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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Being but a Cog in the Work to Make our World a Better Place

On August 1, 2015, I was lucky enough to pronounce the final benediction at a ceremony beginning the NAACP‘s 45-day American Journey for Justice. This was the day when I was able to share words of Torah in Selma, AL before marchers undertook the first steps of an 865-mile trek to make the world a better place. This was the day I was truly honored and overwhelmed by the privilege of carrying a sacred scroll of the Torah over the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, taking about 700 of the million steps that lay ahead on the sojourn to Washington, D.C. This was the day I walked12 miles down a highway in the blazing 98-degree Alabama heat.

“We are now bonded,” said my new friend, Mary Sorteburg, in a remarkable embrace that topped everything else. That’s how I felt after my day, only one day, one in a series that will be marched by my compatriots who yearn for justice, by my new partners and friends in the NAACP leadership, and by my CCAR colleagues who will march that same Torah scroll all the way to D.C. I felt bonded.

Bonded to Mary and her remarkable husband Jeff Merkley, who–despite being the Senator from Oregon–is now my spiritual representative in our nation’s capital.

Bonded to the remarkable Cornell William Brooks, the President of the NAACP, with whom I walked that remarkable road as we shared our stories in the blazing sun.

Bonded to leaders Leon Russell and Dwayne Proctor, with whom I shared continuing conversations; bonded to Sierra Club President Aaron Mair and a man named Middle Passage, both of whom I came to know as they carried the Torah down State Highway 80.

Bonded to Rabbis Denise Eger, Bruce Lustig, Beth Singer and Jason Roditch—who previously had been at best a quick ‘hello’ at convention or sometimes just a disembodied voice on the other end of the phone—and who are now brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

Bonded to Susan Solomon, Merle Terry, Jill and Grant Peters, who traveled with me from Chicago Sinai Congregation to help our Torah scroll take its place in the American Journey for Justice.

Bonded to the struggle to prove that Black Lives Matter.

Bonded to the fight to end racism, to fight racism, to talk honestly about racism.

And bonded to the Torah scroll.

I am not a rabbi overly focused on ritual, often moved by symbolism. But carrying this sacred scroll down an open highway, playing a small, literal role in a massive, literal journey erased any capacity for me to relate to Torah only metaphorically. Even having passed the scroll to a beloved and esteemed colleague, I now feel as if I have a missing limb: part of my mental energy is constantly wondering where the scroll is, in whose treasuring arms it rests. But with the Torah on that historical highway, I have never felt smaller and bigger: I was one brief person carrying the Torah down a long road for one brief time; I could hardly see the end of the day’s walk, let along the final destination. I have never stood so proud and tall as I did as the clock approached 6:00 and my feet were blistering. I was able to carry the Torah proudly, to serve my role, to play my small part. The knowledge of being but a cog—but a vital part of the machinery to make our world a better place—is exactly the lesson of our American Journey for Justice.

August 1 was filled with love, with hope, with solidarity and community. It was also filled with anger, confusion and disappointment. It was a day of contradiction. We were so generously and safely guided and granted passage by Alabama State Police; how different, not only from 50 years ago when police presence on the other side of the bridge signaled danger, but also what a vast chasm from the terror black people continue to face in nearly every encounter with law enforcement. The Chicago Tribune published a wonderful story about my colleagues’ choosing to walk in support of the NAACP; the only ink the Tribune spent on the American Journey for Justice was to document the participation of white people. In one day, I feel as if I built real relationships on the road that will last into the future; in 13 months in Chicago, I have built precious yet few relationships with black leaders. The contradictions of the day still puzzle me; it is upon me now to work towards their resolution.

On September 15, I will fly down to D.C. to meet up again with my comrades in justice, to carry that Torah scroll again in my arms as we bring it together into the very seat of our American democracy. I will travel with members of my congregation, my daughter and my determination to bring about racial justice. I look forward again to being with Cornell, with Jeff, with Bruce, with Dwayne, with Leon, with Mary, with so many more: the handshakes, the hugs and the commitment to end racism. A commitment that binds us as tightly as hands clenched together in hope and love.

