Categories
Social Justice

What Does It Mean to Go Outside?

What does it mean to go outside? We wonder that every day facing the complexities of COVID.  Must we wear a mask while walking down an empty sidewalk in the stifling heat? Do we risk dining in our favorite restaurant on the patio? What if the only table available is just inside the door, a short breath from fresh air? This year, we were stuck inside so much, and for such good reason, we wonder whether it’s even worth it to venture outside.

Our Torah teaches us what it means to go outside. Especially in this week’s portion, Ki Teitzei, which literally means, “when you go outside.” The Torah portion is about our group decision to go outside our borders: the full phrase ki teitzei l’milchamah, “when you go out in battle,” teaches us the rules of warfare.  Thousands of years of interpretation reinforce that our Torah portion speaks not of defending ourselves against an invading army, but of an optional war, freely undertaken, for purposes of expanding our borders. In keeping with this reading, ki teitzei, “when we go outside,” is about a choice freely made. It is entirely optional to “go outside.” We who today feel safer inside understand this choice. How often have we thought it might make sense to stay at home rather than braving a trip into the great unknown? It is for this very reason many of our children will be going to school by going nowhere: instead of going outside and risking the spread of the pandemic, they are staying inside their homes for school, and for the safety of all.

The COVID-19 crisis is not the only menace discouraging people from choosing to go outside. We know this from the events of Kenosha. We should have learned it from George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. Or Eric Gardner. Or Rekia Boyd. Or Amadou Diallou. Or Medgar Evers. Or Emmett Till. Or any of the thousands of human beings lynched without legal repercussions in our nation since even before the July Fourth of our founding. If in the last few months many of us have learned that the simple act of going outside is not so simple, this is something people of color have known—have feared—for generations.

This year, I spoke to my children about going outside: keeping their masks on and staying in small groups. For generations, my African-American friends had to talk to their children about what happens when you go outside; this is a very different version of “The Talk.” Mamie Till-Mobley had this talk with Emmett, discouraging the behavior that got him killed, namely speaking to a white woman in Mississippi. Brian Stevenson explains how his mother would read his siblings the riot act before the seemingly simple act of shopping at a grocery store. This “talk” is about the danger of going outside.

A different Torah portion with the name teitzei, “Going Out,” speaks to this issue. In parashat Vateitzei from the book of Genesis, we learn what happens to Jacob’s daughter when she goes outside. Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob whose name we know, ventures outside at the beginning of the tale. We are not told why. However, once outside, a local man named Shechem sees her, becomes infatuated with her, and rapes her. Learning of this crime, some of her brothers are rightfully outraged; her father, Jacob, simply arranges for Dinah to become Shechem’s wife. He marries her off to her rapist. Such were the rules that governed society at that time: in a world that considered women property to be owned—to be used—by men, both her rapist and her father followed the fashion of the day. Shechem’s rape of Dinah was justified because she was a woman and he was a powerful man. She had to remain married to him for the rest of her life, to carry his children, to sleep in his bed, and to take care of her rapist until her dying day.

We would hope that our Torah commentators took compassion upon Dinah. That was not the case until our twentieth century. Instead, traditional commentators scorn Dinah’s very act of “going out.” Knowing that the norms of society were that women were property to be kept indoors, they knew Dinah’s deed violated societal expectations. The rabbis blamed Dinah, saying “She was asking for it.” The sad truth is that ours, in this instance, has been a misogynistic, victim-blaming tradition. Instead of expressing horror at the crime committed, our forebears questioned Dinah’s desire simply to go outside, and blamed her for the violent act of rape inflicted upon her.

Our American tradition isn’t much better; perhaps is best described as equally horrifying. There is no real way to explain the proliferation of deaths of Black people at the hands of police other than to say it is a societal norm. We do not need to go back to Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old killed by the police—who remain unpunished—for playing with a toy gun at a park, and compare that with the arrest of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a white man who was taken very much alive despite letting his arresting officer know he had a loaded gun in his back pocket. No, now we need look only to Kenosha. Jacob Blake is a Black man, whom, we are told may have had a knife in his car. Who was purportedly trying to break up a fight, and who was paralyzed when shot seven times by a police officer. Other officers of that same department allowed a seventeen-year-old boy to illegally carry a long gun through town, cheered him on, gave him water, and walked right past him after he shot four people, killing two. White people can commit crimes and live, but police can be judge, jury, and executioner for Black people. This is the norm, the expectation, in America. This is the ugly truth each and every Black person must confront, the fear they carry in their hearts every time they desire simply to go outside.

