These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah was driven by imposter syndrome. Who am I, after all, to write a book teaching about the deeper meanings of the language of Torah? I’m not a rabbi. I’m not a Torah scholar. I have no Jewish day school foundation. I’m not a linguist or etymologist. I’m a poet-liturgist-lyricist. I write poems, songs, and prayers. Why, oh why, did I suggest this?!
So, I threw myself into the task of learning about individual words of Torah, often spending eight, ten, twelve hours a day in books, online, and engaging in conversations about Torah, Hebrew, Talmud, midrash, and the Sages, old and new. At times, the learning took me well beyond any text I’d previously encountered. The deeper I dug, and the further afield it took me, the harder I felt I needed to work.
Days became weeks. Weeks became months. Hundreds of hours learning Torah became thousands. Some evenings I’d dream about the words. Some mornings I’d wake with a poetic midrash spilling out of me. At times the learning led me to a poem. At times a new poem led me to a word of Torah. I entered some sort of Torah trance, which was thrilling and frightening.
When it was done—a first draft suitable for submission, anyway—I set it aside for a week in order to read it with “fresh eyes” before sending it to CCAR Press. The poems were beyond anything I’d ever written. And the divrei Torah on each Hebrew word looked completely foreign to me. How did I write that? Clearly, the work of learning how to study Torah at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies paid off.
In retrospect, the fact that CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Press Director Rafael Chaiken, and the chair of the CCAR Press Council, Rabbi Donald Goor, trusted me to write this book is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps, if one day my work warrants a retrospective, some journalist may say something like, “Although his previous work was regarded and beloved, These Words was when he truly discovered his poetic voice.”
In this CCAR Press interview, Merle Feld, author of Longing: Poems of a Life, discusses her creative process, what sets Longing apart from her previous work, and what she hopes readers will take away from her pieces.
What inspired the creation ofLonging?
It started with a single poem, “In the corner,” my earliest recollection. The entire book unfolded from that memory. It’s an innocent poem, the voice of a very young child, maybe age three. But then in the poem that follows, the child recalls memories which are painful, terrifying, anything but innocent. This first section of the book is the most difficult, because nothing matches the helplessness of a child.
How did you select which poems to include in the book?
As many more poems came to me, I eventually realized that the book had a shape—childhood; then adolescence, a treacherous time for a girl; young love, learning as a couple how to fight, pick up the pieces, grow together. A series of poems re-engaging with the four-day vigil as my mother was dying; poems capturing a succession of cherished friends, for me an endlessly fascinating and important subject. Next, some tales of the small town in which I’ve lived for the past twenty-six years. And finally, many facets, faces, of aging. In the end it turned out I’d written a memoir in poetry.
Longing engages with both painful and joyous moments from your life. What was it like to revisit these experiences?
The book is an ongoing conversation with myself that I hope will provoke conversations in my readers. I’m still in the midst of that exploration: though a book has gone to press and is out in the world, the inner conversations continue. I learn from my writing, find new wisdom, perhaps more peace, but the next question is not far behind. And after a rest, the next poem. Especially meaningful in this process are the many accounts of how Longing has fostered deep introspection and connections for readers, that the poems inspire them to reflect on their own life stories. Not why I wrote the poems, but why I published them.
What makes Longing different from your previous books?
Longing opens a vista acquired from decades of experience through the eyes and heart of a mature person seeking discernment, healing, summoning unprecedented courage. The parallels with and contrasts to my first book, A Spiritual Life (SUNY Press 1999; revised 2007), are striking. The voice in those poems is that of a young woman, grounded in home-making, child-making, questions of career, creativity, and nascent activism, but above all, joyously celebrating her newly reclaimed Jewish identity and vigorously advocating for feminist changes, many of which are normalized in our current realities. In a way, the two volumes bookend one another.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
We are capable of tremendous resilience.
Listen, to others and to yourself.
Notice if you are inexplicably sad, or angry—find help and be courageous.
You don’t know the stories that have shaped another person: be respectful, gentle, kind.
Little children matter.
In the end, each day is gratitude.
Learn more and order the book at longing.ccarpress.org. Watch the video of the book launch, featuring a conversation between Merle Feld and Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Chief Executive.
Merle Feldis an acclaimed poet, playwright, educator, and activist. Her previous works include her memoir A Spiritual Life and a poetry collection, Finding Words.
