shabbat Social Justice

Shabbat and Social Justice

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

God then surveyed all that [God] had made, and look—it was very good! (Genesis 1:31)

When we think of Shabbat, we think of the smell of challah baking, festive singing, time with family, delicious meals, and sweet wine. The Sabbath is a day of such joy, that as Rabbi Theodore Friedman has shown, the classical Rabbis understood it as a taste of olam haba, “the world-to-come”[1]—a messianic time of perfection in which “every man will sit under his vine and beneath his fig tree, and none will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

For this reason I would argue that ultimately Shabbat is a call to action. Though on the seventh day we experience the world as it should be, the other six days a week we inhabit the world as it is. The “real world” is broken. Therefore, while Shabbat is a day of rejoicing, it also has the power to agitate. Shabbat pushes us to see injustice in our world—to worry for those who cry out in hunger around us, to mourn the loss of our natural resources, and to rage against the forces of oppression and injustice that plague humanity.

Our rituals, observances, and celebrations of the seventh day all seek to fulfill the promise of Creation, to inspire our hope for redemption, and to depict a vision of tikkun olam, a world repaired. The Rabbis understood the connection between appreciating God’s Creation and the human responsibility for stewardship. They taught in the classical midrash: “When God created Adam, God led him around the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘Behold my works. See how wonderful and beautiful they are. All that I have created, for your sake did I create it. Now see to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.’”[2]

Just as Shabbat calls us to provide rest for the earth, it reminds us that rest for human beings is an imperative of social justice. Shabbat reminds us that we are children of God (created in God’s image), not instruments of Pharaoh or any other oppressor. The connection between Shabbat and freedom from the slavery of Egypt is first made in the Torah, Deuteronomy 5:13–15:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Eternal your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Eternal your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath Day.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of the Deuteronomy text is that every being enjoys the Sabbath, including animals and slaves. Since its very inception, Shabbat obligates the Children of Israel to treat all workers ethically and, even more radically, to see every human being (Jew and non-Jew alike) as deserving of freedom, equality, and justice.

Let us remember Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and described it as if “my legs were praying.” He famously wrote, “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”[3] On Shabbat, we taste perfection—and then we are called to action, responsible for the well-being of the earth itself and for all those who suffer amidst the brokenness of injustice.

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 also is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation!

[1] Theodore Friedman, “Shabbat as a Preview of the Perfected World,” Judaism 16, no. 4 (Fall 1967).

[2] Kohelet Rabbah 7:13.

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity:  Essays (New

York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 225.


Social Justice

One Road – Two Worlds: Modern Shavuot Story of Justice in the Fields

As we near Shavuot, our thoughts turn to the agricultural roots of our people.  For many, discussions of justice in the fields, fair treatment of farm workers, and standing up against slavery fail to resonate with our modern experience.  I felt the same until one Tuesday morning last December.

I live in Naples, Florida.  If I turn left out of my housing development, a ten minute drive brings me to the Gulf of Mexico.  On that day I drove out of my development and turned right, driving past the coffee shop, grocery store, and bank where I normally stopped.  Almost thirty miles later, that same road brought me to another world within the same county, the town of Immokalee.

This was my first trip to Immokalee, but I know it will not be my last.  My travels came as part of a group of rabbis participating with T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.  Since 2011, more than seventy Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox rabbis, from communities across the country, visited Immokalee with T’ruah to meet with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).  Affectionately called Tomato Rabbis (#TomatoRabbis on social media), these groups spend three days meeting farm workers, learning the history of the CIW, and bearing witness to the transformation that has led to fields of justice.

One’s heart breaks listening to the stories of the workers and the conditions that existed prior to the Fair Food Program (FFP).  Workers had no shade, no break times.  Wage theft was rampant as crew leaders doled out pay.  Sexual harassment was used to threaten and demean female laborers.  One worker was beaten for stopping to drink water, with the crew leader saying to the others, “Are you here to work or drink water?”

