Social Justice Torah

A Full Canteen and a Red Brick Wall

This weekend I will do what so many of us in the rabbinate will do: celebrate and remember the life and work of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  For me, MLK weekend (celebrated by Reform Jews as “Shabbat Tzedek”) is a chance to link Dr. King’s message to that of Parashat Bo. Over the course of the weekend I will: be a part of a Religious School Mitzvah Day; pray and work with our community-wide teen program’s day of service, together with teens of all faiths; take part in ribbon cuttings and prayers on Monday at a new homeless shelter and an interfaith Habitat for Humanity start; and call my members of Congress to advocate for criminal justice reform. I am looking forward to it all.

Even as I look forward, I am also looking backward to Sunday and Monday, and thinking a great deal about the texts I learned with colleagues in SEACARR at the annual Kallah. It was held in Charleston, South Carolina, with Dr. Mark Washofsky serving as our convention scholar. During nearly five hours of reading and lively conversation, he took us through Judaism’s texts on “Trolleyology.” We considered the infinite value of all life (M. Sandhedrin 4:5), the responsibility to save oneself (BT Baba Metzia 62b), the three mitzvot whose performance demands the ultimate sacrifice (BT Sanhedrin 74a-b), and others.

That these texts were being studied in Charleston led Dr. Washofsky to begin his teaching with a reflection on how we read, and what we read. We were surrounded by “texts” in our historic downtown hotel: a tall statue to John C. Calhoun in Marion Square; Mother Emanuel A.M.E Church around the corner. What we learn from history is in part determined by what we choose to consider a part of our history. Is it better take down the statues, or not? To fly the flag, or not? Which texts are in, and which are out? Which do we honor, and from which do we learn via negativa?

Our Jewish tradition requires the same curation, as Dr. Washofsky reminded us. Is it “whoever saves a life, saves a world?” Or is it “whoever saves a Jewish life?” Honesty about the provenance of those texts is the better course than papering over our textual history.

Here is the text from Baba Metzia:

Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. [There was only enough water so that] if both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank [only] he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura publicly taught: “Better both should drink and die than that one see his friend’s death,” until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: “‘Your brother should live with you’ (Lev 25:36) – Your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.”

brickWith that Talmudic thought experiment ringing in my ears, I returned to my hotel room on Sunday evening — a room with an interesting architectural feature. Charleston’s Embassy Suites occupies the 1829 structure which served as The Citadel before the Civil War, and in preparing the building for use as a hotel, exposed brick was left in many rooms (including mine). It became for me yet another “text” in a city so rich with them. My comfortable bed made for a stark and discomfiting contrast to the red bricks laid by slaves, and made for a fitful night’s sleep. Privilege and subjugation in such close quarters. A full canteen, no canteen, and the very same desert to cross.

Ben Petura would have me share the canteen and die alongside my fellow; Akiva would have me drink it all, and live. And while we learned from Dr. Washofsky that we tend not to look to our “Trolleyology Texts” to learn halakhah around social justice issues (we have other texts for those questions, more direct and more persuasive), I can’t help but hear them in a homiletical/aggadic key, in light of the struggle for racial justice in America, and wonder about other options. That the “Black Lives Matter” movement faces push back for asking too much, that Affirmative Action is under attack, that Reparations is not even a part of our national discourse…all of this has me wondering as MLK Weekend approaches: “What am I doing with this canteen, and how can I do my part to slake the thirst of people whose lives matter no less than mine, whose blood is every bit as red?”

My hope is that our Conference and our Movement will continue our renewed engagement with the question of racial justice, this weekend and long beyond. May we never shy away from the hard conversations. And may the texts (both paper-based and brick-and-mortar) of our Jewish and American traditions continue to call us out, and call us to justice.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina.