In the twentieth century, modern commentators—not surprisingly with women at the lead—rejected millennia of tradition that blamed Dinah for her own rape. These new voices went outside the traditional limitation of interpretation, rejected the past, and demanded more for the future. They had the courage to say our ancestors were wrong, and that their misogynistic expectations and organizations of society could no longer be celebrated or perpetuated. Thanks to these leaders, who took us outside the bounds of our own people’s limitations, we can read Dinah’s story today not just as a cautionary tale about male power in the time of the Torah, but about the power of interpretation to enforce unacceptable societal expectations.

In the twenty-first century, we are long overdue to reject the racist societal norms of America. There are voices, leaders, who challenge our traditional understanding that police serve and protect, that our society is colorblind, and that opportunity is equally available to all. These leaders and voices call on us to go outside our own comfort zones, to learn truths to which we have been blind, to confront realities that our comfort, our privilege, and our skin color perhaps prevent us from seeing. Especially us—I’m speaking as a white, cisgender-presenting male—especially we, whom, for most of our lives feel protected by the police except for when given a speeding ticket, we need to reject, to decry, and to change what have become unacceptable societal norms of racism. We need to learn about this history of policing, police brutality, the current data about policing, and be part of the efforts to change a system that is entirely broken.

What does it mean to go outside?

Sometimes going outside is dangerous. It was dangerous for Dinah, a woman, to leave her home in a world where men deemed her merely a possession. It was dangerous for Jacob Blake, who nearly lost his life due to inexplicable yet societally acceptable police conduct. Going outside was dangerous for Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, who went out to protest police shootings and were killed by a suburban teenage enforcer of society’s norms. And yes, it’s dangerous to go outside in the age of COVID. And, yes, it’s dangerous to go outside the norms we have taken as given all our lives: America is equal, police are here to help, white supremacy went away after successes of the civil right movements of the sixties.

It is dangerous to go outside. And we have the option to stay inside. We know we have that choice. We also know we will be judged by the choices we make. Choose wisely. Choose life, our Torah teaches. That you and your children, and your neighbors and the stranger and the oppressed might live long upon the land we have inherited. Go Outside.



Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation and is on the CCAR Board of Trustees. Rabbi Limmer is the co-author of
Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice.

Categories
High Holy Days Social Justice

Hearing the Shofar As a Wake-Up Call is a Sign of Our Privilege

This Elul, a group of Maine rabbis have been posting videos of shofar soundings from across the state. Many of us are talking about the shofar as a wake-up call. An alarm bell. A reminder that the holidays are coming.

The implication, of course, to waking up at the sound of the shofar is that we need a reminder. A reminder of what is broken in our world. A reminder of how we ourselves have fallen short. A reminder that we had better get to work, because Rosh HaShanah is coming. The need for a reminder implies that we live through the rest of the year with the privilege to forget the pain and suffering that exists in the world. The ways that we as a people, as a society, have gone astray. The need to hear the shofar means that we have been able to close our eyes.

The killing of George Floyd, and more recently the shooting of Jacob Blake, are a shofar sound calling us to attention. But, the shofar has been wailing continuously for years, for decades, for centuries, we just have not heard it. As Jacob Blake’s sister, Letetra Widman said, “So many people have reached out to me saying they’re sorry that this has been happening to my family. Well don’t be sorry because this has been happening to my family for a long time, longer than I can account for. It happened to Emmett Till, Emmett Till is my family. It happened to Philando, Mike Brown, Sandra.”

