Passover Pesach Social Justice

Each Person Must See Themselves As If They Went Out of Egypt

“In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt.”

This is my favorite line in the Haggadah.

In the Moss Haggadah, an illuminated text created by the artist David Moss, the page with this text depicts Jews from many different generations and places—Jews from ancient Middle Eastern countries, medieval European countries, colonial America, and so on. And in between each picture is a small mirror, so that when you look at the page, you see yourself along with all those Jews of different generations.

This year, when I look a the Moss Haggadah, I will see the faces of my maternal great-grandparents who came to the United States fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia in the 1890’s, and my paternal grandparents, who fled Nazi Germany in 1939. I’ll see my mother’s parents looking like folks straight out of a Sholom Aleichem play; I’ll see my dad’s father, age 7, in his lederhosen. I will add their faces that page of the Haggadah in my mind’s eye.

They told desperate stories to their families of their harrowing escapes, the laws they bent and broke to get out from under the tyranny of their native lands, and stories of the pride they felt in making it to America as refugees, as asylees. I will see I will see my maternal grandparents as they struggled to adapt to life in the United States, to learn English, to learn a new culture. I’ll see in the Moss Haggadah an image of my father’s parents as they spoke with tears in their eyes of all the family they left behind.

And then I will see– there on the pages of the story of our exodus from Egypt, the story of the miracles it took to free us—I’ll see those mirrors on the page. I will see myself—not as a refugee, but as a witness.

And I will see, if I squint hard enough, the faces of my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. I will hear a question in their eyes. I will hear them asking, “What did you do in your generation to live out the Torah’s admonition, ‘In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt?’ What did you do, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, in your time, when people were facing persecution, fleeing the only homes they’d ever known, seeking asylum? What did you do?”

And what will I say? Will I say, “well, my children, there was nothing I could do”? Or will I say, “well, my children, it was a different time, because it wasn’t Jews who were fleeing”? Or will I say something else? Will I perhaps tell a story of which I am proud, of a time when the Jewish people, when the majority of people of conscience in my home country stood up for the rights of those whose lives were under threat in their native lands?

That is what I will reflect on this Passover as I look in those mirrors, as I see faces of future generations staring back at me. The mirrors are a little blurry. This story is not yet written. We still have a choice. I pray that I will write—that we as a nation will write—a story we can proudly tell our children. I pray that when they open this page of the Haggadah and see us, that they will smile with pride, and be agitated to be matir asurim, those who free captives, in their own time.

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher serves Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. 


Sinat Chinam

We have just observed Tisha B’Av- the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. One of the least understood of the Jewish holy days, Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, the release of the edict of the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and other terrible events in Jewish history. Jewish tradition asks: Why was the second temple destroyed? The rabbinic answer? Sinat chinam— baseless hatred. The rabbis believed that hateful speech can destroy a temple, can destroy a community, can destroy a nation.

I remember when I first was studying the amendments to the United States constitution in 7th grade. Our teacher, Mr. Buncis, taught us a profound lesson one day: that even our most dearly held rights have limits. When we challenged him on that statement with regards to the 1st amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, asserting, as 7th graders are wont to do, that freedom of speech is absolute, he said, “not according to Oliver Wendell Holmes.”

At that time, we didn’t know who Oliver Wendell Holmes was, and, Mr. Buncis being who he was, wasn’t about to make it easy on us. He cancelled class, sent us to the library, and told us to not come back until we knew whom Oliver Wendell Holmes was, and why Mr. Buncis would reference him in this context.

So off we went to the library, unaccompanied. Off we went to look at actual books. If we had only had Wikipedia back in those dark and hormone-filled days, we would have been back in a flash. But we had to wade through actual tomes, card catalogues, biographies. I made my way to the World Book Encyclopedia, selected the volume for the letter “H,” and began to read what you may already know.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932. As I began to read about him, someone else from my class, from deep in the recesses of the stacks of the Brookwood Intermediate School library, shouted out “clear and present danger!” I didn’t know what that meant, so I went back to reading about Holmes. There is so much to say about him; he was a veteran of the American Civil War. Among other things during his long tenure on the Supreme Court, he advocated broad freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Reading this, I wondered why Mr. Buncis pointed us in his direction? Wouldn’t Holmes have agreed with us 7th graders– that there should be no limits on freedom of speech?

It might seem that way, but it turns out that even Oliver Wendell Holmes, champion of free speech in America, understood that there were limits.

In 1919, Holmes wrote for the majority in the Supreme Court in a case called Shenk v. United States. In the opinion he writes, quote:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. […] The question in every case, [Holmes writes] is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

Shouting fire in a theater– I’d heard that phrase before, but didn’t know where it came from. Clear and present danger– I loved that movie, but I didn’t know that Oliver Wendell Holmes had coined the phrase.

