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The Custom to Learn Pirkei Avot during the Omer

Rabbi Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice CommentaryIn this post, he reflects on the custom of studying Pirkei Avot during the Omer.

There is a traditional Jewish custom during the Omer—the seven-week period between the holiday of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons. Some have the custom of studying Pirkei Avot past Shavuot, all the way until Rosh HaShanah.[1] This custom first appears in the period of the Geonim, dating roughly between the sixth and eleventh centuries CE. The practice is opportune because there are enough chapters of Pirkei Avot (six) to study just one chapter each Shabbat of the Omer (also six) and complete the teachings. This custom is also quite fitting since the Omer is traditionally a time when we focus on the refinement of our character traits (middot), which is the primary ethical purpose of Pirkei Avot

The Sages of the Talmud knew that Shabbat days were longer in the summer months and therefore wanted to utilize that time for further Torah study.[2] While some Sages of the time suggested that we should avoid studying Torah on Shabbat afternoon in mourning for the death of Moses, who died on a Shabbat afternoon,[3] the Geonim, due to the length of summer Shabbat afternoons, overrode that prohibition.[4] A different suggestion[5] on the timing posits that we should study Torah on steamy Shabbat afternoons to wake ourselves up, both physically and spiritually. 

Another possibility for why we study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat might be that Pirkei Avot reminds us of the power of the oral tradition, which is how we learned to celebrate Shabbat. The Karaites, on the other hand, rejected the oral tradition and thus rejected Shabbat as developed in Rabbinic Judaism. Reinforcing the living, evolving Rabbinic tradition could best be achieved on Shabbat itself, a living manifestation of the nonliteral Rabbinic interpretive enterprise. 

Yet the idea of studying Pirkei Avot on Shabbat seems more practical. At Passover, we look out at the external world with messages of freedom and liberation, but then we transition back to the inner world with Shavuot and Rosh HaShanah focusing on introspection and reflection. Pirkei Avot does the opposite, focusing on society and fostering justice in the world but starting with our character and personal behavior. Shabbat afternoon, historically, presented the easiest opportunity to bring ethics to the masses, as it is a time to gather, pause, reflect on the past week, and recharge for the upcoming week. Just as we re-enter the toil of a week of hard work, we come together to reflect on our ethical lives. 

Many of the mishnayot, the early Rabbinic literature in the Talmud, deal with rituals, sacrifices, and points of nuanced theology. Pirkei Avot, however, is unique in that it draws upon the Jewish ethical tradition and expands these teachings in simple and clear ways. The Sages credited with the teachings emphasized how important it is to study continuously and to work to fulfill the lessons found within Pirkei Avot.[6]

It is remarkable that Pirkei Avot is free of discussions of religious procedures, as most Jewish texts from the era are primarily concerned with ritual and legal practices. The text’s objective is not to focus on studying religious rules. Instead, this is a work consisting purely of timeless life wisdom. Each of the Talmudic Sages had multiple points of wisdom to share, but only one or a handful of their teachings were recorded in Pirkei Avot. It is humbling to think that after a life of teaching profound wisdom, one’s existence may be remembered through only one sentence. 

Pirkei Avot Cover

Studying and writing my commentary on Pirkei Avot, which was published by CCAR Press in 2018, helped me realign my thoughts toward the relationship between humanity and the Divine as well as interpersonal relationships between individuals. I realized that internal character development is significantly more important to me than acquiring new things and skills, freeing me from the futile rat race of success in contemporary society. I wanted to be more reflective about my moral and spiritual choices and to strive to live wisely. I wanted to feel the burning challenge every day to strive for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. 

Pirkei Avot is the work that continues to keep me focused on this journey. I hope that my commentary inspires you to find that place within yourself to propel the world toward reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment. The ability to study the words of our sages during the Omer is a reminder that wisdom is ageless, applicable, and available to anyone who seeks it. It’s a beautiful flower that continues to bloom for the Jewish people and, indeed, all those in need of inspiration. 

Interested in counting the Omer? Omer: A Counting by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, published by CCAR Press, is available in print, ebook, as an app and in daily Omer cards.