As the powerful lynching memorial in Montgomery, with its hanging steel rectangles reminiscent of coffins reminds us, we don’t know the names of all those who were murdered. The slaves who were bought and sold and beaten to death were known by name to their families and friends, but their names are unknown to us today. We have the luxury of needing the shofar to wake us up.

When the murder of George Floyd ripped through our national consciousness like the blast of a shofar, I, like so many concerned white people, went to a Black Lives Matter protest. I wore my social justice tallit, the one made by members of my congregation with colorful quotes about equality and justice. My family and I listened to speakers and marched and held up our signs. And then, like so many others across the country, we lay on the ground in silence for eight minutes and forty six seconds. The time it took George Floyd to suffocate to death. As I lay there on the pavement, next to my seven-year-old son, I was powerfully reminded of the Grand Aleinu on Yom Kippur. During that holy time of the year I bow on the ground, face down, before the Holy One blessed be God, who spread out the heavens and established the Earth. It is a voluntary act of humility. A reminder that there is something bigger than myself in this world. I need that reminder, because my heart doesn’t catch in my throat every time I see a police officer, because I don’t worry about my safety when I walk through the trails in my neighborhood, because I don’t have to remind my children of how to act respectfully before they leave the house each day.  Choosing to be reminded, choosing to lie face down, comes from privilege and is born out of the willful ignorance of the day to day lives of others.

Shofarot: A Prayer for Righteous Anger, from Mishkan HaNefesh

Misery for breakfast;
morning coffee with the news of distant deaths –
because someone’s always suffering,
and there’s bound to be a crisis raging somewhere,
or a quieter catastrophe
barely at the threshold of our notice.
We’re accustomed to the feeling
of something going wrong.
Like static in the background,
tuned out so we can get on with our day.
And it’s just the same as yesterday
and nothing can be done;
so there’s not much point
in getting too upset.

But if something were to shock us
like a baby’s piercing wail or a fire bell in the night,
like a punch in the stomach
or a puncture in the eardrum,
like a savage call to conscience
or a frantic cry for help –
would we scream like a shofar
and get mad enough to act?
“When a ram’s horn is sounded in a city do the people not take alarm?”

So let us get mad.
Let us scream.
Let us be punched in the stomach.
Let us end, for once, without a nechemta.



After ordination, Rabbi Asch worked as a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation. She currently serves as the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine and Assistant Director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. Rabbi Asch serves as Vice President for Leadership on the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
Books Social Justice

What Can Jonah Teach Us About #BlackLivesMatter?

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020). In this post, he reflects on what Jonah can teach us about the current moment. 


As we read numerous times throughout his eponymous book, Jonah flees from his moral responsibility, his sacred calling. When God calls Jonah to bring righteousness to Nineveh, and to save countless lives, he shirks his prophetic duties. When pressed to stand and represent the ideals of faith and repentance, Jonah flees. Why should we continue studying this man and his book? How can he, in his capricious self-centeredness, inspire us to be representatives of peace and understanding? 

I’ve thought a lot about Jonah lately amid the tumult that has affected our nation. We, as a country, are suffering greatly. Extreme partisanship, racial divides, and lackadaisical, apathetic leadership have led America down a dark path. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police was a symptom of a greater problem we face—the lack of interest in introspection and the unwillingness to look at the meta-issues our nation struggles with. Intellectual stagnation has taken hold; the race to find consensus in the lowest common denominator has replaced the active search for reconciliation. 

As I worked on writing my commentary on the Book of Jonah, I wrestled deeply with its ethical lessons. On the surface, Jonah is the antithesis of what we want in our leaders. His earthly cowardliness seems to stand at odds with his heavenly mission, and his constant deviation from his task shows that, perhaps, he is not up for the job. But this is precisely the brilliance of the Book of Jonah. Out of all the prophets featured in the Hebrew Bible, Jonah is the only one who seems to be like a regular human being. He has limits, he has scars, he has foibles. 

And through his failure, we see ourselves. His life is a mirror to our soul. 

