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Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 4:27: On the Soul

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

Youth without guidance from older generations is a waste of potential. Here, Rabbi Meir is in dialogue with his teacher, Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah. Rabbi Meir, now a wise spiritual leader, was disappointed that his teacher Elisha (Acher) did not return to studying Torah and Jewish philosophy.

Rabbi Meir says: Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it; there is a new vessel filled with old wine, and an old vessel that does not even contain new wine.

Rabbi Meir experienced inner agony as he tried to convince Acher, with whom he had been so intimate, to return to the ways of a Jewish life. This mishnah is a powerful Jewish literary and spiritual example: Rabbi Meir lamented that Acher would never take another look at his inner world and return to the task for which his soul was sent to earth. In some ways, Acher, or “Other,” is called this precisely because he turned away from his mission.

What do the vessels in this mishnah really symbolize? Why would Rabbi Meir be cryptic, rather than straightforward, with his thoughts? This metaphor is about giving our souls over to our higher purpose. “Submission” is not a celebrated word among spiritual or social progressives, and for good reason. Submission to an external authority is not the way we think to shake up societal order. But, internally, we might consider acts of submission in which we give ourselves over to our Creator, who made us for a unique purpose. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook explains:

Submission to God, which is something natural to every creature, to every being in which individuality reveals itself . . . does not entail sorrow and oppression, but rather, pleasure and uprightness, sovereignty, and inner courage crowned with total beauty. . . . [This is achieved] through contraction of the soul before its Creator.

This mishnah also deals with the legacy of the human soul (what is in the vessel). A good portion of Jewish thought on the soul is found in the Kabbalah, but we see some interesting analogues to Jewish thought in gentile culture. Plato said that humans have three souls: the appetitive, spirited, and intellectual. In Judaism, these are nefesh, ruach, and n’shamah. In Platonic thought, as in Judaism, all three matter. How we show up within ourselves determines how we show up outside of ourselves. If we are not fulfilled inside, we won’t be fulfilled on the outside.

Likewise, there is a midrash about the soul’s continuous need to grow and evolve:

“And the soul is not sated” (Ecclesiastes 6:7). This is analogous to a provincial who married a princess. Even though he brings her everything in the world, he does not satisfy her. Why? Because she is a princess. Similarly, even if a person brings his soul all the delicacies of the world, they are nothing to her [i.e. she is not satisfied]. Why? Because she comes from Above.

So then, what is the ethical lesson in this mishnah? When we neglect our purpose, we neglect the reason we have been temporarily placed in this world. It is our obligation to overcome disappointment and pride and to achieve what we can in the limited time we’re allowed. Just as Rabbi Meir taught not to be unfairly judgmental of ourselves (or, at least, our superficial outer selves), so too is he teaching here not to miss opportunities to engage with others’ true selves. If we see others only in a transactional way (what can they give to me?), we miss potential for connection and meaningful relationship. Further, from a social change perspective, someone may be our opposition in one campaign but an ally in another. We should not simply label others as inside or outside our camp, but allow ourselves to see them more deeply.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 3:19: On Freedom

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

One of the oldest existential questions that have vexed the minds of rational beings is the dialectic between free will and fate. Is humanity bound by a supernal force that dictates every action, or is the consciousness of the human mind the ultimate captain of moral decisions? It is a query that philosophers and theologians dedicate their lives to unraveling. The ancient Jewish Sages, too, pondered this.

Everything is foreseen, yet the freedom of choice is given. The world is judged with goodness, and everything depends on the majority of one’s actions.

In a turn toward age-old theological questions, this mishnah touches two divine characteristics: omniscience, the supposed all-knowing force, and benevolence, the force of pure and inherent good. One characteristic might contradict the other or counter a normative interpretation of the Divine.

So, two distinct problems are addressed in this passage. First, if God is all-knowing, how are humans truly free? The mishnah says that though God knows what humans will choose, humans are nevertheless free to make individual decisions. Jewish tradition is adamant about this spiritual paradox: humans are absolutely free, and God knows in advance what we will choose.

Second, God-as-judge and God-as-protector are in tension here; here, justice and mercy are presented as dual ends of the spectrum, though there is more substance present here on second glance. If God is a judge of truth and justice, how can God also be merciful, compassionate, and all-loving? Here, too, this paradox is true: God is both the God of truth and justice and the God of mercy, compassion, and love. That such paradoxes are unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved may be beside the point. The questions themselves are to drive us to strive toward the impossible peak of unambiguous truth about the ways of God and the universe. Our goal is to acquire as much knowledge, and as much hope, as we can and then to apply the values we discover to our ethical selves. When we speak of all people of the world “serving God,” we may, in a universalistic sense, mean that we’re all striving toward moral goodness, to emulate moral perfection.

