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Books CCAR Press Social Justice

Guarding and Tending the Land: Rabbi Andrue Kahn on ‘The Sacred Earth’

Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn, editor of The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet, reflects on the inspiration behind the project, the unique approaches taken by the book’s contributors, and why Jews can play an essential role in the fight against climate change.

How did you get interested in the topic of climate change?

I have always found nature to be a source of spiritual richness. Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, a particularly beautiful part of our country, I sought out the sense of gravity, mystery, and wonder in our parks and beaches. As I grew older, I maintained that sense of connectedness to wild spaces, but never really considered the place of Judaism within that nexus. As associate rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, I was approached by a particularly passionate congregant, the indefatigable Peg Watson, who wanted to push our community to get more involved in environmental justice. She connected us with Karenna Gore at the Center for Earth Ethics, and through many conversations and much planning, it became clear to me that the best way to awaken our community towards greater commitment to and involvement in protecting our ecosystem was to cultivate resources for individuals to connect their Jewish identity and practice more closely with the more-than-human world of plants and animals, mountains and oceans, and forests and deserts.

What can readers learn from The Sacred Earth?

The most important lesson within The Sacred Earth, reiterated throughout every page, is that Judaism has always seen humanity as part of the intricate web of intermeshing life on this planet, and that God is the creator of the entire system. Many have posited that Judaism has no Earth-based ethic due to our exile from the land of Israel, the geographic locus of our genesis as a people. In reality, this volume helps us see that our state of exile has given us a valuable viewpoint on humanity’s relationship to the planet. Our presence in every ecosystem—and our ability to be contributors and partners with others in guarding and tending the land—has given us a global perspective well before globalism became the norm.

Can you describe some of the different approaches taken by contributors to The Sacred Earth?

The Sacred Earth is as full of approaches as it is of contributors! From poetry, to reflective biographical essays, to halachic thought, to kabbalistic mysticism, to practical guides for ritual practices, each chapter is its own gateway into more deeply understanding our role as Jews on our shared planet.

Why is it important that we, as Jews, engage in environmental activism? 

Just as is true with so many other justice causes, environmental activism is deeply important for the Jewish people to engage in both for our own interests, and for the wider interests of the world. We are part of the wider network of communities that links all people and places throughout the planet, and are therefore responsible for maintaining that system. Beyond our universal commitments, the truth is that Jews all over the world are and will continue to be deeply impacted by the ongoing climate shifts. Even our ancestral and spiritual homeland itself is at deep risk of being uninhabitable within my lifetime if we continue trending towards greater rise in global temperature. Finally, our Torah teaches us that humanity was charged with the responsibility of guarding and tending the world, and there is no better way to maintain our connection to this mitzvah than to join with our fellow humans in working to protect against further destruction.

What gives you hope that we can rise to the challenge of addressing climate change?

When I look at the history of our people and our resilience in the face of thousands of years of challenges, it becomes clear that the Jewish people’s ability to survive and thrive everywhere and everywhen is undeniable. The unsustainable practices that have led to climate change will inevitably lead to their own demise. Our beautiful planet is incredibly resilient, if on its own timeline rather than a human timeline. Ultimately, the question is whether we as a species are willing and able to change how we approach our planet, our relationship to its inhabitants, and our modes and methods of consumption before we are forced by the ongoing shifts to make the changes under duress. What gives me the greatest hope in the face of these challenges are the many people who are devoting their lives to changing minds, hearts, and systems. The Sacred Earth is full of the thought and passion of just these kinds of people, tzaddikimin our midst, and I believe that whether we change by choice, or change by force, these tzaddikim will continue to work towards a better, more just world.

Rabbi Kahn and select contributors to The Sacred Earth are available to visit communities for speaker events and book clubs. For more information, please email bookevents@ccarpress.org.


Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn is Associate Director of Yachad and Adult Education at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY. He is the editor of The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet (CCAR Press, 2023).

Categories
gender equality Social Justice

Creating Workplace Equity that Reflects Jewish Values

In honor of Labor Day, Rabbi Mary L. Zamore, executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, reflects on ethical employment practices and offers a variety of resources to help Jewish workplaces achieve these standards.

