CCAR colleagues: I’m going to ask you to sign on to a Supreme Court brief. If are you rushed for time, you trust me, and you just want to sign on, you can skip to the bottom of this piece. But I’d recommend you read all of it first.
The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear an important Second Amendment case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen (NYSPRA II). The plaintiff is the New York affiliate of the NRA. The defendant is an official of New York, carrying out the laws of that state. New York does not allow for the open carrying of firearms, and it requires a permit to carry a concealed handgun. An applicant for a concealed carry permit has to show “proper cause,” which is usually a bona fide need for self-defense.
The NRA lawsuit would eliminate this requirement and effectively give anyone who wanted one a concealed carry permit. If the NRA wins this case, similar laws in several other states would also fall. The result would be more guns in the hands of more people, a result that runs directly counter to a 2015 CCAR resolution.
An amicus curiae brief is being prepared for filing in the Supreme Court on behalf of religious organizations and clergy. An amicus brief is designed to help a court by sharing with it information that typically cannot be dealt with by the parties to the case. Here, the amicus brief explains why invalidating such laws would cause more danger to houses of worship, would increase their costs in terms of needing extra protection and liability insurance, and would chill the free exercise of religion by making the atmosphere around houses of worship tense with fear.
While many of us are especially busy now, this brief is especially timely. In the first place, for those having in-person services, our synagogues are as full as they ever are, and those who wish us harm know this. Having more such people with concealed weapons is not something many of us would want. Also, on Yom Kippur we read bacharta bachayim, “choose life.” We need to be allowed as a society to do exactly that.
I think the brief is a good one, and I have added the CCAR as a signatory. However, in this case, the authors would like as many individual clergy members as possible to join as well. If you would like to do so, you can sign on here. I am told that the deadline is Sunday, Sept. 12.
Thank you, and g’mar chatimah tovah.
Rabbi Tom Alpert, CCAR Amicus Brief Coordinator
Rabbi Tom Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, Massachusetts.
A study by the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of American Jews say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.1 American Jews’ widespread support for permissive abortion laws finds grounding in Jewish tradition’s approach to pregnancy and its end. Though the Torah makes no specific reference to any process resembling a modern abortion, the following passage from Parashat Mishpatim provides our tradition’s earliest guidance on the termination of a pregnancy:
When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:22–25)
The passage contrasts two scenarios in which two men are fighting and accidentally strike a nearby pregnant woman. The permutations differ only in who or what is harmed. In the first, only the fetus is lost, and the punishment is a monetary fine, paid to the woman’s husband. In the second, the woman herself is harmed or killed. There, the punishment is retributive: an eye for an eye and a nefesh—literally, “soul,” but in this case meaning a human life possessing personhood—for a nefesh. From this, we may derive the principle that a woman has the full status of a person, nefesh, while the fetus—though valued—has a lesser status.
The Mishnah expands this understanding of differential value by stating that if a woman’s life is threatened in childbirth, the fetus inside her can be destroyed, even to the point of “taking it out limb from limb, for her life comes before the fetus’s life.”2 Through the graphic language of this text, the Mishnaic author leaves no ambiguity as to whose life takes precedence. This text sets the standard from which all other halachah (Jewish law) on abortion flows. Later commentators debate in great detail the implications of this text, particularly the breadth or narrowness of the definition of a threat to the life of the woman.3 Some are more permissive of a range of emotional as well as physical impacts that could justify an abortion, while others understand the instances of permissibility with excruciating parsimony. Still, from the outset, Judaism can imagine some instances when an abortion would be permitted and even required.4
Furthermore, the Gemara concludes that prior to forty days, a fetus is not a person but rather is considered “mere water.”5 The debate about abortion in America hinges on questions related to what constitutes personhood and when life begins. But these are religious and spiritual questions, about which people of faith and conviction can disagree.
The Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that abortion is protected under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees a right to privacy, including a right to private medical procedures. For American Jews, the protection of access to abortion could also be understood under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. Because Jewish law permits abortion under certain circumstances as a morally acceptable choice, or even in some cases a halachic requirement, any law that limits a woman’s right to choose might limit a Jewish woman’s ability to make a decision in accordance with her religious beliefs. When people of faith seek to adopt laws asserting when life begins, they endeavor to enshrine their own religious understanding in law. In civic discourse, the fact that Judaism understands these issues differently can be a powerful antidote to the pervasive sense that religious voices are only to be found on one side of this debate. Judaism is unequivocally “pro-life” in that it values life in all its forms, both actualized and potential. But where that term has come to mean “anti-abortion,” then it is clear that Judaism allows for abortion under at least some circumstances and therefore calls us to advocate for civil laws that protect a woman’s right to access abortion services.
