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CCAR Press Passover Pesach Poetry Prayer

CCAR Press Interview: Jessica Greenbaum on ‘Mishkan HaSeder’

Jessica Greenbaum, coeditor (with Rabbi Hara E. Person) of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah, shares her experience working on the Haggadah. Mishkan HaSeder is available as a print book, ebook (Kindle and Google Play), and now as a Visual T’filahTM.


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 the The 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.

Learn more about Mishkan HaSeder at mishkanhaseder.ccarpress.org


Jessica Greenbaum is a poet, teacher, and social worker. She is the coeditor, with Rabbi Hara Person, of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah.

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CCAR Press Reform Judaism Technology

CCAR Press Interview: Rabbi Dan Medwin on the Reform Luach App

Rabbi Dan Medwin, Co-Director at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, shares his thoughts on designing CCAR Press’s Reform Luach calendar app. Reform Luach is available on the Apple, Amazon, and Google Play app stores.


What inspired the creation of the Reform Luach app?

The initial work on the Reform Luach app was done by Rabbi Leon Morris with the help of Cantor Amanda Kleinman. They painstakingly created a detailed collection of valuable information for Reform communities. The app grew out of their dedication and hard work.

What makes this app different from other Jewish calendar apps?

The Reform Movement’s calendar is a combination of the Israel calendar for holidays and the diaspora calendar for Torah readings, with necessary adjustments made to keep both in sync. Other Jewish calendar apps have options for the Israel calendar or the diaspora calendar, but not both. Additionally, page numbers are included for the Reform Movement’s sacred books: Mishkan T’filah: A Reform SiddurThe Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and The Torah: A Modern Commentary.

Are there any special features of the Reform Luach app that users should know about?

The holiday and Torah portions can be downloaded to the default calendar on one’s phone, which can be synced with a larger calendar system (e.g., Outlook, Google calendar, etc.). There are links to read more about each Torah portion at ReformJudaism.org. A handy date converter is also included, which can go from Gregorian to Hebrew calendar and vice versa.

What was the most challenging part of creating this app?

The most challenging aspect of the process was initially understanding the complex interactions and special cases of the Reform Luach, and then translating the exceptions and readings into computer logic that our developers—who were not familiar with the Jewish calendar—could implement in the app. For example, when the eighth day of Passover falls on Shabbat and the following week’s reading is Sh’mini, this week’s reading becomes Sh’mini I, and the following week’s becomes Sh’mini II. However, when the following week’s reading is Acharei Mot, that reading is split into two parts and similarly applied to both weeks.

How do you recommend that people use the Reform Luach app?

There are a number of ways folks can take advantage of the Reform Luach app. Some use it as a quick reference tool to see the upcoming Torah portion or holidays, while others use it to plan their b’nei mitzvah calendar for the year by syncing all of the dates. It’s also a helpful resource for learning more about each week’s Torah portion.

Learn more about more CCAR Press Reform Jewish apps at apps.ccarpress.org


Rabbi Dan Medwin is the designer of the Reform Luach app. Previously, he was the CCAR Director of Digital Media.

Categories
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.

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CCAR Press Prayer Rabbis

New Times and Seasons: A Supplement to ‘L’chol Z’man v’Eit’

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.

לַכֹּל זְמָן וְעֵת לְכׇל־חֵפֶץ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם׃

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.


The Supplement to L’chol Z’man v’Eit is available as a print and PDF bundle at ccarpress.org. It can also be ordered together with the original edition in print, as a PDF, or as a print and digital bundle.


Rabbi April Davis is a rabbi at the Center for Exploring Judaism at Central Synagogue in New York City

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

CCAR Press Author Interview: Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz on ‘Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary’

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.

Pirkei Avot was followed by your second CCAR Press volume, The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary. Despite their similar approach, what makes the two books different?

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.


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

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 spirituality

CCAR Press Author Interview: Rabbis Goldberg and Zecher on ‘Because My Soul Longs for You’

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg and Rabbi Elaine Zecher are the coeditors of Because My Soul Longs for You: Integrating Theology into Our Lives, recently published by CCAR Press. In this interview, they discuss the development of the book and what readers can learn from it.

What inspired the creation of Because My Soul Longs for You?

Rabbi Zecher: In the 1990s, in preparation for the development of Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur, the CCAR embarked on a study of what today’s liturgy should look like. One of the findings was the need to include a diversity of theological expression in the experience of prayer. As we considered what might be possible, our colleague, Rabbi Elyse Frishman—editor of the new prayer book—presented the idea of a two-page spread to the editorial committee, allowing for a multivocal presentation of each prayer. As a result, many images of the Divine could be offered. We called it an “integrated theology” because the experience of the Divine is expressed in many ways and yet they are interconnected. Several years later, Mishkan HaNefesh: A Machzor for the Days of Awe carried this concept forward. As we reflected on the idea, we wanted to offer pathways to understand what it could mean through the experiences of our lives. Instead of viewing it as a specific theology, we regard integrated theology as what Rabbi Abraham Heschel called a depth theology, the actual experience of the Divine. We are inspired by the way we can share the story of our lives and the way the sacred becomes foundational to how we understand who we are.

