Categories
Healing News shabbat Social Justice

Hope, Healing, and Action

Pirkei Avot teaches: In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person. Meaning, even when other people are acting irresponsibly or unethically, we are still obligated to be guided by our highest selves. Even when others are disregarding basic rules of civility and humanity, we are still obligated to act with integrity and not give in to the basest of human impulses. It reminds us that to be human means striving to be our best.

What happened on Wednesday in our nation’s Capitol was an example of how low we can go as humans when we let hate and anger rule us, when we give in to demagoguery and hate. And indeed, while Wednesday was a terrible and violent day, what undergirded the drama of that day has been happening for a long time in our country now.

Our tradition teaches us to love the stranger, to care for the oppressed, to give voice to the voiceless. That is not partisan politics, but foundational Jewish teachings that comes from deep within the Torah, our prayer books, our Passover Haggadah.

A central text in the Haggadah teaches:

For the sake of redemption—ours and the world’s—
we pray together hallowed words
that connect us to Jews everywhere,
and to all who are in need:
the stranger and the lost,
the hungry and the unjustly imprisoned.
For our redemption is bound up with theirs,
and with the deliverance of all people.

As Jews we are called upon to understand that our destiny is bound up with the destiny not just of people like ourselves and people who think like us, but with the destiny of everyone around us. That is a message of unity and strength—that none of us can rest when some are suffering, and therefore we must care for one another.

So too as Americans, we are called upon to care for one another. No matter who I voted for or who you voted for, our destinies are bound up together. We can disagree—that is part of the democratic system that makes this country great. We can vote, we can speak our mind, we can argue, we can respectfully hold different opinions, we can peacefully march in protest, and then we can vote again. But what we cannot do is destroy the very system that gives us that precious freedom.

The terror that we saw at the Capitol on Wednesday, and the lackadaisical response on the part of law enforcement, will not define the American future and it does not define us. Rather, it serves to strengthen our resolve to work together to dismantle the forces that would divide us, to better understand and take responsibility for our own biases and prejudices, and to turn toward our neighbors with love. If anything, it shines a light on how much work we still have to do in order to rid our society of the diseases of racism, antisemitism, and white supremacy. And it propels us to get to work rebuilding our hope for a better future. 

Our hope in tomorrow must never fade. When I spoke to my mother on Wednesday she was in tears, not believing what she was seeing in her America. And I suspect that many tears were shed that day. Yes, it was heartbreaking to see our democracy being trampled upon. But I will not let my heart shatter in the face of all this violence and hate, because I need a heart to help guide me out of despair and into hope. A shattered heart cannot withstand the vitriol and divisiveness around us. A shattered heart is a defeated heart, a heart unable to respond with caring and compassion. And that I refuse to give in to. But there is another kind of brokenheartedness, not a shattering but a cracking open, an enlarging, which allows in the light and makes more room for love and empathy, for compassion and hope.

We all have a choice to make, as we’re reminded by the words of Pirkei Avot. Do we let go of our humanity and choose fear and hate, or do we call on the best of our humanity, choosing empathy and its companion, love? Let us then go forward into this Shabbat and into this new year, with hearts cracked open just enough to let in light, to let in hope, to let in love, so that we can be part of the healing of America.


Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. This message was delivered as part of the Reform Movement’s program “Hope, Healing, and Action” on January 8th, 2021.

Categories
News Social Justice

A Response to the Riots in Our Nation’s Capital

As we watched the scenes of pandemonium unfolding in Washington, DC, we were justifiably horrified by the violence and chaos unleashed by mob violence. The fact that our nation’s capital was desecrated on this day when our elected officials gathered to perform the sacred act of ritually formalizing the results of a presidential election imbues these horrific events with additional gravity. I, along with many of you, am very concerned about how this riot will impact the future of our Republic.

This week, we begin a new book of Torah. We read the first Chapter of Exodus where we find the words: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).  Immediately following this statement, we learn of the dangers involved in governmental transition. The new Pharaoh upends Egyptian society by undoing the policies of his predecessor, enslaving the Israelites, and instituting a brutal campaign of genocide.

While we would hope that the laws, norms, and behaviors that define, defend, and protect a nation from chaos would be upheld for the sake of stability and continuity, ultimately, the character and values of a nation are refracted and projected by its leader. Just as Pharaoh’s cruelty, insecurities and fears resulted in our ancestor’s enslavement, so too, our outgoing president, by his lack of clear and timely condemnation, and tacit encouragement of the rioters, has the potential to gravely injure the foundations of Democracy that created the very buildings that were ransacked by his unruly mob.

Times of transition are often fraught with instability. It is for this reason that our Founding Fathers created a system of checks and balances that revolve around the expectation that our leaders will demonstrate restraint, gravitas, and humility when elections are decided. That our current president has refused to acknowledge his loss, promoted false narratives of conspiracy, and has actively encouraged resistance is cause for alarm and condemnation.

Regardless of our political leanings, we must not remain silent when our leaders abdicate their responsibility to lead by example. Silence in the face of violence can never be tolerated. I pray that justice will prevail and the transition to the new administration will be peaceful and bring us the healing that we so desperately need. If you feel called to do so, please reach out to our Senators and Congressional representatives to express your feelings in this matter.

In every service we read the words:  Oseh Shalom Bimromav, He Yaaseh Shalom Aleynu…”  “May the One who makes peace on high, make peace for us as well.”

Let us take this prayer to heart as we move forward into a new beginning.


Rabbi Joe Black is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. 

Categories
News Prayer Social Justice

Prayer for a Nation in Crisis

As Reform rabbis, we unequivocally oppose today’s tragic insurrection and attack on the U.S. Capitol and on American democracy. We pray for peace in our nation’s capital, for the safety of all, and for an end to the treacherous and divisive demagoguery that threatens our precious democracy and is a rejection of our foundational American values.

