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Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Teaching and Preaching with The Social Justice Torah Commentary

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).

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Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Harassment-Free Jewish Spaces: Our Leaders Must Answer to a Higher Standard

In this excerpt from The Social Justice Torah CommentaryRabbi Mary L. Zamore, Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, draws on Parashat Vayikra to call for holding Jewish leaders accountable.

Yes, it is awful that he said those things. They are totally inappropriate, but he is a beloved member of our clergy team, a founder of our congregation. We must recognize that he only yells at our professional staff and lay leaders when he is stressed.

She just has trouble with boundaries, but she’s harmless. If we hold her accountable, she may leave the temple, which would be devastating. After all, she donates hours and hours to our synagogue. She is irreplaceable. The staff just needs to avoid her. We will remind her not to go to the staff members’ homes without permission.

We all know his behavior is not right, so we will make sure he does not meet with women alone. He’s going to retire soon. There is no reason to ruin his otherwise stellar reputation. Retirement is just a few years away. Maybe we can encourage him to leave sooner.

He has suffered enough by his sexual harassment coming to light. However, his contributions to the Jewish community are far too numerous not to quote him. Whom else could we cite? And why mention this dark spot on an otherwise sterling career?

Above is a compilation of remarks reflecting many real cases in the Jewish community, conflated here to illustrate a theme. The common thread is a lack of accountability for the productive perpetrator. This is the professional or lay leader in a congregation or institution who is successful in their work, yet has substantiated accusations of sexual assault, harassment, or abusive/bullying behavior against them. They are trusted and beloved, generous with their time and/or money; they excel in their field. And because of their success, their community will never hold them accountable for their bad behavior—even though it endangers the community’s atmosphere of safety and respect—leaving a wake of damage in their path. Often working to keep the behavior and its negative impact unknown to the wider world, community leaders act as if the bad behavior is an unavoidable tax for the benefits the community reaps from the productive perpetrator’s presence and work. However, Parashat Vayikra teaches us the exact opposite, commanding us to hold our leaders accountable to a higher standard.

Vayikra outlines the rituals for different types of sacrifices: olah (עֹלָה), burnt offerings; minchah (מִנְחָה), meal offerings; sh’lamin (שְׁלָמִים), well-being offerings; chatat (חַטָּאת), purgation offerings; and asham (אָשָׁם), reparation offerings. While on the surface this portion reads like a simple instruction book for the sacrifices, it is infused with foundational values. Holding our leaders accountable for their actions is intrinsic to the biblical design of the ancient sacrificial cult and the accompanying priesthood, as we can observe in the parashah’s commandments.

The Israelite sacrificial cult is designed to function in an atmosphere of radical transparency. After the engaging narratives of Genesis and Exodus, it is easy to overlook the revolutionary nature of Leviticus. The laws regulating the sacrifices were given to the entire people of Israel, not just to the elite class of priests. There were no esoteric, secret rituals known only to the kohanim, the priestly class. Furthermore, sacrifices were performed publicly. As The Torah: A Women’s Torah Commentary explains, “Although Leviticus preserves the priests’ privileged monopoly regarding the service at the altar and its sacrifices, these instructions demystify the priests’ role by making knowledge about their activities known to every Israelite.”1 Coupled with the prohibition against land ownership by priests (Numbers 18:20), universal access to the law equalized power in the Israelite community. Kohanim were supposed to facilitate the community’s efforts to draw near to God rather than amass power for themselves.

The public viewing of offerings also created accountability. The Hebrew term eidah, “community,” is related to eid,“witness.”2 If a priest inadvertently made a mistake or knowingly deviated from the prescribed rites, the Israelites would know because they could witness the offerings in real time. The elevated status of the kohanim in the community required that they be held to a high standard. Parashat Vayikra demands a rigorous method of atonement for the priests’ misdeeds, whether they were known to the public (Leviticus 4:3) or not (Leviticus 4:13). It should be noted that the Torah also holds chieftains to a standard higher than that of ordinary Israelites (Leviticus 4:22), but not as high as the priests. This portion clearly teaches that the greater one’s status is in the community, the more accountable they must be for their actions.

