Categories
News Social Justice

The Messy Truth of Legacy

Racist Realities and the Need to Stop Romanticizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Categories
Healing inclusivity News Social Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I share the following points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


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


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

Categories
Poetry Social Justice

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

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

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

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


I Can’t Breathe
By Rabbi Lance J. Sussman

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Psalm for Our Cities on Fire
By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

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

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

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

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

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


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

Categories
Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

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

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

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

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

By Alden Solovy

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

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

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


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

Categories
Economy omer Shavuot Social Justice spirituality

Economic Stability: An Ageless Quest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Custom to Learn Pirkei Avot during the Omer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pirkei Avot Cover

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

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

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


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and the forthcoming The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.


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

[2] BT Bava Kama 82a

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

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

[5] The Midrash Shmuel

[6] BT Bava Kama 30a

Categories
News Social Justice

Why the CCAR Fights to Keep Contraception Free

During CCAR Connect in March 2020, many of us learned from Nancy Northup, President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, about “The Pursuit of Reproductive Rights as Human Rights.” In her keynote presentation, she discussed two important cases going before the Supreme Court this term. One of these could determine the availability of contraception to large numbers of Americans. The CCAR has just joined in a brief amicus curiae to the Court insisting that women continue to have a right to free contraception.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandates that group insurance plans make contraception available at no cost. If a house of worship or a religiously affiliated employer does not want to offer contraception coverage, it can notify the government, and the government will provide that coverage directly to the employees. In the Hobby Lobby case of 2014, the Court extended this opt-out to certain for-profit businesses.

Since then, the federal government has issued regulations that would allow any employer of any type that claims “moral objections” not only to opt out of having its insurance provide free contraceptive coverage but to ensure that the government could no longer provide that free coverage either. In other words, any employer that so desired could keep its employees from getting free contraceptive coverage, despite the ACA’s mandate. The federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a nationwide injunction preventing these regulations from taking effect, and that injunction is before the Supreme Court now in two cases that have been effectively joined as one, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania.  

Working with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the CCAR joined a brief filed by several religious organizations, including some Muslim, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, and a number of Jewish ones. It highlights how there is support for contraception in several religions. Allowing employers to use their own religious beliefs to deprive employees of contraceptive coverage would favor one person’s religious persuasion over others. In the words of the brief, “In a religiously pluralistic society, a woman’s contraception coverage should not depend on the religious or moral beliefs of her employer or university.”

It is appropriate that this brief is being filed during chol hamoeid Pesach, this season of our freedom. Contraceptives serve various health benefits, not all directly related to pregnancy. But perhaps their most important contribution is expressed in this sentence from the brief: “Improved access to contraception enables women to achieve their educational and professional goals, earn more income, and enjoy more stable marriages.”  In other words, limiting the ability of Americans to access medically reliable contraception will interfere with the freedom of women. During Passover of all times, that cannot stand. We in the CCAR have long realized that such limitations are inconsistent with our Jewish values. Today, we said as much to the highest court in the land.


Rabbi Thomas M. Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Healing Social Justice Torah

Lessons from Jonah in a Time of Pandemic

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of  The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, available for pre-order from the CCAR Press. In this post, he reflects on this enigmatic prophet in light of today’s crisis. 


These are strange times. Certainly, if ever there were a time for a prophetic voice to call out to the heavens for redemption, it seems like the present. And even though pandemic is on everyone’s mind, the world still turns. Every day allows us another opportunity to make the world a better place and a chance to run towards challenge rather than away from it. For the past several years, before “social distancing” became part of the contemporary vernacular, I have been studying a figure who modeled the term millennia ago. That figure was the Prophet Jonah. It seems more appropriate than ever to study his eponymous book and take away essential lessons of how to weather any storm—metaphorical or literal. 

What is the Book of Jonah? And who is Jonah, anyway? Many of us are familiar with the famous story of “Jonah and the Whale” (actually, a fish, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Yet there is so much more to Jonah than spending three days and three nights in the belly of a great sea beast. In totality, Jonah is one of the most intriguing, frustrating, and ethically ambiguous of the ancient Hebrew prophets. But he’s also the most empathetic, the most like you and me. He is a coward and a saint, a hypocrite and a hero: a walking conundrum. Still, despite any of his shortcomings as witnessed in the text, Jonah’s legacy is one of hope and forgiveness. 

The Book of Jonah is located within the Twelve Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Among the shortest books of the Bible, it seems to take place over the course of only several days: three days in the cavernous isolation of the great leviathan, three days on a journey to Nineveh, and not much else. The story takes place in the large Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, roughly in the eighth or seventh century BCE. 

