Last week’s parashah, Shemini, describes Aaron’s response to the unexpected, enigmatic death of his two sons: “And Aaron was silent” (Lev 10:3). The same verb appears in the book of Amos, when the prophet indicts the rich for exploiting the poor and subverting justice for the righteous and the needy. Amos warns: “Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time” (Amos 5:13).
Silence is one response to calamity; speech is another. During an address delivered on March 8, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” The “American Values Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters.” campaign represents an attempt to resist silence and to speak out about the values that matter most to us, as Americans and as people of faith.
Starting on Inauguration Day on January 20, 2017, every day at 5:00 a.m. American Values Religious Voices has emailed a letter to the President, Vice President, members of the 115th Congress (through their Chiefs of Staff and Legislative Directors), and certain members of the Trump Administration. At the same time, a notice has gone out to over two thousand subscribers with a link to the letter posted on our website and publicized on social media @ValuesandVoices. Plus, a hard copy of each letter has been mailed to the President and Vice President.
These daily letters have been written by a diverse cadre of scholars of religion: Jews representing various affiliations, Christians from different denominations, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs. The letter writers identify as African Americans, Latinx, Asians, Native American, and White. Go to the homepage of our website and look at the gorgeous mosaic of 100 faces. This is what America looks like. This glorious diversity is what makes America great.
The 100 letters articulate core American values rooted or reflected in our religious traditions, values like pluralism, freedom of religion, justice, truth, hospitality, compassion—just to name a few. Go to “The Letters” section of our website and look at the long list of values and topics addressed in the letters. You can click on any word—like “Empathy,” “Equality,” or “The Environment”—to to sort the letters and see how different authors treat the same subject.
For clergy, this archive of 100 letters offers a particularly valuable resource. Letter writers have responded in real time to the moves of the Trump Administration, with letters that confront issues in the news like immigration and the treatment of “the stranger,” the building of a wall, proposed budget cuts, the denial of climate change. Quotations from the letters can be used liturgically or homiletically; scriptural citations can be woven together for text study and interfaith conversations.
In the “Take Action” section of the website, you will find a link to a Seder Supplement and a Prayer for Our Country. The Prayer for Our Country compiles quotations from eight letters into a single composition that expresses our shared hopes for our country. The authors cited in this prayer mirror the diverse voices contained in this campaign, while highlighting our common aspirations for our nation. The prayer was officially debuted at my son’s Bar Mitzvah on April 1 and will be recited at HUC-JIR New York ordination on May 7. Think about adding it to your congregational worship and/or using it in interfaith gatherings.
Letter 100 has been written by American Values Religious Voices Advisory Committee member Elsie Stern, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Bible at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and also the sister of our new CCAR President, David Stern. Elsie compares the counting of a president’s first 100 days in office to the counting of the omer. She writes: “While the letters and the counting conclude, the call to account will continue.” I encourage you to use American Values Religious Voices as a resource as we all play our part in holding our elected officials accountable for preserving and promoting our core American values.
Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss serves as Associate Professor of Bible at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She also served as Associate Editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, now available from CCAR Press.