The full chapter can be found in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, which delves deeply into each week’s parashah to address pressing contemporary issues such as racism, climate change, immigration, disability, and many more.


1. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss (New York: Reform Judaism Publishing, an imprint of CCAR Press, and Women of Reform Judaism, 2007), 571.

2. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, 580.


Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. She is the editor of The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic and The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, both published by CCAR Press.

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Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

“Rabbi, We Want to Hear about Torah, Not Politics!”

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 confront injustice. In this excerpt from the introduction, he discusses how the book’s contributors approach the biblical text.

“Rabbi, we want to hear Torah, not politics, from the bimah.” Every rabbi has heard this refrain, and many echo it. The plea, though, has always been discordant to my ears. No, I don’t preach “politics,” which I define narrowly in this context as taking to the pulpit to endorse or oppose a candidate for elective office. I understand Torah to be the Jewish people’s primary teaching about how to live our lives, individually and collectively. Torah shaped our covenantal people in formation in ancient Israel and Judea, establishing fundamental norms—regarding ritual matters, yes, but even more, in legislating society’s obligations toward individuals and vice versa.

The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 offers a microcosm of the Torah’s dual emphasis. Famously beginning “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), the Holiness Code proceeds in the very next verse to tell us how to achieve this lofty, overarching goal of being holy. It first articulates an obligation toward other human beings, namely our parents, and then proceeds without pause to what may be viewed as a ritual commandment, the obligation to observe Shabbat. As the passage continues, injunctions to avoid idolatry and specific regulations about consumption of sacrifices are interspersed among directives about fair labor practices, care for the aged, and providing for the poor and needy. The message is clear: Israel serves God no less by pursuing social justice than through proper worship.

Even commandments that appear to regulate exclusively ritual matters often have ethical ends. For example, Professor Ruhama Weiss and Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz will persuasively argue in these pages that the laws of kashrut (dietary regulations) cannot be fulfilled absent fair labor practices and the ethical treatment of animals. Thanks to Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, we will see that requiring purification for a person who has given birth, a practice out of use since Temple times and abhorrent on its surface, must inspire us to demand that our society ensure proper reproductive health care for all people. And Rabbi Craig Lewis will excavate the detailed regulations for creating the priests’ bejeweled choshen (breastplate), marshaling parshanut (commentary) alongside gemology to formulate a persuasive argument for equity in education.

Rabbis and others who articulate social justice arguments are sometimes accused—not always unfairly—of basing a complex and controversial assertion about society merely on a pithy phrase from Torah, such as one of the three aforementioned beloved passages, with little depth. This volume is both an antidote to that accusation and a refutation of it. Here, a diverse array of members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) and our colleagues in other movements, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion faculty, Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) staff, and lay leaders1 build their social justice arguments on robust and creative employment of parshanut haTorah (Torah commentary), including academic biblical exegesis, classical midrash and commentary, modern midrash, and more.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer begins his chapter with the familiar verse “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger” (Numbers 15:15), but he does not reach his conclusion about the rights of immigrants until he has drawn on sources as diverse as the Talmud, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dennis Prager, Ibram X. Kendi, and the Brown-Driver-Briggs biblical lexicon. While Rabbi Tom Alpert begins his commentary with “justice, justice…,” (Shof’tim), he builds his argument about the ongoing need to uproot the sin of racist lynching by turning to the next verses, an apparently ritual commandment forbidding the Israelites from erecting “a sacred post,” a form of idolatry.

The Social Justice Torah Commentary is not, therefore, a book “about” social justice, nor, even in its breadth, does it seek to address every ill that faces our world. Instead, it probes deeply into each Torah portion to shape an argument that confronts injustice in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. I am grateful for the learning, teaching, and creativity of the contributors who enable CCAR Press and me to place The Social Justice Torah Commentary into your hands.