These texts and their subsequent interpretations are a vital resource for all of us who seek to affirm Jewish support for the choice to terminate a pregnancy and to advocate from a Jewish perspective for laws that protect reproductive choice. And we are called to go further; the law is only one facet of a full and holistic justice. Even as Parashat Mishpatim guides us to a choice-oriented understanding of abortion law, it also leaves us with the injustice of a silenced story.
The text in Exodus 21 begins with an act of violence perpetrated against a pregnant woman, and yet this woman is all but absent from subsequent conversation about this passage. Across the centuries, almost all of the voices of Jewish interpretation, and even many modern commentators, fail to acknowledge her story. The interpreters miss the opportunity to see her as subject, rather than object. To see the woman in this text as merely a hypothetical in a legal case study is to deny that cases such as these were very real to the people who experienced them. To reach a full sense of justice in our understanding of abortion, we must pair mishpatim (laws) with sipurim (stories). …
The full chapter by Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler and Rabbi Emily Langowitz appears in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block. To learn more and pre-order the book, visit socialjustice.ccarpress.org.
3. We recognize the complexity of this term and acknowledge that it is not only women who experience pregnancy and abortion and also that not all women can experience pregnancy. We offer this word for simplicity but intend it to include a broad range of experiences and identities.
4. Many trace the split between lenient and strict positions to Rashi and Maimonides, respectively. See Rashi’s comment on Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzei-ach Ushmirat Nefesh 1:9. Rashi defines the fetus as non-nefesh (in keeping with our passage in Exodus), while Maimonides focuses his discussion on the fetus as a rodeif (meaning only if the fetus is actively pursuing the life of the mother should the pregnancy be terminated). For fuller discussion of the halachic texts that flow from each side, see Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
5. Babylonian Talmud, Y’vamot 69b.
Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixlerserves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas.
Rabbi Emily Langowitz serves as program manager for Jewish learning and engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.
“Can you speak to my child about God?” The concern showed on her face. She had no idea how to explain who, what, why, and how God is.
She is not alone. God is the other three-letter word that makes some parents cringe when they are asked about it. Actually, it sometimes feels like explaining sex is easier and more rehearsed in our minds than getting involved in a conversation about God. The truth is, many people feel uncomfortable having this conversation.
Why is it difficult to talk about God? Is God like a mathematical equation we could solve if only we could get the right definition? There are many ways to describe God. Judaism is a monotheistic religion founded on the principle that all the disparate gods are really One God. There is no god of the seas, or the sky, or even the underworld. Our biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah found one God uniting the universe and united by the universe. Jewish tradition teaches that their tent was open on all four sides in order to receive wayfarers from any direction.1 The image of the tent serves another purpose as well: it signifies that there are countless paths to come closer to this One God. Within our own tradition, many passageways lead us to an experience of the Divine—an experience that so many of us are longing for.
The title of this book, Because My Soul Longs for You, comes from an old Sabbath hymn, formally called Shir HaKavod (“Song of Glory”) and also known by its first two words, Anim Z’mirot. It is ascribed to Judah HeChasid of Regensburg (d. 1217). The entire song features a number of original verses and some language from the Bible. Our title is taken from the first stanza, אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרוֹג, כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרוֹג (Anim z’mirot v’shirim e-erog, ki eilecha nafshi ta-arog, I seek pleasing melodies and thirst for songs because my soul longs for You), itself a reference to Psalm 42:2. The tradition is to open the Torah ark before reciting this prayer, a way of suggesting that God’s spirit is summoned when it is sung.
It is human nature to long for God’s presence in our lives. However, many of us do not know what to do with this longing. The subtitle of this book is Integrating Theology into Our Lives. There are many and diverse Jewish paths to experience and think about God, and we as Reform Jews have the privilege of having more than one path open to us. With a little bit of study and a lot of living, our soul’s longing can be addressed. All we need is intention, some humility, and the honesty that open up before us a warm and redolent world.
