What was the inspiration for Seven Days, Many Voices? There is so much material in the Creation story that speaks to our world at present. Within the Creation story, after all, are questions around gender, climate, faith, relationships—so many of the issues we think about often these days. I wanted to give us a new and provocative lens to consider and reconsider how the six days of creation might speak to us today.
Was there something new you personally learned while working on the book? I learned so much from wonderful authors and colleagues, who opened my eyes to issues related to Israel, memory, Shabbat, and much more.
What was the most challenging part of editing this volume? It takes a lot of work to pull together rabbis, cantors, educators, and others given the busyness of our lives. I learned to be both very patient and very persistent.
What do you want readers to take away from the book? I want readers to be proud that the Reform Movement creates space for broad and creative Torah commentary. To rethink the Creation story and pull new meaning from it has us acknowledge that the Torah really is timeless and speaks to every generation. I also believe that reexamining our origins sheds greater light on not only where we come from, but why we are here and what our role is as Jews and members of the human family.
How did you come to serve as the coauthor of Recharging Judaism?
I had partnered with my synagogue rabbi, Rabbi Judith Schindler, for more than a decade on civic engagement initiatives, plus chairing synagogue committees, serving on the board, and representing the synagogue in the community. What started as our memoir about collaborating with churches in the Bible Belt became instead a national research project demonstrating how civic engagement strengthens synagogues, empowers us as Jews, and brings more justice to our country––the thesis of Recharging Judaism.
What is your most important advice for institutional leaders who want to enlist their community members in advocacy efforts?
Don’t pick your issue in a conference room. Talk to the members of your community to discern the issues that matter to them—not through a survey, but with thoughtful conversations one-on-one or in small groups. The advocacy issue will emerge, as will passionate volunteer leaders who will be critical to executing the work.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Rabbis and lay leaders think differently, which enriched our book but also challenged us as we started the writing process. My coauthor drafted paragraphs to inspire; I wrote logical arguments and detailed instructions. Eventually, we found our joint voice––more specifics than in a sermon, but less dry than a how-to manual.
Recharging Judaism was published in 2018. Do you think that the book speaks differently to us today?
Recharging Judaism offers timeless counsel to leaders of Jewish institutions: Travel upstream to address the sources of crisis in your community. Step outside your synagogue walls to build community with Jews and people of other religions. Respond thoughtfully to congregants’ complaints with lessons from Jewish teachings and with the realities of other congregations’ experiences.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
Build a choir of voices seeking change, both within your synagogue and in your community. Mobilizing your congregation requires your rabbi as soloist and a diverse choir of lay leaders. Singing together with other choirs requires relationships in your community across boundaries of faith and race, and the willingness to trust a conductor whose experiences differ from your own.
The Rabbis taught that most of the Israelites did not leave Egypt during the Exodus. Indeed, for some—perhaps most—people, the familiar state of “slavery” is much more comfortable than unknown “freedom.” Today, our world changes faster than ever before in human history. There is a lot of fear of change, fear of loss. We need to weather these storms together and hold each other closer. Only together, with grace and humility, can we courageously evolve. As spiritual seekers, we have unique opportunities each day to continue to reflect on the ancient wisdom of our tradition and how it can be made relevant to our moment.
Spirituality is not simply “fun” or “meaningful.” There is far too much at stake. If we do not elevate our spiritual consciousness, we will destroy ourselves. More than a political revolution, we need a global spiritual awakening to the oneness and the interconnectedness of all life! How will we get there? What intellectual and spiritual resources will help us all move forward? Which of those resources will be brand-new and which ones will be ancient?
The Book of Proverbs—a book of ancient wisdom—is one of the most profound works found within the Hebrew Bible, but one that is not often explored in a truly spiritual, accessible, and relevant way. The language of the book is often vague, and its words and lessons are often open-ended and shrouded with literary ambiguity, qualities that make it hard to digest for the contemporary reader. Still, the wisdom that is contained within the Book of Proverbs is timeless, and readers have much to gain by learning from its ancient precepts.