1. Many of the authors fall into more than one of these categories.


The Social Justice Torah Commentary is now available from CCAR Press. Browse the table of contents here.


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 The Mussar Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).

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Books CCAR Press Social Justice

CCAR Press Author Interview: Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz on ‘Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary’

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, published by CCAR Press in 2018. The book examines this classic collection of rabbinic wisdom through the lens of contemporary issues and moral philosophy. In this interview, he discusses his unique approach and what readers can take away from the book.

Why did you choose Pirkei Avot as the text for your first social justice commentary?

Pirkei Avot is a startlingly awesome work that consists of timeless life wisdom. Each time I read these stunning rabbinic texts, I feel a deep, burning challenge to strive more robustly for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. Pirkei Avot is a work that continues to keep me focused on this spiritual journey. It also serves as a reminder that the challenging, and urgent, societal work of advocating for ethics and justice starts with our own personal reflection, refinement, and character growth.

Pirkei Avot was written two thousand years ago. What makes it relevant to readers today?

Indeed, with many ancient texts, there needs to be a big leap in interpretation for them to be perfectly relevant in our day. So much has changed since the biblical and rabbinic eras. But this is not the case, I believe, with Pirkei Avot. If we feel called to ensure that a singular Jewish charge—the spark of Jewish life and learning—is kept alive and relevant for the generations to come, then Pirkei Avot may be the best set of classical Jewish texts to engage future generations.

Did writing this book change any of your perspectives?

It is easy for many of us, myself included, to be swept away by conformity, on a progressive bandwagon where the newest way of thinking ultimately becomes the greatest. Immersing in learning and commenting on Pirkei Avot reminded me that what enables Judaism to be so eternally cherished is not only our ability to evolve to the new moment, but also our most classical virtues of the past such as humility, consistency, and respect. Pirkei Avot reignites a flame where these values once again become exciting and relevant as an essential complement to postmodern thought and progressive action.

Pirkei Avot was followed by your second CCAR Press volume, The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary. Despite their similar approach, what makes the two books different?

From my perspective as a Jewish traditionalist, progressive social justice activist—and a dedicated pluralist—the Book of Jonah is remarkable in its ability to speak to many populations at once. In this sense of moral relevancy, it is quite similar to Pirkei Avot. On the other hand, the literary genre of the biblical work of Jonah could not be more different from the rabbinic dispensary of wisdom found in Pirkei Avot. The rabbis are concrete, direct, and prescriptive, whereas the Book of Jonah is abstract, perplexing, and descriptive. The two works can inform each other—Jonah zooms in to the individual’s particularistic journey and Avot zooms out to the universalistic human journey.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press, among many other books.

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Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Editing ‘The Social Justice Torah Commentary’ in the Crucible of 2020

When I proposed The Social Justice Torah Commentary to the CCAR Press Council in December 2019, we were already in the midst of a heated presidential campaign—but then, aren’t we always? I could not have predicted the divisions and threats to democracy that were ahead. Some epidemiologists were already aware of COVID-19, but I was not. Though I had been engaged in racial justice issues for years—even specifically regarding extrajudicial executions of Black suspects by police—I could not foresee the murder of George Floyd or the way our nation would be both galvanized and divided by that crime and the protests that followed.

All that is to say that I did not expect and was not prepared to edit a Torah commentary focused on social justice in the crucible that was 2020. Contributors proposed their topics and wrote for the book during the spring, summer, and fall of last year. Though the book is dated and will be published in 2021, virtually every word of it was written and edited in 2020.

In the midst of the editing, I expressed a concern to Rafael Chaiken, Director of CCAR Press: Would the book be relevant by the time of its publication, let alone for years thereafter? So many chapters make reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, which I incorrectly imagined would be over long before the book would be in print.

