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'Every individual is made in God's image'

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

Rabbi Ed Stafman says he would have been just as happy working at a local food bank, but can serve his community more as a state lawmaker after careers as both attorney and cleric

Rabbi Ed Stafman poses with his family in an undated campaign photo in Bozeman, Montana, in 2020. (Ed Stafman campaign/ via JTA)
Rabbi Ed Stafman poses with his family in an undated campaign photo in Bozeman, Montana, in 2020. (Ed Stafman campaign/ via JTA)

JTA — When Ed Stafman was designing the signs he hoped his supporters would plant on their lawns, he debated between two: “Elect Rabbi Ed” or “Elect Ed Stafman.”

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

Until the election in November, “everyone” meant the people in and around Bozeman, Montana, the thriving college town where Stafman led Congregation Beth Shalom for a decade and remains active in interfaith and social justice initiatives.

But starting last month, “everyone” has grown to include his new colleagues in the Montana State Legislature. Just weeks after being sworn into office, Stafman — one of only a handful of American rabbis ever to reach statewide elected office — has already cited Jewish law during legislative sessions and made a splash by wearing his colorful kippah on the statehouse floor.

The new job is a third act for Stafman, 67, who was an attorney on civil rights and death penalty cases in Tallahassee, Florida, for 25 years before being ordained as a rabbi by Aleph, the Jewish Renewal Movement, and moving to Bozeman in 2008 with his wife and two children.

“I might have been just as happy working at the local food bank or for other nonprofits doing the work of the community,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But I thought I could put both my lawyer skills and my rabbinic school skills together to make a more positive impact by serving in the Legislature.”

Stafman, a Democrat, leaned into his rabbinic identity as he campaigned to represent one of the most liberal districts in Montana, a state of about 1 million that reliably votes for Republican presidential candidates. (About 1,500 of those residents are Jewish, according to a 2019 population estimate.)

A slideshow on his campaign page is typical Montana politics — Stafman hiking with his dog, Stafman mountain biking, Stafman posing with Democratic luminaries such as US Sen. Jon Tester. But interspersed among these, there’s Stafman at his pulpit and working with a rabbinical mission to refugees at the US-Mexico border.

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

Head of T’ruah rabbinic network for human rights Rabbi Jill Jacobs (Tamara Fleming Photography)

“Representative Stafman’s career has been guided by a belief in justice and compassion,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Truah’s executive director, said in a statement released when he began his term. “He will bring a moral voice to the Montana Legislature.”

Stafman began projecting his voice almost immediately after being sworn in, and he found himself citing Jewish law almost as soon as he was called on to speak. His first floor speech last month addressed a bill that would effectively ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. That, he said, impinged on Jewish religious beliefs.

“Many of you promised limited government — ‘freedom, liberty, individual choice,’ you proclaim,” he said on the floor. “But this bill would interfere with the sacred freedom of all Montana women and families to make health care and religious choices together with their doctor, their clergy, their conscience and their god.”

Stafman told JTA that his objection to the bill, which passed in the Republican-led House, related specifically to Jewish religious teachings regarding a fetus doomed to die once born. He noted that he had counseled women contemplating abortion.

“The Jewish view is to weigh the interests of the mother’s life against the potential life, and so to cut [the right to an abortion] off at 20 weeks is to say that you’ve got to have this baby, even though you will go through the pain of childbirth and watch your baby die. Even though we know that’s the outcome,” he said.

Stafman added there is a difference of rabbinical opinion regarding whether the trauma of giving birth to a doomed child justified aborting the fetus — but the religious navigation of that dilemma is the point.

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

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

Stafman pointed out in his speech to the lawmakers that Montana has a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects employees who decline to provide services that contradict their beliefs.

“It currently protects people who oppose abortion rights,” he said, referring to medical staff who under the law may decline to assist in an abortion, “but doesn’t grant the same religious freedom to people who support them.”

The freshman legislator 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 segued into facts and figures.

“Judaism recognizes the dignity of human life, of every individual — every individual is made in God’s image,” Stafman said, describing how he launched his argument. “But also the fact that trans girls statistically have no advantage against cis girls, that is ‘born’ girls, in sports. And that every major sporting organization such as the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee permits trans girls to participate in girls sports, albeit with certain conditions.”

Through it all, his signature embroidered kippah has remained firmly planted on his head. At a time when one of the attorneys for former US president Donald Trump said he was not sure whether he should wear a kippah to the former president’s impeachment trial, Stafman said he does not feel at all out of place.

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

“At least, during special occasions, they might wear their headdress, which is, I could say, a whole lot cooler than my kippah,” Stafman said.

Stafman knows his speeches are unlikely to change minds or law. Of the 100 lawmakers in Montana’s House, just 33 are Democrats. But citing his experience in interfaith dialogue, he said the point was the long game.

“I gave an impassioned speech yesterday on the Jewish view of women’s reproductive rights and it didn’t change any minds,” he said. “But I think people listen.

“You know, all you could hope for is that people will listen and that you can create avenues to build relationships as things go forward to hopefully create opportunities for doing some good work. It’s not going to happen overnight. It takes time.”

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