Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice

Why Study the Book of Proverbs?

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary, new from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, he discusses what we can learn from Proverbs.


The Rabbis taught that most of the Israelites did not leave Egypt during the Exodus. Indeed, for some—perhaps most—people, the familiar state of “slavery” is much more comfortable than unknown “freedom.” Today, our world changes faster than ever before in human history. There is a lot of fear of change, fear of loss. We need to weather these storms together and hold each other closer. Only together, with grace and humility, can we courageously evolve. As spiritual seekers, we have unique opportunities each day to continue to reflect on the ancient wisdom of our tradition and how it can be made relevant to our moment.

Spirituality is not simply “fun” or “meaningful.” There is far too much at stake. If we do not elevate our spiritual consciousness, we will destroy ourselves. More than a political revolution, we need a global spiritual awakening to the oneness and the interconnectedness of all life! How will we get there? What intellectual and spiritual resources will help us all move forward? Which of those resources will be brand-new and which ones will be ancient?

The Book of Proverbs—a book of ancient wisdom—is one of the most profound works found within the Hebrew Bible, but one that is not often explored in a truly spiritual, accessible, and relevant way. The language of the book is often vague, and its words and lessons are often open-ended and shrouded with literary ambiguity, qualities that make it hard to digest for the contemporary reader. Still, the wisdom that is contained within the Book of Proverbs is timeless, and readers have much to gain by learning from its ancient precepts.

Those of us who live in a world of paradox might find the Book of Proverbs—known as Sefer Mishlei in Hebrew—to seem a bit binary and simplistic. However, the book pushes us to remember that actually much of life is quite binary! We are confronted with good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow. The challenge is to see which moments require us to view situations with nuance and embrace paradox—and which moments require our fervent and robust moral and spiritual action. In the latter moments, we should not try to find intellectual excuses, but rather respond with clarity and courage. In the Book of Proverbs, we find the productive and the lazy, the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust—and we know where we want to find ourselves on that map!

The Book of Proverbs is the second book of K’tuvim (“Writings,” the third section of the Hebrew Bible) and consists of only thirty-one chapters. As part of the biblical “wisdom literature,” the book discusses moral values and proper conduct. The collection is divided according to its different authors.1 In fact, one might divide the book into seven different books merged into one, similar to a contemporary anthology consisting of seven chapters written by different authors. Other books in the Hebrew Bible of the same wisdom literature genre include Ecclesiastes and Job.2

Due to the lack of references to the Divine, the content of the Book of Proverbs is accessible to a broad readership, believers and nonbelievers alike. Proverbs is not a typical biblical book. God is mentioned here and there, but the content of the book is mostly focused on human learnings and wisdom. As one might say today, the book is “spiritual but not religious.” It appears to have been written not for an intellectual elite interested in theology, but as a moral guide for all people. It is not an exclusively “Jewish” book, but speaks to universal concerns. It does not address the needs, interests, and challenges of a specific community, but rather seeks to provide guidance for an individual—any individual.

Learn more and order the book at proverbs.ccarpress.org. A free study guide by CCAR Press Rabbinic Intern Ada Luisa Sinacore is available.


1. “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1–9); “The proverbs of Solomon” (Proverbs 10:1–22:16); “The words of the sages” (Proverbs 22:17–24:22); “These also are by the sages” (Proverbs 24:23–34); “These too are proverbs of Solomon, which the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied” (Proverbs 25–29); “The words of Agur” (Proverbs 30); “The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, with which his mother admonished him” (Proverbs 31). It is important to note, however, that it is possible to view these other authors as nicknames for Solomon.

2. Two other books are generally included in the genre of the wisdom literature that were excluded from the Tanach but included in the Apocrypha: Wisdom of Solomon and Wisdom of Ben Sira (or Ecclesiasticus).


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a global activist and the author of twenty-two books on Jewish spirituality, social justice, and ethics. His many works include the CCAR Press titles Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (2018) and The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (2020).

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Harassment-Free Jewish Spaces: Our Leaders Must Answer to a Higher Standard

In this excerpt from The Social Justice Torah CommentaryRabbi Mary L. Zamore, Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, draws on Parashat Vayikra to call for holding Jewish leaders accountable.

Yes, it is awful that he said those things. They are totally inappropriate, but he is a beloved member of our clergy team, a founder of our congregation. We must recognize that he only yells at our professional staff and lay leaders when he is stressed.

She just has trouble with boundaries, but she’s harmless. If we hold her accountable, she may leave the temple, which would be devastating. After all, she donates hours and hours to our synagogue. She is irreplaceable. The staff just needs to avoid her. We will remind her not to go to the staff members’ homes without permission.