You previously published two social justice commentaries with CCAR Press, on Pirkei Avotand Jonah. Why did you choose Proverbs as the text for your third commentary?
I believe the Book of Proverbs is one of the most overlooked books in the Tanach. And yet, its simplicity can speak to the complexities of our moment. In the twenty-first century, our identities, relationships, and choices are often more complicated than ever. As we grow in our complexity, it is imperative to remember the moral foundations on which our lives are built. For me, in this generation, Proverbs is about getting back to basics and returning to simple truths.
Many Jews might ask, “What even is the Book of Proverbs?” Contained in the Writings, the final section of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs is a work of ancient but timeless wisdom traditionally attributed to King Solomon. Dealing more with morals and ethics than the Divine, it can be of immense value to believers and non-believers alike. When I teach Torah, I try to pass on a version of the tradition that encompasses both the study of ideas and the translation of those ideas into real-world action. The Book of Proverbs offers us an excellent bridge between those ideals.
Proverbs is a very different text from Jonah and Pirkei Avot. Did your writing approach differ for this volume?
Absolutely. These three books are very similar in that they are all interested in translating ancient holy texts into relevant moral replies. But they are so different. Pirkei Avot is rabbinic, the Book of Jonah is a narrative, and Proverbs is from the wisdom literature. In the first two, I viewed my role as simplifying the complicated. But here, I viewed my role as complicating the simple. Proverbs distills our Jewish values down to their very essence and it reinforces our commitment to the integrity of a Jewish path. The texts can inspire us and challenge us to do more and live differently.
Did writing this book change any of your perspectives?
My main ideas did not change, but the book has the potential to transform us in subtler ways. For example, in a society that feels unforgiving and has us convinced that one mistake by ourselves or others makes us irredeemable, Proverbs reminds us that “Seven times the righteous one falls and gets up” (24:16). I paused to think about resilience, forgiveness, and redemption at a time when our society is struggling with extreme binaries.
Which proverb did you find most meaningful?
The book reinforces the notion that Judaism is about spiritual and ethical work and learning to grow in responsibility. Instead of providing indisputable answers, Proverbs often supplies us with contradictory lessons. For example, Proverbs 26:4 teaches: “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly, else you will become like him.” This is a useful lesson in the age of online mudslinging. Yet the very next verse tells us the complete opposite: “Answer a fool in accord with his folly, else he will think himself wise.” The reader is trusted to work out the application on their own. In an era where so many feel they have it all figured out, how do we engage, resist, or walk away from those we view to be destructive?
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
In a world that tangles and muddles our ideas of what our lives should be, the Book of Proverbs helps us return to the foundational questions regarding our relationships with good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow. Our culture rewards our being compliant and undisruptive, but Proverbs drives us to take moral and spiritual action with clarity and courage. It challenges us to make distinctions between laziness and productivity, foolishness and wisdom, cruelty and justice. By studying this text, we confront the fact that we are constantly making decisions (consciously or not) about what kinds of people and Jews we are going to be. In today’s rapidly changing and exhaustingly overwhelming world, we can experience a great deal of fear and worry. We need to weather these storms together and hold each other closer. Only together, with grace and humility, can we courageously evolve. In the end, more than wanting readers to master the Proverbs from the Bible, I’d like to see them inspired to write their own proverbs that can help guide their lives.
What was the inspiration for Seven Days, Many Voices? There is so much material in the Creation story that speaks to our world at present. Within the Creation story, after all, are questions around gender, climate, faith, relationships—so many of the issues we think about often these days. I wanted to give us a new and provocative lens to consider and reconsider how the six days of creation might speak to us today.
Was there something new you personally learned while working on the book? I learned so much from wonderful authors and colleagues, who opened my eyes to issues related to Israel, memory, Shabbat, and much more.
What was the most challenging part of editing this volume? It takes a lot of work to pull together rabbis, cantors, educators, and others given the busyness of our lives. I learned to be both very patient and very persistent.
What do you want readers to take away from the book? I want readers to be proud that the Reform Movement creates space for broad and creative Torah commentary. To rethink the Creation story and pull new meaning from it has us acknowledge that the Torah really is timeless and speaks to every generation. I also believe that reexamining our origins sheds greater light on not only where we come from, but why we are here and what our role is as Jews and members of the human family.