Rabbi Seth Limmer serves as Senior Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation. He is also the Chair of the Justice and Peace Committee of the CCAR.

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s blog.

Categories
News Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice Torah

Why We’re Marching in America’s Journey for Justice

We are participating in the N.A.A.C.P.’s “America’s Journey for Justice” is, individually and as part of the collective of 140+ Reform rabbis, a giant step for Justice. This 40 day march from Selma, AL to Washington, D.C., with 5 final days in DC, focused on racial and structural inequality under the banner, “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools Matter,” is more than a Journey of many rabbis over 860 miles. With at least one rabbi marching every day of the American Journey for Justice, a sacred scroll of the Torah will experience the entire length of this journey. Our sefer Torah that teaches of our 40 year journey through the wilderness will accompany us on this 40-day journey for the justice our Torah demands.

Why are we working for racial justice at this time? Why are we marching?

We march because we say enough. Enough of the tragedies. Enough of the subtle and overt racism. Enough of standing by. We march not only in the name of those whose deaths woke up our nation’s consciousness, but for the millions of others whose loss of life, loss of home, and loss of dignity never made a headline. Our hearts break for the world as it is–parched by oppression–constant, crushing, and unacceptable. We remember the slavery and oppression that bloodied our own past even as we recognize the privilege into which many of us were born. We, therefore, march arm-in-arm with other people of faith in our humble attempt to live up to our tradition’s demand to be rodfei tzedek, pursuers of justice, equality and freedom.

We feel called by our God, our tradition and our consciences to march. At the same time, we know that simply marching in this remarkable forty-day Journey to Justice is not enough. We march for the forty-first day, the one-hundred and twentieth, and the years and generations to come. We march, as our ancestors taught us, to get from Egypt—the world as it is, filled with injustice—to the Promised Land. We march toward a vision of this land’s promise: our world redeemed, overflowing with chesed, tzedek, umishpat—compassion, justice and righteousness.

Thank you for joining us.

Sincerely,

Joel Abraham, David Adelson, Erica Asch, Peter Berg, Shoshanah Conover, Wendi Geffen, Sam Gordon, Asher Knight Esther Lederman, Seth Limmer, John Linder, Greg Litcofsky, Ari Margolis, Joel Mosbacher, Mark Miller, Jason Rosenberg, Adam Spilker

On behalf of the ROR Leadership Team

This blog was originally posted on the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s blog

Categories
omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

We All Count: Shavuot

This blog is the eighth in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality.  Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. 

Each day of intentional counting through the period of the Omer, as the attributes of mercy, spiritual strength, beauty, truth, compassion and justice shape us, we are brought to the night of Shavuot when, through our learning together as community, we glimpse the way the world can be.  From Passover to Shavuot the bread with no ego of Matzah and the simple barley of the Omer prepare us for the Challah; the symbol of being able to taste the sweetness of freedom without having our freedom and our privilege dependent on the oppression of others.  We pray that we will be able to enjoy the puffed up Challah without becoming so full of ourselves that we forget the lessons of our journey and that we will always remember never to do to others what was done to us.

Shavuot  is the climax of our story as Jews, to accept a Torah, a guide for living, that creates a world where all can flourish.  The Talmud dares us to fiercely defend the rights of all humanity to have infinite worth, to have a level playing field, and to be able to be creative and unique.  This is a radical vision in a world of have and have-nots, of the rich getting richer on the backs of the poor and by destroying the environment, of state sponsored laws and cultures that dehumanize and even brutalize other human beings.  Today there would be signs on the mountaintop that proclaim that black and brown lives matter, that Palestinian lives matter, that Jewish lives matter.  Signs that lift up the voices of those who are marginalized, who cannot find a place to be free from prejudice, who suffer the oppression of being judged by the hue of skin color instead of who they are.  Signs that affirm that these lives matter as much as all other lives.