But also, through Jonah’s failures—and there were many—we see the potential for spiritual growth and healing. During the prophet’s sojourn in the great fish, he reflects in quarantine, in complete darkness, on what must be the lowest moment in his life. The walls are closing in around him (literally, the gills of the fish move in and out at a steady pace, marching against the pressures of the sea), and Jonah seemingly has no options for escape. He has but one tool in his arsenal: he prays. And he prays. And he prays some more. And then he is released to complete his mission. Jonah proclaims God’s message to Nineveh, saving the city and its inhabitants. 

As I write in my book: “We have the capacity to improve the world while striving for spiritual fulfillment and further attachment to justice” (page 118). Jonah sought to escape his obligations; we shall embrace them.

At this current, challenging moment, we should pray as Jonah prayed. Our prayer should strengthen our deepest moral resolve to serve as listeners, humble allies, and bold mobilizers. At times of great import, much like what we are witnessing today, we must remove ourselves from the negative forces that bring us down so that we may elevate others. In other words, it seems as if we are to ruminate in great, dark quarantine inside fishes of our own making. Now more than ever, we need to engage and embrace those who are truly hurting. Unlike Jonah, we can charge ahead with empathy and passion. The #BlackLivesMatter movement should rouse us from our spiritual lethargy, galvanizing us to push society forward to end inequality and bigotry.

Let us hear the call and be leaders for positive change. 

The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary Official Book Trailer from CCAR on Vimeo.

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

Categories
LGBT News Social Justice

The Supreme Court Today Accepted the CCAR’s Position: Title VII Bans LGBTQ Workplace Discrimination

Just less than a year ago, the CCAR joined with other faith groups in submitting an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County.  At the time, I shared a message about what that brief said.

Today, the Court decided the case.  By a 6-3 vote, it held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bans workplace discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.  People who assume that the Court always votes on strict ideological lines will probably be surprised by this outcome and by the fact that Justice Neil Gorsuch, regarded by many as a safe conservative, authored the majority opinion.

One reason we keep producing amicus briefs is that neither this nor any other court can be so easily catalogued.  While judges have ideological tendencies, most of them do attempt to apply the law.  This decision used some very traditional legal reasoning to determine that the Civil Rights Act means what it says: treating a man differently from a woman, or vice versa, violates the law.  If a woman who is attracted to man cannot be fired for that reason, neither can a man who is attracted to men.  End of story.

Our brief dealt with whether there might be occasions where someone might not have to obey this law for religious reasons.  We said any such occasions were few and far between, and certainly didn’t come up here. The Court agreed with our second point.  If and when that question is legitimately presented in the future, we will again be prepared to share our views.

In the meantime, our most basic position was affirmed: federal law protects LGBTQ individuals from discrimination.  For today, that is reason enough to rejoice. 

Categories
News Social Justice

The Messy Truth of Legacy

Racist Realities and the Need to Stop Romanticizing

All of us are capable of racism. The first family of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are no exception, and neither are we. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’” (Numbers 12:1). In a sensitive and thought-provoking Torah commentary, Rabbi Hannah Goldstein acknowledges Miriam’s contributions while still holding her accountable for her ugly behavior in this particular passage:

“Our Biblical heroes are often flawed, and we can learn as much from their missteps as we can from their positive example. This is also true of so many of our historic heroes, as no record is uncomplicated and without stains. I imagine that Miriam’s belittling of her sister-in-law wounded her brother deeply, and it certainly revealed something quite problematic about her character. But Miriam also remained the protective sister who placed Moses in the water and watched over him until his safe rescue from the river. She was the bold musician who confidently led the people in song and dance when they safely crossed into freedom; she was the nourishing force that quenched their thirst in the desert. Few leaders are without fault, but in our reading of the text, we acknowledge the messy truth of legacy. We can both confront the painful shortcomings of our heroes and make room to celebrate their virtues.”

For far too long we have selectively celebrated our contributions to the Civil Rights Movement while conveniently forgetting or ignoring examples of our failures. Yes, there were brave and righteous Jews who marched in Selma, donated generously to the cause, and even gave their lives in the struggle against segregation and Jim Crow. Yet there were also far too many of us who were complicit and complacent with racist regimes. Too many of us were silenced by fear of what would happen if we stood up and spoke out. Too many rabbis were more afraid of losing their jobs than losing their self-respect. We need to allocate more time to reflecting on racist realities and less time to an overly romanticized version of how heroic we were.