The Rabbis taught that most of the Israelites did not leave Egypt during the Exodus. Indeed, for some—perhaps most—people, the familiar state of “slavery” is much more comfortable than unknown “freedom.” Today, our world changes faster than ever before in human history. There is a lot of fear of change, fear of loss. We need to weather these storms together and hold each other closer. Only together, with grace and humility, can we courageously evolve. As spiritual seekers, we have unique opportunities each day to continue to reflect on the ancient wisdom of our tradition and how it can be made relevant to our moment.
Spirituality is not simply “fun” or “meaningful.” There is far too much at stake. If we do not elevate our spiritual consciousness, we will destroy ourselves. More than a political revolution, we need a global spiritual awakening to the oneness and the interconnectedness of all life! How will we get there? What intellectual and spiritual resources will help us all move forward? Which of those resources will be brand-new and which ones will be ancient?
The Book of Proverbs—a book of ancient wisdom—is one of the most profound works found within the Hebrew Bible, but one that is not often explored in a truly spiritual, accessible, and relevant way. The language of the book is often vague, and its words and lessons are often open-ended and shrouded with literary ambiguity, qualities that make it hard to digest for the contemporary reader. Still, the wisdom that is contained within the Book of Proverbs is timeless, and readers have much to gain by learning from its ancient precepts.
Those of us who live in a world of paradox might find the Book of Proverbs—known as Sefer Mishlei in Hebrew—to seem a bit binary and simplistic. However, the book pushes us to remember that actually much of life is quite binary! We are confronted with good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow. The challenge is to see which moments require us to view situations with nuance and embrace paradox—and which moments require our fervent and robust moral and spiritual action. In the latter moments, we should not try to find intellectual excuses, but rather respond with clarity and courage. In the Book of Proverbs, we find the productive and the lazy, the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust—and we know where we want to find ourselves on that map!
The Book of Proverbs is the second book of K’tuvim (“Writings,” the third section of the Hebrew Bible) and consists of only thirty-one chapters. As part of the biblical “wisdom literature,” the book discusses moral values and proper conduct. The collection is divided according to its different authors.1 In fact, one might divide the book into seven different books merged into one, similar to a contemporary anthology consisting of seven chapters written by different authors. Other books in the Hebrew Bible of the same wisdom literature genre include Ecclesiastes and Job.2
Due to the lack of references to the Divine, the content of the Book of Proverbs is accessible to a broad readership, believers and nonbelievers alike. Proverbs is not a typical biblical book. God is mentioned here and there, but the content of the book is mostly focused on human learnings and wisdom. As one might say today, the book is “spiritual but not religious.” It appears to have been written not for an intellectual elite interested in theology, but as a moral guide for all people. It is not an exclusively “Jewish” book, but speaks to universal concerns. It does not address the needs, interests, and challenges of a specific community, but rather seeks to provide guidance for an individual—any individual.
Learn more and order the book at proverbs.ccarpress.org. A free study guide by CCAR Press Rabbinic Intern Ada Luisa Sinacore is available.
1. “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1–9); “The proverbs of Solomon” (Proverbs 10:1–22:16); “The words of the sages” (Proverbs 22:17–24:22); “These also are by the sages” (Proverbs 24:23–34); “These too are proverbs of Solomon, which the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied” (Proverbs 25–29); “The words of Agur” (Proverbs 30); “The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, with which his mother admonished him” (Proverbs 31). It is important to note, however, that it is possible to view these other authors as nicknames for Solomon.
2. Two other books are generally included in the genre of the wisdom literature that were excluded from the Tanach but included in the Apocrypha: Wisdom of Solomon and Wisdom of Ben Sira (or Ecclesiasticus).
How did you come to serve as a coeditor for Mishkan HaSeder?
Mishkan HaSeder was one of those long-gestating dreams. I met Rabbi Hara Person in 1990, and as we became friends and I reveled in the poems she had paired with Torah text in the Women’s Commentary, it seemed inevitable that we would also pair passages of the Haggadah with poetry —and for the same reason, to feel closer to the text. We also knew that by choosing poets of any faith, time, and place, their work would reflect the universality of the story of the Exodus. We wanted participants to feel the seder as a microcosm for the human experience.
Mishkan HaSeder contains a wealth of poetry alongside the seder text. How did you choose which poems to include?