As if the conditions in the fields were not bad enough, many workers lived as modern day slaves.  Eight instances of modern day slavery were discovered, with the last occurring less than ten years ago!  Workers kept in trailers, hosed off at the end of each day, and then locked in to prevent their escape by night.  It was so unprecedented that the Justice Department did not know how to even handle the first cases that came forward.

There is a Haitian saying, “A bull would not let a child lead it if it knew its own strength.”  The workers began to realize that they had the strength to change their situation.  Lucas Benitez, one of the founders of the CIW, explained, “Immokalee was a desert of justice.  We searched for hope, and discovered the waters of justice.”  The effort began with actions to push the growers to improve conditions.  Later, the CIW realized that the chain really went beyond the growers up to the buyers – the corporations who purchased the tomatoes for restaurants, grocery stores and other food services.  Rather than being in conflict with the growers, they formed a partnership together.

Torah teaches in Deuteronomy, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” – “Justice, justice, shall you pursue!” Lipman Produce and Pacific Tomatoes, both started and owned by Jewish families, were the first two growers to participate in the Fair Food Program in order to protect workers’ rights, increase safety in the fields, and provide a better wage. These two growers, who joined in the fall of 2010 after a critical mass of corporate buyers had come on board, served as models.  Soon thereafter, the majority of Florida’s tomato growers joined in – representing 90% of all tomatoes grown in Florida.  Working in partnership, the Fair Food Standards Council was established, to protect the rights of workers, ensure compliance by the growers, as well as monitor the buyers.

Fourteen major corporations have joined this effort, including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Aramark, Compass, and more recently Ahold USA (Stop & Shop and Giant) and Walmart.  Each corporation commits to only sourcing Florida tomatoes from growers who are part of the Fair Food Program, paying a penny per pound premium for tomatoes that goes directly to the farm workers, and accepting responsibility for their role in the supply chain.  Conditions in the fields improved dramatically in recent years.  Participating growers provide shade stations, water, time-clocks for fair wage management, and education to identify and prevent sexual harassment. As evidence of the Fair Food Program’s success, incidents of violence toward workers in the fields have greatly decreased and workers now exercise the right to complain without fear – over 1100 complaints have been received and resolved since the FFP’s inception.

The New York Times recently identified the Florida Tomato industry as an exemplar in the field of agriculture.  Once called “ground zero” for modern-day slavery, the CIW and its partners transformed tomato farming into fields of justice.  Efforts continue to expand participating buyers and move into other fields of agriculture.  Campaigns exist to encourage Publix and Wendy’s, two corporations that have refused to meet with the CIW, and as a result still do not treat the farmworkers fairly and with respect.

One road links together two worlds.  On this holiday of Shavuot, let this story of justice in the fields serve as our reminder that while the world may have evolved, our work is far from done.  May each one of us find our road to justice – the path we need to follow as we pursue justice, support the right to human dignity, and act so that fairness, equality, safety and freedom are experienced by all.


Rabbi Adam Miller,  the senior rabbi of Temple Shalom of Naples, serves on the Commission for Social Action of the URJ and emphasizes building relationships with the community at large around issues of social justice, interfaith dialogue, Israel, and Jewish education.

Convention Israel

Balancing Self Preservation and Justice

I attended the Pre-Convention morning studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute with Yossi Klein Halevi on Tuesday.

The Jewish people read a lot of text. We do this to remember our history, to study our most important values, and because text both ancient and modern can help to reveal ourselves to ourselves. Tuesday morning Yossi Klein Halevi helped us explore the competing values of “Remember you were strangers ” which teaches us that we may not be brutal, and “Remember what Amalek did to you…,” which teaches us that we shouldn’t be naive.

On the surface it may not be clear how these values may compete, but when we read them with an eye towards the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians we begin to see how hard it may be to find a balance. We, the Jewish people must not behave in a brutal way. We must not oppress the stranger, we must love our neighbor as ourselves, and yet when we have a long and difficult relationship with our neighbor, with the people we share land with, how can we forget, how can we love when we understand that this relationship is not so easy. How can we both avoid naïveté and brutality with the neighbor and the history that we have.

