How Should We Translate Pirkei Avot? Why Does It Matter?

A decade ago, Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss, now the Provost of HUC-JIR, taught me a new term: “gender-accurate translation.”

No, I was not new to ridding our liturgy and sacred texts of gender-based language. However, I had always thought of that process as changing the language of sacred texts, which would be more intrusive than correcting an error of the past.

Rabbi Weiss explained that our new Torah translations – in that case, in the Women’s Torah Commentary – would replace gendered language when the original text doesn’t specifically refer to a person or persons of one particular gender. God, for example, is explicitly without gender in our Jewish tradition; and yet, the inherently gendered Hebrew language refers to God exclusively as “He.”

Gender accuracy, done right, needn’t be noticeable, let alone jarring. None of our current CCAR prayer books refers to God with gendered language, and the English flows seamlessly.

At this season of sfirat ha-omer, counting the fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, from liberation to at Sinai, we read Pirkei Avot.

Many of us are familiar with Pirkei Avot, or at least some of its most famous aphorisms. For example: “Who is wise? Those who learn from everyone. Who is strong? Those who conquer their impulses. Who is rich? Those who are happy with their lot.”[i] Did you notice that this translation is gender-accurate? Other translations render: “Who is the wise one? He who learns from all men,”[ii] and so forth. Clearly, though, the lesson is valuable for everyone, regardless of gender, there’s no reason to believe that even the ancient rabbis intended their teaching to refer only to men.

In his new book on Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz writes that the title of the book “[l]iterally … means The Chapters of the Fathers[iii] The word avot may indeed mean “fathers.” However, the way a gendered language works, avot can also mean “ancestors.”

Rabbi Yanklowitz writes that we might understand the word even more broadly: “The Hebrew word avah (of which avot is plural) is found in Proverbs 1:30, meaning, ‘to lead through advice.’ Therefore, another way to understand the title of this work is The Chapters of Advice.”[iv] That latter title is descriptive of the book, chock full of Jewish wisdom but without halachah, which characterizes the larger work in which it’s found, the Mishnah.

I have often taught, surely not originally, that every translation is an interpretation. Since other options are available, those who translate the title “Ethics of the Fathers” are choosing to emphasize the gender of its authors. I typically refer to Pirkei Avot as “Ethics of the Sages.”

Why does it matter?

  1.  Honesty. All of Pirkei Avot is articulated in the names of rabbis – that is, men of a certain class and education. However, Pirkei Avot is likely replete with mansplaining, that is, women’s ideas repeated by and credited to men. No generation is without its wise women and men, but women of the Mishnaic period would not have been credited with their own ideas. Moreover, all the rabbis quoted in Pirkei Avot had mothers, and almost all had wives, who had doubtless imparted significant insight to them. We must shed any doubt that women’s words and ideas are included in Pirkei Avot. Therefore, the suggestion that the book includes only “Ethics of the Fathers” is simply false.
  2. Respect. In a patriarchal society, such as one that gives voice only to men, women are undervalued. While our own culture is blessedly less patriarchal as that of Second Century Palestine, we would be wrong to insist that patriarchal influence has disappeared. When we unnecessarily and inaccurately credit only men’s wisdom in the past, we imply that men are the exclusive source of insight, even today. When we translate, we should open up the possibility that a sage could be a person of any gender. Doing so, we indicate that every person’s wisdom is equally valuable.
  3. Inspiration. Women who are rabbis of my generation often speak of the first time they saw or even just heard about a female rabbi. Previously, they had never internalized the fact that they could become rabbis or religious authorities of any kind, even if they knew that regular ordination of women as rabbis had begun in 1972. While we cannot name women who were sages during the Mishnaic period, by translating Pirkei Avot as “Ethics of the Fathers,” we close the possibility that a woman could be a sage. Using an accurate English name of the book that isn’t gender-bound, young women and girls may see themselves as they should, fully included in the chain of Jewish tradition that stretches from Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Miriam to this very day.

When I was ordained, half of my classmates were women. However, at that time, only twenty-eight years ago this month, the HUC-JIR faculty did not include even one tenured professor who wasn’t male. This month, new rabbis are being ordained by a long-tenured rabbinic scholar who is the College’s Provost, and she’s a woman. For the next generation of rabbis – and, more broadly, of the Jewish people, increasingly even in some corners of the Orthodox world – the term “sage” may finally include women.

