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Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Harassment-Free Jewish Spaces: Our Leaders Must Answer to a Higher Standard

In this excerpt from The Social Justice Torah CommentaryRabbi Mary L. Zamore, Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, draws on Parashat Vayikra to call for holding Jewish leaders accountable.

Yes, it is awful that he said those things. They are totally inappropriate, but he is a beloved member of our clergy team, a founder of our congregation. We must recognize that he only yells at our professional staff and lay leaders when he is stressed.

She just has trouble with boundaries, but she’s harmless. If we hold her accountable, she may leave the temple, which would be devastating. After all, she donates hours and hours to our synagogue. She is irreplaceable. The staff just needs to avoid her. We will remind her not to go to the staff members’ homes without permission.

We all know his behavior is not right, so we will make sure he does not meet with women alone. He’s going to retire soon. There is no reason to ruin his otherwise stellar reputation. Retirement is just a few years away. Maybe we can encourage him to leave sooner.

He has suffered enough by his sexual harassment coming to light. However, his contributions to the Jewish community are far too numerous not to quote him. Whom else could we cite? And why mention this dark spot on an otherwise sterling career?

Above is a compilation of remarks reflecting many real cases in the Jewish community, conflated here to illustrate a theme. The common thread is a lack of accountability for the productive perpetrator. This is the professional or lay leader in a congregation or institution who is successful in their work, yet has substantiated accusations of sexual assault, harassment, or abusive/bullying behavior against them. They are trusted and beloved, generous with their time and/or money; they excel in their field. And because of their success, their community will never hold them accountable for their bad behavior—even though it endangers the community’s atmosphere of safety and respect—leaving a wake of damage in their path. Often working to keep the behavior and its negative impact unknown to the wider world, community leaders act as if the bad behavior is an unavoidable tax for the benefits the community reaps from the productive perpetrator’s presence and work. However, Parashat Vayikra teaches us the exact opposite, commanding us to hold our leaders accountable to a higher standard.

Vayikra outlines the rituals for different types of sacrifices: olah (עֹלָה), burnt offerings; minchah (מִנְחָה), meal offerings; sh’lamin (שְׁלָמִים), well-being offerings; chatat (חַטָּאת), purgation offerings; and asham (אָשָׁם), reparation offerings. While on the surface this portion reads like a simple instruction book for the sacrifices, it is infused with foundational values. Holding our leaders accountable for their actions is intrinsic to the biblical design of the ancient sacrificial cult and the accompanying priesthood, as we can observe in the parashah’s commandments.

The Israelite sacrificial cult is designed to function in an atmosphere of radical transparency. After the engaging narratives of Genesis and Exodus, it is easy to overlook the revolutionary nature of Leviticus. The laws regulating the sacrifices were given to the entire people of Israel, not just to the elite class of priests. There were no esoteric, secret rituals known only to the kohanim, the priestly class. Furthermore, sacrifices were performed publicly. As The Torah: A Women’s Torah Commentary explains, “Although Leviticus preserves the priests’ privileged monopoly regarding the service at the altar and its sacrifices, these instructions demystify the priests’ role by making knowledge about their activities known to every Israelite.”1 Coupled with the prohibition against land ownership by priests (Numbers 18:20), universal access to the law equalized power in the Israelite community. Kohanim were supposed to facilitate the community’s efforts to draw near to God rather than amass power for themselves.

The public viewing of offerings also created accountability. The Hebrew term eidah, “community,” is related to eid,“witness.”2 If a priest inadvertently made a mistake or knowingly deviated from the prescribed rites, the Israelites would know because they could witness the offerings in real time. The elevated status of the kohanim in the community required that they be held to a high standard. Parashat Vayikra demands a rigorous method of atonement for the priests’ misdeeds, whether they were known to the public (Leviticus 4:3) or not (Leviticus 4:13). It should be noted that the Torah also holds chieftains to a standard higher than that of ordinary Israelites (Leviticus 4:22), but not as high as the priests. This portion clearly teaches that the greater one’s status is in the community, the more accountable they must be for their actions.

The full chapter can be found in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, which delves deeply into each week’s parashah to address pressing contemporary issues such as racism, climate change, immigration, disability, and many more.


1. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss (New York: Reform Judaism Publishing, an imprint of CCAR Press, and Women of Reform Judaism, 2007), 571.

2. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, 580.


Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is 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.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

“Rabbi, We Want to Hear about Torah, Not Politics!”

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 confront injustice. In this excerpt from the introduction, he discusses how the book’s contributors approach the biblical text.

“Rabbi, we want to hear Torah, not politics, from the bimah.” Every rabbi has heard this refrain, and many echo it. The plea, though, has always been discordant to my ears. No, I don’t preach “politics,” which I define narrowly in this context as taking to the pulpit to endorse or oppose a candidate for elective office. I understand Torah to be the Jewish people’s primary teaching about how to live our lives, individually and collectively. Torah shaped our covenantal people in formation in ancient Israel and Judea, establishing fundamental norms—regarding ritual matters, yes, but even more, in legislating society’s obligations toward individuals and vice versa.