Shir HaKavod includes these words:
And so I tell your glory, yet never have seen you; Imagine you, find names for you, yet never have known you
By hand of those who prophesied and throngs who worshipped you, You gave imagination to the glory beyond view.2
Within these pages, we hope you will discover the One in the different forms described and experienced in the many and diverse paths by talented writers, rabbis, cantors, scholars, and seekers who allow and welcome God into their lives. In their wisdom, we hope you are inspired to allow and welcome God into your own life, too, while also drawing God out—in the path that is yours.
The S’lichot prayers are traditionally recited on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah to help prepare us for the soul-searching and transformation that we hope to do during the High Holy Days. S’lichot is thus the opening scene of our efforts each Jewish year to build a life of meaning, a life of consequence.
We want to break through the routines to which we have become accustomed. As we entered adulthood, we developed certain habits that served us well at the time. Some of these are still valuable practices that serve important functions for one reason or another, but many others are useless, pointless, or even counterproductive. Sometimes we develop workarounds that achieve what needs to be done in the moment but not necessarily in the best way. There is a story about a person who takes their car to a mechanic because the brakes aren’t working. When they come back the next day, the mechanic tells them “I couldn’t fix your brakes, but I made your horn louder.” Isn’t that what we have often done when facing challenges in our lives? We did the best we could, patching things over in order to carry on.
Real change is hard. In fact, it’s well-nigh impossible unless there is some sort of burning internal or external motivation. If the doctor were to say to us, “You have one year to live,” then we might go home and, after pouring ourselves a stiff drink, actually decide to change everything, living in a completely different way than we had been up to that point. There are other dramatic moments in life that can compel us to spontaneously reject everything that we have always done and move in a completely different direction.
Yet I don’t think that S’lichot is trying to push us to impetuously change our lives 180 degrees in one evening. So don’t trade in your Ford Explorer for a Porsche. Don’t buy a plane ticket to India in order to spend the rest of your life in an ashram. Don’t book your seat next to Elon Musk to fly off to Mars. Rather, I would argue that what Judaism is asking us to do on S’lichot evening is to evaluate and reevaluate our lives in order to try to realize our full potential for lasting fulfillment.
Several years ago, I was the editor of a CCAR Press volume titled A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path. Our goal was to get people thinking about what Reform Judaism could mean in terms of how we find meaning in our lives. Though published before the pandemic started, the chapters remain timely and relevant. As we enter a reflective mode during this S’lichot season, I hope this book can inspire us to create positive change, both in our communities and in ourselves.
We are reminded by the words in the prayer book that we are granted the gift of life, a gift of uncertain duration but of certain laborious effort. However much we protest or negotiate, this short time is all we get. For many, fate overwhelms, truncates, or destroys their journey. To the best of our knowledge, this is the one life that we have, and we have a sacred obligation to make the most of it. And so, let us pray that this new year 5782 may be a year of wisdom acquired and shared, a year of virtue and the strengthening of our characters, a year of mitzvot and the meaningful practice of ritual, and a year of community and the sharing of our commitment to making the world a better place. May God’s presence in our lives this new year strengthen our souls and renew our spirits.
These days, books go far beyond print volumes—they can be converted into many digital formats. Perhaps the most straightforward digital form of a book is an ebook; CCAR Press has over a decade of experience creating a variety of ebooks, from basic reflowable text to enhanced, interactive, multimedia versions. However, there are often compelling reasons to put in the extra time and resources to transform a book into a standalone app.
With our busy lives, a meditative practice is always a challenging new routine—we often need a bit more help to begin and maintain such a practice. Our new app, Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart, includes a variety of features designed to help in this process. When you first open the app, you are presented clearly with the basic steps and flow of the process, with a user interface that strives to emulate the meditative tone of the practice. Rather than asking the reader to figure out which is the current daily Reflection for Focus, the app knows the date, performs some calculations based on when Shabbat occurs, and automatically delivers the intended reading for the day.
There are also other features of the app that simply could not be a part of a print book. One of the most enriching is the inclusion of a variety of beautiful musical settings to verses in Psalm 27, some of which are original to this project. One can listen to the same music for a week, diving deeply into the complex layers of each piece, or listen to a new song each day. Similarly, each new day reveals a meditative image, often photos taken by the author or her students, in vibrant color. The app also includes a mediation timer, with the option to choose visual and audio cues, as well as a daily reminder to engage in the practice, both of which are extremely helpful features that could never have been a part of a print work.