Today’s growing chorus of voices proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” compels us to do more than demand an end to police brutality, terrorist attacks on Black Churches, and appalling disparities in income, education, housing, and health care. Like the disturbing sibling story in this week’s Torah portion, our current moment calls on us to consider the unsolicited comments, nasty quips and cruel utterances that we have hurled within our own families and within the greater family of the progressive Jewish world.

Painful testimonials of how congregants, or prospective congregants of color, were spoken to with condescension, suspicion, and ignorance demonstrate that we have tremendous work to do in making Jews of Color feel at home in our congregations. 

Over the past few weeks, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center have made a number of videos and conversations about these experiences available. Improving the way we engage with Jews of Color was already a priority for our Movement but the most recent killings of black citizens at the hands of police and former police have added a greater sense of urgency to this self-scrutiny. 

Just because we Jews have experienced oppression doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of saying or doing racist things. Our history of enduring injustice does not constitute immunity from engaging in it. The fact that Miriam was a slave in Egypt didn’t prevent her from making racist comments. Being a religious minority doesn’t preclude us from enjoying privileges of whiteness, making unwise choices, and saying foolish things. 

God of Grace and Goodness, grant us the humility to admit when we have been wrong, the integrity to confess unflattering chapters of our history, and the tenacity to confront racism and bigotry both within and without the congregations we call home.

 May this be our blessing and let us say: Amen.


Rabbi David Wirtschafter serves Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky.

Categories
Healing inclusivity News Social Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I share the following points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


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


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

Categories
Poetry Social Justice

‘I Can’t Breathe’ and ‘A Psalm for Our Cities on Fire’

As we watch with heavy hearts the events of late May and early June and witness innocent Americans exercising their right to protest fall victim to police violence, we pray for an end to racial injustice and power structures designed to silence, suppress, and kill people of color. We pray for healing, and we remain aligned with Black and Brown communities in the fight to end injustice. In the words of Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who shares a psalm here, “It’s time for action; we’re way past time of debate.” 

Encouraged by the teachings of Pirke Avot, which teach us that “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” we remain committed to social justice, and we remain committed to teaching and promoting anti-racism. We encourage you to read the CCAR’s statement on racist killings.

Here, we share a poem, written by Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, and a psalm, written by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, in reaction to these tragic events.


I Can’t Breathe
By Rabbi Lance J. Sussman

I can’t breathe,
The knee of oppression
Is on my neck.

I can’t breathe,
The air of my city
Is filled with tear gas.

I can’t breathe,
I am filled with rage
And the smoke of burning buildings.

I can’t breathe
Because the air is filled with contempt for people of different colors.

I can’t breathe
Because my country is suffocating
And the air of democracy is getting thinner and thinner.

I can’t breathe
Because I am grieving for America
And praying its dreams aren’t dying
In the streets of our nation tonight.

A Psalm for Our Cities on Fire
By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

A Psalm for our cities on fire
Aflame with the fires of fear
With anger burning ‘bout brazen brutality:
From a kneed neck Floyd’s breath snuffed out over there

A Psalm for our cities on fire
Veering vigorously toward violence and hate
Preventing protests that promote another vision:
Of justice that we all must create

A Psalm for our brothers and sisters
Who fear for their lives, black and brown
When they jog, shop, go to church, or go bird watching
With their hands held up high, or when lying down

A Psalm to remind us ‘bout justice
And the debasement that threatens their lives
Because our silence can no longer silence
The real pain of widowed husbands and wives

So Pray for our cities on fire
And sing out songs of protest ‘gainst hate
But since lives, they are holy and matter
It’s time for action; we’re way past time of debate


Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rabbi Paul Kipnes is leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Categories
Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Mourning the 100,000 Americans Who Have Died of COVID-19

Together with Americans of all faiths, we mourn the 100,000+ people who have died of Covid-19. We share in the grief and sorrow of this unimaginable and still-growing milestone, as well as all the losses to Covid-19 around the world. We join with our Reform Movement partners and faith communities of all denominations around the country in calling on our communities to include a moment of remembrance in our upcoming worship services. The full statement about the weekend of prayer can be read here, along with a call for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance  on Monday, June 1st, at noon local time to pause and remember all those who have died.