Based on the models of truth and reconciliation sessions that have been used in South Africa, Rwanda, and in Greensboro we launched our first of ten sessions in St Louis this week.  As I listened to the black and brown truth tellers speak across lines of age, gender and class to the panel that practiced radical listening without defense and with open hearts, I heard a common agonizing thread.  Each person spoke from a strong place of self.  I could hear them saying, “I may be different from you but I am a whole human being of infinite worth, why don’t you see me and treat me as such?” They also said, “I do not want your pity or your sympathy but you must reach within to find a place of empathy.”

I thought about an article by the feminist lesbian woman of color Audre Lorde, in which she says that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.   Lorde wisely teaches us that “those who have been forged in the crucibles of difference,” must learn to take difference and make it a strength outside the structures of oppression and build a new world where we can all be valued.  I also heard the truth tellers (and Lorde) say that it is not their job to educate the oppressors.  It is an old tool of oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.  “Tell us what you want?”  is a diversion from the source of the problem that lives within the souls of those who do not see themselves as a part of the suffering of people of color in this culture that has been shaped by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws, old and new.  We are all a part of the problem and the Torah teaches us how to be a part of the solution.

The blacklivesmatter movement is challenging us to change the systems of policing and mass incarceration that threaten those lives daily.  Our demands are for basic the human dignities that come with access to health care, a living wage and a government that serves all the people.  The Torah teaches us that when we are more upset about the destruction of property than we are about the loss of these lives we are committing the sin of idolatry.  Make the counting we have done each day to arrive at this holy time of learning on Shavuot open the heart of the world to the healing necessary to count each and every life and make sure that every life counts.

———

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.

Rabbi Susan Talve is the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, MO. Central Reform Congregation recently was the recipient of the Fain Award for their work on Ferguson Activism. 

 

Categories
Ethics Rabbis Reform Judaism Torah

Parashat Sh’mini, Mindfulness, and Food

In Vermont, where I spent the last year living (and where I still spend my time off), there’s a beautiful culture of paying attention to where food comes from. In part this is because of the agricultural heritage of the state, and lucky for me, it’s meant that I’ve made a number of friends who are farmers. As a result, over the past year I’ve farm-sat when friends have gone on vacation (to Israel, no less – our local Jewish educator is also a farmer), helped friends tap their maple trees to make homegrown maple syrup and cared for chickens and lambs. I have harvested the summer’s abundance, too: dried garlic, blanched kale, made raspberry jam from local berries picked by my own two hands, and turned pounds (literally, pounds) of basil into many frozen containers of pesto – enough for the (very) long Vermont winter! I’ve even learned to make my own sourdough bread and created my own sourdough starter.

For a Rabbi’s kid who grew up in Chicago this has been a wonderful, unexpected and delicious adventure. I feel truly blessed. I have learned, intimately, where my food comes from, and the incredible labor that it takes to feed the state of Vermont. I have also become a regular at the local farmer’s market, friendly with the guy who sells me my kale, have found a farm where I pick up eggs and bread year-round, and have, overall become much, much healthier. I have also, for the first time ever, begun to understand the place of dietary laws in the Biblical imagination and what it must have felt like to live according to an agricultural rhythm where you always worried what the new harvest might (or might not) yield. Food, I have learned, is never merely a product. It’s also a process. 

This week’s parshah, Sh’mini, is known for its dietary laws, the laws of kashrut.  And though I could write at length about kashrut and Reform Judaism, I’m more interested in asking us to consider how halachic structures around eating can help us sacralize and become mindful of how we eat, elevate it from noshing to something worthy of blessing. Because serious engagement with the tradition and with the parsha calls for not just a historical critical interrogation of where the laws come from but also an acknowledgment that the laws present us with an opportunity to think deeply, and seriously about how we consume (and if we are doing so ethically). And though we ultimately may not choose to give up cheeseburgers or non-kosher meat, we might at least feel compelled to engage in a centuries old conversation about what it means to sanctify this simplest of acts.  