Through chevruta and with the larger group we examined multiple texts with an eye toward finding a balance both between brutality and naïveté and between self-preservation and justice.

For me the stand out text was was a poem by Uri Zvi Greenberg, “Holy of Holies.” Written in the early 1950’s, this poem is a conversation between Uri and his mother who was killed in the Holocaust. In it she says to him, “And even when the Redeemer comes, and the nations shall beat their swords into/ pruning-hooks and throw their rifles into the fire–/ you will not, my son, you will not!/ …Lest the nations arise again and gather iron/ and rise against us again and we will not be prepared/ as we were not prepared until now!” He posits that the Holocaust or all of Jewish history teaches us that even after the messiah comes we can not lower our guard because the nations will always come for us. And so we will always wear our uniforms and carry our weapons or we risk history repeating once again.

And yet, we must love our neighbors as ourselves. We must love ourselves, we must love our neighbors and we must do these things in equal measure.

I do not know if balancing justice with self-preservation, or brutality with naivete, or even self love with neighbor love will bring the coming of the messiah or even just peace in the Middle East, but I  would like to see us continue in this struggle. It’s a good one.

Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker serves Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.

Social Justice

Digging Into the Second Justice: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

A Note to Rabbis About The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 

“Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 20:16) is the baseline of Jewish social justice work. It is our oft-repeated mantra that undergirds our fight for everything from trans-inclusion to gun violence prevention. And yet, how often do we dig into the second justice? When do we really consider what it means that our text tells us not “justice you shall pursue” but “justice, justice”? I believe that this second justice represents a second level of obligation, a level that speaks directly and inherently to our need as Jews to champion climate change.

In the pursuit of justice, we find ourselves “championing the poor and the needy” (Proverbs 31:9) on a micro-level. Justice-justice requires a more systemic approach, beyond giving to charity or advocating for policies to protect folks experiencing homelessness in our cities. The “poor and the needy” immediately require clothes and shelter, but their lives are also fundamentally shaped by global food and water scarcities due to rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns.

In Leviticus 19:34, we read that we should “welcome in the stranger.” Justice alone would have us allow entry of immigrants and refugees into our borders, while justice-justice requires us to look at the wars and famines that are causing people to flee their homes. In short, our Jewish obligation to pursue justice is more than case-by-case direct service work, but is a call to combat system structures of inequality, like the industrial greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global climate disruption.

Next month, I will be joining a delegation of young faith leaders to attend The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris, France. I am the manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and will be there representing the Jewish community. Our delegation, comprised of myself along with Muslim, Mennonite, and Zoroastrian lay leaders along with a Baptist preacher, mirrors the spirit of the UNFCCC.

The UNFCCC is perhaps the only governmental mechanism that has a real shot at addressing and combating a problem as large and inter-national as climate change. The conference lasts for two weeks and includes representatives from both developed and developing countries. The hope is that by the end of negotiations, there will emerge an international agreement on emissions reductions.

In the same way that the UN represents international collaboration, we aim to act as an interfaith group, learning from each other and bringing climate mitigation practices and our moral imperative to care for our planet and fellow human beings back to our respective faith communities. While there, we’ll join pop-up prayer vigils, the People’s Pilgrimage, and climate protests. We’ll also be speaking to Parisians and decision-makers who will gather at the conference to make some of the most important policy calls of our time in order to bring them the voice of faithful ethics that informs our climate change advocacy.

One of the most important things that the faith community and in particular our Jewish rabbinic leadership, can do ahead of this paradigm-shifting conference, is to show their support for a strong international agreement. Rabbis have the unique ability to pass on this connection between the issues happening in the world around us and our sacred text to your congregations. Reform Jewish leaders have a critical role to play in giving voice to our moral obligation to act on climate change, and to protect the poor and the needy, not only in the immediate ways in which we are well-versed, but also with our eye to a second “justice.”