We have an ethical imperative not just to realize our freedom but to expand it and actualize it. Abraham was told to depart from “your land, your birthplace, your father’s house” (Genesis 12:1)—that is, to liberate himself from the various pressures to conform. Each of us must be prepared to depart from our upbringing, break from conformity, and depart from the familiar. Warren Bennis, a twentieth-century thinker on leadership, writes, “By the time we reach puberty, the world has reached us and shaped us to greater extent than we realize. Our family, friends, and society in general have told us—by word and example—how to be. But people begin to become leaders at that moment when they decide for themselves how to be.” Embracing our freedom is an ethical imperative that requires us to regularly rethink all of our commitments.

Our negative emotions constitute another form of enslavement. Holding resentment is like holding on to a hot coal; waiting to throw it at your enemy, you burn yourself. Negative emotions, like hatred or bigotry, can be crippling. Our spiritual work, all the more imperative for activists who are often responding to forces of evil, tyranny, injustice, and oppression, is to transform those negative emotions to positive ends, while harnessing the energy and releasing the negativity.

The knowledge that we are free, while also realizing that God knows what we will choose, should inspire humility. This sense of humility doesn’t have to be paralyzing, nor should it impede us on our spiritual journeys. Rather, this is an empowering humility, which inspires courage. Our freedom is a gift to be actualized. In this mishnah, right after we are reminded that we are free, we are told that God will judge us compassionately. God will be gentle with us because we will strive to do our best with our freedom.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 2:20: On Time

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

This mishnah is remarkable in the Jewish philosophical canon. In the economy of a single sentence, Rabbi Tarfon lays out a Jewish apothegm of a life dedicated to hard work in a hard world.

Rabbi Tarfon says: The day is short, the task is abundant, the laborers are lazy, the wage is great, and the Master of the house is insistent.

A critical Jewish task is to become a person who values the remarkable nature of time. Every day, people rush from urgency to urgency because of feelings of deep responsibility. But it is a spiritual art to be in a state of rush, accomplishing as much as possible as effectively as possible, while also remaining focused and calm. We are divided, consumed by an overabundance of commitments, and yet we are to be present, focused, and attentive. We are to sprint, while remaining aware of every footfall. While we continue to act and lead, we also must reflect deeply about the nature of our leadership and our purpose in the world.

Our days are short. Our lives are busy. We have obligations to meet: work, family, health, recreation, and attending to our spiritual needs. Balancing these disparate aspects of life is difficult. But we must find balance; it is commanded of us. Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, in his eighteenth-century magnum opus on the cultivation of Jewish virtues, The Path of the Just, teaches:

Alacrity consists of two elements: one that relates to the period prior to the commencement of a deed, and the other that relates to the period that follows the commencement of a deed. The former means that prior to the commencement of a mitzvah a person must not delay [its performance]. Rather, when its time arrives, or when the opportunity [for its fulfillment] presents itself, or when it enters his mind, he must react speedily, without delay, to seize the mitzvah and to do it. He must not procrastinate at this time, for no danger is graver than this. Every new moment can bring with it some new hindrance to the fulfillment of the good deed.

Dionne Brand, a Canadian poet and essayist from Trinidad and Tobago, explains:

Revolutions do not happen outside of you, they happen in the vein, they change you and you change yourself, you wake up in the morning changing. You say this is the human being I want to be. You are making yourself for the future, and you do not even know the extent of it when you begin but you have a hint, a taste in your throat of the warm elixir of the possible.

While not every person is meant to be a revolutionary, taking on the mantle of leadership and creating local change are within reach for those who choose. Embracing this mission while “the day is short” means that we must “taste . . . the warm elixir of the possible.” Social change can happen quickly when a president signs a new law or when a new nation declares independence. Events can spiral in unintended directions at the behest of a small but vocal group. But spiritual and cultural changes take a long time to shift. Slavery was prohibited in America, but more than a century and a half later, we’re still dealing with the racial injustice that the practice of slavery set in motion.