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


[1] There are other customs as well. Rabbi David Golinkin records sixteen different customs on when to study Pirkei Avot throughout the year: https://schechter.edu/when-should-we-study-pirkei-avot-and-when-should-we-recite-barekhi-nafshi-and-shirei-hamaalot-on-shabbat-afternoon/

[2] BT Bava Kama 82a

[3] See the Zohar (Parashat T’rumah 548): “Moses passed from this world at the hour of Sabbath minchah prayers, which is a time of grace.” The Zohar says there that it was not only Moses but also Joseph and King David who died on Shabbat. It should be noted, however, that there is a dissenting view that Moshe did not die on Shabbat but on Friday afternoon. See, for example, the Tosafot on Tractate M’nachot 30a. Rabbenu Mordechai bar Hillel Ashkenazi also wrote in Sefer Mordekhai on Tractate P’sachim 37: “Moreover, as it is said in Sifre, on the day that Moses died he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Law, one for each of the tribes and one that was placed in the Ark; if it had been the Sabbath, how could he have written them?”

[4] T’shuvot Rav Sar Shalom Gaon #14; T’shuvot Rav Natronai Gaon OH #15; 46

[5] The Midrash Shmuel

[6] BT Bava Kama 30a

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News

How Should We Translate Pirkei Avot? Why Does It Matter?

A decade ago, Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss, now the Provost of HUC-JIR, taught me a new term: “gender-accurate translation.”

No, I was not new to ridding our liturgy and sacred texts of gender-based language. However, I had always thought of that process as changing the language of sacred texts, which would be more intrusive than correcting an error of the past.

Rabbi Weiss explained that our new Torah translations – in that case, in the Women’s Torah Commentary – would replace gendered language when the original text doesn’t specifically refer to a person or persons of one particular gender. God, for example, is explicitly without gender in our Jewish tradition; and yet, the inherently gendered Hebrew language refers to God exclusively as “He.”

Gender accuracy, done right, needn’t be noticeable, let alone jarring. None of our current CCAR prayer books refers to God with gendered language, and the English flows seamlessly.

At this season of sfirat ha-omer, counting the fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, from liberation to at Sinai, we read Pirkei Avot.

Many of us are familiar with Pirkei Avot, or at least some of its most famous aphorisms. For example: “Who is wise? Those who learn from everyone. Who is strong? Those who conquer their impulses. Who is rich? Those who are happy with their lot.”[i] Did you notice that this translation is gender-accurate? Other translations render: “Who is the wise one? He who learns from all men,”[ii] and so forth. Clearly, though, the lesson is valuable for everyone, regardless of gender, there’s no reason to believe that even the ancient rabbis intended their teaching to refer only to men.

In his new book on Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz writes that the title of the book “[l]iterally … means The Chapters of the Fathers[iii] The word avot may indeed mean “fathers.” However, the way a gendered language works, avot can also mean “ancestors.”

Rabbi Yanklowitz writes that we might understand the word even more broadly: “The Hebrew word avah (of which avot is plural) is found in Proverbs 1:30, meaning, ‘to lead through advice.’ Therefore, another way to understand the title of this work is The Chapters of Advice.”[iv] That latter title is descriptive of the book, chock full of Jewish wisdom but without halachah, which characterizes the larger work in which it’s found, the Mishnah.

I have often taught, surely not originally, that every translation is an interpretation. Since other options are available, those who translate the title “Ethics of the Fathers” are choosing to emphasize the gender of its authors. I typically refer to Pirkei Avot as “Ethics of the Sages.”

Why does it matter?

  1.  Honesty. All of Pirkei Avot is articulated in the names of rabbis – that is, men of a certain class and education. However, Pirkei Avot is likely replete with mansplaining, that is, women’s ideas repeated by and credited to men. No generation is without its wise women and men, but women of the Mishnaic period would not have been credited with their own ideas. Moreover, all the rabbis quoted in Pirkei Avot had mothers, and almost all had wives, who had doubtless imparted significant insight to them. We must shed any doubt that women’s words and ideas are included in Pirkei Avot. Therefore, the suggestion that the book includes only “Ethics of the Fathers” is simply false.
  2. Respect. In a patriarchal society, such as one that gives voice only to men, women are undervalued. While our own culture is blessedly less patriarchal as that of Second Century Palestine, we would be wrong to insist that patriarchal influence has disappeared. When we unnecessarily and inaccurately credit only men’s wisdom in the past, we imply that men are the exclusive source of insight, even today. When we translate, we should open up the possibility that a sage could be a person of any gender. Doing so, we indicate that every person’s wisdom is equally valuable.
  3. Inspiration. Women who are rabbis of my generation often speak of the first time they saw or even just heard about a female rabbi. Previously, they had never internalized the fact that they could become rabbis or religious authorities of any kind, even if they knew that regular ordination of women as rabbis had begun in 1972. While we cannot name women who were sages during the Mishnaic period, by translating Pirkei Avot as “Ethics of the Fathers,” we close the possibility that a woman could be a sage. Using an accurate English name of the book that isn’t gender-bound, young women and girls may see themselves as they should, fully included in the chain of Jewish tradition that stretches from Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Miriam to this very day.