This is perhaps the most beautiful app that CCAR Press has created to date. While many of our previous apps are nicely designed and function well, they focus on delivering a large amount of content in an easy-to-access way. The Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app was designed specifically to convey an emotion, a sense of peace and calm, commensurate with the intentions behind the practice. It is our hope that the content of this incredible work, along with the carefully crafted experience of using the app—with all of its helpful features—will allow individuals and groups to enter this High Holy Day season with an open heart and a more meaningful experience.
Here we go again. It’s just a few weeks from the High Holy Days, and hopes of worshiping in a post-COVID world of congregational togetherness are quickly being dashed. Communities that planned to hold communal, indoor, and possibly maskless prayer services are reassessing. Whatever happens on the individual congregational level, it will be another year outside the bounds of what we once thought as normal for holy day worship.
We have been dreaming of our spiritual reunion with each other for the upcoming holy days; that blessing appears to be postponed. Perhaps, all the more, we should pray for blessings beyond our wildest dreams. We know these are unprecedented times. Most of us could not have imagined the losses and suffering that the pandemic would bring. For those of us who have lost friends or family to COVID—for those who lost income, livelihood, personal connections, mental health, stability—it can only be described as a nightmare.
This Rosh HaShanah, let us renew our hopes in large and beautiful dreams of peace, the kind of peace that means wholeness, health, renewal, vitality, and resilience.
To share that prayer together on Erev Rosh HaShanah 5782, Rebecca Schwartz, cantorial soloist at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, created a new musical setting for my short prayer “Pervasive Peace.” The prayer reads as follows:
May it be Your will, God of our fathers and mothers,
That the year ahead bring a pervasive and complete peace
On all the inhabitants of the earth,
Beyond all the dreams of humanity.
The prayer uses a classic formulation—Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha…, May it be Your will…—imploring God for specific blessings. This formula is typically used in the Rosh HaShanah seder alongside dipping apples in honey, connecting the sweet ritual to the chain of traditional prayers for the New Year.
“Pervasive Peace” was written before COVID, but it took on a deeper meaning of peace as healing medicine last year as the Jewish community experienced our first pandemic High Holy Days in lockdown. It has, yet again, taken on a longing for renewal as we move toward our second High Holy Days under returning public health restrictions.
Rebecca’s music captures both the hope and the longing that the words are intended to convey. We envision cantors using the prayer to open and set the tone for Erev Rosh Hashanah. Hear Rebecca sing the music in this video. An MP3 file is available for download. The sheet music can be purchased on oySongs.
Singing “Pervasive Peace” might also be paired with reading an associated prayer written last year called “Wildly Unimaginable Blessings”:
Wildly Unimaginable Blessings
Let us dream Wildly unimaginable blessings… Blessings so unexpected, Blessings so beyond our hopes for this world, Blessings so unbelievable in this era, That their very existence Uplifts our vision of creation, Our relationships to each other, And our yearning for life itself. Let us dream Wildly unimaginable blessings… A complete healing of mind, body, and spirit, A complete healing for all, The end of suffering and strife, The end of plague and disease, When kindness flows from the river of love, When goodness flows from the river of grace, Awakened in the spirit of all beings, When God’s light, Radiating holiness Is seen by everyone. Let us pray— With all our hearts— For wildly unimaginable blessings… So that God will hear the call To open the gates of the Garden, Seeing that we haven’t waited, That we’ve already begun to repair the world, In testimony to our faith in life, Our faith in each other, And our faith in the Holy One, Blessed be God’s Name.
Rebecca Schwartz is Cantorial Soloist and Music Director at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA. She is a professional singer, guitarist, and award-winning songwriter. Hear more of her music at rebeccasongs.com.
What inspired you to write Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27? I did not set out to write a book about Psalm 27. The book emerged over several years from my own practices. I first began reading the psalm daily in Elul, then I began writing about it daily, and then I added time to sit and sing. I kept reading it all the way to Simchat Torah. Eventually, I shared some of my reflections and they resonated with people; I realized my personal practice could be embraced by others. Thanks to those who encouraged me, it became a book.
What was the most challenging part of working on Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27? There were three things that were challenging in creating Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27. First, it was really hard to work on a book while also working full time at a congregation! Second, because I didn’t set out to write this as a book, figuring out how to organize all the reflections into something coherent and comprehensive was a big challenge. Finally, I think the most difficult aspect of working on this book (or I imagine any book) was feeling confident enough to be vulnerable—to put my words, my ideas, my heart in print for others to see.