To be sure, the fact that injustice continues to fester shows that the work to improve the world can never cease. We must engage deeply in the issues that affect countless people and propel the world toward justice.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 1:1: On Relationships

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

This first mishnah does not state directly that God gave the Torah to the Jewish people. Instead, it begins with Moses receiving the Torah from “Sinai,” rather than with the story of communal divine revelation. By beginning in this manner, mishnah 1:1 describes the Torah’s primary focus on human relationships.

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; and Joshua to the Elders; and the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment; develop many students; and make a fence for the Torah.

The entire Torah enterprise requires relationship. To embrace tradition, one does not hide away in the library or the sanctuary, but instead engages in face-to-face encounters.

To take part in such an intellectually rigorous tradition, the Maharal teaches that people must strengthen three components of the human intellect: chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding), and daat (discernment), which he aligns with the three pieces of guidance that end this mishnah. He also aligns these teachings respectively with mishpatim, laws that enable society to function justly; mitzvot, religious mandates of the Torah; and chukim, laws that are less based on common sense and societal order and more on our character development and relationship to God. The Mishnah encourages us to be more careful with din, our judgment. Such lessons pertain to both our dinei mamonot, monetary decisions that affect others’ property, and dinei n’fashot, decisions that affect others’ lives.

To exercise this inherent intellect, every generation is responsible to render safe passage to the tradition. And to do so, each generation must transmit the teachings in such a way that they are stronger than when they were received. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook teaches that to do this is to “expand the palace of the Torah.” Every generation has new insights based upon the changing times, and when we add those contributions to the wealth of the previous transmissions, we strengthen our heritage. We must embrace discomfort at times, challenge dogmas, and question outdated assumptions that no longer further the Torah enterprise nor the whole of the human enterprise.

Today, we see danger to the Torah enterprise from two places. There are those who want to distort the tradition so radically that our ancestors would no longer recognize its essence at all. On the other hand, there are those who seek to freeze the tradition, so that its relevance can scarcely be grasped by our contemporaries. The Sages of Pirkei Avot caution against both destructive approaches and seek new measured understanding. Consider the Talmud’s story that imagines God showing Moses the teachings of Rabbi Akiva in the distant future. In this telling, Moses is at first distressed because those teachings do not resemble what he himself knows; but he is assured by the claim that this, too, is authentic Torah linked through an eternally continuous chain (BT M’nachot 29b). The sacred goal is not merely the survival of the tradition (as that would be quite a low bar). Instead, tradition flourishes because each successive generation has sufficient independence to pursue the transformational interpretations of tradition, within the context of their own time and place.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot: Moving Society Forward

One thing is certain. Our Reform congregants understand the concept of tikkun olam. They come to religious school with tzedakah in hand, participate in Mitzvah Day, and many attend local rallies such as the Women’s Marches and our teen-organized March for our Lives.  One thing is less certain. When asked which sacred texts ground their commitment to social justice, many congregants do not have a ready answer.

In his new book Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary from CCAR Press, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz inspires our communities to think more deeply about living ethically as individuals and as a society. While the six chapters of Pirkei Avot are traditionally read on the six Shabbat afternoons between Pesach and Shavuot – the richness of Yanklowitz’ commentary will take far longer than six Shabbat afternoons to ingest and savor.  His expansive work offers powerful teachings on the 129 mishnayot that make up Pirkei Avot — the most accessible tractate of our Mishnah. He offers an essay on each teaching, uncovering its timeless wisdom.

Yanklowitz’s book is scholarly and relevant.  He amplifies the single sentences of our ancient sages, weaving them together with wisdom from varied denominations and faiths and speaking to the countless daily opportunities we face for individual and collective ethical decision making. Yanklowitz relies heavily on mystical and philosophical texts, many of which are offered through his own English translation and most of which inspire action. On the notion of healing our world, he writes:

Tikkun ha-olam, repairing the world, hints at tikkun he-elem, repairing that which is concealed, whether from our thoughts or from our heart. Our job is not just to repair the world, but to make what is hidden visible and repair that, too. This includes the suffering of invisible people—those vulnerable people who go through life without the concern of the broader populace—while also combatting the pernicious and hidden forms of injustice, below-the-surface oppression, and scarcely seen brokenness that silently affect millions.” (p. 9)

Adding depth to the commentary, Yanklowitz uses the words of a broad range of present-day popular teachers and leaders. From weaving in Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg’s description of global human rights’ violations against women to his discussion on chilul HaShem, to sharing the teachings of the popular Tibetan Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön’s insights on compassion, every chapter is replete with contemporary voices that bolster Pirkei Avot’s ancient and ageless instruction.

