Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary Book Review

Pirkei Avot stands out among the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah as a treatise devoted to ethical exhortation and guidance. Some scholars claim it was originally a manual directed at rabbi-judges. However, there is no question that its words have gained widespread popular currency. Traditional rabbinic commentaries testify to the central role this text has occupied for generations. Its aphorisms and insights are quoted in countless contemporary contexts and precincts (not to mention sung in Jewish summer camps!)

The CCAR Press now joins this august list of interpretations and provides novel wisdom on this classical text through the writing of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, in his Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary.

Rabbi Yanklowitz, ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is one of the most dynamic and charismatic Jewish social activists of his generation. He has become a powerful voice for social justice in our time and his commentary on Pirkei Avot is distinctive in its focus on this theme. Given the commitment of the Reform Movement to social justice, it is fitting that a commentary on this classical tractate be published under the aegis of the CCAR Press. In addition, the inclusive nature of the Reform Movement and the transdenominational reality of the American Jewish world is reflected in the Press’s decision to publish the thoughts of this open Orthodox rabbi on this unique text.

Rabbi Yanklowitz has drawn on a breathtaking number of sources and persons as well as his own personal experiences in composing his commentary. Commentators ancient and modern, men and women, Jew and gentile, as well as insights and anecdotes drawn from his own life and a variety of academic disciplines are all in conversation with one another in this pathbreaking commentary on this traditional text. Rabbi Yanklowitz describes his own aims here by citing the words of his “teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg,” who states that Pirkei Avot should “serve as an inspiration and a challenge to our generation to follow in the footsteps of the sages—to offer new wisdom, to uncover new revelation, to unite past, present, and future, and to help the Jewish people and all of humanity find their way through the next phase of the covenantal journey toward a perfected world” (pp. x–xi). Pirkei Avot, in the capable hands of Rabbi Yanklowitz, surely does this. Throughout, Rabbi Yanklowitz inspires.

Even more significantly, Rabbi Yanklowitz challenges his readers, as the title of his commentary suggests, to improve the world. He unflinchingly contends that these teachings of the ancient Sages clap “a moral yoke upon the Jewish people” (p. 11).

Rabbi Yanklowitz also does not shy away from dealing with difficult passages that are at odds with a modern sensibility. For example, 1:5, which states, “Anyone who talks excessively with a woman causes evil . . . ,” is surely problematic for anyone who possesses a contemporary notion of gender equality. Here Rabbi Yanklowitz contextualizes the passage historically and then insists, quoting both Judith Plaskow and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that we must move beyond the rigid and restricting gender roles imposed by an ancient social order. Instead, Judaism today “must be adamant about embracing feminism and women’s equality” (p. 19). Elsewhere, he writes that Judaism needs to foster “new models for peace, equity, and justice” (p. 30) and urges Jews and others to emulate “Hillel’s peacemaking and love sharing” (p. 41). On 1:14, “If I am not for myself,” Rabbi Yanklowitz acknowledges that it is challenging to find “the proper balance between religious self-preservation and self-sacrifice” (p. 44). Of course, this means that each of us must “embrace doubt and reflection.” Nevertheless, Rabbi Yanklowitz contends that “doubt and reflection” cannot allow humanity to surrender to “paralysis” (pp. 50ff.) and he points out over and over again throughout the pages of his commentary how the resources of Jewish tradition can provide guidance and direction for modern persons.

Such insights, buttressed by a wide variety of voices, fill the pages of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and make it well worth study and reflection. For all of us who will have the privilege to read his commentary, we can only thank Rabbi Yanklowitz for the inspiration and uplift his book brings. The CCAR Press is to be applauded for providing this work to the public. It should become a staple text in synagogue and home, in classrooms and in community.

This is an excerpt of a book review for Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary that appeared in the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Winter 2019.  Rabbi David Ellenson is chancellor emeritus and former president of HUC-JIR. He is also former director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and professor Emeritus of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University.

Books Death Healing

Where Grief Resides: New Arenas of Expression

When our Temple stood in Jerusalem and was destroyed, the community entered a period of collective grief. In response, the Rabbis began to create a Judaism that would be viable to any contemporary time. The curiosity and imagination of the collective Rabbinic mind took a leap of faith: to contain the caution and fear brought forth at the destruction of the Temple by forming a transportable Jewish life that could live beyond the venue of Jerusalem and move with the people, no matter where they lived. Out of the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis strived to scaffold a Judaism that through its text study, holiday observance, historical perspective, and guidance for living would create templates for daily life: how to eat, how to conduct business, how to build community, how to teach, how to treat others, how to die, how to mourn, how to stand in Awe.

Out of this context, the Rabbinic imagination crafted a spiritual stance that encompasses the human experience of grief. They declared all mourners be greeted: HaMakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sh’ar aveilei Tzion virushalayim, “May the God who comforted the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem comfort you now in your grief.” With this, the Rabbis encapsulated the core paradox of grief: grief is a universal human experience, and each of us experiences it unto ourselves. The Rabbinic mind teaches us that for each person, our own grief is as cataclysmic as the destruction of the Temple. Every person’s individual loss is linked by the historic arc to the communal loss of our Temple.