When I was ordained, half of my classmates were women. However, at that time, only twenty-eight years ago this month, the HUC-JIR faculty did not include even one tenured professor who wasn’t male. This month, new rabbis are being ordained by a long-tenured rabbinic scholar who is the College’s Provost, and she’s a woman. For the next generation of rabbis – and, more broadly, of the Jewish people, increasingly even in some corners of the Orthodox world – the term “sage” may finally include women.

As we count the days from Egypt to Sinai, reading Pirkei Avot this year, let us assure that our language is honest, accurately reflecting the past rather than the way that the past presented itself. Let our words convey respect for every person, regardless of gender, as we continue to dismantle the patriarchy. And let us inspire every Jew, of every gender and of every coming generation, to lead us into a future filled with wisdom.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. 


[i] Avot 4.1.
[ii] Ibid., Sefaria translation.
[iii] Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, New York: CCAR Press, 2018, p. xi.
[iv] Ibid.

Categories
Rabbis Torah

To Count and to Contribute

With the winds of the Red Sea still blowing past us, we begin the process of counting.  For one moment each day, we stop the journey, and stand witness to the forward march of time and the aggregation of our days.  We number these days, one to forty-nine, and we mark them, unambiguously, with blessing.  Every day, every hour, every minute counts in the space between Passover and Shavuot.  Time is precious, and what we choose to do with our time, even more so.

This point is made ever so clear when I take note of you, my colleagues, and the outstanding things that you are doing every day, every hour, every minute.  Everywhere I look, I see you innovating and creating, offering of yourselves and your talents, doing meaningful work and making a significant impact—upon individuals, families and the community at large.   I see you in the news and online, on Facebook and face-to-face; creating new social justice agendas, pushing for positive change, initiating necessary conversations, and standing up for what you believe, no matter how popular or unpopular the cause.  You, all of you, are making a difference.

Every one of you is remarkable.  Every one of you is worthy of blessing.  Whether you are in the pulpit or in Hillel, whether you are a chaplain or an educator, whether you specialize in community organizing or conversion, counseling or computers; whether you are pastoring to a community of thousands or taking care of your children; whether you are full-time or part-time, half-time or three quarter time; whether you find yourself off the beaten path or on it; whether you make your mark through articles written, sermons delivered, lunches packed, or petitions signed; whether you call yourself senior or associate, assistant, educator, executive, CEO, COO, CTO, pastor, chaplain, artist, maven, activist, actor, mom, dad, brother, sister, or simply “rabbi,” you COUNT.  You MATTER.  You have something absolutely extraordinary to offer.

All of which leads to my impassioned pitch to you, my dear colleagues.  As the newest member volunteer for RavBlog, I, along with the esteemed staff at the CCAR, am looking to add your voice to our RavBlog rolls.  We want to hear from you and read your thoughts, we want to learn from you and be inspired by you.  We want to feel with you and commiserate with you.  We want to be challenged by you and be inspired by you.  We want to laugh with you and cry with you.  We want to cook with you and craft with you.  We want to highlight your victories and give voice to your struggles. We want to dream with you and vision with you.  We want to hear from you, period!

Whatever you want to say, however you want to say it, we want to hear it, and share it.   We want to spark conversations—online, offline, and everywhere in between.  We want to create a platform for discussion and debate and dialogue.  We want to shed light on all the incredible things you do each day.

And so, to that point, I am asking you to help us grow and deepen RavBlog.  Help us highlight more of you and more of your exceptional projects and initiatives and ideas.  Help us expand our reach, not only to rabbis who haven’t yet subscribed, but also to interested family members, friends, congregants and community members.

Think about contributing and urge your colleagues to do so as well.

One of my personal goals is to cast a wide net, and to connect with as many of you as I can, in service of making RavBlog more representative of our multi-faceted rabbinate.  But rather than wait for me to find you, I wholeheartedly invite you all to reach out to me!  By all means, message me on Facebook or email me at sarasapadin@gmail.com with ideas, pitches, thoughts, questions, concerns, comments, and the like!