Those of us who live in a world of paradox might find the Book of Proverbs—known as Sefer Mishlei in Hebrew—to seem a bit binary and simplistic. However, the book pushes us to remember that actually much of life is quite binary! We are confronted with good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow. The challenge is to see which moments require us to view situations with nuance and embrace paradox—and which moments require our fervent and robust moral and spiritual action. In the latter moments, we should not try to find intellectual excuses, but rather respond with clarity and courage. In the Book of Proverbs, we find the productive and the lazy, the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust—and we know where we want to find ourselves on that map!
The Book of Proverbs is the second book of K’tuvim (“Writings,” the third section of the Hebrew Bible) and consists of only thirty-one chapters. As part of the biblical “wisdom literature,” the book discusses moral values and proper conduct. The collection is divided according to its different authors.1 In fact, one might divide the book into seven different books merged into one, similar to a contemporary anthology consisting of seven chapters written by different authors. Other books in the Hebrew Bible of the same wisdom literature genre include Ecclesiastes and Job.2
Due to the lack of references to the Divine, the content of the Book of Proverbs is accessible to a broad readership, believers and nonbelievers alike. Proverbs is not a typical biblical book. God is mentioned here and there, but the content of the book is mostly focused on human learnings and wisdom. As one might say today, the book is “spiritual but not religious.” It appears to have been written not for an intellectual elite interested in theology, but as a moral guide for all people. It is not an exclusively “Jewish” book, but speaks to universal concerns. It does not address the needs, interests, and challenges of a specific community, but rather seeks to provide guidance for an individual—any individual.
Learn more and order the book at proverbs.ccarpress.org. A free study guide by CCAR Press Rabbinic Intern Ada Luisa Sinacore is available.
1. “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1–9); “The proverbs of Solomon” (Proverbs 10:1–22:16); “The words of the sages” (Proverbs 22:17–24:22); “These also are by the sages” (Proverbs 24:23–34); “These too are proverbs of Solomon, which the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied” (Proverbs 25–29); “The words of Agur” (Proverbs 30); “The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, with which his mother admonished him” (Proverbs 31). It is important to note, however, that it is possible to view these other authors as nicknames for Solomon.
2. Two other books are generally included in the genre of the wisdom literature that were excluded from the Tanach but included in the Apocrypha: Wisdom of Solomon and Wisdom of Ben Sira (or Ecclesiasticus).
What is the Omer? What spiritual meaning can it provide for contemporary Jews? The seven weeks of the Omer offer an invitation to walk a spiritual path from constriction to expanse. On the holiday of Shavuot, we will explore seven spiritual principles: decision, discernment, choosing, hope, imagination, courage, and praying. Each one, powerful on its own, can be a sort of north star and illuminate a path toward personal and spiritual growth.
How do you suggest that someone who has never counted the Omer before get started? How can Omer: A Counting enhance their practice? For forty-nine days, or seven weeks, we take on a discipline, an obligation to mindfully enter the day, to be aware of its potential power to matter, to make a difference, to count for something. Awaken your routine with intention, with attention.
To get started simply begin or end your day with a moment of thought. Perhaps you sit in a beautiful place in your home, perhaps you leaf through a book that’s been inspirational to you. Perhaps you just take a walk or look out the window. It doesn’t have to be for a long time, even five minutes will do. And you say to yourself, today I make myself count for something good.
The book is divided into seven spiritual principles. How did you come up with these principles? What is their significance? I offer an original set of spiritual principles for the seven weeks of Omer, listed above. These principles are points of light to illuminate a path towards spiritual awareness as we attempt to be free from what enslaves us.
Was there something new that you learned while writing this book? It was very powerful for me to articulate the seven spiritual principles as stepping stones. Each one can be an entire practice on a spiritual path that sometimes feels more like a zigzag than a straight line. For example, every internal change begins with the spiritual principle of decision: we decide to behave a different way, to live a different way, to interact in a different way.
How did you come to serve as a coeditor for Mishkan HaSeder?
Mishkan HaSeder was one of those long-gestating dreams. I met Rabbi Hara Person in 1990, and as we became friends and I reveled in the poems she had paired with Torah text in the Women’s Commentary, it seemed inevitable that we would also pair passages of the Haggadah with poetry —and for the same reason, to feel closer to the text. We also knew that by choosing poets of any faith, time, and place, their work would reflect the universality of the story of the Exodus. We wanted participants to feel the seder as a microcosm for the human experience.
Mishkan HaSeder contains a wealth of poetry alongside the seder text. How did you choose which poems to include?