Labor Day, the first Monday of September, is the US federal holiday to honor and recognize our workers. In the Jewish community, many frequently describe our places of employment as having cultures like family. However, if we really want to honor the dedicated people who serve as the backbones of our institutions, we must develop the most professional and equitable employment policies and procedures possible. We must ensure equitable hiring, supervision, and promotion; we must create safe, respectful communities. This will honor not only our employees, but also our volunteers, members, and participants. In this manner, we will create cultures in which all can flourish.

For secular employees in the United States, the gender-based wage gap persists. According to a Pew Research Center report, it has barely narrowed in the past two decades. In 2022, American women typically earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men; this ratio has remained almost the same since 2002, when women earned 80 cents to the dollar. The gap is much wider for women of color. For example, in 2022, Black women earned 70 percent as much as White men, and Hispanic women earned only 65 percent.

Unfortunately, the wage gap also persists in Reform Jewish congregations. The Reform Pay Equity Initiative (RPEI), a project of the seventeen organizations of the Reform Movement and led by Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) and Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN), gathers data from the five professional organizations of the Reform Movement. This aggregation reveals a gender-based wage gap consistent with secular data.

Professional and lay leaders in each Jewish workplace should examine the RPEI data in order to ascertain if their female-identified employees, as well as those of other protected identity groups, are treated fairly and equitably. The question is not just “do we pay our employees fairly?” but “how do we know for sure that we are creating equity in our workplaces and thus living up to our Jewish values?” This drive for equity also requires that hiring, supervision, and promotion are conducted in the most professional manner and result in unbiased employment practices.

To ensure equity in our Jewish workplaces, we must guarantee that all employees have access to paid family and medical leave. With federal laws failing to provide paid leave, the secular American workplace is an outlier among developing and developed countries. Although the situation is improving at the state level, religious institutions are exempt from these laws. Therefore, the moral imperative is on Jewish leaders to provide clearly communicated, robust paid leave for people of all genders who are growing their families or whose loved ones are experiencing medical challenges. WRN’s paid family leave resource provides accessible information and model language for employment contracts and employee handbooks. This free resource explains that every employee should receive twelve weeks of paid leave.

Finally, our congregations and institutions must be safe, harassment-free, respectful communities for employees and all who interact with these organizations in any capacity. Every congregation and institution should have an ethics policy, which is constantly broadcast to all who gather either virtually or in person. In addition, staff and board members must be trained in the procedures that support the policies. Admittedly, upholding good-quality ethics policies can be difficult. It may require standing up to individuals who otherwise are valued in our communities and letting them know that their harmful behavior will not be tolerated. It may even mean asking these productive perpetrators to leave our communities.[i] It is vital that boards and leaders plan and practice procedures and are prepared to act. The Union for Reform Judaism has a complete resource, as well as professionals and lay leaders, to help congregations study and write an ethics code. Sacred Spaces, an organization dedicated to preventing institutional abuse in the Jewish community, has created Keilim, an online, self-guided policy toolkit. In addition, the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ “The Clergy Monologues” and ARJE’s “The Educator Monologues,” with accompanying study guides (Clergy and Educator), are conversation-starting tools to reflect on gender bias in Jewish spaces.

When we describe our Jewish workplaces as “like family,” we unwittingly send the message that our synagogues and institutions do not need to uphold the highest professional standards for ethical employment as informed by our Jewish values and secular laws. As Reform Jews, we can apply our communal passion for egalitarianism and social justice to safeguard every Reform Movement employee and ensure their access to safe, harassment-free, respectful workplaces. Dedicating ourselves to this goal is the greatest way to honor and celebrate our workers this Labor Day.


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


[i] Productive perpetrators are professional or lay people who contribute to our communities through time, talent, money, knowledge, or social capital. Yet they harm others through bullying or harassment. See Harassment-Free Jewish Spaces: Our Leaders Must Answer to a Higher Standard (RavBlog).

Categories
Books Social Justice

Changing the Cycle: Jewish Tradition as a Response to the Climate Crisis

Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn, editor of The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet, reflects on the traditional practice of the sh’mitah year, its applications to climate justice, and how we can build a sustainable future for all.