Yankowitz is an Orthodox rabbi, scholar, activist and powerful writer. His book makes it plainly clear that social justice is not just a liberal or Reform endeavor but a Jewish action and obligation incumbent on Jews across the denominational spectrum. The moral teachings that make up this profoundly important tractate of the Mishnah are meant to become a profoundly important part of our moral fiber.

This book is a valuable resource for any rabbi – from the Hillel rabbi who wants to share a text of Torah at his community meal, to the congregational rabbi who wants to add meaningful teachings to her Board or social justice committee meetings, to the preaching rabbi seeking ancient and modern gems for his sermon, to the contemplative rabbi who wants a new text for chavruta or daily personal reflection. It is the richest resource on Pirkei Avot I have encountered and a great addition to one’s rabbinic library.

Rabbi Yaklowitz sums the obligation of justice best. “We can address the messy outer work of the world only if we address the messy inner work in our lives.” (p. 420) Studying his commentary on Pirkei Avot, valuable mishnah by valuable mishnah, is a great path for us to take to move ourselves and our society forward.

Rabbi Judy Schindler is co-author, with Judy Seldin-Cohen, of Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America (CCAR Press, 2018).

Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Please be sure to check back on RavBlog starting this Friday, April 13, 2018.

Categories
Passover Pesach Prayer Social Justice

When It’s Time to Stop Praying and Start Marching

Two weekends ago, many of us took to the streets with our communities to “March For Our Lives,” and last weekend we welcomed the festival of Passover, which makes this a good time to remember that the Torah tells us “thoughts and prayers” can only do so much; we need action to move forward.

In Exodus 14 we read that when the Israelites were stopped at the shore of the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptians fast approaching behind them, Moses began to pray. The people were distressed and feared for their lives and were demanding action — and Moses offered prayers. God said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. Lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.” The Torah is pretty clear that there is a time for words, but when trapped between the Egyptians and the Sea, it’s time for action.

Our sages expanded on this idea in the Talmud, which teaches us that as the Jews were standing at the shore of the sea, Moses was prolonging his prayer. God said to him, “My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer to me?” Moses replied, “But what can I do?” God said, “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand.”

There’s a midrash that imagines God saying, “My loved ones are drowning in the sea, and the sea is raging, and the foe is pursuing, and you stand and wax long in prayer?” To which Moses replied, “God of the universe, what can I do?” And this is when God replies with the words from Exodus 14.

A story in the Talmud teaches that while Moses was busy praying, one person — Nachshon — stepped into the sea and began to walk. Nachshon had faith that God would see them to safety on the other side, and demonstrated his faith by stepping into the water.

Even in a tradition that annually celebrates the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, it is clear that we can not just cry out or send “thoughts and prayers” – we must take action. Faith is not waiting around for God to do the work, but taking that first step – speaking out and raising your hand.

That is what the teens are trying to teach us: there is a time for thoughts and prayers (and often that is where we find comfort in the face of tragedy), but the Torah teaches us that when you life is in danger, you don’t stand around praying; you have to speak to the people and take action.

This is faith. Not that God will fix it, but that we have within us the power to change the world for the better; that even when it looks as if there is no way forward, we can find a way; that even when enemies are fast approaching and threatening us, we have the strength to keep going. Faith is working together to bring a future where everyone is free from violence.

Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik is an artist at Paper Midrash and also blogs on her personal blog.

Categories
Gun Control Social Justice

Praying With Our Feet at the March For Our Lives in Washington, DC

Dear Friends,

I write this while on a plane en route from our nation’s capital after having shared in a remarkable and life-changing Shabbat experience. On Friday night, I was honored to be asked by my dear friend, Rabbi Bruce Lustig, to participate in an Erev Shabbat service at Washington Hebrew Congregation along with other musicians including Dan Nichols, Stacy Beyer, Noah Aronson and Alan Goodis. Our Director of Youth Engagement, Megan Garrett, and two parent chaperones also accompanied a delegation of several of our teens.  They spent the night in the Synagogue along with over 450 young people from across the country. During the service,we were joined on the Bema by several young people who spoke – many who were students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Others were leaders of their NFTY regions.  After the service, my musical colleagues and I led a short concert and song-session during which I sang the protest anthem that Steve Brodsky and I co-wrote, “Praying With Our Feet.”  While the music was an important part of the evening, the primary focus was on the teenagers. The poise, pain and incredible leadership that these young people displayed while sharing their stories was both moving and inspiring.

