-offering, taking down the woman’s hair, making her swear she was faithful, and then writing the oath on a piece of parchment, erasing it in water mixed with dust from the Tabernacle, and making her drink it. These “bitter waters” theoretically would predict a woman’s guilt. If she is guilty, she would be ill and infertile, or possibly die. A woman who was innocent would be fertile and not be harmed.
From a modern perspective, of course, this sounds completely repugnant, particularly when examining the talmudic tractate. The rabbis debate a scenario in which a man warns his wife not to be alone with another man. If she’s in a room alone with this other man for “some length of time” – this time varies but it could be very short, according to some rabbis – she’s potentially guilty of adultery. Again, no assumption at all of any male responsibility.
I feel eerie parallels between modern events and this talmudic exploration. In some U.S. states, increasingly restrictive access to abortion has brought about some convoluted laws to limit women’s ability to control their bodies. A new law in Florida requires a woman to show proof of rape or incest to be allowed access to an abortion if they are more than six weeks pregnant. Proof of rape or incest means “providing a copy of a restraining order, police report, medical record or other court order or documentation proving her victim status.” While the law is being challenged, if doctors violate the law, they can be charged with a felony.
Today, we recognize that a religious ritual forced on a woman accused of adultery, including forced consumption of bitter waters, doesn’t prove anything. Yet, the “legislators” of biblical and talmudic times felt this public shaming and ordeal proved a woman’s guilt or innocence. It was, perhaps, the ancient equivalent of forcing a rape victim to go through the medical examinations, police reports and other documentation. Many accounts indicate that obtaining this “proof” is not easy.
In Winnipeg, there are so few nurses available in the sexual assault unit to administer the rape kit that victims have been asked to go home and return later when a nurse is on duty, but to avoid showering. There are ample police reports where they assume a woman “asked for it,” or that she deserved it because of what she wore, etc. Expecting compassion from a Temple priest or police officer seems unlikely for many.
What to make of these inequities? To a 21st-century feminist, the Sotah ritual is abhorrent, but it’s equally horrendous that a victim must prove her victimhood again and again to get access to necessary health care. It’s compounded by hearing a Manitoba student assume that a woman slept around if she got pregnant, without any recognition of who else participated or what else might have happened. The Jewish historical tradition shows that, like other rigid biblical punishments – such as the ben sorer u’moreh (the rebellious son), who, in the Torah, is supposed to be stoned to death, but, in the Talmud, the rabbis give so many impossible parameters for the situation that it would be impossible to kill a rebellious son – our culture evolved and didn’t continue these harmful actions, but the ramifications linger.
The hopeful thing in regards to some women’s healthcare access is that our situation, at least in Canada, continues to evolve. Money talks: Trudeau’s Liberal government pledged $3.5 million to improve Canadian abortion services. Yet, the prime minister’s questioning of that student gave me more hope. No one could have predicted that conversation in advance. Our elected leader is “walking the walk” when it could have proved awkward. There’s something powerful about being trained in the (ancient) Socratic method. Unlike the ancient Sotah ritual, it works.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.