This declarative link of historic fact to the inevitable human experience we all come to know binds our communal experience to every individual soul. Its resonance of the inner life with the outer historic experience is a generational vibration across the millennia that catapults us into a future that will forever be linked one generation to the next across time and space. It takes imagination, leaps of faith, curiosity, and the containment of caution to move through one’s own grief. Mourning may lead to new ways of seeing, acting, choosing, living. Grief may affirm our faith, it may alter it, it may destroy it, it may leave it untouched. Grief rarely ends a conversation. Rather, grief affirms the thrill and the disappointment of relationship. Death may take a body, but it cannot take a relationship; fraught or healed, relationships often continue after death. We may see our dead, if only in our peripheral vision; we may hear them, if only in memory; we may smell their scent, recall their touch.

Since the destruction of the Temple, our tradition has met each moment by threading our history into the present so that we can wrap ourselves in a fabric that warms the soul. All theology strives to frame our human experience into ritual, prayer, and spiritual reflection. We will never tire of this poetry because it is the endless form with which we express our deepest yearnings. Spiritual reflection—in prayer or ritual—is the form that allows us to link our history to our personal story. This glimpse into moments of life that yearn to be significant, comforting, of solace and succor, follow a path toward wholeness. From the secular to the religious, our natural spiritual hunger seeks nourishment. It is a desire that rises with a demanding vulnerability from the throes of grief and looks all around—inside, outside, and above, for anchor, for firm footing, for the horizon.

[The] collection, Mishkan Aveilut: Where Grief Resides, is an effort to provide the spiritual sustenance we all crave in the midst of one of life’s greatest vulnerabilities. Whether grief comes because a loved one died or one is relieved they have left this earth, we are filled with a loss that demands attention. At any moment along the spiritual journey we can be filled with either surety or doubt. We may struggle with language, metaphor, and theology, or we may find them satisfying. Our hope is that the moment you enter into prayerful engagement here, the experience will bequeath you, across the millennia, your place within our people’s unbreakable relationship to God, Torah, and Israel. Vulnerability in any endeavor brings the soul’s yearnings into new arenas of expression. We hope that this healing book will help weave our human capacity for curiosity into our capacity for spiritual life.

Rabbi Eric Weiss is the CEO/President of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, and is the and the editor of both Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides  and Mishkan Aveilut: Where Grief Resides.


Dreaming a New American Economy

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, we invited Rabbi Andy Kahn to share an excerpt of the chapter that he wrote.

The central notion of the American Dream, that every person is equally capable of working towards a life of prosperity and happiness, may remain, but only as a dream. That ideal based itself upon the belief in an equal playing field[1] for all Americans. Through tax legislation, corporatization, dismantling of social safety net programs, and wealth channeling directly to the upper echelons of the economic elite, the nature of the system upon which the American Dream rested has been altered in such a way that this dream no longer corresponds to reality.[2] In the face of this situation, Judaism can provide us excellent examples of responses to similar dramatic change. We can, with the power of our visionary tradition, construct a new dream for the American future based in Jewish values.

As vessels of Torah, we can return to our dreams from the past as guides to help us forge a new way forward in America. Like the prophecies of Isaiah,[3] this new dream must aid all people in our country in finding their way to a better, more sustainable life. I suggest three sources of guidance: Cain and his descendants’ reaction to their world changing; the Israelites’ response to a new mode of collectivity in the desert; and the dreams of the future yet to come – that of the Messianic era.

Cain, when cast out of Eden and cursed to have his work on the land never yield fruit, was placed in a brand-new world. He, unlike Adam, was given no directive as to how he would survive – only that he wouldn’t be murdered himself. His response to this new reality? To construct the first city.

Cain having been notified that agriculture was no longer an option for him, went to work cultivating a collective that birthed new modes of production into the world. Rather than languishing in irrelevance, Cain and his offspring found new ways to contribute to society. From Cain and his children, we learn that we can view our own new, scary economic reality as an open canvas. We can choose the palette with which we paint. It is almost impossible to imagine our current society without the fundamental technologies attributed to Cain and his offspring – now, how innovative can we become to create equally new and groundbreaking ways of being and expressing humanity?

D’var acher – another example. The Israelites in the desert were emerging from generations of slavery in Egypt, and in need of a new way of organizing themselves. Just like Cain, Moses brought forth a new, this time God-ordained, technology – the Mishkan, an innovation meant to maintain connection between the People of Israel and God.[4] When Divinely directed to collect the resources for the Mishkan, the Israelites were specifically asked to do so with nedivut lev, the free will of their hearts.[5] In practice, this meant that people with particular skills or resources volunteered what was needed for the project.