As we count the days from Egypt to Sinai, reading Pirkei Avot this year, let us assure that our language is honest, accurately reflecting the past rather than the way that the past presented itself. Let our words convey respect for every person, regardless of gender, as we continue to dismantle the patriarchy. And let us inspire every Jew, of every gender and of every coming generation, to lead us into a future filled with wisdom.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

[i] Avot 4.1.
[ii] Ibid., Sefaria translation.
[iii] Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, New York: CCAR Press, 2018, p. xi.
[iv] Ibid.

Passover Pesach

Opening the Door, Eyes Wide Open

On Friday night, we will send the youngest among us to open our doors to the promise of perfect redemption. This year, though, that promise feels more distant than ever, even unattainable: Humans, far from being God’s partners in bringing salvation, continue to destroy the world.

We are taught, by the ancient rabbis in the Mishnah and also in the holy Quran: “One who kills a single human being is compared to one who destroys the entire world.”[i]

Hatred has annihilated God’s creation repeatedly.

On March 15, 2019, fifty human lives were snuffed out. Their crime? Being Muslims at prayer.

On October 27, 2018, eleven precious souls were taken from this Earth. Their crime? Being Jews at prayer.

On June 12, 2016, forty-nine human beings were executed. Their crime? Being gay men, or in the presence of gay men, at a night club.

On June 17, 2015, nine of God’s children were shot to death. Their crime? Being Black people at a Bible Study.

On September 11, 2001, nearly 3000 lives were taken. Their crime? Being Americans, or among Americans, at work or on an airplane.

And I have listed only a small fraction of these horrors in the current century.

In the last century, Pastor Martin Niemoller, in the wake of the Nazi genocide, initially imagined himself to have been among those who had resisted Hitler and his homicidal hatred. Then, he visited the Dachau Concentration Camp. At the crematorium, he saw the dates throughout which a quarter million victims had been incinerated there, 1933-1945. Niemoller recognized his culpability. He had not begun standing up to Hitler until 1937. Only then, Pastor Niemoller began to hold himself to account for the slaughter, in words that later became a famous poem:[ii]

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out –

            Because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –

            Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

            Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

If we are to send our children to the door with integrity, we must declare that we will never be silent in the face of hatred.

When they come for Muslims, we must speak out, because silence is deadly.

When they come for African Americans, we must speak out, because silence destroys the entire world.

When they come for queer folks, we must speak out, because silence is deadly.

When they come for immigrants, we must speak out, because silence destroys the entire world.

When they come for Republicans or Democrats, for Americans or Asians, for Christians or Jews, for country folk or city dwellers, we must speak out, because silence destroys the entire world.

Speaking out is powerful. The rabbis taught, in words also inscribed in the holy Quran: One who saves a single life is credited with saving the entire world.[iii]

As our young ones open the doors on Friday night, we pray that they do so with eyes that shine with the promise of a bright future. We who are adults, while smiling for our little ones, must open our eyes wide both to all that plagues God’s creation and to our power and responsibility to be God’s partners in salvation.

[i] M. Sanhedrin 4:5, inter alia in the Talmud. Also Quran 5:32.

[ii] Joseph Coohill, ”Martin Niemoller, ‘First They Came…’ – Quote or No Quote,”  Professor Buzzkill, November 6, 2018.

[iii] M. Sanhedrin 4:5, inter alia in the Talmud. Also Quran 5:32

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees. 


Tornillo: “Shut It Down!” And the Commentary Is Important.

I was privileged to join a bold and visionary group of midwestern Reform rabbis — led by Rabbis Bruce Elder, Miriam Terlinchamp, Joshua Whinston, Jonah Zinn, and Todd Zinn — on a November pilgrimage  to the U.S.-Mexican border in and near El Paso, Texas. The centerpiece of that visit was at Tornillo, a tent-city detention facility for immigrant teenagers. A rally outside the Tornillo camp prominently featured the chant, “Shut It Down!”

I participated in the pilgrimage as the CCAR Board’s representative. I am not at all new to immigration activism — In June, for example, I was arrested, in a civil disobedience action related to immigration at the Arkansas Capitol as part of the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign. However, in mid-November, I didn’t yet feel fully comfortable as I joined the chants, “Shut It Down.”

Today, after further research, I am.