As we count our days and watch them pass, we recognize that there is no time like the present—to make our voices heard, to share our stories, and to contribute to this vibrant community of ideas.  I’ll bet you’ve got a terrific blog post just waiting to be submitted to RavBlog today!  I’m so looking forward to hearing from you.

Rabbi Sara Sapadin resides in New York City.  She most recently served Temple Israel of the City of New York.  Sara now volunteers as the CCAR RavBlog Member Volunteer.  Interested in writing something for RavBlog?  Email Sara.

Categories
omer

Counting of the Omer

These days, with four small children in our house, I count a lot. I inventory lunches and shoes and loads of laundry. I track little back packs and waters bottles and ouchies. I measure fevers and hours of screen time and outside play. I tally toys and turns and the children themselves every few minutes. Every day fills itself with small, sometimes forgotten numbers.

When each of my children were born, we counted their lives according to hours, or feedings, or dirty diapers. As they aged, the measuring stick dilated into weeks or months, but never much longer than that. Ella, my first child, was only sixteen months when Aidan was born; and the twins, Daniel and David, followed just twenty four months and one week later. Now, for more than half a decade – since my pregnancy with Ella – I counted our lives in days, sometimes in weeks, and occasionally, in months. But the twins marked the last pregnancy my body can healthily carry. As they age, the measuring stick lengthens and stretches with their no-longer-so-little bodies. And steadily, my subconscious practice of counting the time since their birth in days, then weeks, then months faded into the the bittersweet ease of measuring their lives in years.

The practice of the counting of the Omer reminds us of each day’s preciousness. Some days are more exciting than others (I’m looking at you, Lag B’Omer) but every day merits a blessing. Marking and measuring the small things, the circadian passage of time, is what makes up the majority of our lives. Bigger milestones come and go, and I am grateful for them. But the counting of the Omer reminds me again of the joys of measuring our time in smaller increments.

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., lived in Tel Aviv, Israel until recently, and now resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.

Categories
omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

We All Count: Shavuot

This blog is the eighth 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. 

Each day of intentional counting through the period of the Omer, as the attributes of mercy, spiritual strength, beauty, truth, compassion and justice shape us, we are brought to the night of Shavuot when, through our learning together as community, we glimpse the way the world can be.  From Passover to Shavuot the bread with no ego of Matzah and the simple barley of the Omer prepare us for the Challah; the symbol of being able to taste the sweetness of freedom without having our freedom and our privilege dependent on the oppression of others.  We pray that we will be able to enjoy the puffed up Challah without becoming so full of ourselves that we forget the lessons of our journey and that we will always remember never to do to others what was done to us.

Shavuot  is the climax of our story as Jews, to accept a Torah, a guide for living, that creates a world where all can flourish.  The Talmud dares us to fiercely defend the rights of all humanity to have infinite worth, to have a level playing field, and to be able to be creative and unique.  This is a radical vision in a world of have and have-nots, of the rich getting richer on the backs of the poor and by destroying the environment, of state sponsored laws and cultures that dehumanize and even brutalize other human beings.  Today there would be signs on the mountaintop that proclaim that black and brown lives matter, that Palestinian lives matter, that Jewish lives matter.  Signs that lift up the voices of those who are marginalized, who cannot find a place to be free from prejudice, who suffer the oppression of being judged by the hue of skin color instead of who they are.  Signs that affirm that these lives matter as much as all other lives.

Based on the models of truth and reconciliation sessions that have been used in South Africa, Rwanda, and in Greensboro we launched our first of ten sessions in St Louis this week.  As I listened to the black and brown truth tellers speak across lines of age, gender and class to the panel that practiced radical listening without defense and with open hearts, I heard a common agonizing thread.  Each person spoke from a strong place of self.  I could hear them saying, “I may be different from you but I am a whole human being of infinite worth, why don’t you see me and treat me as such?” They also said, “I do not want your pity or your sympathy but you must reach within to find a place of empathy.”

I thought about an article by the feminist lesbian woman of color Audre Lorde, in which she says that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.   Lorde wisely teaches us that “those who have been forged in the crucibles of difference,” must learn to take difference and make it a strength outside the structures of oppression and build a new world where we can all be valued.  I also heard the truth tellers (and Lorde) say that it is not their job to educate the oppressors.  It is an old tool of oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.  “Tell us what you want?”  is a diversion from the source of the problem that lives within the souls of those who do not see themselves as a part of the suffering of people of color in this culture that has been shaped by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws, old and new.  We are all a part of the problem and the Torah teaches us how to be a part of the solution.

