Do our bodies belong to us?

American culture tells us that they do. We can change them, reshape them, tattoo and pierce them.

Jewish law tells us that they do not. We are restricted by God-given laws, interpreted and refined for changing situations by generations of great scholars and decisors; those boundaries restrain us from changing, reshaping, tattooing, or piercing them.

Those are gross oversimplifications, needless to say, but there is basic truth to them. As in so many other areas, there is a tension between the two cultures in which Jews —particularly, although not only, modern Orthodox Jews — live.

Rabbanit Dr. Adena Berkowitz will explore those tensions on September 9. That’s a Shabbat, and Dr. Berkowitz will be the speaker at the Lunch and Learn at Minyan Tiferet, the partnership minyan that meets more-or-less monthly in Englewood or Tenafly, and hosts a scholar who will meet the community’s need to talk with intellect, passion, and depth every year.

Dr. Berkowitz, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her husband, Rabbi Zev Brenner, and their children, is scholar in residence and co-founder of Kol HaNeshamah in her neighborhood. It is “dedicated to re-energizing the spiritual life of both affiliated and non-affiliated Jews,” the group says, and Dr. Berkowitz has the background to initiate such a mammoth undertaking. She has a doctorate in Jewish ethics; she’s been to law school; she’s modern Orthodox but also has studied at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and is a visiting lecturer at Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, open Orthodoxy’s flagship institution. She’s written a siddur for Orthodox women, she’s writing a Haggadah, and as past director of the Secretariat of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, she’s met Pope Francis. The list of her accomplishments is long and formidable; to leaven it, she’s also an engaging speaker.

At Minyan Tiferet, Dr. Berkowitz will talk about “Am I My Body?” She was inspired by a sign she saw at the Women’s March in Washington on January 21. “The sign read, ‘My Body, My Choice,’” she said. “That encapsulates the intersecting challenges, particularly for those within the observant Jewish community, of balancing personal autonomy and personal choice with halacha. The main halachic viewpoint, the traditional Jewish view, is that we don’t own our bodies.

“This is a jumping-off point for me,” she said.

The topics she’ll cover range from the relatively frivolous — tattooing — to the unavoidably serious — organ donation — most likely stopping to examine questions about piercings and plastic surgery on the way.

It is odd, she said, but she has been told that the one question that the advice columnist known as Dear Abby received more than any other was whether Jews with tattoos could be buried in a Jewish cemetery. “It tells you a lot about the outsize role of Jews in the American imagination,” she said. “You’d think there’d be many millions of us.” But that idea — that if you get a tattoo you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery — is the reason many young Jews are given when they consider getting one. “How many 16-year-olds care about where they are going to be buried?” she said.

Dr. Adena Berkowitz

Dr. Adena Berkowitz

Not only are tattoos extremely popular in American culture in general right now, “in Israel, particularly in Tel Aviv, they’re more or less ubiquitous.” Moreover, she added, “in Israel, younger third-generation Holocaust survivors are tattooing their grandparents’ numbers on their arms.” Tattoos aren’t necessarily self-mutilation, or the result of a drunken whim. They can have real emotional content.

She tells the story of an Israeli nurse who takes care of Holocaust survivors, and who has tattooed the word “zachor” — remember — on her arm. “I am in no way condoning it,” Dr. Berkowitz said, but she recognizes that it comes from emotion, even love.

What do we do, say, or think about that? She’ll talk about some creative responses. They exist, she said.

And then there is cosmetic surgery. “If God gave us our bodies, how are we allowed to do this?” she said. “This surgery is not pikuah nefesh” — it is not saving a life. “If I don’t like my nose? If I want liposuction? How about a little nip and tuck? Permanent eyelashes?”

What about the issue that reveals fissures not only in the Jewish world, but in American life as well? Abortion? “Most people think, ‘It’s my decision,’ but then how do you balance that with halacha? The question of ownership of our bodies, the issue of autonomy, which is ingrained in the American psyche and legal tradition — what do we do when it butts up against Jewish tradition? What can an Orthodox person do about reproductive rights?

“It is a very nuanced discussion,” she said.

The idea of organ donation has changed as science has evolved. In the 1960s, Dr. Berkowitz said, Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, allowed corneal transplants, based on the halachic understanding of “someone who is blind being seen as someone who is almost not fully alive. Therefore, if you can give sight to someone, it’s almost like getting them a new life.” Donating a cornea, therefore, was seen as pikuah nefesh.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the great 20th-century scholar, “thought that you could not donate your heart, and you couldn’t take a donated heart. That’s because it was like a double murder.” He was writing during the time when heart transplants were new, the concept of brain death was new and controversial, and heart recipients didn’t live for very long. So “you were killing the person who was donating it, because he wasn’t really dead, and you were killing the person who is receiving the organ, because you are hastening his death.”

The question of accepting brain death — which allows for organ donation because the organs are fresher than they would be if doctors had to wait for other, older definitions of death — was a fraught one. Although the controversy still continues in some far-right corners of the Jewish world, generally it has been accepted. And with that acceptance comes the feeling that organ donations are not only acceptable but almost mandatory. That, of course, leads to a whole other set of questions and debates.

At the same time, “you have a lot of Orthodox Jews donating kidneys to strangers, which is incredible,” Dr. Berkowitz said. “So even if someone is not comfortable being an organ donor, the public focus has spurred more people to say, ‘I am going to do an incredible act of chesed as a living donor.’ So we have more and more instances of people being living donors.

“We are living in extraordinary times.”

There is another wrinkle. (There is always another wrinkle.) “When you set something down as a chiuv” — an obligation — “you can’t force someone to put herself at risk,” Dr. Berkowitz said.

“The example of that is ‘pru urvu’ — be fruitful and multiply.” (That’s from Genesis 1:27.) That is an obligation only on men, not on women, the rabbis say, although of course they hope that women decide to do it too. But childbirth is inherently risky, and we can’t force someone to do anything that puts them at risk, physically, or emotionally.”

She was led to study this set of issues — the interplay between autonomy and halacha — “because I always was fascinated by medical ethics, from an American legal point of view and from Jewish tradition. I see it come up constantly. It is one of the biggest intellectual and practical challenges facing the Orthodox community, because societally we are being told one thing and halachically we are being told something else.

“We see people grappling with it more and more in our communities.”


Who: Rabbanit Dr. Adena Berkowitz

What: Will talk about “My Body, My Choice?”

When: On Saturday, September 9; Shacharit at 9:30, Lunch and Learn (and talk) after 12:15

Where: At a private house in Englewood for Minyan Tiferet

For more information: Go to minyantiferet.com