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Healing inclusivity News Social Justice

B’rit Olam, Racial Justice, and Black Lives Matter

When Donald Trump stood in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church and declared martial law, we witnessed birkat HaShemBirkat HaShem is cursing the name of God. Birkat HaShem is blasphemy. And the one who commits it is a megadef.

In his sanctioning the use of tear gas, flash-bang shells, and in the firing of rubber bullets on American citizens who were exercising their Constitutional right of peaceful assembly so that he would have a clear path to a church as his stage and a bible as his prop, I condemn as a megadef the President of the United States. With a bible held sanctimoniously in his hand while simultaneously condoning violence and threatening far worse against the very people he is sworn to lead, I accuse him of cursing the name of God. 

God has held my broken heart every day of the eight since Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, may his memory be for a blessing. The God I trust is the One who spreads sheltering wings over all the people in the night, guarding them, guiding them, and granting them peace. The God I pray to takes note of our afflictions and takes up our struggles, hears our prayers for every illness, wound, and pain. The God I cry out to listens when we call for the voice of liberty to be heard and for the oppressed to be redeemed.

The Eternal of my faith requires me to pursue justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. As I followed the President’s march from the White House to his staged photo opportunity in front of St. John’s, I witnessed his pursuit of retribution, not justice. I witnessed his love of violence, not mercy. In his faithless taking up of the sacred word of God, I witnessed blasphemy and no humble walk with God. 

As our cities burn, the God I believe in calls us to think deeply about the uprisings. God commands an honest accounting for the real reasons behind them. God demands our dedication to overcome them. We are a nation physically gripped and emotionally exhausted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no end in sight. Its economic impact is devastating. Given 400 years of evidence, further proof of racial inequity and injustice was unnecessary, but the pandemic has laid bare the socioeconomic truth that African Americans, Latinx Americans, and Native Americans are being disproportionately infected and dying, and people of color are experiencing even greater unemployment and underemployment than they were before. In communities of color, the suffering is greater. Recovery will take longer, if it comes at all.

Emmanuel Levinas taught us that our responsibility to the other is infinite. Our responsibility is of such a magnitude that it drowns out the noise of anything we’ve accomplished. There is nothing to rest on. Since Ferguson, some of us, the CCAR, and the Movement have made limited progress in understanding our own racism, the racism of our institutions, and the malignant, systemic racism in our country. But let’s not kid ourselves. Nothing is dismantled and infinitely more is demanded. 

So I share the following points:

1. Our covenant is eternal. God commands us to be in the struggle for the rest of our lives. And by our lives, to inspire and guide our children to carry on for the rest of their lives. We can’t ever turn away.

2. Black Lives Matter. To BLM, in our context, I suggest a second BLM: 

B = Believe.
L = Listen.
M = Maintain support from behind Black and Brown leaders.

3. Locate God now. The cries we hear are God’s cries. The tears that fall are God’s tears. God is reaching for help to raise this burden from God’s shoulders.

4. We are commanded to be in the struggle for the rest of our lives. The covenantal relationship is forever. A b’rit olam. Covenant is not convenience. But it is rooted in chesed. Not sappy chesed, not “loving kindness,” but chesed how Rabbi Brad Artson teaches it: Chesed as resilient love. The root of our covenant with God, the basis of our covenant with each other, is a resilient love that invites us surpass ourselves and to risk growth.[i] The resilient love of our covenant means we can be a part of great team, a team where no one plays just for themselves and everyone plays for each other. Keep showing up.

These ideas are based upon the same text: Moses at the burning bush.[ii] Larry Kushner teaches us the burning bush was not a miracle. The bush was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention. Only when Moses really paid attention, did God reveal himself to our teacher…There is another world, right here, when we pay attention. [iii]

Here is our test: Pay attention. Believe and listen to the experiences of people of color, especially Jews of Color. Check our motivations and resist that temptation of white privilege, to pretend we have Superman capes. Our test is to maintain support from behind black and brown leaders.

Last point, same text: Moses at the bush. From the depths of hell in the Warsaw Ghetto, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Esh Kodesh, gave his disciples a gift: he taught his Chasidim that the covenant is not only eternal. It is also interdependent. God needs us. When God called, “Moses Moses” from the burning bush, God did so desperately and without pause, like one who struggles beneath an unbearable weight. When God cried out to Moses, God was asking for help. God was asking for relief from the unbearable burden of witnessing the suffering of humanity. [iv]

Rather than teaching a simplistic faith or the belief that suffering is somehow part of some greater, cosmic plan, the rebbe reminded them that we are in an interdependent, covenantal relationship with God. The b’rit binds us together forever. When God called, “Moses Moses” from the burning bush, God did so desperately and without pause, like a person struggling beneath an unbearable weight. When God cried out to Moses, God was asking for help. God was asking for relief from the unbearable burden of witnessing the suffering of humanity.

Our responsibility is infinite. The covenant and chesed’s resilient love demands we stay in this for the rest of our lives. Believe. Listen. Support from behind. God is crying out from the burden of witnessing this suffering.