From her work with theThe Torah: A Women’s Commentary and other texts, Rabbi Person had a clear method. We looked at every page of the Haggadah and then distilled meanings, symbols, and philosophies found at that moment in the seder. To find poems that reflected or refracted those ideas, we cross-indexed them with our own knowledge of poets and poems, with online databases of poems, and we thumbed through books upon books. It’s not hard to find poems that have a relationship to the story, but finding the very right ones that pop open the moment to new understandings and resonance—that was our goal, and it was thrilling. Like Torah, the story of Passover is ever-expanding; we wanted to find poems that sparked this dynamism.
What role can poetry play as part of the Passover experience?
Emotional intimacy! For example, Mishkan HaSeder’s very first poem, by Karl Shapiro, imagines a 151st psalm (there are only 150 in our liturgy) that begins, “Immigrant God, You follow me.” From the start the reader is offered, within this story of moving toward freedom, an example of freedom to reimagine one’s relationship to God and to the story. “The 151st Psalm” is followed by Jane Hirshfield’s great poem “Optimism,” which begins “More and more I have come to admire resilience”—because not only does Passover embody resilience, but so does survival for peoples all through time. When the Haggadah instructs us to honor the stranger, resilience is needed there as well, to strengthen our resolve against forces of exclusion on any number of levels.
What makes Mishkan HaSeder different from other Haggadot?
Many wonderful Haggadot offer paths from the traditional liturgy to a deepened awareness of the living presence of the Exodus story in the present day. One thing Mishkan HaSeder holds is an entire second Haggadah within it; people who want to conduct a seder with very little of the traditional liturgy can lean on the poems themselves to reflect the signs and wonders of the story. And because readers are used to understanding poems through a very personal scrim, participants can come to the evening knowing that their individual sensibilities have a seat at the table and a voice for the discussion. Mishkan HaSeder can also act as the salt and pepper at the table—the poems sprinkled within whatever text a host chooses.
Did you learn something new while editing the book?
I was grateful to become more conversant with the traditional liturgy and the relationship of one part of the seder to another. There will always be more to know, of course, but each layer of understanding offers new layers of discovery—and new ways of feeling profoundly connected.
Rabbi Dan Medwin, Co-Director at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, shares his thoughts on designing CCAR Press’s Reform Luach calendar app. Reform Luach is available on the Apple, Amazon, and Google Play app stores.
What inspired the creation of the Reform Luach app?
The initial work on the Reform Luach app was done by Rabbi Leon Morris with the help of Cantor Amanda Kleinman. They painstakingly created a detailed collection of valuable information for Reform communities. The app grew out of their dedication and hard work.
What makes this app different from other Jewish calendar apps?
The Reform Movement’s calendar is a combination of the Israel calendar for holidays and the diaspora calendar for Torah readings, with necessary adjustments made to keep both in sync. Other Jewish calendar apps have options for the Israel calendar or the diaspora calendar, but not both. Additionally, page numbers are included for the Reform Movement’s sacred books:Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and The Torah: A Modern Commentary.
Are there any special features of the Reform Luach app that users should know about?
The holiday and Torah portions can be downloaded to the default calendar on one’s phone, which can be synced with a larger calendar system (e.g., Outlook, Google calendar, etc.). There are links to read more about each Torah portion at ReformJudaism.org. A handy date converter is also included, which can go from Gregorian to Hebrew calendar and vice versa.
What was the most challenging part of creating this app?
The most challenging aspect of the process was initially understanding the complex interactions and special cases of the Reform Luach, and then translating the exceptions and readings into computer logic that our developers—who were not familiar with the Jewish calendar—could implement in the app. For example, when the eighth day of Passover falls on Shabbat and the following week’s reading is Sh’mini, this week’s reading becomes Sh’mini I, and the following week’s becomes Sh’mini II. However, when the following week’s reading is Acharei Mot, that reading is split into two parts and similarly applied to both weeks.
How do you recommend that people use the Reform Luach app?
There are a number of ways folks can take advantage of the Reform Luach app. Some use it as a quick reference tool to see the upcoming Torah portion or holidays, while others use it to plan their b’nei mitzvah calendar for the year by syncing all of the dates. It’s also a helpful resource for learning more about each week’s Torah portion.
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.
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.