First, some words about my reluctance. Several years ago, URJ Greene Family Camp, one of my two cherished camp homes, had served as a facility where unaccompanied minor immigrants were housed. The nonprofit provider inside the Tornillo facility, BCFS, was also the provider at our camp. Moreover, our colleague, Rabbi Ben Zeidman, who is deeply committed to immigration justice, had visited inside the Tornillo camp with an interfaith clergy delegation which had found conditions to be acceptable. For a moving piece about the important work of Greene Family Camp in those days, please read these words by my friend and fellow Greene alum, Mandy Karp Golman.

The more I learned, though, the more I became convinced that the situation has changed. The facility at Tornillo must be promptly closed, the children detained there must be united with U.S. sponsors without delay, and we must strongly advocate against the establishment of  similar facilities.

During the summer, massive public outcry forced the Trump Administration to back down on its policy of separating undocumented immigrant parents from the children who accompanied them. What most Americans still do not know is that teenage immigrants continue to be separated from responsible non-parental adults with whom they arrive at the border — most often older siblings, aunts and uncles, or grandparents. We must protest all family separations, absent evidence of abuse or significant felony charges. These separations have massively increased the numbers of supposedly “unaccompanied” minors now in U.S. detention.

Back in the days when URJ Greene Family Camp was partnering with BCFS, that nonprofit provider actively sought U.S. sponsors for the truly unaccompanied minors who were in federal custody. Today, government policy has dramatically curtailed BCFS efforts in this regard, putting teens and potential sponsors at great risk. Potential sponsors reasonably fear coming forward in the current environment, exposing them to potential deportation. In fact, the process of seeking sponsors often serves as “bait” to lure family members into processes that may result in their deportation.

The result is a massive multiplication in the numbers of incarcerated teens — and the length, perhaps indefinite, or until they turn eighteen and are eligible for deportation — whose only crime is arriving at our border, seeking freedom in the Land of the Free.

Torah is clear: “You must not oppress strangers, nor harm them” (Exodus 22:21). Our government is perpetrating grave, even permanent, damage, upon a massive and increasing number of young people at our border. For that reason, I am delighted that our Reform Movement has officially joined the Close Tornillo Coalition.

Now, you have the commentary. Let us all raise our voices to demand that our government “Shut It Down!”

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees. 

Conversion Genealogy

Genes Don’t Constitute the Covenant; People Do

I have never submitted my DNA for analysis of my ethnic identity, and I am determined not to do so. I suspect that the findings would be unsurprising: My family has been traced back to each ancestor’s immigration to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe, all as Jews.

This week, though, we read about an older lineage, dating back to Abraham and Sarah, biblical ancestors whose historicity cannot be attested. For millennia, Jews have seen themselves as descendants of those first men and women who set off from hearth and home to serve one God.[i] We who live the Covenant of Abraham and Sarah today are their descendants, whether or not our genealogy could be traced back to them, and even if such people never lived. The patriarchal/matriarchal “history” is true, whether it happened or not.

I have often pointed to my own skin color and asked, “Does anybody believe that this pigmentation is naturally occurring in the middle east?” My question is as facile as it is rhetorical, and is meant to illustrate that each Jew – including those like me, with a “purely Jewish” known lineage; and those unlike me, people who entered the Covenant in their own lifetimes – enjoys an equal claim as an heir of our Jewish heritage. Even though the origin of skin pigmentations is more complex than I let on,[ii] a careful study of Jewish history indicates periods of significant conversion and/or intermarriage that brought people of diverse origins into the Covenant.[iii]

Modern rabbis face the “Jewish lineage” issue frequently. With some regularity, people present themselves to us as Jews on the basis of a DNA test, despite having never known that some of their ancestors were Jewish. Christians with an ancestor who might have been Jewish at the onset of the Spanish Inquisition may come to us understanding themselves to be conversos, Jews who have merely pretended to be Christians, albeit for five centuries or longer. Others come to us because they have recently learned a previously deep, dark family secret that a grandmother or great—grandmother was Jewish. When the claimed lineage is direct in the maternal line, we may be faced with an assertion that the person is already Jewish, not requiring conversion. Indeed, if that lineage can be proven, some rabbis would agree with that claim.[iv]

American Reform Judaism, from its outset, downplayed Jewish genetics, and even peoplehood, emphasizing religiosity instead. In 1885, our Reform forbears wrote in the Pittsburgh Platform, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” As time went on, the matter became more complicated. In 1937, particularly mindful of European persecutions, Reform rabbis wrote in the Columbus Platform: “Living in all parts of the world, Israel has been held together by the ties of a common history, and above all, by a heritage of faith.” They further emphasized, “The non-Jew who accepts our faith is welcomed as a full member of the Jewish community.”