You can sign the Paris pledge, asking our leaders to act on climate at the UNFCCC here.

For more resources and materials on Jewish environmentalism, you can also check out the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life website here.

Guest Blogger Liya Rechtman is the Manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL),  and a Policy Associate of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. She is also co-chair of the Washington Inter-religious Staff Council’s Energy and Environment Working Group. CCAR is a member of COEJL. 

omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

We All Count: To See Ourselves, We Should Also See Others

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

בכול דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים

“In each generation, a person is obligated to see things as if they themselves came out from Egypt.”

Looking through my father’s desk after he died, in the wallet that he had used in high school, in Baltimore in the 1950’s, I found two cards.  The first said something to the effect that “I am glad that your establishment chooses to serve people of all races, and I am proud to patronize it.”  The second basically said the opposite.  “I am sorry that your establishment does not choose to serve people of all races, and I will no longer chose to patronize it.”  I do not know that my father ever actually used these cards.  None of his friends remember this campaign.  I can only imagine the combination of courage, tact, and chutzpah it took to do so.  But before my father could have used such a card, he had to take a look around and notice the patrons of a particular store, or the signs that denied patronage.

In my middle school grade, there was one black child.  I noticed that he was black, but I did not consider what it might have meant for him to be the only black student in a white, suburban school.  My high school, on the other hand, was more diverse – I recall one of my teachers calling it a “ghetto school.” While the race of students in my health class matched the local demographics, there were no black students who were enrolled in all honors classes.  I didn’t recognize this until later.   To be honest, I might have noticed a large amount of African-Americans in a given situation; I didn’t noticed a demographically disproportionate small amount.

I have since learned that a vast amount of racial inequality happens under the radar of those who therefore reap, often unknowingly, the benefits of that injustice.  In learning about “the talk” that parents of African-American children need to give to their sons and daughters, I have discovered an entirely different view of our society.  Over the last several years, with a small group of individuals of different racial backgrounds, I have been engaged in deeply personal and open conversations about our experience of race and prejudice.  Educationally, socio-economically, and geographically, the leaders of this group (Social Justice Matters) are in the same location.  The world that we live in, however, is very different.  There has been much talk about what it means to “drive while black”, how the encounter of an African-American male with the police can be very different from that of a (seemingly) white or Asian male or female, even about being seen as an opportunity for a sale or a problem in a retail store.  What I have begun to see is the entire social construction that a black member of the group wears every day in order to live in a world where he must be ever-ready to explain himself, where any encounter can turn disastrous, and where he cannot even voice his frustration at the failure of another’s understanding or the non-existent pace of social change, lest he be branded an “angry black man”.

What does it mean for Jews to see ourselves as if we ourselves came out of Egypt?  Even if we cannot live inside someone else’s skin, how can we begin to understand another’s story?  How can we not only share that we are willing to try, but that we can begin to open our eyes to see the world differently – through the eyes of oppression?  After my father put those cards in his wallet, and before he handed them out, he had to take account of where he was, and who was around him.  Because, only once we have begun to see and take stock of and to number what is around us – to truly count, as we are called to through the omer – can we even ask the question what we can do to make change.

We all count is not just about who matters.  We must also actually count – who sits at the table with us; who can even enter the same doors; who is present and who is not.  Only then can we seek them out, and ask what it is we can do to help.  I have just begun to open my eyes.  This period of the Omer, I, and Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, invite you to open your eyes and take a count, as well.  Take the old story of the Exodus, and see through different eyes.  Look at the numbers that are people – in your communities and across the nation.  Only if we all count, can others count on us.