Rafael calmed me. First, he reminded me that he and I had edited passages that seemed particularly tied to current events to make them more universal. Moreover, when contributing authors delved into problems that were brought into sharp relief while they were writing, they addressed larger and more timeless concerns. Even Rabbi Asher Knight’s piece on Parashat M’tzora, which addresses inequities revealed by the pandemic, is not written as a newsmagazine piece, calling for change limited to the moment of its authorship. Instead, Rabbi Knight addresses inequality that transcends the COVID-19 crisis: longstanding plagues in our healthcare system and the problematic ways people view those who are stricken. Yes, a large percentage of the book’s chapters confront racial injustice, but I hasten to note that the subject matter of virtually every commentary in the book was proposed before the murder of George Floyd.

Racial injustice is America’s most persistent and vexing malady. The summer of 2020 was a symptom of an infinitely larger problem, and no chapter of the book exclusively addresses the events of that time. Many of the commentaries on racial justice are not directly related to criminal (in)justice—including, among many others, Rabbi David Spinrad’s description of the way that systemic racism impacts access to water (Tol’dot), Ilana Kaufman’s argument for celebrating Jews of Color in our midst (B’midbar), and Rabbi Judith Schindler’s discussion of reparations (Eikev).

I am grateful, too, for contributors who proposed and wrote about injustices that are no less acute for their not having been one of the three issues most in the public eye in 2020. For example, Rabbi Marla Feldman addresses gender pay equity (B’reishit­), Student Rabbi Evan Traylor confronts toxic masculinity (Vayishlach), and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss highlights mortality in childbirth (Tazria). These teachers remind us, as if we needed to be reminded, that gender equality remains an unrealized dream. I could claim that Rabbi Mary Zamore is prescient in addressing harassment in Jewish spaces (Vayikra), a topic that would explode in 2021, had Rabbi Zamore, like Rabbi Hara Person and others, not been spotlighting the issue throughout her career. 

We could be forgiven for thinking that every year is election year in Israel, so 2020 was nothing special in that arena. Still, Israel is at the focus of several of our contributors’ offerings—for example, Rabbi Jeremy Barras’s chapter on the social justice imperative of supporting Israel (Lech L’cha), Rabbi Naamah Kelman’s piece on marriage inequality in Israel (Chayei Sarah), Rabbi Jill Jacobs’s critique of occupation (B’har), Rabbi Ethan Bair’s plea that we hear the full range of voices in discussions of Israel (Korach), and Rabbi Noa Sattath’s focus on Jewish supremacy (Ki Tavo).

I am grateful that CCAR Press, our diverse contributors, and I are able to present a book that delves deeply into Torah to call for justice in areas far more varied than those that rightly absorbed so much of our attention in 2020—not to mention more varied than I could name here.

Most amazing is that dozens of CCAR rabbis, rabbis of other movements, and an ACC cantor were able to muster these brilliant articles at exactly the same time that we were preparing for the most challenging and unprecedented High Holy Days of our careers. And most did so without time off that came anywhere close to approaching their usual summer downtime. For that commitment and for the sacrifice it bespeaks, our readers may be grateful.


The Social Justice Torah Commentary will be published in November 2021 and is now available for pre-order. Browse the table of contents here. Those who pre-order are eligible to receive online access to the initial parashot to begin the year of Torah study. Forward your confirmation email to info@ccarpress.org to request access.


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is also the editor of  The Mussar Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).

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Books CCAR Press spirituality

CCAR Press Author Interview: Rabbis Goldberg and Zecher on ‘Because My Soul Longs for You’

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg and Rabbi Elaine Zecher are the coeditors of Because My Soul Longs for You: Integrating Theology into Our Lives, recently published by CCAR Press. In this interview, they discuss the development of the book and what readers can learn from it.

What inspired the creation of Because My Soul Longs for You?