In this excerpt from The Social Justice Torah Commentary, Rabbi 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, ParashatVayikra 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.
Rabbi April Davis is the editor of the new supplement to L’chol Z’man v’Eit, the CCAR’s clergy manual and life-cycle guide. In this blog post, she reflects upon her own experiences using L’chol Z’man v’Eit and offers a glimpse into the supplement’s contents.
A season is set for everything; a time for every experience under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
I received my copy of L’chol Z’man v’Eit from my rabbi, Andy Klein, when I was ordained in 2015. In the note that accompanied the gift, he told me that I would be part of people’s most tender and intimate moments and this book would be my guide. Looking back on my seven years in the rabbinate, it truly has been. Holding the binder, taking a few pages on the run, or using the electronic version on my iPad, I have joined people in marriage, named babies, led conversions, and stood at hospital bedsides. I know you have, too. It is a steady companion as we navigate traditional and new sacred moments with the many people we serve.
Published in 2015, L’chol Z’man v’Eit/For Sacred Moments: The CCAR Life-Cycle Guide offered traditional rituals and new blessings to clergy in joyous and mournful moments. Not only were some of the resources new, but the guide was published in a unique format: a binder with pages that could be removed and reordered as necessary. It was also released as a digital PDF. In both the substance and the design, the old was made new and the new was made holy (Rav Avraham Isaac Kook).
True to the design and intent of the original, we can and should continue adding content to reflect our changing rabbinates and our rapidly evolving world. Today we are called to witness and bless increasingly diverse moments. Sometimes we are present at an unfolding tragedy; at other times we bring Judaism and joy to a new situation. For everything there is a season, a time for every experience under heaven. To that end, CCAR Press decided to publish an update to the guide in the form of a print and digital Supplement. I was honored to serve as editor of this project. The goal of the Supplement to L’chol Z’man v’Eit is to recognize even more of those times and seasons and mark them as sacred.
Including new material for all facets of the life-cycle, the print Supplement is designed to fit into the existing guide (instructions are provided on the first page). The digital Supplement is available as a separate PDF or integrated into the original PDF manual. In the Birth section, there are prayers and rituals for people hoping to conceive or experiencing miscarriage, premature birth, the illness of a child, or adopting an older child who is able to participate in the ceremony. There is unique liturgy for a marriage that includes children, along with new rituals for divorce and ending relationships.
Expanding the Healing section are prayers for minor illness or injury, a sick child, eating disorders, addiction, assault, and abortion. The Mourning section includes new meditations to address communal loss and the death of a hurtful parent along with a framework for the funeral of someone who died by suicide.
On the communal level, we are often called on to address both our congregations and the communities in which we live. For the congregation, we included rituals such as a reconsecration ceremony and a prayer for people leaving a community. Outside the doors of the synagogue, there are rituals for people moving into or out of a residence, a child leaving home, people moving in together as a step in their relationship, and an individual entering long-term care. Most of the Community section, though, is devoted to the difficult moments we face in the world. Organized into three parts—In Times of Fear, Acute Crisis, and When Healing Comes—there are multiple meditations and readings for a variety of difficult situations. Natural disasters, climate change, gun violence, racism, and antisemitism are specifically addressed.
The supplement reflects the creativity and generosity of CCAR members. Committee members Rabbis Carolyn Bricklin-Small, Alan Cook, Lisa Edwards, PhD, Jen Gubitz, Marc Katz, and Ben Zeidman, and CCAR editor Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, were partners in seeking the moments to be reflected in the Supplement. Through searches of the CCAR and Women’s Rabbinic Network Facebook pages, online requests, and direct questions posed to our colleagues, we created a list of the most needed blessings and readings. We then compiled these from various sources, with some previously published, but many others written specifically for the Supplement.
Colleagues who have solemnized these new life-cycle moments contributed their wisdom. In particular, the Community section is a powerful collection of reflections from those who have been in the midst of crises. Their rituals and readings have been tested under difficult circumstances and generously shared. I am grateful to everyone who contributed to this Supplement and, especially, to the committee and to Rabbi Pilz for their effort and dedication. It is my hope that this Supplement moves us towards finding and marking holiness in every time and season. I am adding the pages to my guide and know that they will be part of many tender and intimate moments of my rabbinate in the years to come.
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 facesour 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.
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 theThe Mussar Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).