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

Rabbi Joel Abraham serves Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains, NJ

CCAR Convention Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

CCAR 2015: The Reverend’s Call to Justice

So, when I was asked to write a blog piece for this conference, I happily accepted. There are always things to write about after a couple of days, right? What I failed to account for is how busy I would be this time. I can’t remember a conference where I had so little down time. The sessions are coming rapid fire, and there hasn’t been a moment where I haven’t wanted or needed to be somewhere. I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone write!
So, in these few minutes in between the State of the CCAR address and dinner with friends, let me share one moment with you.
For the past two years, I’ve been involved with Rabbis Organizing Rabbis (ROR), but not as much as I should have been. The urgent has far too often gotten in the way of the important, and Justice hasn’t been at the forefront of my Rabbinate, as it should be.
But then, late in today’s (very well attended) meeting, Peter Berg got up to speak, and he referenced the amazing speech (sermon, really) we heard yesterday from Dr. Reverend William Barber. It was a firery, passionate call to justice. But, as Rabbi Berg pointed out, it didn’t really contain any new information. We all knew, more or less, about all of the issues he raised; we all know how terrible they are. What we forget is how deeply we have to care. And, as Rabbi Berg said, what we really forget is that this is why we became Rabbis in the first place. We didn’t become Rabbis to help kids with their Haftarah blessings (as important as that is), or to work with the House Committee (as important as that is). We became Rabbis to change the world. We became Rabbis to inspire people, to move people, to challenge people, and to help people. We became Rabbis to bring more justice into the world.
For me, it’s time to draw a line. It’s time to stop letting the urgent take center stage, and to start making time for what is truly important. And, for you? Will you commit to ROR, to do a little, or a lot? Will you commit in some other way to bringing more justice into the world? Will you commit, will you re-commit, to the vision and ideals which brought you here in the first place?
The good Reverend helped me to remember why I’m really here (with an assist from Rabbi Berg). Hopefully, he can inspire us all.
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Tampa, Florida.
CCAR Convention Ethics Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

