Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

My Broken & Filled Heart: A Takeaway From the 2015 Consultation on Conscience 

My heart is full and my heart is breaking. That’s my take away from this week’s Consultation on Conscience.

Sure, my heart is full because of the formal program that the RAC put together–powerful speakers who were inspiring and challenging. And yes, we had some incredible moments as we celebrated David Saperstein and Jonah Pesner. But my heart is full because here at this conference, I encountered colleagues and lay leaders who share the thirst for justice. My heart is full because I am surrounded by a community who cares, and a community who is ready to work.

At the same time, this conference has also exposed my broken heart. Yesterday, I participated in a Rabbis Organizing Rabbis workshop in which participants shared stories of injustice in their own communities. One woman in my group told about how she noticed how the extra food in her synagogue’s fridge disappeared, only to realize it was the janitorial staff taking it home to feed their families. Another woman told about how she felt powerless when she saw drug addiction in her community. Each of these stories, we realized, were symptoms of larger economic and racial structural injustices. Heartbreaking.

Dinner only brought more heartache. While sitting with colleagues talking about where we see racial and economic injustices in our communities, all we had to do was look up to what was happening on the TVs in the restaurant–news about the riots in Baltimore was just beginning to break.

Consultation has been about how we hold full and broken hearts together. It strikes me that that is also the message of Leviticus. We begin the book with the message that we need to get proximal to God (more on that language in a moment). The sacrificial system should bring us close to God. We know, though, about moments in which the community is distant. Nadab & Abihu, Aaron’s silence, and the affliction of tzora’at teach us that there are moments, both extreme and mundane, in which we are not the community we strive to be. But then enters kedushah. Be holy, be set apart as a people who know what the right and just thing to do is. In so doing, we bring ourselves back closer to God. Our hearts can break, and the prospect of holiness can make them full again.

This was the message of the most powerful speaker of the conference–Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s also a prophet and yodeah Sefer. As he described the blight of mass incarceration in the United States, I felt my heart breaking wide open. Horrific situations that we cannot even begin to imagine. Children jailed in dangerous and violent situations. Mental health being ignored behind bars, despite the consequences. But then, he called for love and kindness to fill us up. He is an optimist, and he offered a heart-full prescription for what we can do to make things a bit more just: (1) We have to get proximate to the people who are affected by the injustice. We can’t only read about it. We need to get into relationship with those affected by injustice. (2) We need to change the narrative around faith and race. (3) We should protect our hopefulness, insisting on believing in things we have not yet seen. And (4), we should do uncomfortable things.

Hearts filled and hearts broken, this is an uncomfortable dichotomy. It is also real and energizing. I know that I now need to get to work.


Rabbi Neil Hirsch serves Temple Shalom in Newton, MA