This new social formulation gives us insight into our Scriptures’ view of human and communal nature. The Israelites’ went above and beyond of their own accord. In our day and age, this is a revolutionary outlook. It is often assumed that people are unlikely to contribute resources or energy to projects without extrinsic rewards or punishments. Due to this, the jobless or impoverished are often devalued to the point of being dehumanized (referred to as “drains on the system,” for instance), and individuals seek jobs, and in particular socially valued jobs, at any cost, whether or not they have a desire to perform the actual role. Humans, according to this piece of Torah, when in meaningful community and given a clear, direct need, will jump at the chance to contribute. This view is continued in the grand Torah of the future – the Messianic age.

For Rambam, the ultimate state of Messianic redemption is one in which people no longer have to compete for resources.[6] In essence, this means that all needs will be provided for, and the individual will be able to pursue one’s own knowledge of God. Perhaps we can tie this vision to the Mishkan, and the individual knowledge of God may be construed as the individual’s nedivut lev, one’s own free will to enact one’s own God-given abilities in pursuance of collective Good.

As the 1999 CCAR Pittsburgh Platform states, “Partners with God in tikkun olam, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age…We are obligated to pursue tzedek, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor…to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage.”[7]

These values central to the Reform movement commit us to pursuing a new Jewish dream for America’s future. We, the vessels of such a boldly hopeful Torah, can take the lead in realizing a new vision for the future of our beloved home in America. As we stride bravely into the uncharted territory of our country’s future, the guiding values of our Torah will provide us the dreams we need in order to to build a new, better future, free of bondage for all people.

[1] We must also recognize that this equal playing field never truly existed for all people and has always been particularly difficult to reach for people of color and women.
[2] Bartlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele, The Betrayal of the American Dream, Public Affairs; 1 edition (July 31, 2012), pp xvii-xx
[3] In particular, Isaiah 2:3.
[4] Exodus 25:8
[5] Exodus 35:5-29.
[6] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 12, trans. Reuven Brauner, 2012. [,]
[7] CCAR, A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, Pittsburgh, 1999,, Accessed June 26, 2018.

Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City. The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic is now available for pre-order.


Dividends of Meaning: Jewish Rituals for the Financial Lifecycle

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, we invited Rabbi Jen Gubitz to share an excerpt of the chapter that she wrote.

When Hyman retired from his job, he gathered with his community and rabbi to ritualize this major transition in his life. This Jewish ritual began as many do —his wife Ann placed a kippah on Hyman’s head, they lit candles, and blessed wine. Then Hyman put his briefcase down on the ground and asked aloud: “As I enter the years of retirement and aging: Will I be bored or stimulated? Will I feel useless or valuable? Will I be lonely or involved with others? Will I feel despair or hope?” “Only the years to come can answer those questions,” the rabbi responded, “but tonight we can do several things to help Hy through his transition.

  • First, we have brought seven gifts.
  • Second, we can follow the traditional Jewish custom of offering tzedakah in Hy’s honor. The money will be given to the Philadelphia Unemployment Project.
  • Third, we can scare away the demons as our ancestors did with the blast of the shofar.”

Upon the conclusion of a final shofar blast, Hyman was declared a Bar Yovel, a “Son of the Jubilee,” released from professional employment with the opportunity to move on to a new stage in life.[i]  To mark his new status, Hyman also took on an additional Hebrew name.

A donation dedicated to the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, a briefcase, candles, and the shofar: From the mundane to the holy, these are the ritual items used to mark a financial and life transition. This category of ritual does not celebrate the eight-day old baby, a child entering Jewish adulthood, or the beloveds under their wedding canopy, but the retiree, enhancing a significant moment of the secular financial life cycle. In addition to celebrating retirement, Jewish ritual and wisdom has the means to frame and celebrate seemingly amorphous and mundane financial moments, from opening a bank account to getting a first credit card, from purchasing and owning a car, to the first or the last mortgage payment on the place called home; from receiving a scholarship to remitting that final student loan payment to submitting a final tuition payment for a child’s education; from cutting up credit cards to tackling debt to earning money through labor and investments, and accruing money through saving; from retiring from a primary career to transitioning to a second or third.

However, a personal survey of literature and clergy’s stories among various faith traditions revealed surprisingly few rituals, prayers or poems to mark these significant moments in life. The distinct transitional moments of the financial life cycle clearly lie beyond the arc of the traditional framework of Jewish ritual and its marking of loving relationships, childbearing, welcoming, learning, illness, and loss. Judaism brims with ritual and recognition of the formal family life cycle, yet these days many of us live longer, causing the gap in time between classic Jewish life cycle events to increase dramatically.  Moreover, the only experiences in life we all have in common today are birth and death. Many of us do not even aspire or are able to reach or mark the traditionally ritualized moments of the Jewish life cycle that happen in between, causing a dearth of ritual in progressive Jewish life.