The God I believe in cries out to us now. The God I place my faith in calls us to pursue racial equity and justice in our country, in our cities, and in our synagogue. The God I turn to and the God I invite you to be in relationship with is the God who commands kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name and the opposite of birkat HaShem. Let us sanctify and make holy the name of God by the ways we live our lives. As it is written, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, am holy.

Amen.


[i]  Bradley Shavit Artson, The God of Becoming and RelationshipThe Dynamic Nature of Process Theology
[ii]  Exodus 3:1-4:17
[iii]  Lawrence Kushner, God was in This Place, and I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality, & Ultimate Meaning 
[iv]  Esh KodeshVayikra, March 16, 1940


Rabbi David Spinrad serves as the senior rabbi of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. He loves to laugh and believes the covenant is rooted in a love that is greater than the sum of our individual parts.

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News

Walking the Plank

Our twin themes of the 2019 CCAR Convention in Cincinnati are the celebrations of both the 130th birthday of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the 200th birthday of Isaac Mayor Wise. Although four more years would pass before Wise established the CCAR in 1889, our auspicious co-anniversaries prompted me to revisit our 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. While some of the Platform’s planks no longer support us – our movement’s embrace of ritual observance has certainly swung far away from the Pittsburgh Platform and our fidelity to Israel shapes Reform Jewish identity – many of Pittsburgh’s planks are as sturdy today as they were then. My particular favorite is the 8th and final plank:

In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.

Join me at the Convention on Wednesday, April 3, from 11 AM – 1 PM for a “Tour of Two Cities,” a special off-site program that will bring the “contrasts and evils of the present” into sharp relief as we explore two sides of economic development: urban renewal and gentrification. Together, we will walk the plank through Cincinnati’s historic, working class Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood, exploring the complex changes and challenges brought on by OTR’s rapid boom and transformation.

We will enter OTR via the Cincinnati Bell Connector, itself a source of controversy regarding both its route and who the streetcar serves, before arriving at Washington Park for consecutive walking tours of the neighborhood. We will travel over to and up Vine Street before returning to Washington Park, as together we will witness OTR’s incredible commercial and residential development, asking ourselves critical questions and seeking answers that may also apply in our own communities. We will be led on our tours by Eric Avner, Senior Program Manager of Community Development for the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation, and Dr. Mark Mussman, Director of Education for the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and tentatively hope that our colleague Rabbi Lucy Dinner will help offer a Jewish frame to our conversation. Our excursion will conclude with an optional pizza lunch at Venice-on-Vine, a pre-employment training and job placement program for individuals with barriers to employment.

Register For Convention Now

Rabbi David Spinrad serves Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, VA.

Categories
Reform Judaism Social Justice

Standing as Witness and Capable Ally in Voter Protection

Today is Election Day. Along with my wife, colleagues at The Temple Rabbis Peter Berg, Loren Filson Lapidus, Lydia Medwin, an inspiringly large number of our congregants, Reform rabbis and other Jewish leaders from across North America, including CCAR’s own Rabbi Steve Fox, I am in Macon, Georgia, to partner with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to provide non-partisan election protection. We will be in the field to monitor polls to ensure that those who desire to vote are able to cast their ballots for their candidate of choice, freely exercising their Constitutional right to vote. Our work is part of the Religious Action Center’s Nitzavim campaign, a national voter rights initiative of our movement’s Racial Justice Campaign.

What I say about all of this work is simply an incredulous, “Really?!” In 2016, is the freedom to vote still an issue? Why yes, my dear, sheltered, Northern California boy, the unfettered right to vote is still in peril and a cloud of voter suppression tactics with racist overtones hangs above Macon.

Here in Atlanta at The Temple, we have been working within our own version of the RAC’s Reflect/Relate/Reform model. Responding to our congregation’s call to honor our legacy of the Civil Rights Movement by getting current on racial inequality and working harder and smarter to create a just society for all, we spent the better part of the past summer and into the fall doing difficult and sometimes painful reflective work. It has not been easy to own up to our own implicit biases, racism, and our failures to stand as witness and inabilities to act as capable allies and I suspect we have a ways to go. I know I do. Truth be told, six months ago I do not believe we would been able to see or have been able to respond to race-based threats of voter disenfranchisement. But the threats are real.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder no longer requires certain jurisdictions to demonstrate to either the Attorney General or a federal court in Washington, D.C., that any proposed voting change is not discriminatory before that change can be implemented, we are now living in a society in which a core measure of the Voting Rights Act has been undone. We now can see better what we could not have seen before we undertook this work. Much of today’s racism flourishes because for too long we acted like the Civil Rights Movement was a singular and eternal victory for righteousness and that the problems, inequalities, and injustices of today were not based on racist, discriminatory, and under the guise of modern colorblindness, legal practices.

We have a long road ahead of us to fulfill the vision of the Beloved Community, but we are walking together in partnership with each other and with churches and organizations representing and led by people of color. I could not be more proud of the Reform Movement’s awakening to racial inequality and as we head to Macon to fulfill our commitment, I know with every ounce of my being that our work will be on the right side of history.

Rabbi David Spinrad serves The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.