We offer these beautiful words, written by Alden Solovy, for your use at Shabbat services, interfaith gatherings, or a special Yizkor service.

One-by-One: A Prayer as the COVID Death Toll Mounts

By Alden Solovy

God of consolation,
Surely you count in heaven,
Just as we count here on earth,
In shock and in sorrow,
The souls sent back to You,
One-by-one,
The dead from the COVID pandemic,
As the ones become tens,
The tens become hundreds,
The hundreds become thousands,
The thousands become ten-thousands
And then hundred-thousands,
Each soul, a heartbreak,
Each soul, a life denied.

God of wisdom,
Surely in the halls of divine justice
You are assembling the courts,
Calling witnesses to testify,
To proclaim
The compassion of some
And the callousness of others
As we’ve struggled to cope.
The souls taken too soon,
Whose funerals were lonely,
Who didn’t need to die,
Who died alone,
Will tell their stories
When You judge
Our triumphs
And our failures
In these hours of need.

God of healing,
Put an end to this pandemic,
And all illness and disease.
Bless those who stand in service to humanity.
Bless those who grieve.
Bless the dead,
So that their souls are bound up in the bond of life eternal.
And grant those still afflicted
With disease or trauma
A completed and lasting healing,
One-by-one,
Until suffering ceases,
And we can stop counting the dead,
In heaven
And on earth.


© 2020 Alden Solovy and www.tobendlight.com. Reproduced with permission.

Categories
Economy omer Shavuot Social Justice spirituality

Economic Stability: An Ageless Quest

Last fall, my husband and I ordered a new sukkah decoration straight from Israel. The package arrived with a free magnet, imprinted with the image of a woman holding an umbrella, walking in the rain. The magnet had one word on it. Sasson (“joy”). It took me a moment, and then I realized my cultural gap. Living in New Jersey, joy is not the word I associate with rain. However, in Israel and other arid climates, rain is pure joy, because it is desperately needed. 

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, includes a section on the holidays, a calendar chiefly driven by the agrarian cycle. Theses verses are relevant to modern Jews because, thousands of years later, we still celebrate the holidays, albeit with layers of development around our rituals, but at the core, these holidays are still the same. But to be honest, the descriptions of the biblical holiday sacrifices, meal and fruit offerings, and animal sacrifices, do not resonate when compared to my modern observance of Judaism. 

For example, the parashah describes the counting of the Omer, the annual schlepping of grain offerings for seven weeks. This daily offering of grain bridged the barley harvest of Passover to the wheat harvest of Shavuot. But how do I count the Omer today? Do I schlep a bundle of barely to the Temple, to be offered, in recognition of God as source of all? Not at all! Today, an app on my phone sends me a reminder every night at sundown, and I count the Omer, with words. Done. 

Given the vast differences between now and biblical times, it is easy to forget how scary the harvest cycle would have been for our ancestors. In the winter they waited nervously to see if there would be enough rain to sustain the growth of their crops to feed their family and their animals. Then after the rains of winter, once the crops were planted, it was a waiting game. Would they be able to harvest the crops before something bad happened? The possibilities for failure were endless: too much heat, not enough water, locusts, or some other plague. It was a precarious time.

As the modern plague of COVID-19 unfolds, we are foremost concerned about life and health. However, we also hold our breaths as we watch the world’s economy spin out of control. Therefore, this year, while we count the Omer, we also count our balances in checking accounts and retirement funds. We wait to see if jobs will continue or salaries will be cut. And we deeply understand the fears of our ancestors, who prayed to be sustained by their storerooms. The biblical fears are near to us as ever. Our holidays, with their deep agrarian roots, are ultimately about the basic human need, shared by every generation, to have enough to sustain us, even when times are tough.

This desire for economic stability and sustenance is voiced in the following passage, added in some communities historically, at the conclusion of the daily morning service.