The blacklivesmatter movement is challenging us to change the systems of policing and mass incarceration that threaten those lives daily.  Our demands are for basic the human dignities that come with access to health care, a living wage and a government that serves all the people.  The Torah teaches us that when we are more upset about the destruction of property than we are about the loss of these lives we are committing the sin of idolatry.  Make the counting we have done each day to arrive at this holy time of learning on Shavuot open the heart of the world to the healing necessary to count each and every life and make sure that every life counts.

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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 Susan Talve is the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, MO. Central Reform Congregation recently was the recipient of the Fain Award for their work on Ferguson Activism. 

 

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omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis

We All Count: Counting the Days Until All Lives Matter

This blog is the seventh and final 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. 

Three years ago, when ALEC* rolled out model, corporate-designed, legislation in State Legislatures across the country, they targeted North Carolina as their test State for the most comprehensive of their initiatives. Within a few months the North Carolina legislature stripped State support programs in health care, education, aid to the poor, voter rights and more. Living in North Carolina’s capital I had been called in the past to lobby for one social justice cause or another. Early in 2012, those calls multiplied exponentially. Everyday brought a new crisis: State mental health beds drastically cut; teachers fleeing public schools; 500,000 left off of Medicaid roles… The deleterious legislation pulled at my heart; how could I sit idly by watching my State swallowed in this vortex of callous, corporate-funded, self-righteousness?

In short order, I realized that if I continued to answer the multiple calls for justice I would lose myself. There was no way any one citizen could speak to each of these critical issues. That’s when I heard of Rev. Dr. William Barber’s answer to the assault on North Carolina, as he was gearing up for the first year of Moral Monday Demonstrations. Barber, a minister and the president of the North Carolina NAACP, had been paving the road to advocacy for “the poor, the orphan, and the widow” for years and was primed to move for our State.

Barber fluently communicates with the wisdom and tenacity of the prophets; and he opens the podium, inviting young and old to speak truth to power. Barber’s leadership has garnered tens of thousands from all economic and social backgrounds to protect basic rights of jobs, health, education, and voting.

It quickly became apparent that working with Dr. Barber was the path to maintain my integrity against the assault on my State. I became a regular at Moral Monday meetings, sometimes marching, sometimes speaking, knocking on legislators’ doors and asking for comprehensive response so that the rights of children, the poor, and the sick, would not be sacrificed for the bottom line of the top earners.

Though much of the legislation being enacted disproportionately affects people of color, the NAACP and Reverend Barber made it clear from the start that the Movement is not about one race, party, religion, or gender. Rather, it is about humanity and the precious soul in every living being. Rev. Barber embraces leaders from religious groups ranging from Christian, to Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, and beyond. He invites professors from universities and single mothers who never had the opportunity to finish high school to the dais. All of us teaching from the depth of our personal backgrounds bring the core of our faith, intellect, and experience. This diversity of perspectives comes together to offer one united message: “We all count.”

Over the years of my rabbinate I have become versed in speaking before sanctuaries of worshipers, halls filled with students, convocations of legislators, and meetings with leaders. None of that quite prepared me for the impact of speaking before and with thousands of impassioned demonstrators, flowing to the music and to the cause, rallying for action. There you feel the pulse beating through the chants of the crowd, answering the call as you speak, and committing to bring that shared vision to reality. In the eyes of one, you see reflected the craving of the thousands. In that moment you know that the power of humanity, the glory of humanity, the blessing of humanity, will rise again and again over the forces that oppress. And therein lays hope and promise.

As we near the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer, and as we begin the reading of the Book of Numbers, the message of the Moral Movement shouts out of the prescience of this convergence. We count the Omer to remind us not to take our harvest for granted, to remind us that our bounty is not our bounty; but, rather, a gift that God brings forth from the earth. When we count the Israelites, in this first parasha of the book of Numbers, we do not count souls or heads. We count ½ shekels, one per person. In that way the rich and the poor are equal; the wood cutter and the CEO have the same value; no life is valued as greater than another. Thus it becomes apparent that the regard we afford the least among us reflects the greatest regard we have for human life. Each life matters. WE ALL COUNT.

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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 Lucy Dinner serves Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

barber1 - Copy   barber2 - Copy   barber3

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omer Rabbis Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

We All Count: Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, in Baltimore and Beyond

This blog is the sixth 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. 

The wisdom of Torah is applicable in all times and places. Especially during these tense days in the life of Baltimore, the city where I live and serve as a rabbi, the lessons of Torah help us understand what we must do.