In our own age, too many people, groups, and nations hang on to disappearing notions of their genetic purity. Israel’s nation-state law and the rise of white nationalism in the United States are particularly pernicious examples. Liberal Jews must not participate in racial purity tests, however well intentioned.

Ever eager to work with candidates for conversion, I welcome each one with open arms. When a conversion inquiry comes from a person with a Jewish partner, I do not assume that their motivation for seeking conversion is purely “for the sake of the relationship.” When a person comes with no familial connection to the Jewish community, I am confident that, with time, the ger tzedek, righteous convert, can become an heir to the Jewish heritage no less than those who have been Jewish all their lives. When greeting people who approach my office with claims to Jewish ancestry, but no Jewish upbringing or education, I am eager to help that person explore whether or not Jewish faith and community are right for them.

Then, if and when the time comes, when the person emerges from the mikvah, after a long and comprehensive process, that person is a Jew for all purposes[v] a lineal descendant of Abraham and Sarah.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.


[i] Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12, and also Rebekah in Genesis 24 and
[ii] Ann Gibbons, “How Europeans evolved white skin,” Science, April 2, 2015.
[iii] See, for example, the statement in Exodus 12:38 that the Children of Israel left Egyptian bondage with a “mixed multitude;” or modern scholarship, for example: James Xue, Todd Lencz, Ariel Darvasi, Itsik Pe’er, Shai Carmi, “The time and place of European admixture in Ashkenazi Jewish history,” Plos, April 4, 2017.
[iv] Traditionally interpreted Jewish Law, loosely based on Mishnah Kiddush 3:12.
[v] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47b.
gender equality News Social Justice

King David, Bill Clinton, and Progressives’ Culpability for Sexual Misconduct

This summer, I listened to Professor Orit Avnery at the Shalom Hartman Institute, describing King David’s wrongdoing with Bat-Sheva. Not only adultery or even the King’s skullduggery in consigning his loyal soldier, Bat-Sheva’s husband Uriah, to death in a misbegotten battle. David is also guilty of sexual misconduct: He leverages his power to fulfill his sexual desires with a subject, meaning that the David-Bat-Sheva liaison cannot be described as fully consensual.

While the Bible casts the centuries of disaster that follow as divine punishment, we may view those catastrophes as natural results of David’s misdeeds. We are not surprised that David’s older sons, born to him and his wife, resent his favoritism toward Solomon, born of the adulterous liaison. Moreover, the king’s disloyalty to his troops might logically lead to low morale in the ranks – and, ultimately, military defeat.[i]

Listening to Avnery, and considering King David, I could not help but think of Bill Clinton.

Twenty years ago, we learned that the married President of the United States had an apparently-consensual sexual liaison with a 22-year old woman working as a White House intern. President Clinton’s supporters, myself included, however scandalized by his marital infidelity, spent much more energy resisting his impeachment than examining the corrosive impact his behavior would wreak our society.

We were wrong when we determined that Clinton’s presidential leadership on women’s issues was more important and impactful than his personal conduct toward women. Sexual relations between a 45-year-old President and a 22-year-old intern constitute sexual misconduct resulting from an extreme power disequilibrium. Like David with Bat-Sheva, the power disequilibrium raises a question of whether Clinton’s relations with Lewinsky could truly be consensual. Failing to call out the President’s wrongdoing, we not only facilitated the vilification of a young woman, and worse for Clinton’s other victims, we conspired with President Clinton to silence discussion of powerful men’s sexual misbehavior for nearly two decades. Only after Hillary Clinton was defeated in her own presidential election by a man who shamelessly bragged about sexual misconduct, American progressives finally opened our eyes to the widespread degradation of women and girls – and sometimes, boys and men – by powerful men who victimize those under their control. President Clinton’s sexual misconduct and our averted attention enabled two decades of widespread sexual abuse. The perpetrators, we now know, are just as likely to support progressive priorities for women’s rights in the public sphere as to oppose them. Had we insisted that President Clinton face the consequences of his actions, America might have held Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Mario Batali, Louis C.K., and their likes accountable far earlier, sparing untold numbers of victims. And we might never have allowed for an atmosphere in which a man who bragged of grotesque sexual violence could nevertheless be elected President of the United States.