Was there something new that you learned while writing the book? Did any of your own practices change? I have always found that unpacking/studying Torah was meaningful in a small group or with a partner. I discovered, however, that I could also have some powerful insights about my life and the psalm by giving myself time to sit alone with the text and reflect on it, both in writing and in silence.
Do you have advice for readers on how to strengthen their own reflection practices? For me, ritual really helps build a practice. It can feel awkward at first to sing along to a recording with no one else in the room. It can be hard to keep writing or sitting for a full five minutes. It’s easy to resist taking the time to be forgiving, to remember an insight, or to give thanks. But as it is with good ritual, once we get in a routine, it can become a habit, and then hopefully easier (in some ways), opening up possibilities for great insight and commitment.
How do you recommend that readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27? The book itself contains suggestions for how to use it, and there is also a study guide available with source sheets. New this year, and something so exciting, is a smartphone app that will help readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 even more easily. It has writing prompts and photos for each day, a built-in timer and daily tracker, and individuals can read or listen to the psalm and each of the reflections. It also has amazing music.
Why was the app created?
We created the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app in response to requests from many people who have used the book, laypeople and clergy alike, since it was published. People wanted to be able to easily stay on track and have the music readily available. The live sessions we shared showed that they liked having someone lead them in the blessing, hearing the psalm read in different voices, and listening to the Reflection for Focus instead of reading it. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their feedback and encouraged us to develop this twenty-first-century digital tool for spiritual practice.
What makes the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app unique?
The app is so special because it has not only the words from my book, but it also includes the voices of talented musicians and cantors who have written music to accompany Psalm 27 and the photographs of friends and family members whose eyes have captured the beauty of Psalm 27 out in the world. The app also has a lot of really cool functions that reflect the values of the book. One example: you can choose between doing the writing segment electronically or, better yet, you can write by hand on paper and then store a photo of your writing. You can choose a preferred sound for your meditation timer, and you can easily give yourself a prompt at the end of the practice so your experience will more easily stay with you all day.
Who helped with the app’s creation?
Rabbi Dan Medwin, CCAR Director of Digital Media, was the mastermind of the app. His combined skills as a rabbi and a technology expert allowed the development team to create something that is truly spiritually engaging in a realm where that is often a significant challenge. We were also fortunate to have some teenage campers test the app this summer, and thank goodness they did. They not only had some great innovations to add but caught a lot of bugs! Thanks are due as well to a generous donor who gave us the resources to make this possible.
How can people best use the app?
I hope people will use the app in a variety of ways. It can be a complement to the book or it can be used on its own. It is super flexible. If someone wants to listen to the various musical settings, that is easily done. If they want to hear the blessing only in English, they can do that too. Or, if someone prefers to listen to either a male or female voice read the psalm in Hebrew or English that’s possible as well. What I hope most is that people will use the app to do the real work of this season, open their hearts, and then be moved to continue that spiritual work into the new year.
A little over three years ago, the CCAR created the CCAR Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate. At that time, an important conversation, long active underneath the surface of the rabbinate, was re-emerging with greater urgency. There was a confluence of things happening at the same time: We had just published The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate; the 2016 election season had generated a great deal of newly public anger about the treatment of women; and women were more willing to share stories and experiences that had been hidden away, sometimes for decades. Given our mission to support rabbis, the time was right to create this Task Force. We are grateful to our colleagues who served on the Task Force.
The work of advancing gender equity certainly didn’t start with this Task Force. There were earlier Task Forces that did help move the needle. Moreover, this is the work that the Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN) has been involved with and has led since its founding. We are very grateful for WRN’s leadership and partnership on gender equity within the rabbinate, and indeed for working on this issue for so long when others within the rabbinate did not value its importance. Without the foundation they created and the way they brought visibility to these issues, and raised awareness, none of this would have been possible. And in addition, Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) has been consistently involved in advancing the issue of gender equity more broadly throughout the Reform Movement. More recently, the Reform Pay Equity Initiative, under the leadership of our colleagues, Rabbis Mary Zamore and Marla Feldman, has taken the lead on pay equity and now the issue of parental leave, and we are so grateful for their leadership and vision.