On Shabbat morning, the entire NFTY delegation and many other adults prayed together in a pre-rally Shabbat service.  We were joined by many dignitaries – including Debbie Wasserman Shultz – the US Congresswoman who represents Parkland, Florida, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs who addressed the congregation via video feed. But once again, the major focus of the service were the young people who led us in prayer and song.  There was one incredibly moving moment towards the end of the service when my friend and colleague, Rabbi Brad Boxman, who serves a congregation in Parkland, FL, shared how, on the first Shabbat following the shootings, he asked all of the adults in his packed sanctuary to turn to the children who sat with and near them and bless them.  He then asked all of us who were present to do the same.  As we placed our hands on the heads of these beautiful teenagers and said the words of the Priestly blessing together, tears flowed freely down our faces. You see, we knew that we had come to DC to protest. We knew that change had to come. We were charged and ready. But there was something about praying for God’s protective blessing on these precious, beautiful souls that shifted our focus and made everything very real. We were not about to march for a cause: we were marching for our children’s lives.  And then we started our journey to the rally.
We carried signs and banners with sacred texts:
  • “If not now, when?”
  • ‘It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from carrying it out.”
  • “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds”
We chanted, we sang, we enjoyed a beautiful sunny day. But our march soon came to a halt when we realized that there were so many people filling the streets that we could only go a few blocks. Every space in the street surrounding the Capital was filled.  But it didn’t matter. We watched on video screens, heard from loudspeakers and felt the determination in the million other marchers who were with us. We came from all walks of life – all colors and creeds – but we shared in our determination to speak up and say enough:
  • Enough killing;
  • Enough pretending that the issue is not guns, but people;
  • Enough ignoring the plight of people of color;
  • Enough manipulation from the gun lobby;
  • Enough silence from legislators who are afraid to address the issue of easy access to weapons of mass destruction.

This was not a political rally – although, after today’s events, many politicians will be worried about keeping their seats – and they should be. We marched for moral, not partisan reasons. This was not, as some have charged, a volley of Left Wing talking points – it was a rising up of a generation raised in the shadows of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Las Vegas, Parkland and too many other tragedies that have been lost in the endless cycle of shootings that have become yesterday’s news.

The rock stars and celebrities who were on stage were not the focus of the rally either. No, it was the children- the survivors who have taken on the mantle of leadership – who stirred our souls and compelled us to action. We heard about the toll that daily violence on the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington DC has taken. We wept along with speakers who had lost brothers and sisters to bullets. We heard the passion of the newly-energized victims of school shootings who have watched as the adults in their lives relinquished the responsibility of protecting them and, as a result, have taken it upon themselves to give notice to their elected officials that silence is complicity, and that they refuse to remain silent.

As I contemplate this remarkable 24 hours, I am in awe. The vision, poise, leadership and power that these young activists have discovered gives me hope that not all is lost, and that the future will be in good hands. I also am more determined than ever to both speak out against and call out the hypocrisy and callous disregard for human life that the gun lobby and its enablers have fostered in our society.

Let me be very clear:  I am not opposed to guns per se. I am, however, opposed to the idolatry that gun worship has spawned in our nation. We owe it to our children to speak out as loud and proud as they do. They have taken on the mantle of leadership. I am compelled to follow. Will you join with me?

We can do no less.

Rabbi Joe Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado.  This blog was originally posted on his personal blog
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Books Passover Pesach Social Justice

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: The Obligations of Our Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Social Justice

How Social Justice Work Blossoms in One Congregation

I have always had a passion for social justice, both in my career as a television producer and in that as a rabbi. Over my nearly ten years at Temple Beth El (TBE), I have pursued this work with interfaith partners but rarely with my own congregation. There is a twofold reason for this. One, when I first arrived, the congregation had been through a decade of revolving door rabbis and was emotionally scarred and diffident. I determined that my job was to heal the wounds, not to rally folks around causes. Two, TBE had no history or culture of social justice engagement. I make a distinction between social justice and social action. Feeding the homeless is social action, and many of our congregants are involved in that. Addressing the causes of hunger or homelessness is social justice, and this is where we have not participated.

A little over a year ago, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) offered a Community of Practice called “Bringing Justice to the Center.” This was a two-year training program in how to engage one’s congregation in this work. I immediately signed up with two lay leaders, Diana Goldman and Dalia Martinez. Over the past year, we attended monthly webinars, consulted with our coach, Lee Winkleman, and began the process of community organizing. This involved finding folks who would hold one-on-one conversations as well as house meetings with other congregants to determine how they viewed the brokenness of the world and what their vision of a more perfect society looked like. Eventually, the idea would be to find an issue we could all work on together, an issue that would represent systemic change.