We’re grateful to Rabbi Barry Block for penning this prayer for a nation in crisis.

Gracious God,
We come before You as supplicants today,
Seeking comfort and hope,
As terror reigns at our nation’s Capitol,
Spreading fears of violence throughout our land.
We beseech You on this terrifying day:
Spread your shelter of peace
Over the United States of America,
Upon all who dwell within its borders.
Embolden every American
To defend democracy,
To uphold our Constitution,
To protect the First Amendment right to assemble in protest,
And to eschew violence and mayhem.
Sustain us in faith
That the “better angels of our nature”[i] will be victorious,
That democracy will triumph,
That peace will prevail.
Bless the Capitol Police,
And all who are entrusted with restoring peace in Washington
And throughout this land.
Grant wisdom to
The President,
The Vice-President,
And to every Senator and Member of Congress.
Be with the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect,
Charged with unifying
This divided country
In the days and weeks ahead.
We Jews have always been
“Prisoners of hope.”[ii]
Restore us to hope today.
Grant us trust,
Even on a terrible day,
That we may look forward to a new day dawning,
Speedily and soon.
Amen.

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


[i] President Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861.

[ii] Zechariah 9:12.

Categories
Inclusion LGBT Social Justice

Transgender Day of Remembrance: An Opportunity for Safety and Visibility

Besides coronavirus, there is another epidemic raging in our communities: the ongoing scourge of violence targeting transgender people, particularly trans women of color. Transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people [ɪ] are more likely to be denied equal access to jobs, housing, and medical care, and they are frequent targets of violence—including murder. Trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folx are afraid to go to the police for help; when they do seek out legal remedies or safe harbor, they often are further harassed by law enforcement, facing violence at the hands of the very people charged with protecting them.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), “In just seven months, the number of transgender people suspected of being murdered in 2020 has surpassed the total for all of 2019.” Black and Latinx transgender women have been particularly targeted. NCTE’s US Transgender Survey, which included more than 28,000 participants, found that nearly half (47 percent) of all Black respondents and 30 percent of all Latinx respondents reported being denied equal treatment, experiencing verbal harassment, or being physically attacked in the previous year due to their transgender identity. 

The Family Research Project has shown that nearly three out of four trans and gender-expansive youth have heard family members say negative remarks about LGBTQ people, and over half of transgender and gender-expansive youth have been openly mocked by their families for their identity.

These harrowing statistics don’t have to be the norm. There is an urgent need for education and awareness-raising about transgender issues, both in our Jewish communities and in the cities and towns in which we live. As rabbis, we can make our synagogues places of safe harbor and support for transgender and gender non-conforming people, whether they are Jewish or not! Just as we build coalitions with interfaith partners, our congregations can build important bridges, becoming advocates for our Jewish transgender and non-binary members while providing connection, safety, and partnership for the larger transgender and non-binary community. One way we might do so is by reaching out to local LGBTQ organizations to sponsor and host ceremonies for Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Every year, November 20 is designated as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). The week prior is known as Transgender Awareness Week, with the goal of increasing visibility of transgender people and addressing the painful issues their community faces. TDOR was started in 1999 by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was murdered the previous year. The vigil commemorated all of the transgender people lost to violence since Hester’s death, beginning an important annual tradition.

This year, TDOR is on a Friday. Perhaps at your Shabbat evening service, you will invite a transgender activist to speak and educate your community. Perhaps during the Kaddish, you will read aloud the names of transgender victims of murder from this past year. Or in the week before TDOR, perhaps you will schedule a program to help raise visibility and acceptance of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people.

In my book, Mishkan Gaavah: Where Pride Dwells, published this year by CCAR Press, there are several powerful prayers and readings for TDOR. Here’s one to consider using:

A Prayer for Transgender Day of Remembrance

Rabbi: We praise You, Holy One, for the gift of life, precious, stubborn, fragile and beautiful; we are grateful for the time we have to live upon the earth, to love, to grow, to be.

Congregation: We give thanks for the will to live and for our capacity to live fully all of the days that we are given;

Rabbi: And for those who have been taken by the devastation of violence used against them. We remember them and claim the opportunity to build lives of wholeness in their honor.

Congregation: We give you thanks for the partners, friends, allies and families who have been steadfast in their love; for the people who have devoted their lifes work to the prevention of violence, support and making transitioning from one gender to another possible with passion and commitment,

Rabbi: For the diligent science, brilliant ideas, and insights that have led to new life-giving procedures, for those in leadership who have acted to provide health care for people who are in transition.

Congregation: We give thanks for those whose prejudice and judgment have yielded to understanding, for those who have overcome fear, indifference, or burnout to embrace a life of caring compassion.

Rabbi: We praise You, Eternal One, for those who have loved enough that their hearts have broken, who cherish the memories of those we have lost, and for those who console the grieving.

Congregation: God, grant us the love, courage, tenacity, and will to continue to make a difference in a world even with the violence aimed towards our community;

Rabbi: Inspire us to challenge and stand strong against the forces that allow needless harm and violence to continue—prejudice, unjust laws, repression, stigma, and fear.

Congregation: Into Your care, we trust and lift up the hundreds of souls who have been tortured and murdered.

Rabbi: We lift up to You our dreams of a world where all are cared for,

Congregation: Our dreams of wholeness,

Rabbi: Our dreams of a world where all are accepted and respected,

Congregation: A dream we know You share.


[ɪ] The Human Rights Campaign has a useful glossary for anyone unfamiliar with these terms.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the editor of Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Life and Ritual (CCAR Press, 2020) and a past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA.

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.