There is tremendous opportunity to broaden the scope of private and communal Jewish ritual to encompass moments of the life cycle in connection to money and finances. With sensitivity to the many in our midst who work endless hours and years without reaching the financial milestones that would relieve them of their crippling debt or acknowledge their life’s investment, this type of ritual innovation can have a transformative impact on the Jewish community, particularly on the demographics of people least attracted or immediately connected to Jewish living, such as millennials and baby boomers. Money and its impact on our lives is part of the reality of living in the world. We are not, yet, allowing Judaism to permeate this part of our lives, bridging the realities of secular living and Jewish practice. That said, over the last 20 years Jewish ritual has been the subject of many innovations, and some of our new rituals do attempt to make our financial life cycle part of our spiritual lives.

[i] This Ritual of Retirement was adapted from a “Life Cycle Passages” class at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1983. The ritual is published online at

Rabbi Jen Gubitz serves Temple Israel of Boston.  She is also a contributor to CCAR Press’s forthcoming book, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic


This Joyous Soul: Communicating with God

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, we invited Rabbi Sally J. Priesand to share an excerpt of the Foreword that she wrote.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, also known as the Kotzker Rebbe, is remembered for his profoundly wise sayings, often simple, always insightful. When asked where God is, he answered that God dwells wherever people let God in. Prayer is one of the ways in which we let God in, offering us the opportunity to open our hearts to God’s presence. Thus, prayer books exist to help us communicate with God.

Prayer books enable us to look within to those values that shape our lives, and they assist us in gathering strength and courage for the tasks that remain undone. In many ways, a siddur is a history book that reflects the story of those who create it and those who pray from it. Each generation adds its own piece to the puzzle that is Judaism. A prayer book reflects those beliefs that are important to its users and provides insight into how Jewish tradition evolves from generation to generation.

Our children and grandchildren would probably find it strange to pray from a siddur that did not mention our Matriarchs, that talked about Israel only with the wish that the sacrificial cult be restored, and that consistently referred to God as “He.” They are the product of their generation, and their response to a prayer book reflects the values with which they have grown up. A willingness to change makes possible the continuity of our tradition.

Alden Solovy is a worthy representative of our generation, for creating spiritually satisfying prayer. With This Joyous Soul, a companion volume to This Grateful Heart, he has artfully crafted once again a book of prayer that touches the soul in joyous ways. His ability to focus on the needs of the human heart makes prayer accessible to the individual and the community living in a contemporary world.

We begin our day by celebrating God as the Creator of life, a reminder that God creates through us and so makes us all creators too. Solovy has taken this God-given gift of creativity and developed it in such a way that our eyes are opened to new truths, our souls uplifted, and our spirits made tranquil. An extraordinarily gifted liturgist, he puts into perspective those things that matter most and challenges us to delve into the innermost recesses of our hearts, there to find God and understand that God cares who we are and how we act and what we do. Indeed, God depends on us, even as we depend on God.

This Joyous Soul was written to accompany Mishkan T’filah, with the hope that it would be placed in pew racks and used to enlarge the offerings found on the left-hand pages of the newest siddurim of the Reform Movement. That is good news, especially for those of us who attend synagogue services regularly and appreciate new material upon which to reflect. For those who do not attend quite as often, This Joyous

Soul invites you to consider the ways in which prayer can enrich your life. Either way, these prayers are appropriate for communal prayer and/or individual reflection.

Our teacher Dr. Jakob Petuchowski, z”l, used to say that one generation’s kavanah (intention) becomes the next generation’s keva (fixed prayer). In other words, the private prayers of one generation become the public prayers of the next. I am confident that Alden Solovy’s work will find a well-deserved place in whatever new prayer books are created by our generation, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Rabbi Sally J. Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion of Cincinnati in 1972, making her the first woman rabbi to be ordained by a rabbinical seminary.  She served first as assistant and then associate rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City before leading Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey from 1981 until her retirement in 2006.

Students from HUC-JIR recite Alden Solovy’s “On Making a Mistake,” one of the many readings included in the forthcoming publication This Joyous Soul, from CCAR Press.

Books Social Justice

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Learning How to Make a Difference

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, we invited Rabbi Karen R. Perolman, to share an excerpt of the chapter that she wrote.

What prevents us from directly and regularly engaging in social justice work? So many of us want to make a difference and help to repair what is broken in our world, and yet, it can often feel overwhelming. Instead of doing anything, we feel paralyzed; we sit at home reading articles or watching other people’s actions posted on social media. What can push us past thought toward action? In my experience and opinion, the tipping point for action is training. Social justice classes, seminars, groups—all the different intentional experiences that fall under the category of “trainings”—are essential to move us from the mere desire to act to actual action. Through these trainings, participants gain community, confidence, and concrete knowledge in order to act with purpose and presence.

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice — Now available for pre-order.

I recommend to every reader that they go and seek out a training opportunity in order to gain the concrete knowledge, help see themselves as part of a community, and gain the inner confidence needed to stand up to systemic oppression.