In New York City’s Union Square, if you look up right above Nordstrom Rack and Best Buy, you’ll see a series of red numbers counting down. Right now, it reads something like six years, some amount of days, and some amount of hours, minutes, and seconds. This is a climate clock, and others just like it exist in Seoul, Rome, Berlin, and Glasgow. These clocks are counting down to the presumed date at which our planet’s temperature will have increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius due to humanity’s carbon emissions. Climate scientists suggest that this temperature shift “could trigger a cascade of tipping points, which would irreversibly alter the global climate system and further exacerbate warming.”[1]

This viewpoint is steeped in the modern mindset. Modernity, the outcome of the European Enlightenment, focuses on a view of history as a continually straight line of progress charted on human timelines, centering ourselves, our lifetimes, and our goals. This is often viewed in the positive sense—that we, as a special species and a planet, are always progressing inevitably forward. But it is not quite how the biblical, or rabbinic, world understood the nature of history.

Our Torah teaches a practice of connecting to the land called the sh’mitah system, which in many ways runs precisely contrary to our modern sense of straight-line progress. It creates seven-year cycles of stopping work, stopping growth, and, after many cycles, returning all back to an original state, undoing anything that could be viewed as financial or wealth accumulation.

God tells Moses:

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:… Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Eternal: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (Leviticus 25:2–4)

This cycle continues seven times itself, every forty-nine years. The seventh cycle of the sh’mitah year is the yoveil year, in which all things are returned to their original status. If land has changed hands between families, it goes back to the original families. If someone has become enslaved or indebted, that slavery and that debt are canceled. Every forty-nine years, the society returns to its starting point. The year 5782, or 2021–22 in the Gregorian calendar, was the last sh’mitah year. This major cycle of the Jewish calendar is aligning directly with the environmental countdown clock. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the countdown clock at Union Square is also counting down to the next sh’mitah year, 5789.

One of the most brilliant Torah scholars of history, Moses ben Nachman (Ramban), sees within the sh’mitah practice of the Torah a symbolic system of cycles in time that point us towards not just human social structures, or human-centric histories and futures, but the underlying pattern of the cosmos.

He writes:

The six days of creation represent the duration of the world, and “the seventh day is a sabbath of Adonai your God” (Exodus 20:10). Just as the seven days of the week allude to what God created in the beginning, so the seven years of the sabbatical cycle allude to what will happen during all the rest of creation. That is why the text is so strict about it, invoking a penalty of exile for violating it. (Ramban on Leviticus 25:2)

Ramban is suggesting that our entire universe works in these cycles of seven, starting with six “days” of work, and then a seventh “day” of rest. This continues out fractally in time, forever. We have six “years” of work, and then a seventh “year” of rest, which then multiplies out to a seventh degree as well, with a complete societal reset every seven cycles.

This system of seven continues ad-infinitum, and the end of time will come at the end of one-thousand cycles of seven, in which the “World to Come”—the Jewish phraseology for the messianic era—will be established. There will then be one-thousand years of peace and prosperity, a Shabbat to end all Shabbats, which will then end with a total return to nothing, perhaps to start all over again.

In her recent book Hospicing Modernity, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira writes about looking at stories so radically different from our normative modern viewpoint of straight-line progress through history, not for their literal truth, but as a process to think with.

She refers to this as worlding, using stories as a guide to how to be in the world. She writes:

Worlding stories invite us to experiment with a different relationship between language and reality. These stories do not require anyone to believe in anything; rather they invite you to believe with them. However, these stories cannot work on you without your consent. Taking worlding stories seriously makes possible a significant change in your ways of seeing, sensing, and relating to the world.[2]

So I invite you, now, to try worlding with this very different cosmology that the Torah and Ramban are putting forward. We have a little over six years until the climate countdown clock hits zero, and our next sh’mitah year begins. What this cycle of sevens brought to us by our tradition teaches us is that time moves in predictable patterns that we cannot change—but we, ourselves, can change our own behavior within the patterns. By reflecting on our own behavior within them, we are able to change the outcomes of the cycle.