The Shabbat before last, we read Parashah Kedoshim in the Book of Leviticus, the physical and theological center of the Torah. The Book of Leviticus, a document written primarily for priestly consumption, is concerned with distinctions. God likes orderliness. God does not want us to wear clothing of mixed fabric, to plow a field using diverse animals, or sow a field with mixed seed. God tells the priests to distinguish between the pure and impure, the priests and lay persons, the holy and ordinary, Israel and the nations. Yet, in the midst of these laws demanding distinction, we read Leviticus 19, the zenith of which is the verse “V’ahavta l’re’acha ka’mocha,” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” God commands us to love not only our fellow Jews but all human beings.

The rabbis acknowledge that it is difficult to understand this law. When asked to summarize the entire Torah, Rabbi Hillel said, “What is distasteful to you, do not do to another person. The rest is commentary; now go and study.”

I interpret this admonition in a positive sense: “Want for your neighbor what you want for yourself.” That seems to be easier to understand and simpler to achieve. We all want safety, security, good health, decent housing, and productive and meaningful work. We want our children to have a good education and a chance to reach their potential. We want to live in a community that helps us achieve these reasonable goals.

It has been a very dark two weeks in the life of our city. Baltimore has been roiling from violence and injustice. Freddie Gray, who was apparently healthy when arrested by Baltimore police, suffered mortal injuries during arrest and transport to the Western District Police Station. Legitimate peaceful protests demanding justice morphed last Monday to illegitimate and egregious violence. Youthful rioters set fires to buildings and destroyed businesses in their own community. Police were injured, and the National Guard was called in to restore order. A curfew was imposed. Business is suffering, and ordinary life has been curtailed.

Three weeks ago, I attended an emergency BUILD clergy meeting at a church in West Baltimore. We asked the residents of Sandtown what they wanted. We heard from them that they want the same things we want for ourselves and our children. The residents of Sandtown told us they want more police on the streets to drive away the drug dealers in the neighborhood. They want a relationship with the leadership of the Western District but have repeatedly been put off by “acting” majors, for there has not been a permanent commander in the Western District for the last two years. The police leadership, including Commissioner Anthony Batts, have refused to meet with them. I ask: How can we know what our neighbors want when we will not meet with them and listen to their concerns?

On Wednesday, I attended a BUILD action at City Hall. More than 150 of us went to the Board of Estimate to request that the president of the city council and police commissioner meet with the residents of Sandtown (the mayor, who has not met with neighborhood residents, will not meet with BUILD, the only multi-religious, multi-racial community organization in our city). Council President Jack Young, who knew in advance we were coming and what we were requesting, reluctantly agreed to meet with us. We then marched to police headquarters, where we were able to schedule a meeting with Commissioner Batts for this week.

All of life is about relationships. We cannot love our neighbors unless we listen to them. What do they want? What do they need? If we want to fulfill the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” then we must enter into relationship with our neighbors.

We call upon the political leadership of our city and state to meet with West Side residents and truly listen to them. There are endemic issues on the West Side and in other neighborhoods in Baltimore that have existed for generations and have only compounded in the last 30 years with the epidemic of drugs and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

As Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirkei Avot (2:16), “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it entirely…” The task of listening and learning to love can never be completed. It is, however, our sacred obligation to begin.

 

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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 Steven Fink serves Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, MD

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Chanukah Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

We All Count: Chanukah, Alabama, and Inequality

This blog is the fifth 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. 

There is a meditation in Mishkan T’fillah that was carried over from Gates of Prayer: “Prayer invites God’s presence to suffuse our spirits, God’s will to prevail in our lives.  Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city.  But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will.”  This meditation was penned by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was personally invited by Dr. Martin Luther King to help lead the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965.  When he returned from that march, Rabbi Heschel wrote, “I felt as if my legs were praying.”

Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King are long gone, but I felt their presence and those of everyone who marched from Selma half a century ago: those who marched and were beaten and clubbed in “Bloody Sunday,” those who tried to march and stopped to pray, and those who finally succeeded in marching to Montgomery, where they heard Dr. King tell us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I felt their presence and even heard from some of them when I traveled to Selma in March for the commemoration of the marches.

Rabbi Fred Guttman of North Carolina organized a Jewish contingent to participate in the event.  We met at Temple Mishkan Israel, the beautiful (Reform) synagogue of Selma’s now tiny Jewish community.  In addition to Jews, those present included members of the African American community, and among them was a contingent from the North Carolina NAACP.  I made friends with a future divinity student in that group.  We were challenged by Dr. William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP, who reminded us that “moral dissent can never take a vacation.”