CCAR 2015: Don’t Sit Back, Don’t Relax, Refuse to be at Ease

“Hoy hasha’ananim b’tzion, Woe to them that are at ease in Zion.” (Amos 6:1)
“Sit back, relax, and enjoy.”  I used to love those words.  The first time remember hearing them it was in this city of Philadelphia. I was about 8 years old, and I sat in the back row of the Forrest Theater, just a few blocks from where I write this entry in fact, as I saw Les Miserables.  I saw it 48 times that year, while my big brother Geoff played the role of Gavroche (Yes, I watched him fake-die on stage 48 times, and as a little brother that’s a big deal).  I also recall that year being my first serious confrontation with poverty.  I grew up comfortable in the suburbs, never once wondering where my next meal would come from, or where I could shower or sleep.  But every night that year, outside the Forrest Theater, I passed the same man, and every night he asked me for money.  I ignored him, and not because I had nothing to give him, but because that is what we were told to do.  “Sit back, relax, and enjoy.”
It’s only suitable that I’m back in the city where I first encountered- or, rather ignored- homelessness and now find profound resonance in the address that Rev. Dr. William Barber II delivered to the Central Conference of American Rabbis today.
You could call it a dose of prophetic caffeine.  He talked to us as a partner in God’s work of civic healing and a courageous champion of justice in the public square.  Rev. Barber reminded us to celebrate our tradition’s unwillingness to accept the world as it is and continually renew our obligation to wake up and pursue the world as it should be.  The words of Scripture rolled off his tongue, as he lifted up two texts from the Hebrew Prophets and one from his own tradition, from Jesus’ first sermon, in which he recognizes the Divine spirit is within him.
Rev. Barber addressed the very real and horrid living conditions of countless Americans in our communities: poor access to healthcare and education, unconscionable incarceration rates (particularly among African Americans and Latinos), hateful immigration policies, and continuous voter suppression in the South.  A quick glance at the reality of any one of these issues– or hearing just one of the millions of stories of suffering in our wealthy nation– is enough to make you instantly tearful, angry, or just plain hopelessness.
In my work at Temple Israel in Boston I spend hours each week organizing hand-in-hand with other communities around these issues.  Sharing and listening to stories is how we connect; it’s how we energize and animate our sense of responsibility for each other. As many storytellers say, “the shortest distance between two people is a story.” This winter in particular in Boston the suffering has been relentless– the perfect storm, in a sense: homelessness and food insecurity are on the rise, and we had our our worst winter weather ever.  So hearing a prophetic sermon is nothing new to my rabbinate, particularly in this season.  But listening to the words of Amos, “Woe to them that are at ease,” as I sat blocks away from the Forrest Theater where 28 years ago I myself would “sit back, relax, and enjoy,” forced me to recall that homeless stranger who sat outside in the cold.
My mind drifted back and forth between the imagery of streets of Philly in the ’80s and the resonant words of Rev. Barber until I heard him say: “prophetic hope can’t come until we touch the honest message of despair.” How do we “touch the honest message of despair”?
We American Jews are, as a group, among the most privileged in the United States.  Of course this doesn’t reflect everyone (and we always have to be careful in our assumptions), but it’s just a fact: we’ve never had it this good.  Arguably, we American Jews are as privileged, protected, and powerful as we have ever been at any moment in Jewish history.  So how do we touch the honest message of despair?
The Prophet Amos’ word for “one who is at ease”- Hasha’an– usually in the Bible connotes a perverse state of arrogance (especially throughout Isaiah).  Hasha’an is one who not only is comfortable but also apathetic to poverty, out-of-touch with the message of despair.
In the Torah the Israelites are cautioned repeatedly regarding the state of comfort.  Just a few weeks ago, on the Shabbat before Purim (the period of utmost “comfort,” in a way), we read a special passage from Deuteronomy that tells the Israelites that they must “remember what Amalek did to [them] while leaving Egypt,” attacking their stragglers, their most vulnerable….  Usually we focus on the remembrance aspect of the commandment, or the evil of the Amalekites, but perhaps we should be calling more attention to the timing of the commandment–when must the Israelites recall the period of their most extreme discomfort?  “V’haya b’haniach Adonai Elohecha mikol oyvecha misaviv, when the Eternal your God grants you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving to you.”  That is, when you’re comfortable, able to “sit back, relax, and enjoy.”
Similarly, it’s not accidental that the commandment to bless food– to cultivate an attitude of gratitude– comes directly after the commandment to fill your belly (“savata uveirachta— be sated, and then bless”).  There’s a danger in having a full stomach- one might become haughty, ungrateful, lazy.  Perhaps when we are too comfortable, we are vulnerable; vulnerable to the pernicious propensity “to sit back, relax, and enjoy” too much; vulnerable to forfeiting the inheritance of our prophetic literature; vulnerable to behaving less like our prophets and more like those whom our prophets derided.
Perhaps this is why Rev. Barber’s rhetoric was not merely rhetorical.  He actually came with more than a message– he came with an honest question to pose to the leaders of the Reform Jewish community.  He asked, “who will refuse to be at ease in Zion?”  Again and again, he asked us, “who will refuse to be at ease?”
Years after my 48 Les Miserables shows, when I was fifteen and in NFTY, I asked my then advisor Avram Mandel, “what do you do when someone asks you for money and you have nothing to give?”  I recall him replying, “I don’t know but I start by looking him in the eyes.”
If, as Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” then the question for us, for our communities, our congregations, our legislators, our families, our children is and will continue to be: who will refuse to be a passive audience?
Matthew Soffer is rabbi of Temple Israel of Boston, MA
News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Praying for Rain: Marriage Equality in North Carolina

As we move toward Sh’mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, we begin to pray for rain.  We change from morid hatal to mashiv haruach umorid hagashem.  So this is a good time to recall that other outpouring called for by the prophet Amos: v’yigal kamayim mishpat utz’dakah k’nachal eitan, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Just before Shabbat, justice and righteousness began to roll down in North Carolina.  Earlier this year, the CCAR and several of our North Carolina colleagues joined in a litigation to challenge Amendment One, the prohibition on same sex marriage in the state.  Several other colleagues wanted to join but could not do so for technical legal reasons.  The challenge had two elements.  First, it claimed that the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution barred a state law that prohibited same sex couples from marrying.  Second, it claimed that, even if that ban was otherwise constitutional, it ran afoul of the First Amendment, in that it threatened clergy who performed religious-only same sex marriages with civil penalties.