Jordie2For me, this has meant making an effort to know where my food comes from, and a commitment to only buying food that is organic, free-range, hormone free, or sustainably raised  (this means I eat much less meat, as it’s far more expensive this way). For others, it may mean becoming a vegetarian or vegan; but no matter what, it will mean consuming consciously, thoughtfully, in a manner that reflects our understanding of the earth – and all its inhabitants – as holy and precious in their own right. This, though not traditionally halachically observant, is halachically responsible, in keeping with the spirit of a law which asks us to bring a disciplined heart and head to what – and how – we consume.

This, in part, is what it means to eat Jewishly.

st-cover_with_seal_2B’tayavon.

Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom in Montreal. 

For more on Judaism and food, check out The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethicedited by Rabbi Mary Zamore

Categories
Ethics News Rabbis Reform Judaism Torah

Vayikra: The Blessing of a Blank Slate

I’m a perfectionist. If I could spend weeks writing (and suffering) over each and every sermon, rather than just a few hours (or sometimes, much less time) I would. If I could meet with every wedding couple 8 times, I’d do that too. If I could spend my days mulling over every shiur and Torah study, and assembling the perfect teaching texts, I’d do it. And if I could make every congregant happy all the time, I’d try to find a way. But that’s not the nature of the job, especially in the congregational Rabbinate. And so I regularly have to let go of my aspirations, to forgive myself for doing the best I can in the time allotted.*

This week’s parshah, Vayikra, gives itself over to various sacrifices. But the sacrifice that’s always intrigued me most is the chatat – or ‘sin offering’, which, conventionally, has been understood in a negative light – a way of absolving ourselves of wrongs we have committed. But I believe we might also understand chatat psychologically, as a way of externalizing the letting go of grudges we may be holding against ourselves for mistakes we have made, or ways we have fallen short. Because, often, it turns out that the people who we have the hardest time forgiving when wrongs have been done are ourselves (and this is especially true of Rabbis, who, though they are constantly being judged by their communities, are often, ultimately, their own harshest critics). The sacrifice of a bull in Vayikra, therefore, may be better understood as the sacrifice of an idea or judgment of ourselves as flawed, as failures, as people who make hurtful mistakes. Gunther Plaut put it best: “Ceremonial atonement for unwitting violations of the law was a psychologically sound procedure. People are often deeply disturbed if they cause harm by accident, ignorance or oversight [and] sacrifice relieved a troubled conscience.”

My mom, a surgeon, used to tell my father, a congregational Rabbi, that if he needed to make everyone happy all the time, and be universally loved, he’d chosen the wrong career.  Everyone makes mistakes, and no one can make everyone happy all the time. Not even Moses. (Not even God!) This is true. But what’s also true is that most Rabbis are born people pleasers. We go into this work because we love people, and want to serve them, and help them make meaning of their lives. When we fail – even in minor ways – in this holy work, there is no one harder on us than ourselves. When we miss a hospital visit, or forget a name, or give a less than stellar sermon or have to answer a question about Biblical history with “I don’t know.” It can sting, not just our egos, but our hearts.

And so how do we let go now that we don’t have sacrifices (or bulls, unless we live in Texas)? Might there be other ritual ways that we can – outside of Yom Kippur – forgive ourselves, let go of our mistakes, and bless ourselves with a blank slate? There are.

Here are a few ideas: what if, on a weekly or daily basis, at Shabbat services each week, or before we go to bed each night, we make a commitment to take 2 minutes to let ourselves – one last time –  go over the mistakes we’ve made, and then let them go.  Such that we make a habit each week of giving ourselves permission to just start over again. Such that we free ourselves from whatever burdens we have been carrying – whether it’s a disagreement with a loved one, or anger at ourselves for something as small as procrastination or as big as truly hurting someone (or ourselves) by acting negligently or thoughtlessly.

I believe this is one of the most powerful lessons of Vayikra: not just the obligation to sacrifice, to let go, but the blessing of it – and how, by letting one idea of ourselves go, we open ourselves up to becoming so much more. This is my blessing for all of you, my colleagues, this week. May you let something go, so that something new, and more beautiful, can take it’s place.

*(My daily insight meditation practice helps enormously with this – it teaches me over and over again, to let go.)

Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom in Montreal.