So it turns out that our right to free speech isn’t unfettered; when our speech is designed to cause panic, when it seeks to incite evil, we are not free to utter those words, and more, we must be held accountable for our language, lest the walls of our temple coming tumbling down.

There are moments when words bother me, when a person says something I simply abhor, but I choose not to pick that fight, because I know that the person has the right to speak their mind, even if I think they’re wrong. It’s the First Amendment at work, just like Oliver Wendell Holmes would have suggested.

And then there are other moments- times when I can’t stay silent, when, I believe, people of faith and conscience can’t stay silent, because what is going on in society is so seismic, so utterly inconsistent with our values, that silence becomes consent. There are moments when someone is shouting fire in a theater, and we have to recognize it for what it is– intentionally panic inducing, evil inciting, creating a clear and present danger.

This is such a moment. This is a moment when I wonder what I would tell my children if they later asked me why I said nothing.

Let’s be clear. There are deep differences in political philosophy in this congregation and in this country. There are those who believe that government should be minimally involved in the lives of American citizens, and those who believe that government has a larger role. I respect those differences; they stem back to the founding of our great nation, to the room where it happened.

As a rabbi, I want to foster healthy, respectful dialogue about these political differences; I intend to help my community be perhaps one of the few places in our modern lives where we can disagree without being disagreeable. I intend, too, for the community I lead to be proudly political without being partisan: I believe that Judaism demands both things of us. What I am addressing here is not about partisanship. It is about about is how we should treat, approach, respond to a person– any person, of any political persuasion, who falsely shouts fire in a theater to cause panic, to incite evil.

There’s a long and inglorious history of American politicians saying things that are vile and reprehensible. But even against that, the current political climate is extreme.

With which shouts shall we start? There is a candidate for President who implied that gun rights fanatics might consider taking the law into their own hands should the wrong presidential candidate be elected or the wrong judge be appointed. That any presidential candidate of any political party might speak in such a way that leaves it open to interpretation and the debate of talking heads whether or not he meant to advocate for the assassination of his political opponent is morally, spiritually, ethically, and religiously irresponsible at best, and criminal at worst. I condemn this furor-whipping, and I look forward to seeing the condemnation of his words by peoples of all faiths and no faith, by people from every political persuasion. The first amendment right to free speech is limited in certain ways, and this rhetoric steps way over the line.

Yes, the first amendment gives anyone the right to say vile, reprehensible things– denigrating women, mocking people with disabilities,  berating war heroes and their families. That is their first amendment right, as hard as that is to believe, as much as it makes me angry as a Jew, as a human being.

But when a presidential candidate uses his or her pulpit to expound racial hatred over and over again; when they consistently vow to ban an entire group of people from entering this country based on their religion; when a person proudly proclaims they can shoot people on the streets of New York with impunity; and when they imply that violence against someone they disagree with might be warranted, such a person has gone beyond the realm of politics and political party. They have gone beyond what our founders meant when they crafted the 1st Amendment. Mr. Buncis taught me that. Oliver Wendell Holmes taught me that. And our vast Jewish experience teaches us this lesson as well.

When a candidate for the most powerful elected office in the world speaks in this way, they are falsely shouting fire in a theater. They seek not to convince us of their perspective, but rather, they intend to incite panic and fear. They seek to sow seeds of anger. They seek to fan the flames of hatred. When they do this, they are not even pretending to expound a particular political philosophy; they skip right over that legitimate endeavor to incite mistrust, to dehumanize races and classes and genders and ethnicities. Sinat chinam— baseless hatred– is such a person’s stock in trade when they use this language. And, as we see over and over in videos from rallies this election cycle, these strategies work. People who are fed angry, hateful messages are whipped into an angry, hateful frenzy.

I urge you to take time now to consider the sinat chinam, the baseless hatred, that is being spewed in our nation today. Consider well whether you will be silent, for fear of being accused of violating the right to free speech, or whether you will speak out. The walls of the temple of American democracy are trembling.

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher serves Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. 

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Treading the Waters of Injustice

My head is swimming.

Not just with the heat of an 18 mile march on a cloudless summer day; not just with the bottles of water and Gatorade, although it is swimming for those reasons.

My head is swimming with pride at being a Reform rabbi in this moment; never have I been prouder. Never have I felt the power of the collective impact we can have in the sacred work of repair than I did on one long day. Our presence there was felt and appreciated; our willingness to accompany, to listen, was so valued, so noticed. We matter, as Reform rabbis, in this space and on this march. What it will mean beyond September is yet to be determined; it is for us to determine it. But in the moment, I cannot underscore how much it meant to me and to our fellow marchers that we engaged in a ministry of presence, teaching Torah with our feet, with our hearts, with our ears, and with an actual Torah!

My head is swimming with the heartbreaking and heart-filling stories I heard along highway 29 in Troup County, GA – the county with the ninth widest gap between rich and poor in the entire United States.