Last week, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that overturned Virginia’s ban on same sex marriage on Fourteenth Amendment grounds.  Because the Fourth Circuit also covers North Carolina, that meant that, as Daniel would have understood, the handwriting was on the wall.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn, who was hearing our case, ruled that Amendment One violated the Fourteenth Amendment and had to be struck down.  This meant that he never had to decide the First Amendment claim.  It also meant that starting Friday in some North Carolina counties, and Monday in others, registrars began to issue licenses for same sex couples to marry, and marriage ceremonies started to take place.  Yesterday, another federal judge in North Carolina came to the same conclusion in another case.  Marriage equality in North Carolina is now a reality.

TomAlpertI used to practice law and serve as the amicus brief coordinator for the CCAR.  This meant that I had the privilege of being involved in our decision to take part in this case.  When I read Judge Cogburn’s ruling, I felt pride that our CCAR leadership and our courageous rabbis helped bring about this change for the better.  The attorneys in this case donated their time, and I felt gratitude for them.  And as I read of couples finally being able to marry, I sensed the rush of righteousness all the way from North Carolina to my home in Massachusetts.  May we continue to be inundated with it as we pray for rain at this season.

Rabbi Thomas Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA. He was ordained from the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2000 after a previous career as a lawyer.

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Marriage Equality: The Long Parade of Our History

Last night, I went to see a high school production of The Laramie Project—the play that portrays the people of Laramie, Wyoming in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shephard, a gay college student.  A class of high school juniors and seniors at an exclusive, private school here in Chicago put on the production.  I went to support one of our synagogue’s high school students who played a few roles in the play. Fighting tears through much of the second act, I was heartened by the portrayal of brave priest who organized vigils and preached compassion and healing.

I find myself increasingly using every opportunity I have to carefully teach Biblical texts that have been used to perpetuate a close-mindedness that has too often led to violence and oppression of the spirit.  Midrashim (ancient and modern) abound illustrating creative and compassionate ways to interpret our Torah, while giving kavod to the text.   Owing much to brilliant colleagues and other thinkers including Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler and her son Rabbi Amitai Adler—to name a very few—I have found new ways to understand ancient texts, adding new blessings and rituals to fit current situations.

I love bringing these values home to my two sons Eli (6) and Ben (4).  In the fall, I took Eli and Ben to Springfield, Illinois for a rally and lobby day on Marriage Equality.  My sons already had experience with the Pride Parade literally strolling aside Temple Sholom’s float.  I thought this would be another fun, memorable, and meaningful experience—especially when we found out that my parents would meet us there.  The only problem… I didn’t read the weather report.  In Springfield, we stood outside in a downpour, barely shielded by the boys’ kid-size umbrellas.  Finally, we found some space underneath an overhang near the steps of the capitol building.  By this point, our oldest son was crying—loudly—“I want to go home!”  I bent down so that we could make eye-contact.  I said, “Look around.  Many of the people who are here did not have such an easy time growing up, falling in love and marrying the person whom they love.  When they see you, they have hope that the future might be different for your generation.”  Eli, who is an old soul, met my eyes and said, “I know, mommy.  I know.  But this is NOT FUN!”

So, the day was memorable and meaningful, but as Eli said, not fun.  Yet, it made an impact.  The next day, Eli shared his experience with classmates during circle time at Chicago Jewish Day School.  Ben, along with his friend who has two daddies, has become known in his Gan Shalom classroom as an “expert” on Marriage Equality.  When we heard the news that Marriage Equality passed the House in Illinois, we sat in the boys’ bedroom making celebratory phone calls to my parents and my grandmother.  It felt like we all could share some small part in this collective victory.  After the phone calls, when my husband arrived home, we all sang the Shehechiyanu thanking God for bringing us to this sacred time.