Russ Douthat is a conservative columnist and devoted Catholic. Not long ago, he wrote, “The Catholic Church needs leaders who can purge corruption even among their own theological allies.”[ii] What Douthat says about theological allies goes for political and ideological partners as well. We who did not hold President Clinton to account are vulnerable to a charge of hypocrisy when we seek the ouster on similar grounds of a president whose policies we abhor. And vice versa.

We have reason for hope. When Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers were credibly accused of sexual misconduct, both were forced out of office by colleagues on their own side of the political aisle.

Now, we must acknowledge what we have known since David ruled in Jerusalem some 3000 years ago: A leader’s private sins can bring grave consequences to a nation. Many of us have been silent co-conspirators in the past. Others are today. Let us all shed our ideologies when we evaluate the costs of a leader’s private sins. We must hold all the powerful people in our society accountable – not only in politics and religion, but also in industry, media, entertainment, sports, education, and all places of employment. Then, perhaps, we will be credible partners in bringing an end to sexual misconduct, wherever it occurs.

[i] 2 Samuel 11-12, as taught by Orit Avnery, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, July 4, 2018.
[ii] Russ Douthat, “What Did Pope Francis Know?,” The New York Times, August 28, 2018, accessed on September 2, 2018 at

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Healing High Holy Days

A Less Lonely Path to Repentance

The High Holy Day days can be a lonely experience. Though many of us gather in overflowing sanctuaries, together with family and friends who constitute a community, each of us must confess our individual sins, seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, change our ways, offer tzedakah, and pray for our own individual absolution. We seem not to receive, or to give, any assistance in the process of repentance.

Our lonely journey to forgiveness was not always the Jewish way. When our ancestors required expiation, they would bring a sacrifice to the Temple. The blood of the animal, slain in the sacred ritual, would atone for their sins. Yes, the penitent Jew had to recite the appropriate words, and was required to provide the animal for the sacrifice, so the individual did have some role in that process, but the Priest did most of the work and the poor animal paid the ultimate price. The ancient Israelite was the beneficiary of what might be called “vicarious atonement,” forgiveness through the sacrifice from the flocks or the herds.

Christianity adopted this idea of vicarious atonement, with the faith that Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross, atones for the sins of others. Perhaps because Jews tend to disassociate ourselves so forcefully from that specific Christian claim, we have shied away from any notion that anyone or anything other than ourselves can help return us to the good graces of our God. Perhaps we protest too much. After all, we confess in the first person plural, “the sins we have committed.” Why not seek forgiveness communally?

Our Rosh Hashanah prayers do declare that we may find forgiveness in the righteousness of others. One portion of our shofar service is called zichronot, or remembrances. We ask God to hear the blasts and remember the righteousness of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. If we do not deserve atonement on these High Holy Days, we beg God to forgive us on account of their merit.

More personally, each of us recalls loved ones, now gone from this world, who had laudable traits that we wish we possessed. We may pray, in words of Reform prayer books past: “May the nobility in their lives and the high ideals they cherished endure in our thoughts and live on in our deeds.” Our beloved dead can truly live, if we will carry the goodness of their lives into our own. Perhaps, too, when we fall short, God will recall our loved ones’ goodness, and forgive us on their account.

Blessedly, our partners in repentance may include the people who continue to share our lives every day. Judaism teaches us the value of the tocheha, the loving rebuke, delivered in the right spirit, in the right time, in the right place. Nothing makes me a better person than a caring critique from a person who cares deeply about me. Even if we recoil from the rebuke upon first hearing it, we can learn, and become better people, in the process. Living in covenant calls upon us to help each other to abandon our unholy paths.

Let us find forgiveness for ourselves and offer atonement to others in the embrace of community on these High Holy Days.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.


“The Sex Talk:” A Uniquely Gratifying Rabbinic Moment … at Camp

At a recent lunch in Jacobs Camps’ dining hall, Jeremy and Jack, co-counselors in a Talmidim (9th grade) bunk, approached me: “When we were in Talmidim, you came at cabin prayers (bed time) and gave us a ‘sex talk.’ Would you be available to come to our bunk and do that tonight?

They remembered! Jack and Jeremy were 14 in 2013, fully five years ago, my first summer on Jacobs’ faculty, after 20+ years as Rabbinic Advisor of Greene Family Camp. Perhaps they more than remembered: They were aware of the impact, perhaps lasting, and wanted the same for their campers.

The “sex talk” isn’t really about sex, and certainly not only about sex. We often say that home and house of worship — and URJ camps are, of course, an extension of our synagogues — are the best places to communicate our values about this most intimate part of life. In my experience, though, these conversations don’t happen often enough.