Rabbi Zecher: In the 1990s, in preparation for the development of Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur, the CCAR embarked on a study of what today’s liturgy should look like. One of the findings was the need to include a diversity of theological expression in the experience of prayer. As we considered what might be possible, our colleague, Rabbi Elyse Frishman—editor of the new prayer book—presented the idea of a two-page spread to the editorial committee, allowing for a multivocal presentation of each prayer. As a result, many images of the Divine could be offered. We called it an “integrated theology” because the experience of the Divine is expressed in many ways and yet they are interconnected. Several years later, Mishkan HaNefesh: A Machzor for the Days of Awe carried this concept forward. As we reflected on the idea, we wanted to offer pathways to understand what it could mean through the experiences of our lives. Instead of viewing it as a specific theology, we regard integrated theology as what Rabbi Abraham Heschel called a depth theology, the actual experience of the Divine. We are inspired by the way we can share the story of our lives and the way the sacred becomes foundational to how we understand who we are.

What was the most challenging part of editing this book? 

Rabbi Goldberg: The most challenging part was defining the nature of the project. Originally we planned to present more intellectual views of God, all part of the normative Jewish spectrum of theology. The notion was not working, however, since we are not classically educated theologians. Once the concept of integrated theology became the focus of the book, everything fell in place. After that, the challenge was finding writers who could evoke the Divine in their lives in a way that was not too reductionist. We did not want a report of someone finding God in music, for instance; we wanted a record of a spiritual experience that involved music. It sounds the same, but it is not. One is a report, the other an experience. We were fortunate to succeed in finding the right people who lived their experiences and could share them so well. 

What is something new you personally learned while working on Because My Soul Longs for You? Did any of your own perspectives change? 

Rabbi Goldberg: I was astonished to learn about experiences that my colleagues had undergone of which I had no idea. There is so much trauma in people’s lives, and it is easy to forget this because we hide it so well. I like to say that spirituality is a dedication to reality at all costs. When editing this book, I saw people’s struggles, as well as their blessings, in a new light. This insight also helped me put my relatively minor challenges into a better perspective. Especially in this pandemic, the book affirms that we need each other, and we need God in our lives. And we really need God with others in our lives. I have missed that group experience of shared spirituality so much.  

What do you want readers to take away from the book? 

Rabbi Zecher: This book is a jumping off point for each of us to contemplate where we might not have considered God’s role in our lives, or our understanding of the sacred as implicit or explicit to what we believe to be true. The beauty of the storytelling offered within these pages is that it helps us identify something similar—or even different—but that may have been there all along. We also hope that it will help the individuals we work with and pastor every day in their own journey of discovery. If reading, studying, and considering their lives awakens their understanding of the Divine in a new way, then putting together the book has been a holy endeavor. 


The editors and contributors to Because My Soul Longs for You are available to teach by video on topics in the book. Email bookevents@ccarpress.org for more information.


Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg serves Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands, outside of Houston, Texas. He was an editor of Mishkan HaNefesh and Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh, also published by CCAR Press.

Rabbi Elaine S. Zecher is Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel of BostonMassachusetts. She was an editor of Mishkan HaNefesh, Machzor: Challenge and Change, Volume 2, and Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning, also published by CCAR Press.

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Books CCAR Press Torah

Abortion and Reproductive Justice: A Jewish Perspective

In light of the recent Texas anti-abortion law that has gone into effect, we are sharing this excerpt about reproductive justice from The Social Justice Torah Commentary, forthcoming in November 2021 from CCAR Press.

A study by the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of American Jews say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.1 American Jews’ widespread support for permissive abortion laws finds grounding in Jewish tradition’s approach to pregnancy and its end. Though the Torah makes no specific reference to any process resembling a modern abortion, the following passage from Parashat Mishpatim provides our tradition’s earliest guidance on the termination of a pregnancy:

When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:22–25)

The passage contrasts two scenarios in which two men are fighting and accidentally strike a nearby pregnant woman. The permutations differ only in who or what is harmed. In the first, only the fetus is lost, and the punishment is a monetary fine, paid to the woman’s husband. In the second, the woman herself is harmed or killed. There, the punishment is retributive: an eye for an eye and a nefesh—literally, “soul,” but in this case meaning a human life possessing personhood—for a nefesh. From this, we may derive the principle that a woman has the full status of a person, nefesh, while the fetus—though valued—has a lesser status.