The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 offers a microcosm of the Torah’s dual emphasis. Famously beginning “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), the Holiness Code proceeds in the very next verse to tell us how to achieve this lofty, overarching goal of being holy. It first articulates an obligation toward other human beings, namely our parents, and then proceeds without pause to what may be viewed as a ritual commandment, the obligation to observe Shabbat. As the passage continues, injunctions to avoid idolatry and specific regulations about consumption of sacrifices are interspersed among directives about fair labor practices, care for the aged, and providing for the poor and needy. The message is clear: Israel serves God no less by pursuing social justice than through proper worship.

Even commandments that appear to regulate exclusively ritual matters often have ethical ends. For example, Professor Ruhama Weiss and Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz will persuasively argue in these pages that the laws of kashrut (dietary regulations) cannot be fulfilled absent fair labor practices and the ethical treatment of animals. Thanks to Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, we will see that requiring purification for a person who has given birth, a practice out of use since Temple times and abhorrent on its surface, must inspire us to demand that our society ensure proper reproductive health care for all people. And Rabbi Craig Lewis will excavate the detailed regulations for creating the priests’ bejeweled choshen (breastplate), marshaling parshanut (commentary) alongside gemology to formulate a persuasive argument for equity in education.

Rabbis and others who articulate social justice arguments are sometimes accused—not always unfairly—of basing a complex and controversial assertion about society merely on a pithy phrase from Torah, such as one of the three aforementioned beloved passages, with little depth. This volume is both an antidote to that accusation and a refutation of it. Here, a diverse array of members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) and our colleagues in other movements, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion faculty, Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) staff, and lay leaders1 build their social justice arguments on robust and creative employment of parshanut haTorah (Torah commentary), including academic biblical exegesis, classical midrash and commentary, modern midrash, and more.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer begins his chapter with the familiar verse “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger” (Numbers 15:15), but he does not reach his conclusion about the rights of immigrants until he has drawn on sources as diverse as the Talmud, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dennis Prager, Ibram X. Kendi, and the Brown-Driver-Briggs biblical lexicon. While Rabbi Tom Alpert begins his commentary with “justice, justice…,” (Shof’tim), he builds his argument about the ongoing need to uproot the sin of racist lynching by turning to the next verses, an apparently ritual commandment forbidding the Israelites from erecting “a sacred post,” a form of idolatry.

The Social Justice Torah Commentary is not, therefore, a book “about” social justice, nor, even in its breadth, does it seek to address every ill that faces our world. Instead, it probes deeply into each Torah portion to shape an argument that confronts injustice in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. I am grateful for the learning, teaching, and creativity of the contributors who enable CCAR Press and me to place The Social Justice Torah Commentary into your hands.


1. Many of the authors fall into more than one of these categories.


The Social Justice Torah Commentary is now available from CCAR Press. Browse the table of contents here.


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 The Mussar Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Editing ‘The Social Justice Torah Commentary’ in the Crucible of 2020

When I proposed The Social Justice Torah Commentary to the CCAR Press Council in December 2019, we were already in the midst of a heated presidential campaign—but then, aren’t we always? I could not have predicted the divisions and threats to democracy that were ahead. Some epidemiologists were already aware of COVID-19, but I was not. Though I had been engaged in racial justice issues for years—even specifically regarding extrajudicial executions of Black suspects by police—I could not foresee the murder of George Floyd or the way our nation would be both galvanized and divided by that crime and the protests that followed.

All that is to say that I did not expect and was not prepared to edit a Torah commentary focused on social justice in the crucible that was 2020. Contributors proposed their topics and wrote for the book during the spring, summer, and fall of last year. Though the book is dated and will be published in 2021, virtually every word of it was written and edited in 2020.

In the midst of the editing, I expressed a concern to Rafael Chaiken, Director of CCAR Press: Would the book be relevant by the time of its publication, let alone for years thereafter? So many chapters make reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, which I incorrectly imagined would be over long before the book would be in print.

Rafael calmed me. First, he reminded me that he and I had edited passages that seemed particularly tied to current events to make them more universal. Moreover, when contributing authors delved into problems that were brought into sharp relief while they were writing, they addressed larger and more timeless concerns. Even Rabbi Asher Knight’s piece on Parashat M’tzora, which addresses inequities revealed by the pandemic, is not written as a newsmagazine piece, calling for change limited to the moment of its authorship. Instead, Rabbi Knight addresses inequality that transcends the COVID-19 crisis: longstanding plagues in our healthcare system and the problematic ways people view those who are stricken. Yes, a large percentage of the book’s chapters confront racial injustice, but I hasten to note that the subject matter of virtually every commentary in the book was proposed before the murder of George Floyd.