I begin by asking the boys how why Bar Mitzvah was fixed at age 13. Fairly quickly, they make the connection to puberty. 14 year old boys know about puberty, but they haven’t internalized its essence, which I articulate as the time in their lives when they become physically able to become parents. I ask how many of them feel ready to become parents, and they unanimously agree that they aren’t, which leads to discussion of the centrality of their responsibility not to become parents before they’re ready.

My theory: The rabbis piled adult responsibilities upon thirteen year olds to drive home the message that “adulthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” in the words of one of the 2018 campers.

The heart of the conversation is about respect for women — and, more broadly, for any potential romantic partner. I explicitly acknowledge that statistics indicate that some of the campers sitting before me are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity and will come to know themselves as LGBT. Any “sex talk” with adolescents brings on a certain amount of joking and cutting up, which I tolerate without judgment, until they start to make inappropriate gestures in response to my LGBT point which may make some campers in the room feel unsafe.

A fair amount of the discussion is an in-depth conversation about consent, real consent, sober consent, and consent that is required to begin with the most chaste forms of physical comment. Also, we address the ways that adolescent boys talk about girls and women, emphasizing that what some, even our President, have deemed “locker room talk” is inappropriate in any setting.

And, of course, we discussed the consequences of becoming a father when one isn’t prepared, based on “Unplanned Fatherhood,” which I wrote for CCAR Press’s The Sacred Encounter.

I have these talks with boys only, hopeful that my female colleagues have similar opportunities with girls. This year, I did talk with a bunk of 14 year old girls about the Supreme Court’s decision about Crisis Pregnancy Centers and their role in ensuring the perpetuation of a right that their mothers and grandmothers have taken for granted.

And I talked with a group of ten year old boys about cleanliness!

I left that boys’ bunk on Thursday night, hoping that I had an impact, perhaps as I apparently did on Jeremy and Jack all those years ago. Those young men’s parents, their camp, and their congregations may all be proud of the adults they are becoming.

The next evening, as Shabbat began, I noted that many of 14-year-old boys made a point of coming up to me, to make yet another connection. I think they got the message.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Passover Pesach

The Most Important Day of Passover

More American Jews attend a Passover Seder than observe any other Jewish ritual. How do we know? The Pew Research Center tells us.[i]

But how many observe the Seventh Day of Passover? I don’t believe that Pew Research even asks. Our synagogues may hold services, largely attended by those observing yizkor. One could be forgiven for concluding that the seventh day of Passover is a day of mournful memory. But it’s not.

After ordaining the first day of Passover as a holy day, Torah commands, “…and in the seventh day a holy convocation; no manner of work shall be done…”[ii] Exodus offers no explanation for the holiness of the seventh day. The medieval commentator, Ibn Ezra, provides a plausible theory: “The seventh day is the day of Pharaoh’s drowning and being rendered powerless.”[iii] Passover’s final festive day, then, celebrates the anniversary of the fulfillment of our ancestors’ freedom.

In our own lives, we experience “first day” liberations very much in need of “seventh days.” We feel free when we extricate ourselves from harmful addictions, toxic relationships, or soul-numbing employment. And yet, we may be experience the anxiety of Israelites being chased by Pharaoh’s armies until we are firmly established in new, healthier behaviors, loving relationships or meaningful work. Only then do we know the liberation that our ancestors celebrated on the east bank of the sea. In our Jewish people’s 20th Century history, Holocaust survivors were liberated when the Allies were victorious. They were not truly free until the newborn State of Israel had prevailed in its War of Independence – or, more likely, until survivors were comfortably settled in Israel, America, Canada, and other lands of refuge.

We who diminish our cups for the plagues upon Egypt, though, may be ambivalent about celebrating the day that Pharaoh and his chariots were drowned in the sea. Eliahu Kitov argues, “Holidays were not given to Israel to mark the downfall of [our] enemies…The essence of the celebration of this day is the song that Moses [, Miriam,] and Israel were Divinely inspired to sing on this day.”[iv]

The significance of the seventh day of Passover is as profound as it is complicated. Often, our greatest moments of liberation come at others’ expense. Nevertheless, we are permitted, and even commanded, to celebrate.

We rejoice when we’ve landed that dream job, even as we are aware that means that somebody else was passed over. We love coming in first, even knowing that somebody else came in last.

