Categories
Holiday News Social Justice

Reflections on Purim in 2021: COVID-19 and Modern-Day Genocide

This year, the lessons of Purim feel truer than ever.

This pandemic will not prevent us from celebrating Purim (socially distanced, of course). But Purim needs to be more than celebrated; it needs to be observed. Exchanging disease prevention masks for Purim masks during online celebrations is not enough. To observe Purim is to protest ethnic cleansing and genocide.

We know—viscerally, painfully—that religious freedom is not a lesson from ancient stories but an ongoing quest even today. While many of us are fighting antisemitism in our home countries, we are also in solidarity with the Rohingya people of Burma, who have been persecuted for decades. A predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Burma (Myanmar), the persecution escalated to a full-blown genocide in 2017, and in the wake of the military coup just a few weeks ago, their dreams of one day returning to their homeland grows fainter. The military in Burma overthrew the democratically elected government a few weeks ago in a coup—the same military who, for years, has been carrying out the genocide against the Rohingya people and oppressing other ethnic minorities.

Right now in Burma, people from all ethnic backgrounds are joining together in civil disobedience in response to the coup—and their methods look familiar. People are taking to the streets banging pots and pans. The videos of these peaceful, noisy protests are inspiring: ordinary people are making noise. Listening to a m’gillah reading on Purim, we rejoice in shaking our groggers when we hear Haman’s name—making noise to express our solidarity with each other, and to find joy even in the midst of recalling painful stories. People all over Burma are making noise now—maybe not with groggers, but we are connected to them just the same.

With holidays like Purim to bolster us and our people’s recent history to ground us, Jews today know deeply the importance of standing up with and for people who face genocide, who face state-sanctioned persecution because of their religion. The suffering, mass murder, and forced displacement of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community speaks deeply to us and compels us to act. We know we need to make noise. We need to act.

But we can be grateful to live in a world where action is possible. That’s why the CCAR is now a member of the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network: a network of thirty Jewish organizations from across the U.S. all taking action against the ongoing genocide.

This Purim, we are not only thinking about the Rohingya genocide as we read from the m’gillah once again and shake our groggers. I’m also holding how much the world has changed since last Purim, and what lessons we can learn from Purim in a pandemic.

Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel struggled with the problematic nature of Purim. How is it that a people who has suffered so greatly can make a holiday out of a state-sponsored genocide plot and the fighting that followed? Why is it that a people that values learning, wisdom, and fine distinctions created a custom calling on us to get so giddy that we cannot tell the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman”?

What does it say about our love of justice that not only the villain, but his ten sons too are killed once the king changes sides in the conflict? It doesn’t sound all that Jewish, does it? We were blessed to have Wiesel for as long as we did, but it would have been fascinating to read the insights he had to offer on the meaning of Purim during a pandemic. We now inhabit a reality where wearing a mask is not reserved for holidays and parties but a discipline of daily life. Like the Persians of the M’gillah, the American public has been fed misinformation about minorities while as recently as January antisemites and racists had ready access to the inner courts of power when they attacked the U.S. Capitol.

What would Wiesel, who spent Purim of 1945 in Buchenwald, struggling to stay alive for liberation a few weeks later, have to say about Purim 2021? We will never know the answer. What we do know is that Wiesel devoted his life’s work to bearing witness to genocide in the hope that future ones could be prevented. A modern-day prophet, he preached a message about the perils of apathy, complicity, and inaction. He told us to make noise when people are suffering because of their ethnicity, their religion. Like the prophets of old, his message was and remains all too often unheeded, and millions of people have paid the price.

Even in the midst of this joyful holiday, we mourn those lost to genocide. And we mourn those we have lost to the pandemic. We must bear witness to their deaths by making the world a more just and compassionate place. We must analyze the systemic failures that kept us from preventing more deaths and scrutinize the missed opportunities that would have saved more lives. So, too, we must be mindful that COVID-19 has not meant a hiatus from genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya face an uphill battle, as do the Uyghurs in China, and the Yazidis in Iraq, who remain in peril while powerful nations procrastinate instead of using their power.   