Racial injustice is America’s most persistent and vexing malady. The summer of 2020 was a symptom of an infinitely larger problem, and no chapter of the book exclusively addresses the events of that time. Many of the commentaries on racial justice are not directly related to criminal (in)justice—including, among many others, Rabbi David Spinrad’s description of the way that systemic racism impacts access to water (Tol’dot), Ilana Kaufman’s argument for celebrating Jews of Color in our midst (B’midbar), and Rabbi Judith Schindler’s discussion of reparations (Eikev).

I am grateful, too, for contributors who proposed and wrote about injustices that are no less acute for their not having been one of the three issues most in the public eye in 2020. For example, Rabbi Marla Feldman addresses gender pay equity (B’reishit­), Student Rabbi Evan Traylor confronts toxic masculinity (Vayishlach), and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss highlights mortality in childbirth (Tazria). These teachers remind us, as if we needed to be reminded, that gender equality remains an unrealized dream. I could claim that Rabbi Mary Zamore is prescient in addressing harassment in Jewish spaces (Vayikra), a topic that would explode in 2021, had Rabbi Zamore, like Rabbi Hara Person and others, not been spotlighting the issue throughout her career. 

We could be forgiven for thinking that every year is election year in Israel, so 2020 was nothing special in that arena. Still, Israel is at the focus of several of our contributors’ offerings—for example, Rabbi Jeremy Barras’s chapter on the social justice imperative of supporting Israel (Lech L’cha), Rabbi Naamah Kelman’s piece on marriage inequality in Israel (Chayei Sarah), Rabbi Jill Jacobs’s critique of occupation (B’har), Rabbi Ethan Bair’s plea that we hear the full range of voices in discussions of Israel (Korach), and Rabbi Noa Sattath’s focus on Jewish supremacy (Ki Tavo).

I am grateful that CCAR Press, our diverse contributors, and I are able to present a book that delves deeply into Torah to call for justice in areas far more varied than those that rightly absorbed so much of our attention in 2020—not to mention more varied than I could name here.

Most amazing is that dozens of CCAR rabbis, rabbis of other movements, and an ACC cantor were able to muster these brilliant articles at exactly the same time that we were preparing for the most challenging and unprecedented High Holy Days of our careers. And most did so without time off that came anywhere close to approaching their usual summer downtime. For that commitment and for the sacrifice it bespeaks, our readers may be grateful.


The Social Justice Torah Commentary will be published in November 2021 and is now available for pre-order. Browse the table of contents here. Those who pre-order are eligible to receive online access to the initial parashot to begin the year of Torah study. Forward your confirmation email to info@ccarpress.org to request access.


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

Categories
Books CCAR Press Torah

Abortion and Reproductive Justice: A Jewish Perspective

In light of the recent Texas anti-abortion law that has gone into effect, we are sharing this excerpt about reproductive justice from The Social Justice Torah Commentary, forthcoming in November 2021 from CCAR Press.

A study by the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of American Jews say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.1 American Jews’ widespread support for permissive abortion laws finds grounding in Jewish tradition’s approach to pregnancy and its end. Though the Torah makes no specific reference to any process resembling a modern abortion, the following passage from Parashat Mishpatim provides our tradition’s earliest guidance on the termination of a pregnancy:

When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:22–25)

The passage contrasts two scenarios in which two men are fighting and accidentally strike a nearby pregnant woman. The permutations differ only in who or what is harmed. In the first, only the fetus is lost, and the punishment is a monetary fine, paid to the woman’s husband. In the second, the woman herself is harmed or killed. There, the punishment is retributive: an eye for an eye and a nefesh—literally, “soul,” but in this case meaning a human life possessing personhood—for a nefesh. From this, we may derive the principle that a woman has the full status of a person, nefesh, while the fetus—though valued—has a lesser status.

The Mishnah expands this understanding of differential value by stating that if a woman’s life is threatened in childbirth, the fetus inside her can be destroyed, even to the point of “taking it out limb from limb, for her life comes before the fetus’s life.”2 Through the graphic language of this text, the Mishnaic author leaves no ambiguity as to whose life takes precedence. This text sets the standard from which all other halachah (Jewish law) on abortion flows. Later commentators debate in great detail the implications of this text, particularly the breadth or narrowness of the definition of a threat to the life of the woman.3 Some are more permissive of a range of emotional as well as physical impacts that could justify an abortion, while others understand the instances of permissibility with excruciating parsimony. Still, from the outset, Judaism can imagine some instances when an abortion would be permitted and even required.4

Furthermore, the Gemara concludes that prior to forty days, a fetus is not a person but rather is considered “mere water.”5  The debate about abortion in America hinges on questions related to what constitutes personhood and when life begins. But these are religious and spiritual questions, about which people of faith and conviction can disagree.

The Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that abortion is protected under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees a right to privacy, including a right to private medical procedures. For American Jews, the protection of access to abortion could also be understood under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. Because Jewish law permits abortion under certain circumstances as a morally acceptable choice, or even in some cases a halachic requirement, any law that limits a woman’s right to choose might limit a Jewish woman’s ability to make a decision in accordance with her religious beliefs. When people of faith seek to adopt laws asserting when life begins, they endeavor to enshrine their own religious understanding in law. In civic discourse, the fact that Judaism understands these issues differently can be a powerful antidote to the pervasive sense that religious voices are only to be found on one side of this debate. Judaism is unequivocally “pro-life” in that it values life in all its forms, both actualized and potential. But where that term has come to mean “anti-abortion,” then it is clear that Judaism allows for abortion under at least some circumstances and therefore calls us to advocate for civil laws that protect a woman’s right to access abortion services.

These texts and their subsequent interpretations are a vital resource for all of us who seek to affirm Jewish support for the choice to terminate a pregnancy and to advocate from a Jewish perspective for laws that protect reproductive choice. And we are called to go further; the law is only one facet of a full and holistic justice. Even as Parashat Mishpatim guides us to a choice-oriented understanding of abortion law, it also leaves us with the injustice of a silenced story.

The text in Exodus 21 begins with an act of violence perpetrated against a pregnant woman, and yet this woman is all but absent from subsequent conversation about this passage. Across the centuries, almost all of the voices of Jewish interpretation, and even many modern commentators, fail to acknowledge her story. The interpreters miss the opportunity to see her as subject, rather than object. To see the woman in this text as merely a hypothetical in a legal case study is to deny that cases such as these were very real to the people who experienced them. To reach a full sense of justice in our understanding of abortion, we must pair mishpatim (laws) with sipurim (stories). …

The full chapter by Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler and Rabbi Emily Langowitz appears in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block. To learn more and pre-order the book, visit socialjustice.ccarpress.org.


1. Pew Research Center, “Views about Abortion among Jews,” Religious Landscape Study, 2014, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape- study/religious-tradition/jewish/views-about-abortion/.

2. Mishnah Ohalot 7:6.

3. We recognize the complexity of this term and acknowledge that it is not only women who experience pregnancy and abortion and also that not all women can experience pregnancy. We offer this word for simplicity but intend it to include a broad range of experiences and identities.

4. Many trace the split between lenient and strict positions to Rashi and Maimonides, respectively. See Rashi’s comment on Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzei-ach Ushmirat Nefesh 1:9. Rashi defines the fetus as non-nefesh (in keeping with our passage in Exodus), while Maimonides focuses his discussion on the fetus as a rodeif (meaning only if the fetus is actively pursuing the life of the mother should the pregnancy be terminated). For fuller discussion of the halachic texts that flow from each side, see Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

5. Babylonian Talmud, Y’vamot 69b.


Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler serves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas.

Rabbi Emily Langowitz serves as program manager for Jewish learning and engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Categories
CCAR Convention Torah

A Career Dedicated to Teaching and Learning Torah: Rabbi Norman J. Cohen on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from Rabbi Norman J. Cohen.

Though it has been fifty-three years since we were ordained by Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, z”l, at Central Synagogue, it seems like yesterday. But as I look back and remember the emotions of that day, which were heightened for me by my mother’s death only months before, little did I know that fifteen years later, Dr. Gottschalk would ask me to join the Administration of the College-Institute. And, as I stood on the bimah of Central Synagogue with Dr. Gottschalk, seated on the bimah was his ultimate successor, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, then a rabbi at Central. What an amazing snapshot! Three presidents of HUC-JIR on the bimah at one time. Who would have thought that I would also have the honor of serving for a brief time as Interim President of the College-Institute.

At that moment of Ordination, it surely would have been impossible to imagine how my life as a rabbi would play out. My goal then was simply to enter our graduate school in Cincinnati and immerse myself in rabbinic text study, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of its various genres. The years studying Midrash and Rabbinic Literature were such a blessing, and in great measure, it was due to the knowledge I gained and the passion I imbibed from wonderful mentors, chief among them, Drs. Eugene Mihaly, z”l, Ben Zion Wacholder, z”l, and Ellis Rivkin, z”l.

Little did I know then that my entire rabbinic career would be bound up with the College-Institute, as a faculty member who also spent twenty-three years working in the administration. And it began with my return to the New York School in 1975, due in large measure to the faith that Dr. Gottschalk had in me, as well as the efforts of Dr. Paul Steinberg, z”l, and Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, z”l. For thirteen years I served as a full-time member of the Faculty, teaching and advising rabbinic and cantorial students; trying to impart to them not only the knowledge that I gained, but a sense of what it means to be a rabbi, a cantor, really a Teacher of Torah.

Serving as the Director of the Rabbinical School and then Dean of the New York School, and finally as Provost of our College-Institute was indeed a wonderful way for me to channel my rabbinic aspirations. Helping to shape the training and growth of future rabbis, cantors and educators provided me a tremendous opportunity to ensure that future Reform Jewish leaders would become the newest chuliot, links in the Shalshelet HaKabbalah, the chain of tradition and help ensure Jewish continuity. And in the process, I gained so much from so many of the students with whom I was truly privileged to study.