The next Jewish celebration after the seventh day of Passover will be Yom HaAtzma’ut. This year’s a big one, Israel’s 70th. We have long known that Palestinians mark that day as naqba, the catastrophe. They’re right. The very day we celebrate was and is catastrophic for the Palestinian people. Like Seder-goers diminishing our cups for the plagues upon Egypt, we would do well to take Israel’s milestone birthday as an occasion to explore the depths of the disaster that Palestinians experience and to imagine how that damage can be assuaged without unduly diminishing our people’s miracle. Then, let us wave our flags and celebrate, rejoicing as our ancestors did at the shores of the sea and as we do on Passover’s final festive day.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.


[i] “Attending a Seder is common practice for American Jews,” Factank News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, April 14, 2014, April 14, 2014.
[ii] Exodus 12:16.
[iii] Ibn Ezra’s commentary to Exodus 12:16.
[iv] Eliyahu Kitov, “The Seventh Day of Passover,”, not dated.


46 Years of Women Rabbis: A Messy Miracle

The father in the delivery room has a complicated perspective. I know. I have been there twice.

Most of us know little about how our own bodies work – less still, about the physiology of the opposite sex. At childbirth classes, fathers are prepared to help with breathing; and we know that pain is involved. Most men, though, are entirely unprepared to witness all that blood and, for lack of a better term, the messiness of the whole process.

And then, we don’t talk about it, at least not if we’re wise.

Instead, we focus on the miracle. Yes, childbirth is a miracle – not supernatural, but natural; God-given all the same. Two moments in my life have no compare: Seeing each of my sons for the very first time as he emerged from his mother’s body and into the world.

We celebrate the miracle of childbirth but sublimate the messiness. And well we should – at least if we’re talking about childbirth from the father’s viewpoint.

But what if we’re talking about male rabbis’ perspective on the experience of women in the rabbinate? Strikingly similar, at least until recently.

Oh yes, we witnessed the miracles – in some ways, we caused, aided, and enabled it.

Yes, we knew that placement opportunities were not equal, at least in the first several decades.

Yes, we knew about pay disparities, or we should have known.

Many of us, though, did not see the othering, the sexual harassment and even assault. We did not see, perhaps not wanting to see, like the “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”[i]

But we did brag about the miracle. Like so many 1950s dads, handing out cigars in hospital waiting rooms. We celebrated that “we” were first.

We rose for standing ovations. For Sally, who was first. For Janet, who was first. For Denise, who was first. And for so many others of “our” firsts.

But we did not speak of the messiness. Upon reflection, we rose to applause – not so much for Sally, for Janet, or for Denise – but for ourselves. After all, “we” were the first to welcome women into “our” rabbinic ranks.

Parashat Tzav is full of messy details about our ancestors’ sacrifices. “The blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver” are hard to escape.

Among those sacrifices, introduced last week in Vayikra but given purpose only in Tzav is the shlamim, or “wholeness offering.” Unlike most korbanot (sacrifices), the shlamim is unconnected to sin. Still, it’s messy.

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi teaches in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary that the shlamim was brought on festivals and to express gratitude. Its bounty is shared.[ii] Even with this celebratory korban, though, Torah is frank about “the blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver.” We only read about the communal celebration after slogging through the description of gory ritual.

Our teacher Naamah Kelman reminds us of Vayikra Rabah’s suggestion that the shlamim is the only sacrifice that will be offered in messianic days.[iii] Sin will end. Cause for celebration will not.

We do not live in messianic days. Sin endures. And sometimes, b’ratzon u’vishgagah, willingly or unwittingly, we are its perpetrators.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis gathers this week with many goals, not least of which is to examine the entrails to view blood and the dung that have accompanied the miracle we have seen emerge over forty-six years of women in the rabbinate.

When asked about where men’s voices belong in the “#metoo” moment, our teacher Elana Stein Hain has affirmed that every voice should be heard, while suggesting that maybe we need to “take turns.” Now is women’s turn, at least to go first.[iv]

For starters, without ignoring the important role men in Reform leadership played, we must acknowledge that women are the ones who experience the labor pains. Women have given birth to the miracle that is forty-six years of women rabbis in our Conference.

This week, let us speak frankly of the blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver; and let us listen attentively.

Then, may this week’s frank acknowledgements inch us closer to that day when the only korban required of us will be the shlamim, to express our boundless, and finally unfettered, gratitude.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.