The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on our Planet provides a multitude of ways to world with this idea—to find our Jewish footing in this system of cycles in order to change our behavior, and perhaps change the outcome of this cycle towards the tipping point of global warming. Each chapter of this book reflects on Jewish modes of understanding our relationship to God, the planet, and each other through different aspects of our tradition’s wisdom systems—from theology, to halachah (Jewish law), to prayer, to personal practice in nature. This volume seeks to be a key to a vision for a future perfect with nature and with the Divine rather than the straight lines of human-centered history.

As we look forward to our next sh’mitah year, and perhaps this tipping point of climate change, may each of us find within our tradition ways of worlding with our ancestors, our tradition, and our Torah, to build a future for all of us.

Rabbi Kahn and select contributors to The Sacred Earth are available to visit communities for speaker events and book clubs. For more information, please email bookevents@ccarpress.org.


Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn is Associate Director of Yachad and Adult Education at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY. He is the editor of The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet (CCAR Press, 2023).

[1] https://e360.yale.edu/digest/1.5-degrees-climate-change-tipping-points-2030#:~:text=As%20the%20planet%20rapidly%20approaches,in%20the%20next%20few%20years.

[2] Machado de Oliveira, Vanessa. Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism, 46–47. North Atlantic Books, 2021.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice

Unpacking the Bible’s Simple Truths: Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz on ‘The Book of Proverbs’

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary, new from CCAR Press. In this Q&A, he discusses why he chose to write about Proverbs and what readers can learn from the book.


You previously published two social justice commentaries with CCAR Press, on Pirkei Avot and Jonah. Why did you choose Proverbs as the text for your third commentary?  

I believe the Book of Proverbs is one of the most overlooked books in the Tanach. And yet, its simplicity can speak to the complexities of our moment. In the twenty-first century, our identities, relationships, and choices are often more complicated than ever. As we grow in our complexity, it is imperative to remember the moral foundations on which our lives are built. For me, in this generation, Proverbs is about getting back to basics and returning to simple truths.

Many Jews might ask, “What even is the Book of Proverbs?” Contained in the Writings, the final section of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs is a work of ancient but timeless wisdom traditionally attributed to King Solomon. Dealing more with morals and ethics than the Divine, it can be of immense value to believers and non-believers alike. When I teach Torah, I try to pass on a version of the tradition that encompasses both the study of ideas and the translation of those ideas into real-world action. The Book of Proverbs offers us an excellent bridge between those ideals.

Proverbs is a very different text from Jonah and Pirkei Avot. Did your writing approach differ for this volume? 

Absolutely. These three books are very similar in that they are all interested in translating ancient holy texts into relevant moral replies. But they are so different. Pirkei Avot is rabbinic, the Book of Jonah is a narrative, and Proverbs is from the wisdom literature. In the first two, I viewed my role as simplifying the complicated. But here, I viewed my role as complicating the simple. Proverbs distills our Jewish values down to their very essence and it reinforces our commitment to the integrity of a Jewish path. The texts can inspire us and challenge us to do more and live differently.

Did writing this book change any of your perspectives? 

My main ideas did not change, but the book has the potential to transform us in subtler ways. For example, in a society that feels unforgiving and has us convinced that one mistake by ourselves or others makes us irredeemable, Proverbs reminds us that “Seven times the righteous one falls and gets up” (24:16). I paused to think about resilience, forgiveness, and redemption at a time when our society is struggling with extreme binaries.

Which proverb did you find most meaningful?

The book reinforces the notion that Judaism is about spiritual and ethical work and learning to grow in responsibility. Instead of providing indisputable answers, Proverbs often supplies us with contradictory lessons. For example, Proverbs 26:4 teaches: “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly, else you will become like him.” This is a useful lesson in the age of online mudslinging. Yet the very next verse tells us the complete opposite: “Answer a fool in accord with his folly, else he will think himself wise.” The reader is trusted to work out the application on their own. In an era where so many feel they have it all figured out, how do we engage, resist, or walk away from those we view to be destructive?