From her work with theThe Torah: A Women’s Commentary and other texts, Rabbi Person had a clear method. We looked at every page of the Haggadah and then distilled meanings, symbols, and philosophies found at that moment in the seder. To find poems that reflected or refracted those ideas, we cross-indexed them with our own knowledge of poets and poems, with online databases of poems, and we thumbed through books upon books. It’s not hard to find poems that have a relationship to the story, but finding the very right ones that pop open the moment to new understandings and resonance—that was our goal, and it was thrilling. Like Torah, the story of Passover is ever-expanding; we wanted to find poems that sparked this dynamism.
What role can poetry play as part of the Passover experience?
Emotional intimacy! For example, Mishkan HaSeder’s very first poem, by Karl Shapiro, imagines a 151st psalm (there are only 150 in our liturgy) that begins, “Immigrant God, You follow me.” From the start the reader is offered, within this story of moving toward freedom, an example of freedom to reimagine one’s relationship to God and to the story. “The 151st Psalm” is followed by Jane Hirshfield’s great poem “Optimism,” which begins “More and more I have come to admire resilience”—because not only does Passover embody resilience, but so does survival for peoples all through time. When the Haggadah instructs us to honor the stranger, resilience is needed there as well, to strengthen our resolve against forces of exclusion on any number of levels.
What makes Mishkan HaSeder different from other Haggadot?
Many wonderful Haggadot offer paths from the traditional liturgy to a deepened awareness of the living presence of the Exodus story in the present day. One thing Mishkan HaSeder holds is an entire second Haggadah within it; people who want to conduct a seder with very little of the traditional liturgy can lean on the poems themselves to reflect the signs and wonders of the story. And because readers are used to understanding poems through a very personal scrim, participants can come to the evening knowing that their individual sensibilities have a seat at the table and a voice for the discussion. Mishkan HaSeder can also act as the salt and pepper at the table—the poems sprinkled within whatever text a host chooses.
Did you learn something new while editing the book?
I was grateful to become more conversant with the traditional liturgy and the relationship of one part of the seder to another. There will always be more to know, of course, but each layer of understanding offers new layers of discovery—and new ways of feeling profoundly connected.
In this excerpt from The Social Justice Torah Commentary, Rabbi 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, ParashatVayikra 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.
Rabbi April Davis is the editor of the new supplement to L’chol Z’man v’Eit, the CCAR’s clergy manual and life-cycle guide. In this blog post, she reflects upon her own experiences using L’chol Z’man v’Eit and offers a glimpse into the supplement’s contents.
A season is set for everything; a time for every experience under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
I received my copy of L’chol Z’man v’Eit from my rabbi, Andy Klein, when I was ordained in 2015. In the note that accompanied the gift, he told me that I would be part of people’s most tender and intimate moments and this book would be my guide. Looking back on my seven years in the rabbinate, it truly has been. Holding the binder, taking a few pages on the run, or using the electronic version on my iPad, I have joined people in marriage, named babies, led conversions, and stood at hospital bedsides. I know you have, too. It is a steady companion as we navigate traditional and new sacred moments with the many people we serve.
Published in 2015, L’chol Z’man v’Eit/For Sacred Moments: The CCAR Life-Cycle Guide offered traditional rituals and new blessings to clergy in joyous and mournful moments. Not only were some of the resources new, but the guide was published in a unique format: a binder with pages that could be removed and reordered as necessary. It was also released as a digital PDF. In both the substance and the design, the old was made new and the new was made holy (Rav Avraham Isaac Kook).
True to the design and intent of the original, we can and should continue adding content to reflect our changing rabbinates and our rapidly evolving world. Today we are called to witness and bless increasingly diverse moments. Sometimes we are present at an unfolding tragedy; at other times we bring Judaism and joy to a new situation. For everything there is a season, a time for every experience under heaven. To that end, CCAR Press decided to publish an update to the guide in the form of a print and digital Supplement. I was honored to serve as editor of this project. The goal of the Supplement to L’chol Z’man v’Eit is to recognize even more of those times and seasons and mark them as sacred.
Including new material for all facets of the life-cycle, the print Supplement is designed to fit into the existing guide (instructions are provided on the first page). The digital Supplement is available as a separate PDF or integrated into the original PDF manual. In the Birth section, there are prayers and rituals for people hoping to conceive or experiencing miscarriage, premature birth, the illness of a child, or adopting an older child who is able to participate in the ceremony. There is unique liturgy for a marriage that includes children, along with new rituals for divorce and ending relationships.