[i] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11a.
[ii] Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss, editors, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008, p. 609. Cited by Naamah Kelman, “An Offering of Thanksgiving,”
[iii] Naamah Kelman, “An Offering of Thanksgiving,”
[iv] “Judaism, #metoo, and Ethical Leadership, Perspectives from the Created Equal Project,” webinar, Shalom Hartman Institute, January 24, 2018.


A Sacred Calling Program Reminded Me: “A Liberal Body of Men” Still Has Much to Learn

Here at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, we kicked off a four-part Sacred Calling series this past Shabbat. In many ways, our congregation is isolated from “Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate,” The Sacred Calling’s subtitle. B’nai Israel has never been led by a woman rabbi. (To be fair, the congregation has only had three rabbinic searches since 1972, one of them rather early in the era of women rabbis and another for an interim rabbi.) As I read about the programs that colleagues held when The Sacred Calling first came out, with panels including the anthology’s editors and Sally Priesand, I knew that expense and distance would prohibit such an occasion in Little Rock.

We got creative. Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a Sacred Calling author, is a dear friend of our congregation, and especially of our President and her wife, who generously offered to bring her here to keynote our program. Another Sacred Calling author, Rabbi Jeff Kurtz-Lendner, lives within driving distance, as does Rabbi Katie Bauman, the woman rabbi who grew up in this synagogue and maintains strong ties here. A program was born.

I did not know to anticipate that our Temple archivist, Jim Pfiefer, would deepen the program with an exhibit in our Temple lobby. The display suggests that our congregation may not be as remote from those “Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate” as I thought. I did know that my predecessor, Rabbi Gene Levy, was ordained with Rabbi Priesand. I did not know that Rabbi Angela Graboys had served in nearby Hot Springs, Arkansas; or that Rabbi Laura Lieber hails from Fayetteville, Arkansas. And I’m touched by the lovely display case about Rabbi Bauman.

Included in the display are the words of Rabbi Louis Witt, z”l, who served this congregation from 1907 to 1919. Two years after leaving Little Rock, Rabbi Witt pled with the CCAR to support the ordination of women. In 1921, which proved to be more than a half-century before the first woman would be ordained in North America, Rabbi Witt was already exasperated: “Five years ago, I had to argue in favor of women’s rights when that question came up in the Arkansas legislature, but I did not feel that there would be need to argue that way in a liberal body of men like this [i.e., the CCAR].”

On Friday night, prior to Rabbi Elwell’s keynote, I reflected on how Rabbi Witt might react to the present realities for women in the rabbinate. My liturgical prompt was Mi Chamocha. The Children of Israel doubtless celebrated their freedom when they escaped Egyptian bondage after the tenth plague. Scarcely a week later, they found their liberation incomplete: They were trapped between Pharaoh’s armies and the foreboding Sea. Then, once secure on the other shore, they sang in celebration. And yet, even then, freedom was not complete. Enemies internal and external would continue to plague them. And us. And still, we sing in gratitude.

We are, and we ought to be, grateful – for the ordination of women over the last 45 years, the realization of the only goal that Rabbi Witt knew to dream. For the successes that many of our female colleagues have achieved since 1972. For award-winning (and deserving) achievements such as The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and The Sacred Calling.

Now, though, we also know, as we should’ve known all along, that liberation is not complete:

  • Women rabbis, like their peers in other professions, continue to face a wage gap, compared to males of similar seniority, congregation or community organization size, and experience.
  • Women rabbis report sexual harassment at the hands of both colleagues and community members.
  • Equitable family leave, including but not limited to maternity leave, is not a reality for many.
  • The voices of women rabbis aren’t always taken as seriously or heard as loudly as those of male colleagues.

My list is incomplete for a variety of reasons, not least because I’m not a woman.

I am grateful that our Conference, professionally led in this arena by Rabbi Hara Person, has established a Task Force to examine the experience of women in the rabbinate; and that our Women’s Rabbinic Network and the Women of Reform Judaism are diligently exploring the wage gap and family leave issues.

At our upcoming convention in Orange County, I look forward to hearing from Task Force Chairs, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus and Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, as well as WRN leaders, about their progress and challenges. Like the colleagues Rabbi Witt addressed, I am among “a liberal body of men” who have much to learn. Unlike Rabbi Witt, I will be learning from and alongside female colleagues.

And that’s a blessing. Like the Children of Israel singing Mi Chamocha before us, we have much to celebrate, even as we acknowledge that liberation is not complete.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.