When we initially convened this Task Force, we agreed that it would be a three-year process. We set out to use that time to first assess and study the landscape, so that we would know what the concerns were among our colleagues. We then began a process of creating resources, as well as making recommendations for policy changes. As a result of our work, policies have changed with the Placement and Rabbinic Careers system. Some pieces of this work, like the production of The Clergy Monologues that can be shown in communities as an educational resource, are still in process.
Many critical resources are now complete and available to congregations and Jewish communities, including:
We are pleased to offer a full set of materials related to Implicit Bias Training for use by search committees hiring rabbis, synagogues, institutions, and organizational boards, as well as for us as rabbis who hire staff. These materials are available as free downloads for your use.
There is a much talk about the efficacy of implicit bias training. We know that the “one and done” method is not particularly effective, nor is training that attempts to rid us of our biases. Instead, what our materials aim to do is make us aware of our biases so that they don’t become obstacles. We all have biases—this is a part of human nature. But when we are aware of them, we can be more intentional about our interactions with others and not allow our choices to be governed by our biases.
We are especially pleased to share one of the outcomes and learnings of the Task Force here with you, a video about implicit bias. This video is meant to be used as a way to begin the conversation about implicit bias and ground people in the work of the training we have created. It can also be used on its own and is a great way to spark important conversations about bias. We invite rabbis and Jewish professionals to use it with your board, your youth groups, or anywhere within your community.
As we began our work, it became more and more clear that ultimately, in order to really achieve success and reach our ultimate goal of creating culture change, we would have to work together with our Reform Movement partners. One of the culminating pieces of our three-year process was the convening of a Reform Movement Gender Equity Summit with representatives from all the different Movement organizations, including URJ, HUC-JIR, WRN, ARJE, ACC, WRJ, NFTY, ECE-RJ, PEP-RJ, and MRJ. Together, our goal was to create shared commitments to advancing gender equity and agreements about accountability. While our focus, as the CCAR, has understandably been about rabbis, there is much work for us to do together on gender equity throughout the Movement as a whole.
This work is also grounded in the broader contexts of inequity. We understand that the conversation around gender equity must be braided into the conversation about diversity and inclusion, and privilege. These conversations cannot be disentangled from questions about race, gender, and sexual identity, and people with different abilities. So too, these conversations cannot be detangled from the context of the #MeToo movement and the disheartening realities of accusations of past sexual misconduct by clergy or leaders within the Reform Jewish community that are the focus of current investigations by the CCAR, HUC-JIR, and URJ at this time. These accusations require serious institutional reckonings, and there is serious communal and spiritual work that must be done in order to heal.
The work of gender equity is a segment of that broader and necessary conversation and work, but it is not separate from or in competition with it. Gender equity has been our focus these three years as a Task Force, but it is not our sole focus. We want to express gratitude and admiration for those of our partners who have already begun serious work in the DEI and REDI areas.
At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us that the work of gender equity is more important than ever. Report after report is showing that women are leaving the work force in greater numbers than ever, and that the pandemic is disproportionally affecting women negatively in terms of professional advancement, salaries, and loss of benefits. In addition we know that with our Jewish world workplaces, harassment of women is still an issue, pay equity is still an issue, and barriers to professional advancement are still an issue. Which is to say that the conversation about gender equity is not over.
Although the Task Force is formally coming to an end, we will be continuing to embed aspects of this effort within our ongoing work, with more resources and projects to come. It is our hope that the ongoing work of gender equity will one day no longer be needed. We hope that it will come to be seen as outdated. But in the meantime, there is still much work to do to ensure that our communities are safe and sacred for all. Thank you for being part of this work, and thank you for your commitment to gender equity.
Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus served as the chair of the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate. She was one of the first-ever women rabbis, the second female president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and she is rabbi emerita at Shir Tikvah in Homewood, Illinois. Rabbi Amy Schwartzman served as vice-chair of the Task Force and is senior rabbi at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia.
Sorrow and joy meet on Rosh Chodesh Av. Rosh Chodesh—the first of each new Hebrew month—is a minor festival of rejoicing. We take note of the cycle of the moon, the grandeur of creation, and the gifts of God by signing Hallel Mizri, the Egyptian Hallel. At its core are Psalms 113 through 118.