During the years I spent working in the administration, it meant a great deal to work with clergy, education and administrative staff, and faculty who embodied supreme dedication to shaping a seminary which could be a bastion of creativity and commitment to Jewish life. They, in turn, would train leaders who would make a significant difference in the lives of all those whom they were blessed to serve.

Yet, as I reflect upon almost five decades of work at our alma mater, it has been clear to me that the greatest joy and personal fulfillment I experience comes in the myriad of moments in which I share my love and passion for words of Torah. Studying with students and laypeople alike—opening ourselves to every element in the text, biblical and rabbinic, and having it teach us who we are and who we aspire to be as Jews and as human beings—has given me indescribable pleasure. Through my teaching at the College-Institute and in congregations, and the six books I have written, I’ve tried to demonstrate the power of words suffused with k’dushah, the holiness latent in every textual element, which have been transformational for me in my life. The most important insight I have ever gained about the importance of the teaching of Torah came from a comment by Franz Rosenzweig, who noted, “Teaching begins when the subject matter ceases to be subject matter and changes into inner power. We truly teach when we ourselves are drastically changed in the process. We truly learn when our autonomous self is pierced and we move beyond ourselves to the Other.”

And so we praise the power in the universe, in us, which is the source of mayim chayim, life-giving water, Torah:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.


Rabbi Norman J. Cohen is celebrating 50 years in the Rabbinate. Rabbi Cohen serves as Professor Emeritus of Midrash at HUC-JIR New York.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

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Torah

Scapegoating and Sacred Self-Awareness: Questions for Acharei Mot/K’doshim

This week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot/K’doshim, contains two familiar narratives. The first is the ritual of the Scapegoat—on Yom Kippur, two goats are selected. One is sacrificed and the other is sent off to Azazel with the sins of the people upon its head (Leviticus 16:7–8). The second passage contains what we now call the “Holiness Code.” The words, “You will be holy, for I, Adonai your God am Holy” (Leviticus 19:1–2), resonate as a powerful exhortation to find the holiness implanted within us all as we attempt to uncover God’s presence in our lives.

At face value, these two commandments appear to have very little in common. The Scapegoator seir l’Azazel— is an ancient ritual of purgation that, to our modern sensibilities, has little, if any meaning. The commandment for us to find God’s holiness within ourselves, however, resonates strongly within many who seek to understand our purpose in the world.

And yet, if we attempt to dig just a little deeper than the literal meaning of our text, we can find powerful truths that are especially relevant during this difficult time of social distancing. Scapegoating, as we know, is the act of looking to find others to blame for underlying problems in society. The term comes from the ritual we find in our parashah of banishing a goat into the wilderness with the sins of the people placed upon it by the High Priest. We don’t exactly know how this was observed in ancient days, but the symbolism of finding a target upon which to place our troubles has been part of our history as a people. Scapegoating, in essence, is an attempt to externalize our fears and find ways to explain away those things which plague our society. As Jews, we know all too well the dangers inherent in being scapegoated as well as scapegoating others.

Our second text, however, teaches us that holiness is not some external force that can be captured or controlled. On the contraryit is part of our very nature. You will be holy, because Adonai our God is holy.” We who are created in the Divine image understand both our ability and the inevitability of experiencing the sacred simply because of how we were created. The text continues on to teach us how to act with holiness: to honor our parents, form a just society, and treat the weakest among us with the respect and dignity deserving of holy beings.

In a very real sense, these two concepts create a dichotomy of human behavior. On one extreme, we all too often look outside of ourselves to point blame and rationalize our actions and missteps. Scapegoating is a refusal to accept responsibility for our failures. The other extreme, however, teaches us that the mitzvah of understanding our intrinsic, internal holiness leads us to own and embrace our actions and our humanity. When we see ourselves as striving to be holy, everything we do leads us towards our goal and helps us to celebrate all of God’s creation rather than looking for easy targets for scorn and hatred.

These past weeks have shown us both sides of our two parashot. We have witnessed how ignorance, fear, and prejudice have blinded people and created irrational and racist tropes which begin in the far fringes of society, but all too often are rapidly and eagerly consumed by those looking for easy answers. The targeting of Asians, medical professionals, and accusations of conspiracy against leaders who set boundaries in order to help save lives are just a few examples of the kind of ugly behavior brought about by scapegoating. And yes, Jews have been targeted as well.

But we also have found examples of incredible holiness in response to the pandemic. The selfless caring exhibited by health care professionals, first responders, and all those who literally risk their lives by going to work every day so that the rest of us might be safe, shows us holiness in real time. Their sacrifice and dedication remind us to look for God’s presence wherever we gaze.