Like the Homeric works of antiquity, the Book of Jonah explores what happens when people fail to live up to their potential. God instructs Jonah to call upon the population of Nineveh to repent. Rather than charge forward, Jonah flees from his mission, escaping on a ship. While Jonah is aboard, God brings on a mighty storm, shaking the ship’s passengers both physically and spiritually. The sailors, fearing that the divine wrath will take them to their deaths, toss Jonah overboard after he admits that he is the impetus of the storm. God performs a miracle, however, saving Jonah inside the belly of a great fish. For three days and three nights, Jonah prays until he is released. After his sojourn in the fish, Jonah reluctantly fulfills his mission, calling upon the citizens of Nineveh to repent. They do. In the end, God spares the city from destruction. 

Seems like a happy ending. But not so. 

Jonah’s story ends with him in isolation, far from Nineveh. He cries out to God, expressing frustration with God for sending him on an unwanted mission. In order to teach Jonah the meaning of loving-kindness, God grows a plant that provides Jonah with shade from the sun, which God then allows to whither. God explains to Jonah that God cares about the people of Nineveh just as Jonah had cared about the plant, confronting him with the fact that the universal nature of divine love and concern for a large city might well exceed Jonah’s depression over the death of a plant. The book concludes there.  

It seems confusing that this book was included in the historical canon of the Jewish holy scriptures. And maybe that is the case on the surface. But Jonah is such a rich character to study, which, indeed, Jews do every Yom Kippur. Every one of us relates to the need for second chances, both in our daily lives and in our moral and spiritual lives. Jonah is the embodiment of this need. 

The Book of Jonah is written for us, regular people, who live each day and wonder if we can make it through unharmed. We battle everyday leviathans simply to make our lives worthwhile and the world safe for our families and friends. Jonah is no perfect angel, but a perfect representation of humanity’s quest for spiritual excellence. While we may not have to emulate Jonah with every action, we should let his book guide us to spiritual vistas of untapped potential. 


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of the upcoming book, The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, and  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Reform Judaism Social Justice

Begin to Confront Discomfort and Uncomfortable Truths By Asking One Question: ‘Are You OK?’

Dear Rabbis,

I am very grateful to Rabbi Hara Person for offering me space on the Ravblog to share a few words with you. She suggested, with Biennial behind us, that I write about something that I would want the rabbis to know in the aftermath. While that list is long, I appreciate your consideration as I begin here.

As many of you know, my Biennial experience was an exercise in racism; both the constant experiencing of it and then speaking about it in the moment quite publicly at my Shabbat afternoon session, which was a first for me.

I thank each of you who took the time to write to me to after I shared my experiences both in the room at my presentation, and then on Facebook. The outpouring of support from the rabbinic community and the community at large following Biennial touched me deeply.

I am thrilled to see that there seems to be a great deal of time and energy being focused on how we can be more welcoming, both as individuals and in our Jewish spaces. It is a conversation that I have longed to have for three decades, and I believe that our ever beautifully more diverse community will only thrive if we continue to keep this effort at the top of the agenda.

“To be given a safe space to give an honest answer allows us to be seen and heard and to speak the painful truth that can be so difficult to voice.”

What I find that we are not yet talking about, however, is what happens after someone has been left feeling marginalized or dehumanized by our community. Even as someone who has experienced this for most of my life, I had not really considered it myself until after Biennial and I started to received messages from people.

The messages came, literally, in volume. Outrage. Disbelief. Confusion. Sadness. Anger. And now that I’ve found some quiet time and space to process things, I have found myself struck by what was not said. Or, more accurately, what was not asked.

Are you OK? What can I do for you?

I can count quite literally on one hand the number of people—friends, strangers and clergy alike—who asked if I was OK. Or if I needed support following Biennial. And that really surprised me. Had I, God forbid, been in an accident, people would have come bearing flowers or chocolate chip coffee cake. They would have asked if I’m OK. And what they can do to support me while I heal.

But was there no coffee cake on offer amidst the outrage and sadness. And, really, I could have used some.

It is often said that people do not ask questions that they do not already know the answer to. But I have come to learn that, many times, people do not ask questions that they know have an uncomfortable answer.

In my case, we all know that the answer is no. I was not OK after Biennial. We who are dehumanized for our race, religion, sexual orientation, or abilities are never OK when attacked. On my book tour, I tell people that it feels like my heart has been broadsided by a truck moving 75 miles per hour each time that I meet racism and intolerance. That I am never sure if my heart will start beating again. When I will be able to breathe again. And it is always a hit and run, where the offender slams into me and keeps moving. Without care or apology.