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

In a world that tangles and muddles our ideas of what our lives should be, the Book of Proverbs helps us return to the foundational questions regarding our relationships with good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow. Our culture rewards our being compliant and undisruptive, but Proverbs drives us to take moral and spiritual action with clarity and courage. It challenges us to make distinctions between laziness and productivity, foolishness and wisdom, cruelty and justice. By studying this text, we confront the fact that we are constantly making decisions (consciously or not) about what kinds of people and Jews we are going to be. In today’s rapidly changing and exhaustingly overwhelming world, we can experience a great deal of fear and worry. We need to weather these storms together and hold each other closer. Only together, with grace and humility, can we courageously evolve. In the end, more than wanting readers to master the Proverbs from the Bible, I’d like to see them inspired to write their own proverbs that can help guide their lives.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a global activist and the author of twenty-two books on Jewish spirituality, social justice, and ethics. His many works include the CCAR Press titles Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (2018), The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (2020), and The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary (2022). The books are available separately or in a discounted bundle.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice

Why Study the Book of Proverbs?

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary, new from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, he discusses what we can learn from Proverbs.


The Rabbis taught that most of the Israelites did not leave Egypt during the Exodus. Indeed, for some—perhaps most—people, the familiar state of “slavery” is much more comfortable than unknown “freedom.” Today, our world changes faster than ever before in human history. There is a lot of fear of change, fear of loss. We need to weather these storms together and hold each other closer. Only together, with grace and humility, can we courageously evolve. As spiritual seekers, we have unique opportunities each day to continue to reflect on the ancient wisdom of our tradition and how it can be made relevant to our moment.

Spirituality is not simply “fun” or “meaningful.” There is far too much at stake. If we do not elevate our spiritual consciousness, we will destroy ourselves. More than a political revolution, we need a global spiritual awakening to the oneness and the interconnectedness of all life! How will we get there? What intellectual and spiritual resources will help us all move forward? Which of those resources will be brand-new and which ones will be ancient?

The Book of Proverbs—a book of ancient wisdom—is one of the most profound works found within the Hebrew Bible, but one that is not often explored in a truly spiritual, accessible, and relevant way. The language of the book is often vague, and its words and lessons are often open-ended and shrouded with literary ambiguity, qualities that make it hard to digest for the contemporary reader. Still, the wisdom that is contained within the Book of Proverbs is timeless, and readers have much to gain by learning from its ancient precepts.

Those of us who live in a world of paradox might find the Book of Proverbs—known as Sefer Mishlei in Hebrew—to seem a bit binary and simplistic. However, the book pushes us to remember that actually much of life is quite binary! We are confronted with good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow. The challenge is to see which moments require us to view situations with nuance and embrace paradox—and which moments require our fervent and robust moral and spiritual action. In the latter moments, we should not try to find intellectual excuses, but rather respond with clarity and courage. In the Book of Proverbs, we find the productive and the lazy, the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust—and we know where we want to find ourselves on that map!

The Book of Proverbs is the second book of K’tuvim (“Writings,” the third section of the Hebrew Bible) and consists of only thirty-one chapters. As part of the biblical “wisdom literature,” the book discusses moral values and proper conduct. The collection is divided according to its different authors.1 In fact, one might divide the book into seven different books merged into one, similar to a contemporary anthology consisting of seven chapters written by different authors. Other books in the Hebrew Bible of the same wisdom literature genre include Ecclesiastes and Job.2

Due to the lack of references to the Divine, the content of the Book of Proverbs is accessible to a broad readership, believers and nonbelievers alike. Proverbs is not a typical biblical book. God is mentioned here and there, but the content of the book is mostly focused on human learnings and wisdom. As one might say today, the book is “spiritual but not religious.” It appears to have been written not for an intellectual elite interested in theology, but as a moral guide for all people. It is not an exclusively “Jewish” book, but speaks to universal concerns. It does not address the needs, interests, and challenges of a specific community, but rather seeks to provide guidance for an individual—any individual.

Learn more and order the book at proverbs.ccarpress.org. A free study guide by CCAR Press Rabbinic Intern Ada Luisa Sinacore is available.