And so, my questions for this week revolve around our tendency to both externalize our fears and embrace the holiness that is within us.

  1. How often, over the past weeks of social distancing, have I found myself blaming others in order to rationalize my fears, anxieties, and self-doubts?
  2.  How tolerant have I been of others’ weaknesses—especially those exhibited by our leaders?
  3. Have I been quick to judge policies and emergency measures without looking for the underlying reasons they were put in place?   
  4. How often have I allowed myself to give thanks for the ability to shelter-in-place and be safe in the midst of this pandemic?
  5. Have I been able to see the holiness in myself?
  6. Have I been able to see the holiness in others in my household?
  7. As a sacred “work in progress,” have I been able to acknowledge that only God is perfect—even though I have the capacity for holiness within me? Have I been able to see my mistakes and flaws as benchmarks towards my personal journey to find internal holiness?

Again, these questions are in no way complete. They are designed to help us look within ourselves and our souls as we journey together through the unknown.

May we all learn to accept, embrace, and anticipate our growth as imperfect beings with the capacity to seek out holiness and celebrate it in our lives.

Amen.


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

Categories
mental health Torah

Responding to and Healing from Our Own ‘Tzaraat’ Without Stigma or Shame

In days of old, when a person came down with scaly skin, weird baldness, and strange discharge, he or she went to Aharon or one of his descendants, priests all, to be diagnosed. If it was bad enough, if it was indeed tzaraat,once translated as leprosy, but understood by the rabbis as a spiritual, not just physical diseasethe ill person was isolated and sent outside the camp to get better. After a certain amount of time, the person with tzaraat would return to the community, with an elaborate welcoming ritual: mikvah, a sacrifice, and an anointing by Aharon himself. But what happens when we are all sent outside the camp?  

In this second half of this week’s parshah, there is an even stranger idea introduced: tzaraat of a house. What might look like mold on the walls of the house might be something more dangerous, more insidious – the plague of tzaraat in the house, permeating the walls and inner workings of the place where we dwell. Once again, if “plague” of the house is suspected, or feared, a person goes to the priest, who examines the house. If the house does not “heal” within seven days, it must be taken apart, brick by brick, stone by stone, and those building blocks cast outside the camp. The house is then rebuilt, plastering new stones in in place of the old, plagued ones.

What are we to learn from this? Here we are, in a time of “plague,” both separated from one another for our own good, and yet connected in our separation; here we are, alone, together. And I am struck that in the Torah, when a person is afflicted with tzaraat, there is no shame; there is simply a method of dealing with the occurrence. Indeed, we are told later in the Torah, that when Miriam was struck with tzaraat, the entire community of Israel waited seven days for her to heal so that she could rejoin the camp before they all moved on, together. (While the rabbis make a connection between tzaraat and lashon hara, I am going in a completely different direction here, so bear with me!) So, too, we might treat those of us who are struggling with stress, anxiety, depressionwhether normative, existential responses to the world we are inhabiting right now, or those of us who have actual mental illnesses. When in doubt, the first thing to do is to get help:  go to someone to check out your condition. That might be a friend, or a fellow rabbi. It might be a therapist, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. This reaching out for help is the first step in treating the problem. It is, alas, not a magic step: even Aharon, the high priest, could not instantly cure tzaraat.  But he, and we, can at least name the problem, and take steps to treat it.  

Of course, we shouldn’t send folks with mental health issues outside the camp. We want to decrease stigma, not validate harmful stereotypes! And the rabbinic interpretation of the treatment of the m’tzora is already moving in that direction. Concerning the m’tzora, the Torah explains, her clothes shall be rent, her head shall be bare; she shall cover her upper lip and call out “טמא, טמא!! Impure! Impure!…And her dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45)

Upon first reading, this crying out is a way to tell people “to go away, avoid me. I am sick, I am dangerous. I have bipolar disorder! My child is autistic!  I am so anxious I can’t get dressed in the morning! I am mentally ill: beware lest I infect you. I am impure, unclean, perhaps even God has forsaken me!!” But the rabbis turn this over upon its head. In the Talmud, in Tractate Niddah (66a) they explain, the afflicted person calls out “טמא!” so as let others “know of his sufferings so that they may pray for mercy on his behalf.” Instead of casting out those who suffer, it is our job to bring into our community those who are in pain. And until we know who is hurting, we cannot help one another.

Sometimes, when mental illness, or just overwhelming stress, enters our lives, our daily routine can become a “plagued” house. We have to look at the stones that make up our lives, and see which ones are moldy and full of tzaraat, full of things that are making our depression or anxiety worse, and cast out those behaviors. Perhaps we need moreor less sleep. How is our eating: full of sugar, or nutrients? We can look for balance: for actions that heal, and also forgiving ourselves for not being perfect, for doing the best we can. Sometimes, a five-mile run is the best we can. Sometimes, taking a shower takes as much effort and deserves just as much credit. 