Social Justice Torah

Shabbat Tzedek- Memorializing Deliverance

As many of us ready ourselves to speak on Shabbat Tzedek in light of its proximity to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I find this week’s Torah portion a great place to start.  I have always been intrigued by this week’s parashah.  Here we are, just on the cusp of the climax of one of the greatest stories of the Jewish people.  Bo opens with a close-up on God telling Moses that Adonai has hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that God’s miracles can be witnessed by all.  The action builds… We pan out on the scene of locusts devouring Egyptian crops.  The drama continues… Roaring wind and thunder intensify the hail scene.  Then, lights out!  Darkness permeates Egypt.  All that can be seen is the light of the Israelite camp.  Next, a moment of intrigue; the Israelites are ordered to “borrow” gold and silver from the Egyptians.  And now, the moment we’ve been waiting for—Moses tells the Israelites of the final plague from God that will result in freedom.  We squirm with anticipation.  But then, just as the Israelites are about to flee from Egypt and cross the Sea of Reeds… Just as they are about to taste freedom for the first time in 430 years… Just as we think we can barely stay in our seats any longer—the action stops.  Everything pauses.  What’s going on?

On the one hand, it might be that the upcoming action is too significant to merely rush through.  The proper observance of the ritual of the Pesach (as Gunther Plaut explains, the “preparation of deliverance”) must be established.

On the other hand, and more significantly for us today, this pause calls attention to the the Torah’s shift in emphasis from the current action to the necessity for memorialization of the deliverance in the future.  In Exodus 13:9: “And it shall be a sign upon your hand, and a memorial (zicharon) between your eyes, that Adonai’s teaching may be in your mouth.”  Again in Exodus 13:16: “It shall be a sign upon your hand and for frontlets (totafot) between your eyes: for by the strength of God’s arm, Adonai brought us forth from Egypt.”

In these two verses, the word referring to the object that must be placed between the eyes is different — “zicharon” in verse 9 and “totafot” in verse 16.  Totafot is often translated as frontlets or bands.  Yet, there is room for another translation of totafot if we follow the connection to “hataf” (to preach or to speak).  Rashi explains, “Totafot would be an expression denoting ‘speaking’ and corresponds to zicharon because whoever sees them (the tefilin) bound between the eyes will remember the miracle (so they become a zicharon, a reminder) and will speak about it (so that they become totafot, something that causes one to speak about the miracle).”

In every age, we must memorialize the miracle of this radical deliverance and keep it at the center of our vision.  This memorial “between our eyes” must get us to speak on behalf of justice in our own day.  Memorializing deliverance is different from simply celebrating our freedom.  Memorializing deliverance means remembering the cruel oppression of our past, both our physical and spiritual oppression. Yet, owning up to the responsibility of our identity as Jews means not only recognizing the oppression in our own past in Egypt, but understanding that mitzrayim still exists wherever the narrowness of oppression continues to rear its ugly head.  And, for many of us, mitzrayim exists in our own cities as racial inequality persists.

Lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson declared on our bimah this past Shabbat:

“All of us are burdened in this nation by our history of racial inequality.  We’ve all been compromised, we’ve all been sabotaged, our ability to be a free place has been undermined by this history of racial equality that we haven’t talked about, and I think we need to talk about it…”

At dinner afterward he continued:

“There are zip codes in this city (Chicago) where the majority of children are born into violent households and live in violent neighborhoods, and they go to violent schools, and by the time they are five they have been traumatized by that violence, and we’re not doing anything to respond.  We’re responding to our wounded warriors coming back from Afghanistan… because we realize that trauma is a disability we have to treat, but there are thousands of children in this city that are carrying that same disability, and we’re not responding to that.  I do think that all of us are implicated by that.” 

Pastor Michael Nabors from Second Baptist Church in Evanston called us to action with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:  “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

We know that we will not be judged by how well we speak on this Shabbat Tzedek or how well we preach in the wider community on MLK Day, but how we act alongside others when that day has passed.  Therefore, I’m grateful for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s meaningful call to action on Tuesday, January 19th: Call-In Day for Sentencing Reform when we will have the opportunity to urge Congress to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123).  Let us stand up and speak out with our vision centered on tzedek.

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.