1. “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1–9); “The proverbs of Solomon” (Proverbs 10:1–22:16); “The words of the sages” (Proverbs 22:17–24:22); “These also are by the sages” (Proverbs 24:23–34); “These too are proverbs of Solomon, which the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied” (Proverbs 25–29); “The words of Agur” (Proverbs 30); “The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, with which his mother admonished him” (Proverbs 31). It is important to note, however, that it is possible to view these other authors as nicknames for Solomon.

2. Two other books are generally included in the genre of the wisdom literature that were excluded from the Tanach but included in the Apocrypha: Wisdom of Solomon and Wisdom of Ben Sira (or Ecclesiasticus).


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a global activist and the author of twenty-two books on Jewish spirituality, social justice, and ethics. His many works include the CCAR Press titles Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (2018) and The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (2020).

Categories
Social Justice

The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion and the Legacy of Two Courageous Reform Rabbis and Religious Leaders Pre-Roe v. Wade

While we anticipate—and work to fight—the disastrous consequences resulting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s plan to drastically curtail reproductive rights in the United States, we can take a lesson in leadership and courage from the 1960s and two New York City CCAR members—Rabbi Lewis Bogage and Rabbi Israel Margolies, z”l—who were instrumental in forming the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion before the 1973 passing of Roe v. Wade.

Abortion was against the law in New York State when Rev. Finley Schaef approached Rev. Howard Moody, both serving churches in downtown Manhattan. Rev. Schaef, haunted by the memory of being unable to help a woman seeking an abortion for her daughter who became pregnant under tragic circumstances, suggested that the two of them organize clergy to refer people for safe and affordable abortions. Rev. Moody welcomed the idea and the two called a meeting with other clergy and legal advisors to form the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a network of religious leaders organized to refer women for safe and affordable care.  

The group devoted many hours to planning and arranging the details. They attained a direct-dial telephone number and housed an answering machine at Rev. Moody’s church. They charged no fee. To ensure their doctors were trustworthy and not overcharging, the administrator of Judson Church, Arlene Carmen, pretended to be a pregnant woman and checked them out. If questioned by the police, they would claim that the referrals were part of confidential pastoral counsel. And they were committed to using the word “abortion” in the name of their consultation service so that people knew what they were doing, would be able to find them, and hopefully reduce the stigma so often associated with abortion. And they enlisted the participation of other Greater New York City clergy, including Rabbi Bogage and Rabbi Margulies. 

Finally, on May 22, 1967, a New York Times front-page article announced the formation of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, listing twenty-one clergy—nineteen ministers, plus Rabbi Bogage and Rabbi Margolies. The article described the goals and work of the CCSA, listed each clergy member by name and congregation, included the call number, and quoted from the CCSA statement which underscored that a doctor performing an abortion is “living by the highest standards of religion and of the Hippocratic Oath.”  

The calls and referrals started immediately, reaching 800 by the end of 1967, 3,000 in 1968, and 10,000 in 1969. According to estimates, by the time of the Roe decision, the network expanded nationally to 2,000 clergy serving 100,000 women without a single fatality. There were a few clergy arrests and legal inquires, but nothing ever came of it all, and with the Roe decision, many of the clergy turned to other social justice needs.  

  

Sources:  

Tom Davis, Sacred Work, Rutgers University Press, 126–135. 

Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf, To Offer Compassion, University of Wisconsin Press, 23–32. 

Dennis S. Ross, All Politics Is Religious, SkyLight Paths, 25–31.


Rabbi Dennis S. Ross directs Concerned Clergy for Choice for Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, is Acting Interim Specialist for the CCAR, and author of A Year with Martin Buber: Reflections on the Weekly Torah Portion for the Jewish Publication Society Daily Inspiration Series. 

Categories
Social Justice

‘I Will Keep Fighting for Our Rights to Control Our Bodies and Our Lives’: Rabbi Hara Person’s Remarks at the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington, D.C.

In response to the draft of a United States Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which leaked to the public in early May, the Central Conference of American Rabbis—which believes that abortion access is a Jewish value, a human right, and part of comprehensive healthcare—cosponsored the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice, presented by National Council of Jewish Women, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Chief Executive, was asked to address the thousands of attendees in Washington, D.C. Here, we share her remarks.


I stand here today, a Reform rabbi and the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in tribute to my great-grandmother, Lena.

