Rabbi Barry H. Block is the editor of the new CCAR Press book The Social Justice Torah Commentary, which delves into the many ways that the Torah can inspire us to address today’s social justice issues. In this post, Rabbi Block discusses how the book’s diverse lessons have influenced his own sermons throughout the past year.
On many Friday nights in the last year, contributors to The Social Justice Torah Commentary have been de facto guest preachers at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock.
For more than a year now, I have been in the unique position of having access to the brilliant work of our CCAR colleagues and other contributors to The Social Justice Torah Commentary. The last of the chapters was completed in late 2020. Transforming the content into a physical book takes a while, particularly in this era of contraction in the printing industry and global supply chain issues.
The book’s chapters have deeply influenced my own rabbinate over the last year; I hope this will be replicated as rabbis and others now have their hands on the full book.
I give formal sermons most Friday nights, and the authors of The Social Justice Torah Commentary have provided me with content that I have shaped into these sermons. I suspect that colleagues who speak more informally could similarly benefit from the book.
Last fall, when the Supreme Court forced the City of Philadelphia to continue contracting with a religious foster care agency that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, I preached on “Religious Certainty and Religious Liberty,” drawing both on that week’s portion, Vayeira, and Rabbi David Segal’s insightful piece on that parashah for the book. I turned back to Rabbi Segal’s entry this year, as we face a historic threat to abortion rights. In 5782, my sermon for Vayeira was entitled, “Abortion Rights: Bound to the Altar”. While both of those sermons drew on the same chapter in the book, neither recapitulated Rabbi Segal’s central argument in full. Instead, crediting Rabbi Segal repeatedly in each sermon, I shared some of his words—and, more importantly, texts that he provides.
In other cases, I have shared an author’s entire thesis more fully. Before I received Rabbi Reuben Zellman’s draft for Parashat Mikeitz, I had somehow never thought of Joseph and the cupbearer as formerly incarcerated people who had been given extraordinary opportunities to succeed after imprisonment. I shared Rabbi Zellman’s perspective rather fully last December, in a sermon titled “Joseph and the Cupbearer: The Potential of Formerly Incarcerated People”.
Rabbi Mary Zamore’s entry on harassment-free Jewish spaces for Parashat Vayikra is so compelling that I taught it even though the week of reading that portion wasn’t the right time. Shabbat HaGadol, when we read Parashat Tzav (close enough to Vayikra!), would be the occasion for me to share her wisdom in a sermon I entitled “Harassment, Bullying, and Jewish Institutions”.
In no case have I merely recited another author’s work verbatim as my Shabbat sermon. Instead, I have shaped kernels of these chapters into drashot that would fit the congregation I serve and the season when I have preached.
More recently, Rabbis Alan Freedman and Ellie Steinman and Temple Beth Shalom in Austin blessed me with my first scholar-in-residence opportunity since the pandemic began. My Friday evening sermon was based on The Mussar Torah Commentary. However, for the Shabbat morning Torah Study, I prepared a Sefaria source sheet based on Rabbi Naamah Kelman’s entry for Parashat Chayei Sarah, “Torah’s Precedent for Women’s Agency.” Rabbi Kelman focused on how women’s agency is taken away by the marriage and divorce laws of Israel’s chief rabbinate. Teaching in Texas in 2021, though, the matter of women’s agency is most relevant to the struggle for access to abortion.
Later that same Shabbat, our attention had turned to Parashat Tol’dot. In his chapter about systemic racism and water rights, Rabbi David Spinrad draws on Isaac’s digging and naming successive wells—and importantly, on Nachmanides’ midrashic reading of that story. Kernels of his work, encapsulated in a Sefaria sheet, were the perfect material on which to base a conversation about whether and how rabbis can properly speak on issues of the day: “Politics or Social Justice: Should Rabbis Preach about Issues of the Day.”
I hope that these examples, only a few of the many, many times I have employed the content of The Social Justice Torah Commentary over the last year, will inspire CCAR colleagues and others to draw on this new book to bring Torah and the prophetic voice for a brighter future to all the communities we serve.
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the CCAR’s Vice President for Organizational Relationships and also edited The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life (CCAR Press, 2020).