Toward the end of the Laramie Project, a character shares how moved he was during the first Homecoming Parade following Matthew Shephard’s attack.  He said:

As the parade came down the street … the number of people walking

for Matthew Shepard had grown 5 times. There were at least 500 people

marching for Matthew. 500 people. Can you imagine? The tag at the end

was larger than the entire parade. And people kept joining in.

I feel like I am joining in this long parade of our history—following those who have attempted to bring more compassion into this world.  For this, I am grateful.

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.

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Purim – Time for New Interpretation

I was teaching an Introduction to Judaism class this Tuesday night about (fittingly) Purim. I was in the midst of explaining to my class the mitzvah to drink until you don’t know the difference between blessing Mordecai and cursing Haman, and how it has been traditionally interpreted (get extremely drunk), when one of my students stopped me.

“What if,” she began, “What if we’re interpreting the commandment too literally. I mean, we’ve learned how many of the commandments have been analogized, or understood metaphorically,” she said, “but it sounds like this one is always taken literally, across Jewish communities.”

“Generally, yes.” I answered. “Purim is treated as an opportunity to drink heavily.”

“But what if,” she asked, “the commandment is not meant to be taken literally, not to mean that you should get really drunk, but perhaps, that you should use Purim as an opportunity to blur the distinction between good and bad people, to imagine that everyone, even our enemies, are good and evil, that people are complex, and that cursing people is a dirty business.”

There was a long silence. This was a brilliant and beautiful interpretation, but I wasn’t sure (in fact, I highly doubted) that it was what the Rabbis intended when they suggested the minhag. In fact, knowing what I do about Jewish history, and how Purim is, in many senses, a wish fulfilling fantasy of revenge on all those who have hurt Jews throughout the ages, I knew how unlikely it was.

But we live in a different world now. We live in a world where Jews wield power (political and otherwise), where we have our own state, and where humanist values have come to inform our understanding of what it means to be Liberal Jews. We live in a world where it is possible to find the wholesale slaughter of Jewish enemies (75,810 people!) at the end of the book of Esther morally troubling, and the cursing of Haman’s name discomfiting (however much he may deserve it). So what if we can use the commandment to blur the lines to teach complexity, nuance and that the notion that only in fairytales and Disney movies are people all good, or all evil. Too often we gloss over the slaughter of non-Jews that occurs at the end of Megillat Esther because it complicates the fairytale, because it’s too hard to explain to kids (let alone adults) the moral complexity of revenge fantasies.

For the past week, I have been reading Israeli journalist (and Haaretz columnist) Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land which has been hailed by everyone from Leon Wieseltier to Jeffrey Goldberg as exceptional. This is largely because of Shavit’s ability to hold and wrestle with multiple narratives about the founding of the State of Israel; the horrors of the Holocaust and the nightmare of the naqba, the miracle of Israel and the ongoing disaster of Palestinian displacement. What sets the book apart is its painful – and brilliant – ability to compassionately hold all of these narratives: the horrific losses of Iraqi Jewish olim, the unthinkable trauma of Holocaust survivors in the same period, and the nightmare for Palestinians who once inhabited the city of Lydda and were displaced by traumatized Jewish immigrants. These stories are told with grace, nuance and a heart big enough to hold –  and mourn – all of them. Purim gives us a similar opportunity; to know that in every victory there may also be great loss, and in every loss there may be a victory for our enemy, and that praying for tremendous suffering – for anyone – compromises us all. Purim is an opportunity to think deeply about these contradictions, and to acknowledge the pain, and nuance, contained in this realitiy.

So what did I tell my student? “That’s a beautiful interpretation.” I answered. “Really beautiful. But, I mean, given the historical context that the commandment comes out of, I’m not sure it’s accurate.”

“Maybe” she said, “It’s time for a new interpretation.”

Maybe it is.

Chag Purim Sameach.

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