Trainings are the perfect environment to create organic community. Instead of forcing a group of people to come together, trainings attract like-minded individuals who are both open to and interested in learning. Since trainings are often held in university, religious, or communal spaces, they will appeal to those who are already active in their community. A social justice training also often appeals to those with a curious and interested mind-set. These may be individuals who not only want to participate in civil and communal life, but also are seeking relationships with others like them. These may be those who are already active in their individual faith or area community or who are likely to go beyond their safe and comfortable circles. One of the tremendous benefits of attending training is the interwoven circles of community to which each participant becomes immediately connected.

Through the single act of attending one training, one can become linked in what I think of as a shalshelet hatikkun, a chain of repair that has the power to right the wrongs of our world through thoughtful and direct action.


Confidence is often tied to our own sense of self, and often our lack of confidence is connected to our having experienced powerlessness. Trainings create the opportunity for dedicated, passionate individuals to work through their own experiences of oppression, inequality, or trauma so that they might find their own inner strength. In order to speak truth to power, it is essential for those in positions of leadership in community organizations to have insight and reflection regarding their own feelings of power and powerlessness. Through multi-day trainings, one can first work through one’s own personal experiences and then build the self-confidence that will be critical in the work of organizing and justice.

Concrete knowledge

More than ever, information on every subject is available almost immediately in the palms of our hands. Despite the relative ease by which we can access information on every facet of social justice, the dissemination of misinformation can be just as prevalent. In the age of googling experts, there is nothing that feels as authentic as going to an IRL training session with live professionals whose goal is not to pass on information about issues or policy, but to impart knowledge about how a group of dedicated individuals can effect constructive change.

In short, here are three reasons to attend a community organizing or social justice training:

  1. To learn firsthand from experts and seasoned organizers.
  2. To take the opportunity to rehearse, build confidence, and work through any personal baggage.
  3. To meet like-minded individuals and build community.

In the years since I attended that first IAF training, I have found myself in many similar rooms focused on training as passing on the knowledge born of experience.  Every time I walk out of those rooms—often at the end of a long day or days—I always have the same feelings: humility for all that I do not know, hunger to make a difference, and a sense of hurry to get to work. After all, the world isn’t going to fix itself.

Rabbi Karen R. Perolman serves Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, and is a contributor to CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, now available for pre-order. 


Books Passover Pesach Social Justice

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: The Obligations of Our Exodus

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, we’ve invited Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, co-editor of the book, to share an excerpt of the book on Passover. Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

A couple of months ago I was arrested in the grand rotunda of the Russell Building of the United States Senate. Nearly one hundred Jewish clergy and leaders joined in song and prayer, demanding that the United States Congress pass the DREAM Act, which would grant citizenship to the nearly eight hundred thousand Dreamers who came to the United States as children and are every bit American as my own daughters. As we sang “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” (“We will build this world with love”) over and over again, hundreds of Dreamers stood cheering us on from the balcony, ringing us like a human halo. In an intentionally ironic twist on the famous cry from Moses to Pharaoh, we chanted, “Let our people stay!”

When we were handcuffed, removed by the Capitol Police, and placed under arrest, we understood that we were following directly in the footsteps of our ancient Israelite ancestors. Ironically, our being put into fetters was inspired by the Hebrew slaves, who rose up from their slavery in Egypt and cast off the chains of Pharaoh’s bondage in their journey to redemption. As our hands were locked in cuffs and we were led away, we chanted the verse taken from the Song at the Sea “Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vah’yi li lishuah,” “God is my strength and might, and will be my salvation” (Exodus 15:2). There seemed no words more fitting than those our ancient Israelite ancestors sang as they passed through the parted seas of their redemption.

Even as we were led into police custody, our group understood that we were walking in the footsteps of countless generations of Jews before us, generations who internalized the Rabbinic mandate in the Passover Haggadah that “it is incumbent on every generation to see itself as if they themselves—every person—had personally escaped from Egypt” (Babylonian Talmud, P’sachim 116b). Our deeds of civil disobedience were an act of moral resistance to the injustices being perpetrated on the Dreamers, along with tens of millions of other immigrants and refugees. We acted on the spiritual authority inherited from recent leaders like Rabbis Richard Hirsch, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Maurice Eisendrath, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because they internalized the most often repeated commandment in all of Torah: “You shall love the stranger, because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). Jews have marched throughout history because the core narrative of our people, the defining master story of our tradition, is the archetypal tale of redemption. Our Exodus from Egypt is the story of the transformation of the world-as-it-is, in which “strangers” are continually crushed by oppression, into the world-as-it-should-be, one where all people know justice. The power of the Jewish master narrative lies in its inherent call to every generation to live empathy; because our ancestors were strangers, we—in this era, and in every era—are to love the stranger.

Jews not only retell the master story of redemption throughout our ritual and cultural life; we have relived it throughout history. Our history has served to reinforce the most central exhortation of our Exodus narrative: we are obligated to love the stranger as ourself.