First, the community would read the passage from Exodus 16 about the manna and then add something like this example: 

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁתַּזְמִין פַּרְנָסָה לְכָל עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וּפַרְנָסָתִי וּפַרְנָסַת אַנְשֵׁי בֵיתִי בִּכְלָלָם, בְּנַחַת וְלֹא בְּצַעַר, בְּכָבוֹד וְלֹא בְּבִזּוּי, בְּהֶתֵּר וְלֹא בְּאִסּוּר, כְּדֵי שֶׁנּוּכַל לַעֲבוֹד עֲבוֹדָתֶךָ וְלִלְמוֹד תּוֹרָתֶךָ כְּמוֹ שֶׁזַּנְתָּ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ מָן בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ צִיָּה וַעֲרָבָה:

May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to provide sustenance for all Your people, the House of Israel, and sustenance for me and all the members of my household, with pleasantness and not with suffering, with honor and not with degradation, through permissible activities and not forbidden activities, so that we will be able to serve You and to learn Your Torah, just as you sustained our ancestors in the wilderness with Manna in a dry and desert land.[1]

Our Torah portion and this liturgical addition are examples of the human desire for economic stability. Our tradition does not suggest we merely pray for sustenance, but rather balance our longing for stability with financial literacy, community resources, educational opportunities, and generosity to others through tzedakah

Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Elders, 3:17 teaches these famous words from Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya: 

אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין קֶמַח.

If there is no flour [meaning ability to earn money], there is no Torah. If there is no Torah, there is no flour [ability to earn money]. This is frequently interpreted as: the religious, spiritual, and ethical teachings of Torah must co-dwell with the mundane matters of earning money and sustaining ourselves. One realm should not exist without the other. 

The line in Pirkei Avot just before the flour/Torah teaching adds: 

אִם אֵין בִּינָה, אֵין דַּעַת. אִם אֵין דַּעַת, אֵין בִּינָה.

If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge.

Perhaps, at this time of economic instability, we can read these lines together to understand that economic stability must be built on the best of Jewish values and the best of secular financial knowledge. 

May you and your loved ones know health and financial security, Torah and generosity, and therefore know sasson, (“joy”).

[1] Robert Scheinberg, “Money and Transaction in Jewish Liturgy and Rituals” in Mary Zamore, ed., The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic (New York: CCAR Press, 2019), 335.


Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the editor of and a contributing author to two acclaimed CCAR Press Challenge and Change anthologies, The Sacred Exchange: Creating A Jewish Money Ethic (2019) and The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic (2011). The Sacred Table was designated a finalist by the National Jewish Book Awards. She is also the Executive Director of Women’s Rabbinic Network.

Categories
Books Ethics General CCAR Holiday lifelong learning omer Rituals Social Justice

The Custom to Learn Pirkei Avot during the Omer

Rabbi Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice CommentaryIn this post, he reflects on the custom of studying Pirkei Avot during the Omer.

There is a traditional Jewish custom during the Omer—the seven-week period between the holiday of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons. Some have the custom of studying Pirkei Avot past Shavuot, all the way until Rosh HaShanah.[1] This custom first appears in the period of the Geonim, dating roughly between the sixth and eleventh centuries CE. The practice is opportune because there are enough chapters of Pirkei Avot (six) to study just one chapter each Shabbat of the Omer (also six) and complete the teachings. This custom is also quite fitting since the Omer is traditionally a time when we focus on the refinement of our character traits (middot), which is the primary ethical purpose of Pirkei Avot

The Sages of the Talmud knew that Shabbat days were longer in the summer months and therefore wanted to utilize that time for further Torah study.[2] While some Sages of the time suggested that we should avoid studying Torah on Shabbat afternoon in mourning for the death of Moses, who died on a Shabbat afternoon,[3] the Geonim, due to the length of summer Shabbat afternoons, overrode that prohibition.[4] A different suggestion[5] on the timing posits that we should study Torah on steamy Shabbat afternoons to wake ourselves up, both physically and spiritually. 