I stand here 100 years after my great-grandmother Lena had two knitting needle abortions on her kitchen table. She turned to the best of bad options because she could barely feed the children she had. My great-grandmother was one of the lucky ones. She lived to tell the tale. When abortion became legal in this country, she made sure her family knew her story.

Taking away access to abortion is not pro-life. Banning abortion is about taking power away from and punishing people with uteruses.

I am here to say proudly that Reform rabbis and the Reform Movement believe that abortion access is essential healthcare, a basic human right, and a Jewish value.

Today we have safe options for abortion, and these options must be protected and accessible to all. Taking away abortion access goes against our most deeply held American values of religious liberty and equality. It goes against our Jewish belief of prioritizing an actual life over a potential life.

Reform rabbis and the Reform Movement believes that every one of us should have the right to make personal healthcare decisions based on our own faith and values.

In memory of my great-grandmother, Lena, I will keep fighting for our rights to control our bodies and our lives. The fight will be difficult but what a blessing to be in it with all of you.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Teaching and Preaching with The Social Justice Torah Commentary

Rabbi Barry H. Block is the editor of the new CCAR Press book The Social Justice Torah Commentary, which delves into the many ways that the Torah can inspire us to address today’s social justice issues. In this post, Rabbi Block discusses how the book’s diverse lessons have influenced his own sermons throughout the past year.

On many Friday nights in the last year, contributors to The Social Justice Torah Commentary have been de facto guest preachers at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock.

For more than a year now, I have been in the unique position of having access to the brilliant work of our CCAR colleagues and other contributors to The Social Justice Torah Commentary. The last of the chapters was completed in late 2020. Transforming the content into a physical book takes a while, particularly in this era of contraction in the printing industry and global supply chain issues.

The book’s chapters have deeply influenced my own rabbinate over the last year; I hope this will be replicated as rabbis and others now have their hands on the full book.

I give formal sermons most Friday nights, and the authors of The Social Justice Torah Commentary have provided me with content that I have shaped into these sermons. I suspect that colleagues who speak more informally could similarly benefit from the book.

Last fall, when the Supreme Court forced the City of Philadelphia to continue contracting with a religious foster care agency that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, I preached on “Religious Certainty and Religious Liberty,” drawing both on that week’s portion, Vayeira, and Rabbi David Segal’s insightful piece on that parashah for the book. I turned back to Rabbi Segal’s entry this year, as we face a historic threat to abortion rights. In 5782, my sermon for Vayeira was entitled, “Abortion Rights: Bound to the Altar”. While both of those sermons drew on the same chapter in the book, neither recapitulated Rabbi Segal’s central argument in full. Instead, crediting Rabbi Segal repeatedly in each sermon, I shared some of his words—and, more importantly, texts that he provides.

In other cases, I have shared an author’s entire thesis more fully. Before I received Rabbi Reuben Zellman’s draft for Parashat Mikeitz, I had somehow never thought of Joseph and the cupbearer as formerly incarcerated people who had been given extraordinary opportunities to succeed after imprisonment. I shared Rabbi Zellman’s perspective rather fully last December, in a sermon titled “Joseph and the Cupbearer: The Potential of Formerly Incarcerated People”.

Rabbi Mary Zamore’s entry on harassment-free Jewish spaces for Parashat Vayikra is so compelling that I taught it even though the week of reading that portion wasn’t the right time. Shabbat HaGadol, when we read Parashat Tzav (close enough to Vayikra!), would be the occasion for me to share her wisdom in a sermon I entitled “Harassment, Bullying, and Jewish Institutions”.

In no case have I merely recited another author’s work verbatim as my Shabbat sermon. Instead, I have shaped kernels of these chapters into drashot that would fit the congregation I serve and the season when I have preached.

More recently, Rabbis Alan Freedman and Ellie Steinman and Temple Beth Shalom in Austin blessed me with my first scholar-in-residence opportunity since the pandemic began. My Friday evening sermon was based on The Mussar Torah Commentary. However, for the Shabbat morning Torah Study, I prepared a Sefaria source sheet based on Rabbi Naamah Kelman’s entry for Parashat Chayei Sarah, “Torah’s Precedent for Women’s Agency.” Rabbi Kelman focused on how women’s agency is taken away by the marriage and divorce laws of Israel’s chief rabbinate. Teaching in Texas in 2021, though, the matter of women’s agency is most relevant to the struggle for access to abortion.