There’s a jarring contrast between the joyous and often raucous singing of these psalms with the general mood of the period. Tishah B’Av, our national religious day of mourning, commemorates the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. It’s a day of tragedy so profound in the eyes of the rabbis of the Mishnah that they went to great lengths to attach other disasters to this date.
In Masechet Taanit 4:6, we read: “On the Ninth of Av it was decreed upon our ancestors that they would all die [in the wilderness] and not enter the land; and the Temple was destroyed the first time [by the Babylonians], and the second time [by the Romans]; and Beitar was captured; and the city [of Jerusalem] was plowed, as a sign that it would never be rebuilt.”
The tradition of linking catastrophe to Tishah B’Av continued in later periods. Some say that the Jews were expelled from England on Tishah B’Av in 1290 CE, that the deadline in 1492 on which Jews in Spain needed to leave or convert was Tishah B’Av, and that the First World War began on Tishah B’Av. Perhaps most startling: The Hebrew date that Treblinka began operations as a death camp was Tishah B’Av.
The Talmud decrees: “Not only does one fast on the Ninth of Av, but from when the month of Av begins, one decreases acts of rejoicing.”
Even before Av begins, some Jews observe a three-week period of mourning, called “The Three Weeks,” from 17 Tammuz until Tishah B’Av. The Mishnah relates that on 17 Tammuz five catastrophes also befell the Jewish people, and the day is observed by some as a minor fast.
Right in the middle of the three weeks, Rosh Chodesh is observed, as always, with song and praises. “Hallel in a Minor Key”—an alternative Hallel that I created with music by Sue Radner Horowitz—was written for moments like these, when joy and sorrow meet.
This liturgy began with a question last winter: How can we sing God’s praises fully as we move into the second year of COVID-induced, socially distanced Passover seders? In the writing, the question expanded: How do we sing God’s praises after a profound personal loss? How do we praise God when our spiritual calendar places joy and sorrow side-by-side? How do we find a voice of rejoicing when our hearts are in mourning?
My personal experience with this contrast still informs my writing. My wife Ami, z”l, died of traumatic brain injury just before Passover. The religious expectation of our calendar was brutal. After two days of shivah, we were expected to shift into the spiritual joy of Pesach, celebrating our liberation from bondage, singing Hallel as part of the Passover Seder and then again at services. Although it was twelve years ago, that experience of contrast was a core motivator for creating this liturgy (read more about the creation of “Hallel in a Minor Key” on RavBlog).
After Tishah B’Av, the rabbis have given us seven weeks of healing, seven weeks in which special haftarot of consolation are chanted. Here are several prayers for the season:
It is said that God permitted the destruction of the Second Temple because of sinat chinam, the baseless hatred of one Jew against another. Throughout this season, let us pray for the well-being of all of the people of Israel, and everyone, everywhere. “Let Tranquility Reign,” from This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, includes a line from Psalm 122: “For the sake of my comrades and companions I shall say: ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the House of Adonai our God I will seek your good.”
What inspired the creation of Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments?
I contributed an essay to the 2017 collection Seven Days, Many Voices, which was a compilation of articles focusing on each of the first seven days of creation, as described in Genesis 1. That project sparked my interest in editing a similar collection of essays, from a diverse lineup of authors, offering different complementary perspectives on the Ten Commandments.
What was the most challenging part of editing this book?
From its earliest proposal, one of the most important aspects of the book for me was that it include contributions from a diverse list of authors. I wanted the chapters to come from writers within the Reform Movement and beyond it, those who work as Jewish professionals and those who don’t. It was a challenge to secure contributions from such a diverse group of authors while still producing a finished book that would be comfortably at home in Reform settings.
What is something new that you personally learned while working on Inscribed? Did any of your own perspectives change?
I learned so much! The best part of my role in editing this book was that it gave me the ability to learn from amazing teachers with extraordinary expertise and insight in areas I had not explored deeply before—philosophy, military ethics, journalism, and so much more. For me, an educational imperative is at the center of Jewish life, and it was a joyful experience to spend so much time with so many marvelous writers and scholars.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
As a literary bloc, the Ten Commandments have endured and remained stubbornly relevant for thousands of years. I don’t think it’s impious to suggest that this is not because these Commandments are especially inspiring; instead, it’s because hundreds of generations have worked energetically to build relevance into the Ten Commandments. The beautiful and provocative writing of Inscribed’s contributing authors shows how this process of meaning-making continues to grow and unfold even in our own day.