Among the many gleanings of the Exodus narrative that ground Jewish life and values, three stand out as the sources of the spiritual authority demanding that Jews resist injustice and champion morality in every age (and regardless of the challenges we face). First, we learn not only that resistance is required by our faith and experience, but also that it is always possible. Second, we are reminded that our empathy extends beyond the “stranger” to all those who are vulnerable in our midst. Finally, we instill in our souls that the Exodus is not simply about freedom from bondage; our master story culminates with the agency to enter into a covenantal community in which all people are bound to one another.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner serves as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He has led the Religious Action Center since 2015. Rabbi Pesner also serves as Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine, he is an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.  Rabbi Pesner is the co-editor of CCAR Press’s  upcoming book, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, as well as a contributor to Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation.

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 


Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation

“Creation has us consider who we are at our most fundamental.” These words, in Rabbi Benjamin David’s introduction to his anthology, Seven Days, Many Voices, sets the stage for a book which is about fundamentals, but not at all fundamentalist.

As reflected in the title, this anthology sets out to include a variety of voices interpreting the seven days of creation, as recounted in the book of Genesis. Most, but not all, of these voices come from a Reform Jewish perspective; similarly, most, but not all, are written by clergy. There are a total of forty-two essays (perhaps a nod to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?), comprised of six essays in each of seven sections.

In keeping with David’s modern and liberal approach, the book is no enemy of science. In fact, it includes in its pages strong arguments for reading the seven days of creation, as recounted in Genesis, using a scientific lens. This is not revolutionary, but it is done here with depth. Consider, for instance, Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman’s essay on using scientific metaphors in theology, referring to the One God of the Shema as “Adonai the Singularity” (p.35), or Loui Dobin’s piece on the physics of Jewish time.

A number of essays in this anthology have stand-alone value. I was particularly struck by Rabbi Jill Maderer’s essay on the meaning of celebrating festivals at their designated times (rather than when it is convenient). Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb contributes a comprehensive article on the principle of bal tashchit (not wasting) – replete with “fanciful divine diary entries” giving insight into God’s reflections on the very busy third day of creation (p.114f); similarly, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz gives a Jewish perspective on the rights of animals. Cantor Ellen Dreskin adds an important perspective in her piece on music and time, which speaks of “the crumbs of the melodies of our lives” in a way that is evocative of a Yizkor reflection (p.181).

Two essays also stand out for their intellectual originality and sophistication. One is Rabbi Oren Hayon’s essay suggesting that creation is “the first phase of God’s project of establishing justice on earth” (p.4), in which he compares the wind over the waters in Genesis to God splitting the sea in Exodus. Another is Dr. Alyssa Gray’s argument that the Mishnah, like the biblical creation, is an acknowledgment of an existential rupture – but that, unlike in Genesis, the rabbinic re-creation after the destruction of the Temple is the product of human hands.

Most impressive is the overall range of perspectives. The section on the second day of creation, for example, contains a pilot’s perspective on the division between heaven and earth (Rabbi Aaron Panken); the metaphor of God as homemaker, constraining chaos with order (Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman); reflections on prayers in the swimming pool (Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon); meditations on star-gazing, in the desert and at summer camp (Rabbi Scott Nagel); an argument for water conservation (Rabbi Kevin Kleinman); and a description of the sacred potential of mikvah (Shaina Herring and Rabbi Sara Luria). Also notable is the range of essays on the seventh day of creation. As a congregational rabbi, I was especially moved by Rabbi Benjamin David’s piece on Shabbat and parenting, and Rabbi Richard Address’ reflections on Shabbat and aging. Rabbi Address’ question stays with the reader, interweaving the existence of the world with the existence of the self: “This is the great religious concern: How do I bring meaning to the time that I have?” (p.292).

There is some repetition between the essays, which is a challenge inherent in this kind of collection. Environmentalism, as one would expect, makes frequent appearances. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is cited numerous times, leaving Pope Francis as a distant (but still noteworthy) second. One wonders whether the authors could have reached for a greater theological range; it is perhaps surprising that Rabbi Eugene Borowitz’s covenant theology does not make more of an appearance (with the notable exception of Rabbi Jack Paskoff’s essay on the meta-ethics of Shabbat); feminist theologians are likewise lacking, though there is a good mix of genders among contributors.

I would have loved to have seen the inclusion of poetic interpretation – as we find in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary – to add an extra layer of meaning. However, the anthology as it stands provides a rich resource for individuals and study groups alike. Rabbi David speaks in his introduction of approaching his topic with great curiosity. Perhaps its greatest virtue is to leave the reader newly curious about one of our oldest stories.

Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D.Phil. serves Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal. 

Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation  is now available to order from CCAR Press.


How We Struggle to Translate the Hebrew of the Psalms

Songs Ascending may be the high point in Richard Levy’s career—a career filled with high points. Whether in his more Olympian organizational roles  (CCAR President), or on a lofty project like the Reform platform,  or the more intense restoration of a prayer, Richard Levy has been leading us for more than five decades.  Countless of his projects in Los Angeles lack his name and contain no reference to their provenance. There are Levy contributions in our prayerbooks where his identity is buried on some back page, and complete Machzorim and Siddurim with his name more boldly attached.  The sun never sets on Richard Levy’s projects; and now it has arisen on Songs Ascending—a new translation of the Book of Psalms.