I heard the story of Royal who is, like me, afraid to watch his son pull the car out their driveway; realizing that the reason Royal is worried is because of the real fear that his son could end up dead after a routine traffic stop left my head swimming.

I heard the story of a Georgia State Trooper who was at the forum on voter justice; he was ostensibly there “just” for our safety, but as a colleague spoke to him at the end of the forum, it was clear that his eyes were opened. Having heard about the new and regressive laws coming forward in Georgia regarding voter registration, the trooper said, “Man — my father may not be able to vote; he was born at home and so doesn’t have a birth certificate.”

My head is swimming with the desperation in Jonathan’s eyes when I asked him why he was marching. “Why am I marching?” he nearly yelled. “People are dying! This country is failing to live up to its promise! Why am I marching? Because we have to wake this country up!”

I’m swimming with the optimism of Keshia who quit her job to walk the entire 860 mile journey. At the end, she’s moving to Detroit to start a not-for-profit that will help people start small businesses in their own communities.

My head is swimming with possibilities, inspired by the local political science professor who regularly reads the Georgia constitution with his students, as each proposed change to state voting laws is considered. He regularly calls into the Attorney General’s office in the middle of class to point out the unconstitutionality of a new statute. He and his students regularly are a part of stemming the tide of injustice, and his students learn firsthand that they can make change in the world.

My head is swimming with the shock and awe of having read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, all in the space of two weeks. Each of these texts is a must-read for those who wish to understand something of where we are in this country with regards to racial injustice, for those who wish to understand how got here, for those who believe that this is all about a few “bad apple” police officers or about people who “refuse to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

I’m angry.

I’m angry at myself. Angry at how willfully blind I’ve been.

I’m angry at the system we have created and perpetuated and codified to ensure that there are two different systems of “liberty and justice for all,” at the ways in which Jim Crow is still alive and well and living all over our great country.

Are you angry? Do you want to do something about it? I don’t have answers yet, but my head is swimming– drowning, really. Will you jump into these scary, unfamiliar rip-tide waters with me?

Joel Mosbacher serves Beth Haverim Shir Shalom Synagogue in Mahwah, NJ.  

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s blog. 



Rabbis Organizing Rabbis: The Power of Acting Together

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher

Do we want to truly act as a Movement?

That was the hard question a few rabbis asked each other in a hotel in Chicago in the fall of 2011.

We all had had experiences acting as individuals who were part of a conference, as individuals who came together periodically in hotels all over the country, to share those experiences and learn from each other. But while we couldn’t fully imagine what we meant, we knew that wasn’t it. So we tried the question in different ways– with ourselves, and then with a broadening circle of rabbinic colleagues.

Have you ever wanted to act on an issue but couldn’t because you were alone?

If you could act on an issue together with 400 other rabbis, what would that feel like?

If you could act on an issue together with 400 other rabbis, what would that issue be?

 An amazing thing emerged as we began to test drive those questions. We began to sense that we were on to something– a hunger for connectivity, a desire to amplify our voices for justice at the center of the rabbinate, and a need to do so with colleagues in a way that hadn’t been done in decades.

A year and a half of exploration ensued. It wasn’t always smooth or easy. We challenged each other on the viability, on even the advisability of such an effort. We asked the most important thought partners in our Reform Movement what they heard in their questions, and they responded generously with encouragement, excitement, support, and more hard questions that made us get clearer on the vision we had.

What began to emerge was a vision of rabbis engaged in deep conversation, challenging as that might be across North America. We began to hear common themes– the desire to act powerfully as a rabbinate, and a remarkable sense that, as diverse as we are, we all want the same essential things for our world. And we began to see the outlines of the kind of power we could bring to bear on the most critical justice issues of our day.

I believe that we will look back at the Long Beach CCAR Convention as a defining moment in the Reform rabbinate. We will look back on a plenary in which more 541053_10151326700004506_2031580770_n
than 300 rabbis held their breath (not an easy thing for us rabbis) and cried tears of indignation when we heard the story of a “dreamer.” We will not soon forget the moments when we were called to “Nishmah,” to reflect on our own immigration stories, thinking at first we did not have them, and soon realizing just how deep our own stories actually were. And we will, none of us, forget those thought leaders standing in unity with all of us as we said together, “Na’aseh,” let us act as one.

A year and a half has brought us to this moment, and in so very many ways the journey and the real work and opportunity has just begun. There are so many hard questions that we must still answer. But there is a question we answered in Long Beach, and it is a question and answer that has the potential to define our legacy and change the world. The question we couldn’t answer, 12 of us in a hotel lobby in Chicago was, “Do we want to act as a movement?” The resounding answer in Long Beach was, “yes.”

Let us begin, together.

To join the efforts of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, text Naaseh to 877-877

and join the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Facebook group

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher is rabbi of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, New Jersey.