We heard from David Goodman, whose brother Andrew was lynched along with Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Mississippi during the Movement.  We heard from Dr. Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Heschel, about the challenges her father set forth for us.  We joined in as Peter Yarrow sang “Blowin’ in the Wind,” just as he had done in Selma 50 years ago.  And we heard Clarence Young, one of Dr. King’s chief advisors, tell us that “the true story of Selma is the story of the participation of the Jewish people and Jewish leadership.

And we saw a beautiful African American woman, short in stature but proud in bearing, who faced the weapons and the hatred 50 years ago.

Then we left, and with tens of thousands of others, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  It was celebratory, and it was emotional, but it was much more than that.

Our gathering in that synagogue was a form of prayer.  It served to rebuild a weakened will.  Much has gone wrong in our country when it comes to creating a unified society.  The Supreme Court has gutted the very voting rights protections that the Selma march was designed to guarantee.  Since then, states have engaged in campaigns of voter suppression.  Economic inequality continues to grow, and racist actions, some trivial, many not, continue to show up on our television and computer screens.  It is tempting to throw up our hands and let the world go on its way.

But Selma is always there to remind us that despair is not the way.  Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel first met in 1963 at a conference on religion and race.  In his keynote address, Rabbi Heschel said,

“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.  Moses’s words were, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go….’  The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end.  Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate.  The exodus began, but it is far from having been completed.”

As we move away from Passover, we must recall that we are the descendants of those who challenged Pharaoh.  We are the people who crossed the sea to freedom.  We have to keep crossing it, and bring all those in search of freedom with us.

And this brings me from Passover to Chanukah.  The word means “dedication,” and the holiday celebrates our rededicating the Temple after the forces of oppression had vandalized it.  What I learned in Selma is that we have to rededicate ourselves every day to making this world – God’s temple – into a holy place.  We need to repair the damage that has been done.  That is the true meaning of tikkun olam.  And that is the meaning of Selma.

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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 Tom Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim.

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omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

We All Count: Counting the Days toward Equality

This blog is the fourth 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. 

As we count the Omer this year in anticipation of receiving Torah, I am also counting the days in anticipation of a Supreme Court hearing on Marriage Equality to take place on April 28, 2015 and then sometime in June when the Supreme Court will likely rule on whether or not there is a right to marry in many of the states that have objected such as Alabama, Michigan, Tennessee and others.  As a long time Marriage Equality advocate I remember the happy summer of love in 2008 in California when I officiated at over 60 Jewish weddings between June 16, 2008 including the first legal wedding between plaintiffs in our California case, Robin Tyler and Diane Olsen.   But on November 4, 2008 it was over as a majority of Californians had gone to the polls to elect Barack Obama on the one hand but pass the notorious Proposition 8 which took away the equal right to marry from Californians.  As I stood on a stage in Hollywood that night at an election rally bubbling from Obama’s big California win, I had to comfort a community that had been sucker punched by an unholy alliance between the Catholic Bishops and Mormon Bishops in Utah and California.  More than 40 million dollars had been spent to demonize LGBTQ people and their families once again. It was the most expensive proposition race ever.

The next days and weeks were spent at rallies and protest marches.  I worked vigorously both in front and behind the scenes.  On the night after the election during a big rally in the city where I serve as rabbi, we began passing buckets to raise money to take this back to the courts. My congregation turned out in droves as did many in the Reform Jewish community who were stunned by the results.  I climbed on to the back of a truck that led the protesters through West Hollywood and back down Sunset Blvd. as my fellow activists and I took turns at the bullhorn.

The next night of protests one of the gay community leaders suggested a march on the Mormon Temple the next day.  I knew this would be bad from the start. As she led the marchers the next day down Santa Monica Blvd from West Hollywood to Los Angeles’ Mormon Temple you could feel the tension in the crowd and in the LAPD.  Traffic was completely snarled during rush hour-never a good thing in Los Angeles and those caught in the standstill were angry that they couldn’t get where they were going. That’s when scuffles began between drivers who got out of their cars and protesters.  More than one bloody fight took place. As the marchers turned toward the Mormon temple, my good friend and interfaith partner, Rev. Neil Thomas and I ended up guarding the Mormon Stake behind their Temple. The protesters were beginning to rush the doors.  It was Rev. Thomas and I that stood between the protesters and the Mormons. Luckily the protestors listened to us, kept to the sidewalk, remained calm and kept moving.