We will survive this external plague of COVID-19. With compassion and courage, we can name and respond to the internal tzaraat among us as well.


Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs.  She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She can be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com

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Healing member support mental health Torah

Confronting Our Fears through Tazria and M’tzora

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria and M’tzora is difficult. It also has a reputation for inspiring fear and dread of any bar or bat mitzvah student who receives it for their Shabbat service. Tazria and M’tzora speak of bodily functions, illness, and quarantine. It talks about:

  • Childbirth
  • Disease
  • Contact with bodily fluids
  • Afflictions of the skin

It also speaks of how, when a person contracts a condition like this, they need to go through a series of ritual cleansings, inspections, and separation before they are allowed back into the community.

The disease, Tzaraat (which I’ll talk more about below) is not only a human disease—it can affect the walls of people’s homes as well—thereby giving it another dimension that expands its reach from that of a human disease to a more global condition.

It’s tempting to try and draw parallels from the fact that these two Torah portions speak of disease and quarantine while our community, state, nation and, indeed, the entire world is coping with the coronavirus—but, rather than succumbing to this temptation, I want to talk instead about why these chapters are included in our sacred text in the first place. What lessons can we learn—not only from the content of our parashah, but the context in which the discussion takes place? You see, I don’t think that all of these laws about tzaraat—which we translate as leprosy, but clearly is something else—are included in the narrative to teach us about cleanliness, diagnosis or medical care. Rather, I think, they are about our fears.

Tzaraat, in our text, is a disease that clearly has a powerful impact on the Ancient Israelite community. It is not only experienced physically, but spiritually. The fact that houses can be infected, as well as humans, should give us a clue that more is going on beneath the surface than is readily apparent.

This time of quarantine, illness, and loss has taken its toll on all of us. The facts that we cannot be physically close to one another; that our economy is suffering; that our national political discourse has become so toxic, are taking a toll on us physically, emotionally and spiritually. We do not know how long this will continue. We worry about our health and those of our loved ones—some of whom are dealing with the virus, others who are vulnerable, and others who are on the front lines providing medical care, research, support, and other crucial services that allow us to function. We worry about how we will emerge from our isolation and what our world will look like once we do.

In Tazaria and M’tzora, our ancestors had to deal with the unknown. They were afraid of something over which they had no control. The rituals of isolation, immersion, and re-entry were designed to provide a safe framework for the people to feel that they were not endangered by this unseen enemy.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how psychologists and other mental health professionals are keenly aware of the fact that everyone is affected (infected?) by COVID-19, regardless of whether or not they contract the virus. The radical overturning of our daily lives that we are experiencing is enough to shift our emotional equilibrium. This can manifest itself in many different forms—from depression to compulsive behaviors, to denial, revolt, and even other physical ailments.

Perhaps one of our key tasks at this time is to try to understand and anticipate our fear of the unknown and our reactions to it. As such, I want to propose the following seven questions for us to explore as we continue on our journey:

  1. Research has shown that staying physically active during quarantine is an essential part of staying healthy. Am I engaging in enough physical activity?
  2. For those who are in quarantine with others: Am I aware of the needs of others in my home? Am I doing all that I can to understand what they are going through as well me? Am I tolerant of my own missteps as well as those with whom I am living?
  3. Am I doing all that I can to be productive during this time? Are there tasks that need to be completed? Do I have outlets for creativity and meaningful outlets other than television, the internet, and other passive activities?
  4. Am I looking for ways to help others? Are there ways that I can volunteer my time or expertise as well as my financial resources?
  5. Am I willing to receive help from others?
  6. Psychologists teach us that it is important that we not dwell too long on the length of time that we have been—or will be—socially distant. We need to remind ourselves that this is a temporary situation that will be resolved someday. We also need to be “in the moment” as much as we can.
  7. There will be times when our fears will get the best of us. No one can be strong all the time. Have I been able to forgive myself for those moments when I don’t feel productive or give into the despair of the moment?

Again, these are only a few questions designed to help us process our fears of the unknown. Like our ancestors wandering in the wilderness, there is much that we do not know. At the same time, however, we also have the blessing of being part of a sacred community that cares for one another.


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


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Torah

What Tazria and M’tzora Can Teach Us about Disease and Leadership

What is the real purpose of leadership? In ancient Israel, as in many of the ancient cultures, there were two leadership segments, the actual government rulers, and the leaders of that culture’s religion. In ancient Jewish history, religious leadership was the kohanim, priests. What was the true purpose of the priests? According to Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who wrote the Anchor Bible commentary books on Leviticus, the priests’ roles were to do as much as possible to ensure God’s presence in the community. Moses, by the end of the book of Exodus, had literally brought God’s presence into the center of the Israelite community. Numerous midrashim from the rabbinic era state how human actions either increase or decrease the Divine presence. Milgrom’s commentary teaches how in the best-case scenario the High Priests’ focus was to lead the community in maintaining God’s presence.

