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omer Social Justice

The Call to Account Will Continue

Last week’s parashah, Shemini, describes Aaron’s response to the unexpected, enigmatic death of his two sons: “And Aaron was silent” (Lev 10:3). The same verb appears in the book of Amos, when the prophet indicts the rich for exploiting the poor and subverting justice for the righteous and the needy. Amos warns: “Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time” (Amos 5:13).

Silence is one response to calamity; speech is another. During an address delivered on March 8, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” The “American Values Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters.” campaign represents an attempt to resist silence and to speak out about the values that matter most to us, as Americans and as people of faith.

Starting on Inauguration Day on January 20, 2017, every day at 5:00 a.m. American Values Religious Voices has emailed a letter to the President, Vice President, members of the 115th Congress (through their Chiefs of Staff and Legislative Directors), and certain members of the Trump Administration. At the same time, a notice has gone out to over two thousand subscribers with a link to the letter posted on our website and publicized on social media @ValuesandVoices. Plus, a hard copy of each letter has been mailed to the President and Vice President.

These daily letters have been written by a diverse cadre of scholars of religion: Jews representing various affiliations, Christians from different denominations, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs. The letter writers identify as African Americans, Latinx, Asians, Native American, and White. Go to the homepage of our website and look at the gorgeous mosaic of 100 faces. This is what America looks like. This glorious diversity is what makes America great.

The 100 letters articulate core American values rooted or reflected in our religious traditions, values like pluralism, freedom of religion, justice, truth, hospitality, compassion—just to name a few. Go to “The Letters” section of our website and look at the long list of values and topics addressed in the letters. You can click on any word—like “Empathy,” “Equality,” or “The Environment”—to to sort the letters and see how different authors treat the same subject.

For clergy, this archive of 100 letters offers a particularly valuable resource. Letter writers have responded in real time to the moves of the Trump Administration, with letters that confront issues in the news like immigration and the treatment of “the stranger,” the building of a wall, proposed budget cuts, the denial of climate change. Quotations from the letters can be used liturgically or homiletically; scriptural citations can be woven together for text study and interfaith conversations.

In the “Take Action” section of the website, you will find a link to a Seder Supplement and a Prayer for Our Country. The Prayer for Our Country compiles quotations from eight letters into a single composition that expresses our shared hopes for our country. The authors cited in this prayer mirror the diverse voices contained in this campaign, while highlighting our common aspirations for our nation. The prayer was officially debuted at my son’s Bar Mitzvah on April 1 and will be recited at HUC-JIR New York ordination on May 7. Think about adding it to your congregational worship and/or using it in interfaith gatherings.

Letter 100 has been written by American Values Religious Voices Advisory Committee member Elsie Stern, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Bible at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and also the sister of our new CCAR President, David Stern. Elsie compares the counting of a president’s first 100 days in office to the counting of the omer. She writes: “While the letters and the counting conclude, the call to account will continue.” I encourage you to use American Values Religious Voices as a resource as we all play our part in holding our elected officials accountable for preserving and promoting our core American values.

Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss serves as Associate Professor of Bible at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.   She also served as Associate Editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, now available from CCAR Press.

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American Values Religious Voices

On Thursday, November 10, 2016, I walked into class at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York disoriented and in despair. Just two days before, I had arrived at school wearing an old pantsuit with an “I voted!” sticker on my lapel, full of excitement.

That afternoon, I was scheduled to teach the biblical concept of “an eye for an eye,” part of a two-part lesson in Teaching Bible to Adults that compares how ancient interpreters and modern biblical scholars treat a challenging biblical concept. My co-teacher, Lisa Grant, and I quickly agreed to scrap the lesson plan and instead share with our students the biblical texts we were thinking about on that day.

I first said to my students: “We study Torah so that we can turn to our sacred text at times like this, when we and those we serve most need guidance, comfort, and support.” I then recounted a story told in Exodus 15:22-25: Immediately after crossing the sea and celebrating with gratitude and wonder, the Israelites hit the road, only to find themselves without water for three days. When they finally encounter a source of water at a place aptly named Marah, they cannot drink the water, because it is bitter. After the people complain to Moses, he cries out to God for help. God shows him a piece of wood, which Moses then throws into the water, and the bitter water becomes sweet.

“American Values Religious Voices” is my stick.

That class got me thinking about the potential role that Bible scholars might be able to play at this moment in our nation’s history, particularly given the number of elected officials, like soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence, who purport to bring a strong religious sensibility to their work. So the idea developed of gathering the collective wisdom of teachers of religious scripture to articulate to our political leaders what we believe are core American values rooted and reflected in our various faith traditions. What if we could send a one-page letter to the new President, Vice President, Cabinet Secretaries, and Members of the House and Senate for each of the first 100 days of the new term? What if we could put 100 pictures of that diverse group of scholars all on one page, to show what America really looks like and what really makes America great?

It just so happened that HUC-JIR’s Symposium One took place the weekend after the election. Not only was its topic relevant, particularly with the first day’s focus on “The Role of Progressive Religion in an Increasingly Fundamentalist World,” but it just felt good to be with colleagues and students. The gathering gave me a chance to pitch my idea to President Aaron Panken, who immediately offered to fund the project.

At the Society of Biblical Literature-American Academy of Religion annual meeting a few days later, I shopped the idea around to as many scholars as possible. Throughout the conference, I started collecting what would eventually become a chart with names of 255 potential contributors. At the same time, I sent an email to my friend Lisa Weinberger, Creative Director and Founder of Masters Group Design in Philadelphia. Not quite realizing the scope of my request, I asked: “Would you be willing to lend your design expertise to help create a website and develop the other graphic elements the project might entail?” Lisa responded “Yes!” right away, and since then has spent the past two months working tirelessly with me to turn an ambitious idea into a concrete reality.

You can see the results of our efforts and learn more about the campaign at www.valuesandvoices.com.  I invite you to subscribe to the letters, provide a link to the campaign on your synagogue or organization communications, and preach, teach, or write about the campaign and the content of the letters. Follow us and like us on social media, and encourage your followers to do the same, using the hashtag #valuesandvoices:

In Exodus, when our ancestors wandering in the wilderness face a dire situation, God does not simply fix the problem. God shows Moses a stick. Moses is the one who picks it up and throws it in the water. What is your stick?

Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss serves as Associate Professor of Bible at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.   She also served as Associate Editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, now available from CCAR Press.