But this is more than translation, as work with Psalms most often is.  We must be intrigued by the recent quantity of work on Psalms from people like Arnold and Deborah Band and Robert Alter, and the enduring work of folks like Marcia Falk, Sheldon Marder, and Lawrence Hoffman.  And then there are acts of public performance, as in Lincoln Center’s offerings of new musical settings for Psalms. Now, we also have Richard Levy’s meeting of spirit with literature, molded by enormous respect for language and inspired by his deep personal attachment to these ancient tropes.

Read these Psalms, he seems to be saying, for the expressions of how humans feel when confronting fright, or when imagining how another’s imagination has sought the divine (all right, that is shared by all editors and translators of Psalms).  But here is a guide (in the postscript of every chapter) for how YOU might use Psalms in your lives.  Understanding the core problem with gendered language in today’s day and age, Rabbi Levy has provided acceptable translations of problematic Hebrew words; and because he realizes that some are lulled into lack of attention by familiarity with passages that open our daily prayers or close our meals, he shocks us with imaginative translations of those familiar words.  Sometimes he abandons cohortatives like “let us…” and favors such common phrases as “Let’s… .”He has founded metaphors with which not all readers will agree, but which—we all must agree—make us think of what a Psalm line is getting at, and (perhaps most importantly) why this Psalm found its way into our liturgy. 

How we struggle to translate the Hebrew of the Psalms and sometimes even to care about them —even though they fill our liturgy, and occupy stage center when someone dies!  Many of us struggle simply to READ the Psalms, too identified with archaic pieties, holding back when we think of all the darkly dressed Jewish people getting through the turbulence of a flight across America.  Will reading t’hillim really help us get over the Rockies?  Or, if I read them with enough serenity, might they rock me to sleep?  There is more than meets the eye when our eye meets a reader immersed in these vivid lines.  It’s such a large collection of ancient poems, that most of us think only of its “greatest hits” – The Hallelujahs, the psalms of longing, the songs where a shelter is promised to the fragile, the cry of those who feel surrounded.  As with opera arias, we don’t need to struggle when the lyrics are familiar, but that familiarity often works against intensity.  And then those Psalms which many of us don’t think about at all, like the Asaph Psalms (#s 73ff) which elude us entirely.

Richard Levy struggled for us—reading and translating, and transmitting—with a boldness that belies his modest countenance, and a sureness that warns us not to be too casual in our familiarity.

Yes, he has in this volume made some bold choices—choices which might not please everyone.  In efforts to capture rhythm and alliterations, he has come up with clever collocations like: Chamber of Cheaters” when a roomful of scoffers is called for, and where “moshav letzim” approaches becoming a Yiddish witticism.  But even where Rabbi Levy is more imaginative than accurate, his similes and metaphors pressure us into asking “how is THIS like THAT?”  And, in almost every instance, he sheds new light—Levy light and ascending light on this ancient text.  A compliment is due, here, to David Stein, an extraordinary linguistic editor whose task it has been to pass Rabbi Levy’s imagination through a scholarly filter.

So let us examine one of his Songs of Ascent. Psalm 130 begins with the familiar phrase: “Out of the depths I called to Adonai, listen to my voice, (mimaamakim…) and may your ear incline towards the sound of my plea.” Different translators have found different renderings, and Oscar Wilde’s plea was Latinized into “de profundus.”  Richard Levy is not satisfied with what has become the most standard translation of the next line:  “listen to my voice.”  The opportunity exists to create a picture, so he seizes it, suggesting: “From places deepest down have I called you, Adonai./ Adonai, listen as my voice ascends.”   Rabbi Levy offers a note that explains his departure as an effort to help the reader-worshipper visualize the contrast between high and low:  “I am down in the depths, but I am sending my voice upward.”  Like it or not, you will know where Rabbi Levy stands, as my 20-something son said a generation ago.  And he will grant you the privilege of linguistic accuracy by sharing his thinking in the rich notes in these volumes.  Those notes, by the way, are a compass to any serious reader who wants to understand the difference between the various superscriptions: leDavid, Asaph, Korach(!) and more.

The most recent complete effort at translating the Psalms comes, as I hinted above, from another scholar whose work also has not primarily been related to biblical philology:  Robert Alter.  But Alter adheres more to the compass of the linguistic past—and not always to the benefit of the result.  I believe one line in Alter’s introduction to his brilliant work illuminates an important distinction between his work and Levy’s:  Many of the Psalms…derive some of their poetic force from the literary antecedents on which they draw (p. xv in the introduction to Alter’s translations).

For Richard Levy, and here I make no judgment, the force of the Psalms comes from their spiritual intentions; and he re-enforces this priority with rich commentary and postscripts that help the reader actually USE the Psalms in some meaningful way.