The Mishnah expands this understanding of differential value by stating that if a woman’s life is threatened in childbirth, the fetus inside her can be destroyed, even to the point of “taking it out limb from limb, for her life comes before the fetus’s life.”2 Through the graphic language of this text, the Mishnaic author leaves no ambiguity as to whose life takes precedence. This text sets the standard from which all other halachah (Jewish law) on abortion flows. Later commentators debate in great detail the implications of this text, particularly the breadth or narrowness of the definition of a threat to the life of the woman.3 Some are more permissive of a range of emotional as well as physical impacts that could justify an abortion, while others understand the instances of permissibility with excruciating parsimony. Still, from the outset, Judaism can imagine some instances when an abortion would be permitted and even required.4

Furthermore, the Gemara concludes that prior to forty days, a fetus is not a person but rather is considered “mere water.”5  The debate about abortion in America hinges on questions related to what constitutes personhood and when life begins. But these are religious and spiritual questions, about which people of faith and conviction can disagree.

The Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that abortion is protected under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees a right to privacy, including a right to private medical procedures. For American Jews, the protection of access to abortion could also be understood under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. Because Jewish law permits abortion under certain circumstances as a morally acceptable choice, or even in some cases a halachic requirement, any law that limits a woman’s right to choose might limit a Jewish woman’s ability to make a decision in accordance with her religious beliefs. When people of faith seek to adopt laws asserting when life begins, they endeavor to enshrine their own religious understanding in law. In civic discourse, the fact that Judaism understands these issues differently can be a powerful antidote to the pervasive sense that religious voices are only to be found on one side of this debate. Judaism is unequivocally “pro-life” in that it values life in all its forms, both actualized and potential. But where that term has come to mean “anti-abortion,” then it is clear that Judaism allows for abortion under at least some circumstances and therefore calls us to advocate for civil laws that protect a woman’s right to access abortion services.

These texts and their subsequent interpretations are a vital resource for all of us who seek to affirm Jewish support for the choice to terminate a pregnancy and to advocate from a Jewish perspective for laws that protect reproductive choice. And we are called to go further; the law is only one facet of a full and holistic justice. Even as Parashat Mishpatim guides us to a choice-oriented understanding of abortion law, it also leaves us with the injustice of a silenced story.

The text in Exodus 21 begins with an act of violence perpetrated against a pregnant woman, and yet this woman is all but absent from subsequent conversation about this passage. Across the centuries, almost all of the voices of Jewish interpretation, and even many modern commentators, fail to acknowledge her story. The interpreters miss the opportunity to see her as subject, rather than object. To see the woman in this text as merely a hypothetical in a legal case study is to deny that cases such as these were very real to the people who experienced them. To reach a full sense of justice in our understanding of abortion, we must pair mishpatim (laws) with sipurim (stories). …

The full chapter by Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler and Rabbi Emily Langowitz appears in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block. To learn more and pre-order the book, visit socialjustice.ccarpress.org.


1. Pew Research Center, “Views about Abortion among Jews,” Religious Landscape Study, 2014, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape- study/religious-tradition/jewish/views-about-abortion/.

2. Mishnah Ohalot 7:6.

3. We recognize the complexity of this term and acknowledge that it is not only women who experience pregnancy and abortion and also that not all women can experience pregnancy. We offer this word for simplicity but intend it to include a broad range of experiences and identities.

4. Many trace the split between lenient and strict positions to Rashi and Maimonides, respectively. See Rashi’s comment on Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzei-ach Ushmirat Nefesh 1:9. Rashi defines the fetus as non-nefesh (in keeping with our passage in Exodus), while Maimonides focuses his discussion on the fetus as a rodeif (meaning only if the fetus is actively pursuing the life of the mother should the pregnancy be terminated). For fuller discussion of the halachic texts that flow from each side, see Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

5. Babylonian Talmud, Y’vamot 69b.


Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler serves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas.

Rabbi Emily Langowitz serves as program manager for Jewish learning and engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Categories
Books CCAR Press spirituality

Why Is It So Difficult to Talk about God?