When it comes to speaking uncomfortable truths, I find that I am an exception rather than the rule. I am finally at a place where I am very comfortable speaking out when an incident takes place. And I am quite comfortable saying that I was not OK. But it has taken decades of therapy and very hard work to become this version of me. For many years, I choked on my silence, put on a brave face, and pretended that I was OK. And there are many—too many—who still remain silent, simply because we don’t find that there is really an open-ness to discussing it.

Until we are at a place where each person is greeted with the same warm communal embrace, I believe that it is important that we also consider proactively how to respond in the aftermath. To be asked, “Are you OK?” “What can I do for you?” is a critical place to begin because these questions say that we do not have to carry the pain alone.

And to be given a safe space to give an honest answer allows us to be seen and heard and to speak the painful truth that can be so difficult to voice.

I acknowledge that these conversations can be uncomfortable ones for all of us. People who love me dearly did not ask if I was OK after Biennial. Some could not bear to even acknowledge what took place, including people who saw it for themselves. But I believe that sharing the truth of all of this a big part of how we begin to make sure that it does not continue.

As our rabbis, leaders and teachers, I encourage you to consider both the before and the after. We welcome the outrage, sadness, anger and sermons. But, please. Ask if we are OK. Ask if we need support. It matters so much more than you know.

B’ahava v’shalom,

Marra Gad

Marra B. Gad is a Los Angeles-based author and independent film and television producer. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and holds a master’s degree in modern Jewish history from Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University. Her memoir, Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl, was published by Agate Bolden in November 2019.

Photo credit: Bobby Quillard

Categories
CCAR Convention Convention Social Justice

A Hands-On Farming Experience at the Pearlstone Center in Baltimore at CCAR Convention 2020

My name is Rabbi Jessy Dressin, and I am a community rabbi in Baltimore and the Director of Repair the World Baltimore, an organization that aims to make meaningful service a defining part of American Jewish life by mobilizing young Jews to volunteer in local communities to help transform neighborhoods, cities, and lives through service experiences rooted in Jewish values.

I have not been to a CCAR Convention to date but was excited to be asked to join the CCAR Convention 2020 Committee and help curate opportunities that are special to Baltimore for Convention participants. There are so many things about Baltimore and the Baltimore Jewish community to share with colleagues both during and prior to Convention that are special to Charm City.

Many of you may have visited the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center for various conferences over the years. If you have, you have probably appreciated such a vast space of land dedicated to Jewish education, experience, and gathering.  You may have even been lucky enough to enjoy some homegrown produce from the farm at one of your kosher and conscious meals provided to guests during conferences and gatherings.

Whether you have visited Pearlstone before or this might be your first time, I am excited about a unique opportunity for rabbis to participate in as part of the pre-Convention track. Our visit to Pearlstone will include the opportunity to roll up our sleeves and help with some preparations in various ways for the upcoming farming season. Activities may range from prepping beds, starting seeds (planting seeds that can incubate in the greenhouse until they are rooted enough to be planted into the ground), and other fun preliminary activities that are essential for an abundant growing season that begins with the coming of spring. Also, baby goats! Just this last week, two baby goats were born at Pearlstone, which means there will likely be even more by the time we arrive in March.

During our visit we will also have the opportunity to do some learning with Rabbi Psachyah Lichtenstein, a farmer and Director of Education at the Pearlstone Center, who always finds way to engage the mind, body, and spirit in thinking about our Jewish connection to the land. He will engage us in rich learning and open up conversations amongst our group that are sure to inspire. We will also have the opportunity to do some additional learning to take what we experienced at Pearlstone and help us bring it back to our local communities—since we can’t all have a Pearlstone around the corner.

As an HUC-JIR student, I spent two summers living at Pearlstone. Thanks to Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, Pearlstone hosted a summer kollel where folks would work to farm the land in the morning and spend the afternoon in the beit midrash, learning traditional and contemporary Jewish texts that helped us to become better acquainted with Judaism’s deep relationship to the land and our agricultural cycles and rhythm. It was a pluralistic living and learning environment that forged relationships and uncovered texts that carry meaning to this day. 

One need not be a farmer, an environmentalist, or even a regular farmer’s market enthusiast to enjoy this experience. I hope you’ll consider joining us for this exciting pre-Conference gathering. Also, did I mention baby goats?


Convention 2020 will be held in Baltimore, March 22-25, 2020. CCAR members can register here for Convention and for the Pearlstone Center Pre-Convention program, which takes place Sunday, March 22.