Leviticus shows how the different aspects of the High Priests’ duties combine with the general population’s situations. This starts with the sacrificial system, whose purpose was to communicate to God that the people had either made a correction for something wrong, or did something right. A sacrifice was an invitation for God’s presence to return, or to increase. Sacrifices could not be holy on their own, but only if they properly represented the Jewish people’s actions in moving towards holiness. There were moral commandments spelled out in detail, outlining a large part of the population’s obligations. The Holiness Code in chapter 19 is a primary example. Morality was presented as a requirement to increase the Divine presence in our world.

An additional approach appears in this week’s dual Torah portion of Tazria and M’tzora: how to deal with a certain kind of disease. Tazria gives great details in how priests should examine and diagnose the disease called צָרָ֑עַת, tzaraat, which is often mistranslated as leprosy. The symptoms describing what the priests would examine are not what we typically know as leprosy, but versions of different skin afflictions, anything from eczema or psoriasis to deep infections. The priest’s diagnosis would determine if the person had to be quarantined, or was actually clean enough to stay in the community. The priest who examined a specific case had to re-examine after a week. If the affliction continued, he determined if it was on the level of an infection like leprosy, or something much milder.

The priesthood’s tending to the disease was part of their duty to ensure God’s presence. There is no question that some priestly leaders were more efficient, more diligent, or more productive than others, but none of that undermined the level of their honesty or morality. That was determined by the way a High Priest took his position and/or how he used his authority. Stories of numerous corrupt priesthoods, most notably those egotistically desiring authoritarian power instead of focusing on God’s presence, are told in the first segment of the Talmud’s tractate Yoma. This was common during the era of the second Temple.

When we try to put this into today’s perspective, we can gain a lesson about how a leader should combine necessary medical science with duty to God. While we can notice mistakes made in ancient times, because less was known about disease, the central point is to use medical knowledge to increase the holiness of a community. That is not dependent, for example, on congregating in mass to praise God, but knowing when to isolate those suffering from certain diseases. Saving lives is a key part of creating divinity in society. A true religious leader is not concerned about who shows up for an event, but who is healthy and who needs treatment—be it physical or spiritual. The connections, between physical and spiritual illness, leap forward in this week’s second portion, M’tzora.

Beginning in Leviticus 14:33, a potential plague on the stones of houses, and how to address them, is described. The same word is used to describe the stone plague as the skin disease in Tazriatzaraat. A priest determines if the treatment needs only to be of the stones containing the affliction by removing or scraping them, or if the entire house needs to be torn down.  The context given in the Torah is when the Israelites took Canaan that this plague might exist in certain houses. Rashi saw this as a way for the Israelites to find gold hidden in the walls by the Amorites, perhaps a lesson on the wrong way to focus on materialism.

A deeper interpretation of the reason for a house’s stone infections is a midrash from Vayikra Rabbah, chapter 17. It says that tzaraat occurs to a house when the residents who have plenty of food refuse to give help to people who are starving, especially by lying. For example, if asked for wheat and they lie by saying they have none, the house gets the disease. This illustrates how immorality causes a sick environment. The very next midrash in the same chapter of Vayikra Rabbah lists ten sins that will bring on tzaraat. Besides sins against God, the list includes, stealing from the public, usurping a position for which one has no right, displaying excessive pride, using evil speech, and wrongly seeing others as evil.

If we put together an overview approach of this week’s double Torah portion, a leader truly dedicated to improving their community must correctly diagnose a disease. They must be consistent in treating and reanalyzing the situation. They must be aware of the immoral aspects, and cannot allow an over focus on existence simply for materialistic reasons. God’s presence can increase only if human life is respected and served on the highest level. Leviticus verses 14:46 and 47 show that a leader himself must be careful not to get over exposed to the affliction. In the context of the midrashimwe can add that a leader must not get corrupted by the disease of “sin.”

These Torah portions give us a context to add key questions about the pandemic situation we are experiencing today: How are our leaders protecting exposure? Are our leaders making proper use of the available medical knowledge? Are they too focused on materialism over preserving life? Are leaders dedicated to God’s presence or to practicing their authoritarian wishes? Is their focus on their personal situation or what is best for the whole community? Are they providing what is needed for the poorest and most distraught? Finally, what are we as individuals doing to increase the Divine presence? Are we only concerned about ourselves or also caring about others? Are we appreciating those who must do the most work in dealing with the problems caused by the pandemic, e.g., all health workers, teachers, deliverers, and leaders making hard decisions? All of us can be part of the influence that when this is over, will God’s presence be more, or less?


Rabbi W. Jack Romberg worked in business for eighteen years, then, at age 42 entered HUC-JIR. After ordination, he served for eighteen years as the rabbi for Temple Israel in Tallahassee, Florida, and upon retirement in June of 2019 received a key to the city from the mayor. As Rabbi Emeritus, he writes weekly Torah commentaries for the congregation.

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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.