Our congregation is pretty solidly middle class. There are not many people of means and leisure: the vast majority of our younger families have two working parents who also spend a great deal of time shepherding their children to a wide variety of activities. Our older congregants have, for the most part, been there, done that. They want to enjoy life and spend their time with friends, family and, particularly, grandchildren. All to say that this model of community organizing, where people need to step up as leaders and take ownership of the process on a consistent and long-term basis, did not work for us. We conducted some one-on-ones and some house meetings, but the appetite for undertaking advocacy work on the part of a majority of the congregation was not there.

On the other hand, through this process, we were able to identify 15-20 people who were enthusiastic and eager to become involved in some way. It became clear that a different model was appropriate for us: rather than a grassroots effort which characterizes community organizing, we needed a more grass tops one. I found that, if I proposed an action, I could rally these 15-20 congregants to join me in the work of Reform CA whose leadership team I am on. Reform CA, the West Coast arm of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, determines which California legislation to support, and educates our congregations about the issues involved prior to lobbying our state representatives to vote in favor of these bills. I have had success in bringing TBE members for legislative visits, both here in Riverside and in Sacramento, to make phone calls to constituents, to educate other congregants, and to attend a regional meeting of Reform CA. Indeed, with 11 people from TBE attending the Los Angeles area gathering of Reform CA in early December, we had the largest delegation of any congregation by far.

My congregants and I learned that it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be effective social change agents, and that it is absolutely essential to work in coalitions. With Reform CA, we have been able to join forces, not only with other Reform congregations, but also with partners such as the national network of faith-based community organizations, PICO, and the ACLU.

I am grateful to the URJ and to Lee Winkelman for helping guide us on this path. I know we will continue to do important work in the year ahead.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA.

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Social Justice

Social Justice in 2018: Not for Ourselves

A cherished friend of mine, a Christian working as a Synagogue Administrator, once asked me, “How are the same people both conservative with the congregation’s money and so liberal politically?” Her observation was mostly accurate; the Board members eager to grow the Temple’s budget were as much in the minority as the political conservatives.

I answered: “Jews are commanded to remember the heart of the stranger. We take that seriously. Yes, we may fit in here in America now, but Jews acutely remember when we were despised, outcast, and impoverished. Therefore, we identify with those who are vulnerable, and we advocate for their interests more even than our own.” Viewed in this light, our social justice priorities are largely shaped by the welfare of others. Temple finances, on the other hand, are strictly about the health of our own institution.

Upon reflection, though, my answer was too simplistic. A political conservative may be just as concerned about the poor as the liberal, with different philosophy about how best to benefit those in need. Moreover, some of our social justice advocacy – on behalf of Israel, for example; or protecting the separation of church and state – is self-interested.

Perhaps the most problematic part of my answer, though, was that we are far from the only Americans with a history of persecution. Unlike other ethnic or religious groups that are mostly white and at least middle income, though, American Jews remain strongly identified with our historic vulnerability and that of many people around us. What makes us different?

Why are so many American Jews deeply worried that Dreamers may soon face deportation? Yes, a Jewish DACA beneficiary or two has been identified; but most American Jews today are neither immigrants nor the children of immigrants. Why have we made a priority of compassionate immigration reform when so many other groups who share our immigrant history have not?

Why is our Reform Movement mobilized to protect access to health care for the tens of millions of Americans who gained health insurance through the Affordable Care Act? Yes, more than a few of us have ACA policies, but still more of us benefit from the tax reform that imperiled ACA’s viability by removing the individual mandate. Other demographically-similar groups tend to take the view opposite our Movement’s.

At the dawn of 2018, a century removed from the end of the last mass wave of Jewish immigration, we may think that we are motivated by our immigrant history, but we are more likely inspired by our religion itself. Torah is the reason. Thirty-six times, Torah reminds us that we must pay attention to the welfare of the stranger, having been oppressed as strangers in Egypt.

As we welcome 2018, in an era when the fastest-growing religious identity in this country is “none,” American Jews, even the self-proclaimed atheists among us, still believe: We are here to make the world a better place. We are duty-bound to seek the welfare of the most vulnerable in our midst. We are grateful that most American Jews are neither needy nor oppressed, and Torah turns that gratitude into action.

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Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.