There are so many more stories to tell of that time.  But now this many years later I give thanks that marriage equality is legal in more than 33 states.  And so I am counting down the days-not only to receiving Torah at Sinai once again but toward Tuesday, April 28 when the case for marriage equality heads back to the Supreme Court.  Hopefully, it will be a positive resolution nationwide where marriage equality will be the law of the land everywhere.

The work of justice will not be done though. As long as you can still be fired for being married to someone of the same gender, as long as there are no protections in housing or education for LGBTQ individuals the work of equality and justice is not done.  And so I will still be counting in anticipation of that day and counting on all of you to help make that a reality.

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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 Denise L. Eger is the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

We All Count: Stacked Against The Underdog

This blog is the first 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. 

In Philadelphia, the Rev. William Barber and the Hon. Robert Reich, along with so many colleagues, inspired us to think about justice. We were challenged to consider: what roles might we play in breaking down structural inequality? What roles do we play, however unwittingly or unwillingly, in maintaining an increasingly unfair system? In what ways are we responsible for the fact that, in 2015 America, certain lives matter more?

This conversation coincided with the release of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. In his new book, Putnam explores growing inequality in America, considering both its causes and effects. Much was written about the book in the days leading into our convention. I haven’t read it yet, but I find myself agitated by Jill Lepore’s lengthy review essay in the New Yorker, and columns by David Brooks and Ross Douthat in the New York Times.

These lines, from Lepore’s assessment of Our Kids, are at the heart of my discomfort:

“Our Kids”…has a sad helplessness. Putnam tells a story teeming with characters and full of misery but without a single villain. This is deliberate. “This is a book without upper-class villains,” he insists in the book’s final chapter. In January, Putnam tweeted, “My new book ‘Our Kids’ shows a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids. We’ll work with all sides on solutions.” It’s easier to work with all sides if no side is to blame.

By not taking sides, Putnam leaves room for Brooks and Douthat to assert that the erosion of character and morality are at the heart of America’s growing inequality. Brooks takes the softer tone, writing about “habits and virtues” lost in a rush to relativism, while acknowledging that structural inequality exists as well. Douthat is more unforgiving, offering a weak acknowledgement that economic policies can’t be entirely ignored before launching into yet another all-too-predictable denunciation of the 1960s, Hollywood, and the public schools (complete with helpful links to some of his earlier columns).

It was against the backdrop of that reading that Barber and Reich spoke to me. I heard in their words a compelling rejoinder to Brooks and Douthat, bringing the focus back to where I believe it ought to be: the fight against structural inequality itself (and not only its negative effects).

In Philadelphia, Rabbis Organizing Rabbis took our first steps in a campaign focused on the structural inequalities that lead to injustice. With the commemoration at Selma and last summer’s events in Ferguson still fresh in our minds, we talked about how Reform rabbis can organize for power across lines of race and economic attainment. Sixty-two colleagues attended the session, and committed to spending sefirat ha’omer in conversation with each other, holding one, two, or even three relational meetings with colleagues. Trainings are coming at the Consultation on Conscience and by webinar, and this summer we’ll explore partnerships and coalitions, and (re)build and strengthen relationships in our local communities.

Seven colleagues will advance this conversation throughout the omer. Each week, one of us will share a story of bearing witness to structural inequality and how we feel the call to act.  Our series is guided by the principal that “we all count.”  During the sefirah we recall wandering in the wilderness, and we count these days in order to pay attention to and illuminate what we often ignore. This year, the lives of Black men and boys lost very publicly and painfully rendered a conversation about mass incarceration and racial inequality unignorable. This year, our country has accommodated economic inequality at levels not seen since the Roaring  Twenties. This year, we are especially called to acknowledge that everyone matters, everyone counts. Please read our blog postings on RavBlog and the CCAR and ROR Facebook pages. Add  your voice to the conversation in the comments section, and repost.

What will we learn over through this campaign? Perhaps we’ll learn that there is room to talk about values and culture (Brooks and Douthat aren’t entirely wrong), but that most important work lies elsewhere. Our justice system, our health care system, our voting system and our tax code are all stacked against the underdog. Leading (by and large) privileged lives does not give us license to ignore those facts. On the contrary, our privilege compels us to organize in solidarity with those who are beaten down by these systems. Avadim Hayinu.

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis invites all of our CCAR colleagues to be a part of this conversation, through the sefirah and beyond. We all count.

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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 Larry Bach serves Temple Mount Sinai, in El Paso, Texas.