Another possibility for why we study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat might be that Pirkei Avot reminds us of the power of the oral tradition, which is how we learned to celebrate Shabbat. The Karaites, on the other hand, rejected the oral tradition and thus rejected Shabbat as developed in Rabbinic Judaism. Reinforcing the living, evolving Rabbinic tradition could best be achieved on Shabbat itself, a living manifestation of the nonliteral Rabbinic interpretive enterprise. 

Yet the idea of studying Pirkei Avot on Shabbat seems more practical. At Passover, we look out at the external world with messages of freedom and liberation, but then we transition back to the inner world with Shavuot and Rosh HaShanah focusing on introspection and reflection. Pirkei Avot does the opposite, focusing on society and fostering justice in the world but starting with our character and personal behavior. Shabbat afternoon, historically, presented the easiest opportunity to bring ethics to the masses, as it is a time to gather, pause, reflect on the past week, and recharge for the upcoming week. Just as we re-enter the toil of a week of hard work, we come together to reflect on our ethical lives. 

Many of the mishnayot, the early Rabbinic literature in the Talmud, deal with rituals, sacrifices, and points of nuanced theology. Pirkei Avot, however, is unique in that it draws upon the Jewish ethical tradition and expands these teachings in simple and clear ways. The Sages credited with the teachings emphasized how important it is to study continuously and to work to fulfill the lessons found within Pirkei Avot.[6]

It is remarkable that Pirkei Avot is free of discussions of religious procedures, as most Jewish texts from the era are primarily concerned with ritual and legal practices. The text’s objective is not to focus on studying religious rules. Instead, this is a work consisting purely of timeless life wisdom. Each of the Talmudic Sages had multiple points of wisdom to share, but only one or a handful of their teachings were recorded in Pirkei Avot. It is humbling to think that after a life of teaching profound wisdom, one’s existence may be remembered through only one sentence. 

Pirkei Avot Cover

Studying and writing my commentary on Pirkei Avot, which was published by CCAR Press in 2018, helped me realign my thoughts toward the relationship between humanity and the Divine as well as interpersonal relationships between individuals. I realized that internal character development is significantly more important to me than acquiring new things and skills, freeing me from the futile rat race of success in contemporary society. I wanted to be more reflective about my moral and spiritual choices and to strive to live wisely. I wanted to feel the burning challenge every day to strive for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. 

Pirkei Avot is the work that continues to keep me focused on this journey. I hope that my commentary inspires you to find that place within yourself to propel the world toward reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment. The ability to study the words of our sages during the Omer is a reminder that wisdom is ageless, applicable, and available to anyone who seeks it. It’s a beautiful flower that continues to bloom for the Jewish people and, indeed, all those in need of inspiration. 

Interested in counting the Omer? Omer: A Counting by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, published by CCAR Press, is available in print, ebook, as an app and in daily Omer cards.


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 forthcoming The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.


[1] There are other customs as well. Rabbi David Golinkin records sixteen different customs on when to study Pirkei Avot throughout the year: https://schechter.edu/when-should-we-study-pirkei-avot-and-when-should-we-recite-barekhi-nafshi-and-shirei-hamaalot-on-shabbat-afternoon/

[2] BT Bava Kama 82a

[3] See the Zohar (Parashat T’rumah 548): “Moses passed from this world at the hour of Sabbath minchah prayers, which is a time of grace.” The Zohar says there that it was not only Moses but also Joseph and King David who died on Shabbat. It should be noted, however, that there is a dissenting view that Moshe did not die on Shabbat but on Friday afternoon. See, for example, the Tosafot on Tractate M’nachot 30a. Rabbenu Mordechai bar Hillel Ashkenazi also wrote in Sefer Mordekhai on Tractate P’sachim 37: “Moreover, as it is said in Sifre, on the day that Moses died he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Law, one for each of the tribes and one that was placed in the Ark; if it had been the Sabbath, how could he have written them?”

[4] T’shuvot Rav Sar Shalom Gaon #14; T’shuvot Rav Natronai Gaon OH #15; 46

[5] The Midrash Shmuel

[6] BT Bava Kama 30a