Later that same Shabbat, our attention had turned to Parashat Tol’dot. In his chapter about systemic racism and water rights, Rabbi David Spinrad draws on Isaac’s digging and naming successive wells—and importantly, on Nachmanides’ midrashic reading of that story. Kernels of his work, encapsulated in a Sefaria sheet, were the perfect material on which to base a conversation about whether and how rabbis can properly speak on issues of the day: “Politics or Social Justice: Should Rabbis Preach about Issues of the Day.”

I hope that these examples, only a few of the many, many times I have employed the content of The Social Justice Torah Commentary over the last year, will inspire CCAR colleagues and others to draw on this new book to bring Torah and the prophetic voice for a brighter future to all the communities we serve.


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the CCAR’s Vice President for Organizational Relationships and also edited The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life (CCAR Press, 2020).

Categories
Israel Rabbinic Reflections Social Justice

Implement the Kotel Agreement: An Open Letter to Ambassador Michael Herzog

Dear Ambassador Hertzog,

I am an American Reform rabbi. I am writing to you from Tel Aviv, where I am privileged to be spending a month with my Israeli family.

This morning, I joined friends and colleagues to celebrate Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel, as I have many, many times before.

I am honored to join my courageous and resilient Israeli sisters to welcome the new month, even though we who join Women of the Wall (נשות הכותל) are often screamed at, spat upon, and prevented from praying together. Today was no different: we were corralled into a separate space as if we, not our hecklers, needed to be contained. The true desecration today was the screaming, the shrill whistles, and the guards’ bullhorns that attempted to silence our prayer. Instead of providing protection to us, the Kotel authorities ignored and seemed to support those who harassed us.

You know that the current situation at the Kotel causes grave harm and deep embarrassment for all of us who love Israel. Israel is my home, but being heckled by ultra-Orthodox men and women, and boys and girls, when I lift my voice in praise to the Source of all makes me feel unwelcome and alienated in one of Israel’s most sacred places. 

You also know that Israel is home to many Jews who do not identify as Orthodox, and that North American Jews from all liberal streams feel a profound sense of peoplehood when we visit Israel and attend one of the many Israeli Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative synagogues. And when we visit the Kotel, we want to pray in peace, in a space that welcomes us. 

No one heckles the men who gather to pray. No one prevents men from bringing a Sefer Torah to sanctify their gathering. No one prevents men from being called to the Torah for the first time, or to celebrate a simchah, or to remember a loved one. No one accuses other prayer groups of “disturbing the peace.”

Yet I return to Israel, and to the Kotel, whenever I can, in the hopes that the Kotel Agreement, approved on January 31, 2016 by the Israeli government will finally be implemented. This detailed, 45-page document, negotiated over three and a half years, provides full and unimpeded access to the Western Wall for Jews of all streams. It is my hope that once implemented, the harassment, intimidation, and שנאת חינם will cease. 

Today we welcomed a new month: Adar. Tradition teaches: משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה.

However, my joy today was diminished, and my heart heavy with disappointment and anger that Prime Minister Bennett, on the sixth anniversary of the signing of the Kotel Agreement, is capitulating to extremists and denying that the Kotel Agreement is a fair and long overdue compromise. As you know, there is broad support in his coalition to finally move forward on this long delayed and eminently fair solution. 

Now is the time to rise beyond narrow political considerations. I implore you, as a representative of the Israeli government, to conclude the task begun with “Ezrat Israel” in 2013. Nine years later, it is time for the Israeli government to implement the Kotel Agreement.

Let us welcome Adar with joy, not shame.

Thank you.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD

Learn more about the Kotel Agreement here.


Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD serves as a Spiritual Director at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the editor of Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (Cascade Books) and The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (CCAR Press), and has served as a congregational rabbi, worked with congregations and lay leaders through the URJ, and has taught at the University of Cincinnati, University of California, Los Angeles, and LaSalle University.