Rabbis Edwin Goldberg and Elaine Zecher are coeditors of the new CCAR Press book Because My Soul Longs for You: Integrating Theology into Our Lives, which delves into the many ways we can experience the Divine. In this excerpt from the introduction, they examine the challenges of discussing God.

“Can you speak to my child about God?” The concern showed on her face. She had no idea how to explain who, what, why, and how God is.

She is not alone. God is the other three-letter word that makes some parents cringe when they are asked about it. Actually, it sometimes feels like explaining sex is easier and more rehearsed in our minds than getting involved in a conversation about God. The truth is, many people feel uncomfortable having this conversation.

Why is it difficult to talk about God? Is God like a mathematical equation we could solve if only we could get the right definition? There are many ways to describe God. Judaism is a monotheistic religion founded on the principle that all the disparate gods are really One God. There is no god of the seas, or the sky, or even the underworld. Our biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah found one God uniting the universe and united by the universe. Jewish tradition teaches that their tent was open on all four sides in order to receive wayfarers from any direction.1 The image of the tent serves another purpose as well: it signifies that there are countless paths to come closer to this One God. Within our own tradition, many passageways lead us to an experience of the Divine—an experience that so many of us are longing for.

The title of this book, Because My Soul Longs for You, comes from an old Sabbath hymn, formally called Shir HaKavod (“Song of Glory”) and also known by its first two words, Anim Z’mirot. It is ascribed to Judah HeChasid of Regensburg (d. 1217). The entire song features a number of original verses and some language from the Bible. Our title is taken from the first stanza, אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרוֹג, כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרוֹג (Anim z’mirot v’shirim e-erog, ki eilecha nafshi ta-arog, I seek pleasing melodies and thirst for songs because my soul longs for You), itself a reference to Psalm 42:2. The tradition is to open the Torah ark before reciting this prayer, a way of suggesting that God’s spirit is summoned when it is sung.

It is human nature to long for God’s presence in our lives. However, many of us do not know what to do with this longing. The subtitle of this book is Integrating Theology into Our Lives. There are many and diverse Jewish paths to experience and think about God, and we as Reform Jews have the privilege of having more than one path open to us. With a little bit of study and a lot of living, our soul’s longing can be addressed. All we need is intention, some humility, and the honesty that open up before us a warm and redolent world.

Shir HaKavod includes these words:

And so I tell your glory, yet never have seen you;
Imagine you, find names for you, yet never have known you

By hand of those who prophesied and throngs who worshipped you,
You gave imagination to the glory beyond view.2

Within these pages, we hope you will discover the One in the different forms described and experienced in the many and diverse paths by talented writers, rabbis, cantors, scholars, and seekers who allow and welcome God into their lives. In their wisdom, we hope you are inspired to allow and welcome God into your own life, too, while also drawing God out—in the path that is yours.

Read the full introduction, download the free study guide, and order the book at theology.ccarpress.org


1. Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avot 1:5.
2. Translation by Joel Rosenberg, in Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim  (Wyncote, PA: Reconstructionist Press, 1994), 452.


Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg serves Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands, outside of Houston, Texas.

Rabbi Elaine S. Zecher serves Temple Israel of Boston, Massachusetts.

Categories
Books CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer

How Can We Build a Life of Meaning? Reflections on S’lichot

The S’lichot prayers are traditionally recited on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah to help prepare us for the soul-searching and transformation that we hope to do during the High Holy Days. S’lichot is thus the opening scene of our efforts each Jewish year to build a life of meaning, a life of consequence. 

We want to break through the routines to which we have become accustomed. As we entered adulthood, we developed certain habits that served us well at the time. Some of these are still valuable practices that serve important functions for one reason or another, but many others are useless, pointless, or even counterproductive. Sometimes we develop workarounds that achieve what needs to be done in the moment but not necessarily in the best way. There is a story about a person who takes their car to a mechanic because the brakes aren’t working. When they come back the next day, the mechanic tells them “I couldn’t fix your brakes, but I made your horn louder.” Isn’t that what we have often done when facing challenges in our lives? We did the best we could, patching things over in order to carry on.

