A civil rights lawyer-turned-rabbi cites Jewish law in Montana State Legislature

JTA – When Ed Stafman was designing the signs that he hoped his followers would plant on their lawns, he argued between the two: “Elect Rabbi Ed” or “Elect Ed Stafman”.

He chose the version with his last name. After all, he said, “Everyone knows me as Rabbi Ed.”

Until the November elections, “everyone” meant people in and around Bozeman, Montana, the thriving university town where Stafman led the Beth Shalom Congregation for a decade and continues to advocate interfaith and social justice.

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But since last month, “everyone” has grown to include their new colleagues in Montana state law. Just a few weeks after taking office, Stafman – one of only a handful of American rabbis to ever achieve a nationally elected office – cited Jewish law in legislative sessions and caused a sensation on the floor of the state house with his colorful kippah.

The new job is a third act for 67-year-old Stafman, who served as a civil rights and death penalty attorney in Tallahassee, Florida for 25 years before being ordained rabbi by Aleph, the Jewish renewal movement, and moving to Bozeman 2008 with his wife and two children.

“I might as well have worked for the local food bank or other nonprofit that does the work of the community,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But I thought I could combine both my lawyer and rabbi skills to make a more positive impact by working in the legislature.”

Stafman, a Democrat, leaned on his rabbinical identity when campaigning for one of the most liberal counties in Montana, a state of roughly 1 million people that reliably votes for Republican presidential candidates. (According to a 2019 population estimate, around 1,500 of these residents are Jewish.)

A slide show on his campaign page is typical of politics in Montana – Stafman hikes his dog, Stafman mountain biking, Stafman poses with Democratic greats such as US Senator Jon Tester. But in between, Stafman lies at his pulpit, working with a rabbinical mission for refugees on the US-Mexico border.

Stafman is involved with T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights group.

Head of the T’ruah Rabbinical Network for Human Rights Rabbi Jill Jacobs (Tamara Fleming Photography)

“Rep. Stafman’s career has been guided by a belief in justice and compassion,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Truah executive director, in a statement released earlier in his term. “He will give a moral voice to Montana legislation.”

Stafman began projecting his voice almost immediately after he was sworn in, and he quoted Jewish law almost as soon as he was asked to speak. His first-floor speech last month discussed a bill effectively prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. This had an impact on Jewish religious beliefs.

“Many of you have promised limited government – ‘freedom, liberty, individual choice’ you proclaim,” he said on the floor. “But this bill would undermine the sacred freedom of all women and families in Montana to make medical care and religious decisions with their doctors, clergy, conscience and God.”

Stafman told JTA that his objection to the bill passed in the Republican-run home specifically related to Jewish religious teachings regarding a fetus that was sentenced to death after birth. He noted that he had counseled women considering abortion.

“The Jewish point of view is to weigh the interests of the mother’s life against the potential life and so cut them [the right to an abortion] After 20 weeks it is said that you must have this baby even though you will go through the pain of childbirth and see your baby die. Although we know this is the result, ”he said.

Stafman added that there is a difference in rabbinical opinion about whether the trauma of giving birth to a doomed child justifies the abortion of the fetus – but religious navigation in that dilemma is the point.

“Different rabbis may have different opinions,” he said, “but whatever it is, we should be able to live by our Jewish values.”

Illustrative: A T’ruah employee works with Filipino low-wage workers at the Damayan Migrants Association. (Courtesy)

In his address to lawmakers, Stafman pointed out that Montana has a version of the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act that protects employees who refuse to provide services that contradict their beliefs.

“It currently protects people who speak out against abortion rights,” he said, referring to medical workers who, under the law, may refuse to participate in an abortion, “but who do not grant equal religious freedom to people who support them.”

The freshman legislature also referred to Jewish values ​​during a committee hearing on a bill that would ban male-born transgender children from competing on girls’ sports teams. He led with faith and turned into facts and figures.

“Judaism recognizes the dignity of human life, every individual – every individual is created in God’s image,” said Stafman, describing how he initiated his argument. “But also the fact that, statistically speaking, trans girls have no advantage in sport over cis girls, i.e. ‘born’ girls. And that every major sports organization like the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee allow trans girls to participate in girls’ sports, albeit under certain conditions. “

Throughout all of this, his signature embroidered kippah has remained firmly planted on his head. At a time when one of former US President Donald Trump’s attorneys said he was unsure whether to wear a kippah to the impeachment trial of the former president, Stafman said he did not feel out of place at all.

Montana’s legislation includes several lawmakers who are Native Americans.

“At least on special occasions, they could wear their headdress, which I could say is way cooler than my kippah,” said Stafman.

Stafman knows his speeches are unlikely to change people’s minds or the law. Of the 100 lawmakers in Montana’s house, only 33 are Democrats. However, quoting his experience in interfaith dialogue, he said the point was the long game.

“I gave a passionate speech yesterday about the Jewish view of women’s reproductive rights that has not changed mind,” he said. “But I think people are listening.

“You know, all you can hope for is that people will listen and that you can create ways to build relationships as things move forward, hopefully creating opportunities for good work. It won’t happen overnight. It takes time.”

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