Expanding the Healing section are prayers for minor illness or injury, a sick child, eating disorders, addiction, assault, and abortion. The Mourning section includes new meditations to address communal loss and the death of a hurtful parent along with a framework for the funeral of someone who died by suicide.
On the communal level, we are often called on to address both our congregations and the communities in which we live. For the congregation, we included rituals such as a reconsecration ceremony and a prayer for people leaving a community. Outside the doors of the synagogue, there are rituals for people moving into or out of a residence, a child leaving home, people moving in together as a step in their relationship, and an individual entering long-term care. Most of the Community section, though, is devoted to the difficult moments we face in the world. Organized into three parts—In Times of Fear, Acute Crisis, and When Healing Comes—there are multiple meditations and readings for a variety of difficult situations. Natural disasters, climate change, gun violence, racism, and antisemitism are specifically addressed.
The supplement reflects the creativity and generosity of CCAR members. Committee members Rabbis Carolyn Bricklin-Small, Alan Cook, Lisa Edwards, PhD, Jen Gubitz, Marc Katz, and Ben Zeidman, and CCAR editor Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, were partners in seeking the moments to be reflected in the Supplement. Through searches of the CCAR and Women’s Rabbinic Network Facebook pages, online requests, and direct questions posed to our colleagues, we created a list of the most needed blessings and readings. We then compiled these from various sources, with some previously published, but many others written specifically for the Supplement.
Colleagues who have solemnized these new life-cycle moments contributed their wisdom. In particular, the Community section is a powerful collection of reflections from those who have been in the midst of crises. Their rituals and readings have been tested under difficult circumstances and generously shared. I am grateful to everyone who contributed to this Supplement and, especially, to the committee and to Rabbi Pilz for their effort and dedication. It is my hope that this Supplement moves us towards finding and marking holiness in every time and season. I am adding the pages to my guide and know that they will be part of many tender and intimate moments of my rabbinate in the years to come.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, published by CCAR Press in 2018. The book examines this classic collection of rabbinic wisdom through the lens of contemporary issues and moral philosophy. In this interview, he discusses his unique approach and what readers can take away from the book.
Why did you choose Pirkei Avot as the text for your first social justice commentary?
Pirkei Avot is a startlingly awesome work that consists of timeless life wisdom. Each time I read these stunning rabbinic texts, I feel a deep, burning challenge to strive more robustly for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. Pirkei Avot is a work that continues to keep me focused on this spiritual journey. It also serves as a reminder that the challenging, and urgent, societal work of advocating for ethics and justice starts with our own personal reflection, refinement, and character growth.
Pirkei Avot was written two thousand years ago. What makes it relevant to readers today?
Indeed, with many ancient texts, there needs to be a big leap in interpretation for them to be perfectly relevant in our day. So much has changed since the biblical and rabbinic eras. But this is not the case, I believe, with Pirkei Avot. If we feel called to ensure that a singular Jewish charge—the spark of Jewish life and learning—is kept alive and relevant for the generations to come, then Pirkei Avot may be the best set of classical Jewish texts to engage future generations.
Did writing this book change any of your perspectives?
It is easy for many of us, myself included, to be swept away by conformity, on a progressive bandwagon where the newest way of thinking ultimately becomes the greatest. Immersing in learning and commenting on Pirkei Avot reminded me that what enables Judaism to be so eternally cherished is not only our ability to evolve to the new moment, but also our most classical virtues of the past such as humility, consistency, and respect. Pirkei Avot reignites a flame where these values once again become exciting and relevant as an essential complement to postmodern thought and progressive action.
From my perspective as a Jewish traditionalist, progressive social justice activist—and a dedicated pluralist—the Book of Jonah is remarkable in its ability to speak to many populations at once. In this sense of moral relevancy, it is quite similar to Pirkei Avot. On the other hand, the literary genre of the biblical work of Jonah could not be more different from the rabbinic dispensary of wisdom found in Pirkei Avot. The rabbis are concrete, direct, and prescriptive, whereas the Book of Jonah is abstract, perplexing, and descriptive. The two works can inform each other—Jonah zooms in to the individual’s particularistic journey and Avot zooms out to the universalistic human journey.
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.