Real change is hard. In fact, it’s well-nigh impossible unless there is some sort of burning internal or external motivation. If the doctor were to say to us, “You have one year to live,” then we might go home and, after pouring ourselves a stiff drink, actually decide to change everything, living in a completely different way than we had been up to that point. There are other dramatic moments in life that can compel us to spontaneously reject everything that we have always done and move in a completely different direction.

Yet I don’t think that S’lichot is trying to push us to impetuously change our lives 180 degrees in one evening. So don’t trade in your Ford Explorer for a Porsche. Don’t buy a plane ticket to India in order to spend the rest of your life in an ashram. Don’t book your seat next to Elon Musk to fly off to Mars. Rather, I would argue that what Judaism is asking us to do on S’lichot evening is to evaluate and reevaluate our lives in order to try to realize our full potential for lasting fulfillment.

Several years ago, I was the editor of a CCAR Press volume titled A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path. Our goal was to get people thinking about what Reform Judaism could mean in terms of how we find meaning in our lives. Though published before the pandemic started, the chapters remain timely and relevant. As we enter a reflective mode during this S’lichot season, I hope this book can inspire us to create positive change, both in our communities and in ourselves.

We are reminded by the words in the prayer book that we are granted the gift of life, a gift of uncertain duration but of certain laborious effort. However much we protest or negotiate, this short time is all we get. For many, fate overwhelms, truncates, or destroys their journey. To the best of our knowledge, this is the one life that we have, and we have a sacred obligation to make the most of it. And so, let us pray that this new year 5782 may be a year of wisdom acquired and shared, a year of virtue and the strengthening of our characters, a year of mitzvot and the meaningful practice of ritual, and a year of community and the sharing of our commitment to making the world a better place. May God’s presence in our lives this new year strengthen our souls and renew our spirits.


Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, PhD, serves Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley in Sun City, Arizona. He is the editor of A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Holiday News Shavuot

Author Interview: Rabbi Oren J. Hayon, Editor of Inscribed

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Rabbi Oren J. Hayon of Congregation Emanu El in Houston shares insights on the process of editing Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments.

What inspired the creation of Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments?

I contributed an essay to the 2017 collection Seven Days, Many Voices, which was a compilation of articles focusing on each of the first seven days of creation, as described in Genesis 1. That project sparked my interest in editing a similar collection of essays, from a diverse lineup of authors, offering different complementary perspectives on the Ten Commandments.

What was the most challenging part of editing this book?

From its earliest proposal, one of the most important aspects of the book for me was that it include contributions from a diverse list of authors. I wanted the chapters to come from writers within the Reform Movement and beyond it, those who work as Jewish professionals and those who don’t. It was a challenge to secure contributions from such a diverse group of authors while still producing a finished book that would be comfortably at home in Reform settings.

What is something new that you personally learned while working on Inscribed? Did any of your own perspectives change?

I learned so much! The best part of my role in editing this book was that it gave me the ability to learn from amazing teachers with extraordinary expertise and insight in areas I had not explored deeply before—philosophy, military ethics, journalism, and so much more. For me, an educational imperative is at the center of Jewish life, and it was a joyful experience to spend so much time with so many marvelous writers and scholars.

What do you want readers to take away from the book?

As a literary bloc, the Ten Commandments have endured and remained stubbornly relevant for thousands of years. I don’t think it’s impious to suggest that this is not because these Commandments are especially inspiring; instead, it’s because hundreds of generations have worked energetically to build relevance into the Ten Commandments. The beautiful and provocative writing of Inscribed’s contributing authors shows how this process of meaning-making continues to grow and unfold even in our own day.

If you would like the opportunity to learn more, six authors from Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments have created short video teachings based on their chapters in the book. These videos and the free downloadable study guide can be used for Shavuot study with your community!


Rabbi Oren J. Hayon serves as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas. He is the editor of Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments, from CCAR Press.