What was the most challenging part of editing this book? 

Rabbi Goldberg: The most challenging part was defining the nature of the project. Originally we planned to present more intellectual views of God, all part of the normative Jewish spectrum of theology. The notion was not working, however, since we are not classically educated theologians. Once the concept of integrated theology became the focus of the book, everything fell in place. After that, the challenge was finding writers who could evoke the Divine in their lives in a way that was not too reductionist. We did not want a report of someone finding God in music, for instance; we wanted a record of a spiritual experience that involved music. It sounds the same, but it is not. One is a report, the other an experience. We were fortunate to succeed in finding the right people who lived their experiences and could share them so well. 

What is something new you personally learned while working on Because My Soul Longs for You? Did any of your own perspectives change? 

Rabbi Goldberg: I was astonished to learn about experiences that my colleagues had undergone of which I had no idea. There is so much trauma in people’s lives, and it is easy to forget this because we hide it so well. I like to say that spirituality is a dedication to reality at all costs. When editing this book, I saw people’s struggles, as well as their blessings, in a new light. This insight also helped me put my relatively minor challenges into a better perspective. Especially in this pandemic, the book affirms that we need each other, and we need God in our lives. And we really need God with others in our lives. I have missed that group experience of shared spirituality so much.  

What do you want readers to take away from the book? 

Rabbi Zecher: This book is a jumping off point for each of us to contemplate where we might not have considered God’s role in our lives, or our understanding of the sacred as implicit or explicit to what we believe to be true. The beauty of the storytelling offered within these pages is that it helps us identify something similar—or even different—but that may have been there all along. We also hope that it will help the individuals we work with and pastor every day in their own journey of discovery. If reading, studying, and considering their lives awakens their understanding of the Divine in a new way, then putting together the book has been a holy endeavor. 


The editors and contributors to Because My Soul Longs for You are available to teach by video on topics in the book. Email bookevents@ccarpress.org for more information.


Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg serves Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands, outside of Houston, Texas. He was an editor of Mishkan HaNefesh and Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh, also published by CCAR Press.

Rabbi Elaine S. Zecher is Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel of BostonMassachusetts. She was an editor of Mishkan HaNefesh, Machzor: Challenge and Change, Volume 2, and Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning, also published by CCAR Press.

Categories
CCAR Press Prayer Technology

Creating the World of Visual T’filah

It was Friday morning, the day after Yom Kippur. Even though we were exclusively worshiping on Zoom throughout the High Holy Days, I felt a sense of peace and contentment, and a strong connection to the Temple Sholom family. All of our services were held using Visual T’filah. Without machzorim in hand, we were able to truly pray as a community with our electronic devices. I was very tired after all the preparation leading up to the Holy Days and after leading so many different types of services, but Shabbat comes every week, ready or not. I could have reused a previous Visual T’filah Shabbat service I had put together, but I had a strong desire to create a new service. And then it dawned on me that crafting a Visual T’filah service is a form of praying for me, in and of itself. 

I start with a set of Mishkan T’filah Visual T’filah slides from CCAR Press, which have all the prayers from the prayer book. I focus on the service as a whole and explore the feeling I want the day’s prayers to convey. What is going on in the world around us? What inspiration can I glean from the Torah portion? Should the service be upbeat and celebratory, or more contemplative and calming?  What do we, as a community, need this particular Shabbat? 

Next, I focus on one prayer at a time. What is this particular prayer saying to me today? I look through my collection of photographs and art to find the image that best portrays that feeling. I also search through my collection of music to find just the right melody to enhance the feeling of the prayer as it speaks to me. As I work on each prayer slide, finding the best way to arrange the text around the picture, the words of the prayer permeate my soul. I am praying as I create each slide. 

For example, the Mi Chamochah has many different melodies. Many of them are joyous. Others are more contemplative. The celebratory melodies reflect the excitement of the Israelites finally making it to the other shore and rejoicing in their newfound freedom. I see the more contemplative melodies reflecting amazement and awe. “Wow. Did we really make it? Are we really safe now?” I choose a particular melody based on the emotion the congregation might most benefit from that Shabbat. 

Then I attach a visual. I often use visuals containing water for Mi Chamochah. It doesn’t have to be the Red Sea; it can be a river or an ocean. The visual helps me—and the congregation—feel as if we were there with the Israelites on their journey. As I put each prayer slide together, playing the music to make sure it goes with the visual, I find myself praying the Mi Chamochah as I compose the slides. I feel completely immersed in the message of the prayer and experience connection to God through those words.

Some of the images I use are photos. Others are graphics. Sometimes I choose more abstract images to allow for each person’s imagination to explore the words of the reading or prayer.

Shabbat is about creation. In the Kiddush we read, Zikaron l’maaseih v’reishit —“A reminder of the work of Creation.” Made in the image of God, each Shabbat I create a prayer world, for myself, and for the congregation.


Rabbi Michele B. Medwin, DMin serves Temple Sholom in Monticello, New York. Her Mi Shebeirach Prayer for Chronic Illness appears in Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides, published by CCAR Press.

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.