To follow Esther’s example requires us to use our privilege and our access to advocate for others rather than just worrying about ourselves. Thank you to CCAR and the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network for giving American Jews a voice against modern-day genocide, so we can continue Wiesel’s work of bearing witness. Today, call your senator and ask them to move forward legislation that would support the Rohingya people, and all ethnic minorities in Burma. When you shake your groggers at Haman’s name this Purim, picture the Burmese people shaking their groggers against modern-day Hamans, and feel the warmth of continued solidarity even across generations and continents. Wishing you a Purim of happiness, holiness and hope.


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

Categories
Social Justice

Black History Is American History

When Black History Month arrives each February, I remember an exchange from a 2009 60 Minutes Morgan Freeman interview with Mike Wallace. In it, three important statements about the condition of racism in the United States emerge. Here is a brief YouTube clip of their exchange. It goes something like this:

:00 Wallace asks, “Black History Month you find…”

:04 “Ridiculous,” answers Freeman bluntly. “You’re going to relegate my history to a month? What do you do with yours? Which month is White History Month?”

:16 Wallace is stunned. He’s tongue-tied. He stammers. “I’m Jewish,” he says.

:20 “Okay, which month is Jewish History Month?” asks Freeman.

Wallace: “There isn’t one.”

“Oh, why not? Do you want one?” Freeman asks.

“No, no, I uh…” mumbles Wallace.

:29 “Alright. I don’t either,” affirms Freeman. “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”

Let’s say it again: Black history is American history. That it is relegated to a single and separate month is the first statement about the condition of racism in America. Instead of digging into Freeman’s powerful point that Black history is American history, and to relegate it to a month is to diminish the rich history and countless contributions of African Americans in this country, Wallace swings and misses:

:36 Wallace asks, “How are we going to get rid of racism?”

By turning to a question of racism, Wallace’s seemingly innocuous question unveils an unspoken truth about Black History Month. People think its purpose is to be an antidote to racism. It is not. To see Black History Month as a way of ending racism in our country is to implicitly claim that there would be less racism if folks just saw and understood that Blacks are just as good and worthy as everyone else and have contributed to our country in innumerable ways far beyond Dr. Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson. Black History Month as a remedy to racism is a racist idea in and of itself and is the second statement about the condition of racism in our country. As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi has said numerous times, “The only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people.”

Black history is American history, and it is misguided to believe that Black History Month could serve as a remedy to racism. The clip from the 60 Minutes interview with Morgan Freeman adds one final statement about the condition of racism in our country:

:37 Wallace asks, “How are we going to get rid of racism?”

“Stop talking about it,” Freeman answers. “I’m going to stop calling you a White man. And I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a Black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman.”

Here, Freeman unwittingly evokes a perspective that is no longer right thinking. It never was. Like Freeman’s opinion, I was also raised during a time when colorblindness was seen as a curative to racism. However, that was never true. It is harmful. Children as young as three years old see color differences and, being socialized in a society that is systemically racist, are unconsciously taught to prefer White over Black. The final statement about American racism to be learned from this brief clip between Morgan Freeman and Mike Wallace is this: to fail to see the color of someone’s skin is to erase a core component of their identity. The covert racism hiding in our biases and stereotypes will not be overcome by pretending we don’t see color. It will certainly not contribute to the dismantling of systemic racism in our society.

This February, ask yourself: Why does Black History Month exist? On the whole, does it help construct an anti-racist society? Pay attention: How are the stories and histories of Black Americans told? In the process of honoring their legacies, are there subtle implications that they are being elevated to prove Black worthiness? Finally, we must see color. Colorblindness perpetuates racism because it pretends that we and our institutions are without bias, prejudice, and stereotype.

As a Reform rabbi, b’tzelem Elohim—that we are all created in the image of the Divine and therefore possess equal worth—demands that I speak out when I witness harmful acts of racism. As an aspiring White antiracist, it is my obligation to take action and use my privilege to fight oppression always—not just one month out of the year. Our covenantal relationship with God commands us to never turn away from the struggle and to inspire and guide our children to carry on for the rest of their lives. I implore you to see, honor, and lift up our differences and be a committed ally in the ongoing fight to dismantle racism.


Rabbi David Spinrad serves Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia.

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.