So different motives drive different renderings of this amazing collection of old words.  There are more than liturgical or devotional motives and drivers as well, as witness Debra Band’s (with her father in law, Arnold) remarkable aesthetic achievement, I Will Wake the Dawn. And sometimes one finds a  kind of utility for teaching, as in the simple elegance of expression and structural patterns to which Sheldon Marder exposes the residents of the San Francisco Home for the Aging.

And one area in which I was quite involved: the use of specific Psalms in our new Rabbis’ Manual—especially popular and well known Psalms like #23, in which a mourner seems to be sitting on the edge of her seat, waiting to hear the familiar words.   Try as one might to offer a new liturgical reading, a congregation of mourners might be inclined to “take it away” from any authoritarian translator. Richard Levy knows that his Psalms versions will serve another purpose, and he pursues that purpose with goodness, mercy, and determination.  Songs Ascending is an opportunity to take people inside into the depths towards the reaching, with pictures that make one feel almost as if he or she were lying in that grass:  “Adonai, my shepherd:  I lack for nothing.  In meadows thick with grass you lay me down, Across streams serene you guide me…Leading me serenely in well worn paths of justice… .”

Rabbi Levy points out, through his elegant rendering here, that there are paths we ought to walk in and that those paths have a similitude to the moral paths we should walk.  I will leave it to the reader to decide the proportion between the psalmist’s intention and Rabbi Levy’s promptings. Richard Levy’s “promptings” dot this work with tilei-t’hillim (mounds) of suggestive ideas and even an occasional challenge to our theologies.

The Psalms we sing at Seders, the morning hymns we chant when we pray, niggunim for our post-Shabbat meal table songs, are all enriched beyond their routine familiarity with the intense meanings that arise from modern poetic renderings that force us to hear the words.  Yehuda Amichai wrote whimsically that the Valley of the Shadow of Death is a good place from which to pray, and that is why, he continues poetically, we say:  “I cry out to god from the depths.”  Yes, the depths refer to my personal experience, but a topographical (metaphor?) metonymy won’t hurt!  Who thinks of the REAL meaning of these psalms without the help of the modern poet, the hospital chaplain, the artist, or the contemporary scientific scholar:  those who read Richard Levy’s versions will become well versed and have a shot at owning this amazing ancient material which calls out to us with headings reminding us that David played the harp, Korach was once a leader, that someone must have played a stringed instrument, and superscriptions reminding us of a relatively obscure ritual leader named “Asaph” whose name in Hebrew means “a gathering.”  Gathering, indeed!

Welcome to this new gathering of poems for a gathering of ancient people, who don’t gather often enough.

Rabbi William Cutter is Emeritus professor of Hebrew Literature and Human Relations at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles, where he taught for over 50 years. 

 Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms, A New Translation with Textual and Spiritual Commentary is now available for order from CCAR Press. 

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A Prayer of Gratitude from URJ Biennial 2017

Take a moment to be fully grateful for just one thing in your life. That little pause may be enough to change your outlook and your attitude for the day.

At the URJ Biennial, CCAR Press offered that opportunity with a set of stickers and a poster board featuring the book, This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day. Each of the stickers read ‘I’m grateful for…’ and folks who came by the booth could complete that line and add the sticker to the poster. Adults and kids, rabbis and cantors, educators, congregants, and lay leaders joined in. By the end of the convention, the board was covered with individual prayers of gratitude.

Gratitude for family and the Biennial appeared most often. One of my favorites came from a little girl who dictated her gratitude to her mother: “being fancy.” I got a chuckle reading “my puppy (woof).”

This is a prayer based on those stickers. I added the language in italics – as well as the punctuation and a few of my own gratitudes – and arranged the order. The words of the prayer are taken from the stickers written by Biennial attendees.

Biennial Sticker Prayer of Gratitude

We are grateful for so much,
All the gifts this world offers.
We celebrate:
The URJ, the CCAR and our congregations,
Biennial, the people, the music and the ruach,
The chance to learn and share,
Being a college ambassador
And singing in the Biennial choir.

I give thanks for:
My family,
My wonderful husband, my wonderful wife,
My children, my grandchildren,
My sons, my daughters,
Nephews and nieces,
Mom and dad,
Sisters and brothers,
My amazing boyfriend,
My fantastic girlfriend,
Thoughtful work friends,
My dog, my puppy (woof) and my cat,
My house, bed and toys,
Best friends and conversations,
Being who I am,
My camp, my nanny and my students,
Jewish music and my guitar,

We marvel at the gifts of:
Dreams, spirit and creativity,
Opportunities, expected and unexpected,
Personal passions,
Good health and sleep,
The ability to grateful,
The ability to forgive,
Second chances and
Guardian angels,
Good food and better company,
Water, hugs and coffee,
Doctors, medicines and helping hands,
Torah and Israel,
Books, puns, words and being fancy.

Today, Source of love and light,
We are grateful for
Every. Single. Thing.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. His teaching spans from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem to Limmud, UK, and synagogues throughout the U.S. Solovy is a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, published by CCAR Press in 2017.