We all know his behavior is not right, so we will make sure he does not meet with women alone. He’s going to retire soon. There is no reason to ruin his otherwise stellar reputation. Retirement is just a few years away. Maybe we can encourage him to leave sooner.

He has suffered enough by his sexual harassment coming to light. However, his contributions to the Jewish community are far too numerous not to quote him. Whom else could we cite? And why mention this dark spot on an otherwise sterling career?

Above is a compilation of remarks reflecting many real cases in the Jewish community, conflated here to illustrate a theme. The common thread is a lack of accountability for the productive perpetrator. This is the professional or lay leader in a congregation or institution who is successful in their work, yet has substantiated accusations of sexual assault, harassment, or abusive/bullying behavior against them. They are trusted and beloved, generous with their time and/or money; they excel in their field. And because of their success, their community will never hold them accountable for their bad behavior—even though it endangers the community’s atmosphere of safety and respect—leaving a wake of damage in their path. Often working to keep the behavior and its negative impact unknown to the wider world, community leaders act as if the bad behavior is an unavoidable tax for the benefits the community reaps from the productive perpetrator’s presence and work. However, Parashat Vayikra teaches us the exact opposite, commanding us to hold our leaders accountable to a higher standard.

Vayikra outlines the rituals for different types of sacrifices: olah (עֹלָה), burnt offerings; minchah (מִנְחָה), meal offerings; sh’lamin (שְׁלָמִים), well-being offerings; chatat (חַטָּאת), purgation offerings; and asham (אָשָׁם), reparation offerings. While on the surface this portion reads like a simple instruction book for the sacrifices, it is infused with foundational values. Holding our leaders accountable for their actions is intrinsic to the biblical design of the ancient sacrificial cult and the accompanying priesthood, as we can observe in the parashah’s commandments.

The Israelite sacrificial cult is designed to function in an atmosphere of radical transparency. After the engaging narratives of Genesis and Exodus, it is easy to overlook the revolutionary nature of Leviticus. The laws regulating the sacrifices were given to the entire people of Israel, not just to the elite class of priests. There were no esoteric, secret rituals known only to the kohanim, the priestly class. Furthermore, sacrifices were performed publicly. As The Torah: A Women’s Torah Commentary explains, “Although Leviticus preserves the priests’ privileged monopoly regarding the service at the altar and its sacrifices, these instructions demystify the priests’ role by making knowledge about their activities known to every Israelite.”1 Coupled with the prohibition against land ownership by priests (Numbers 18:20), universal access to the law equalized power in the Israelite community. Kohanim were supposed to facilitate the community’s efforts to draw near to God rather than amass power for themselves.

The public viewing of offerings also created accountability. The Hebrew term eidah, “community,” is related to eid,“witness.”2 If a priest inadvertently made a mistake or knowingly deviated from the prescribed rites, the Israelites would know because they could witness the offerings in real time. The elevated status of the kohanim in the community required that they be held to a high standard. Parashat Vayikra demands a rigorous method of atonement for the priests’ misdeeds, whether they were known to the public (Leviticus 4:3) or not (Leviticus 4:13). It should be noted that the Torah also holds chieftains to a standard higher than that of ordinary Israelites (Leviticus 4:22), but not as high as the priests. This portion clearly teaches that the greater one’s status is in the community, the more accountable they must be for their actions.

The full chapter can be found in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, which delves deeply into each week’s parashah to address pressing contemporary issues such as racism, climate change, immigration, disability, and many more.


1. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss (New York: Reform Judaism Publishing, an imprint of CCAR Press, and Women of Reform Judaism, 2007), 571.

2. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, 580.


Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. She is the editor of The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic and The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, both published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

“Rabbi, We Want to Hear about Torah, Not Politics!”

Rabbi Barry H. Block is the editor of the new CCAR Press book The Social Justice Torah Commentary, which delves into the many ways that the Torah can inspire us to confront injustice. In this excerpt from the introduction, he discusses how the book’s contributors approach the biblical text.

“Rabbi, we want to hear Torah, not politics, from the bimah.” Every rabbi has heard this refrain, and many echo it. The plea, though, has always been discordant to my ears. No, I don’t preach “politics,” which I define narrowly in this context as taking to the pulpit to endorse or oppose a candidate for elective office. I understand Torah to be the Jewish people’s primary teaching about how to live our lives, individually and collectively. Torah shaped our covenantal people in formation in ancient Israel and Judea, establishing fundamental norms—regarding ritual matters, yes, but even more, in legislating society’s obligations toward individuals and vice versa.

The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 offers a microcosm of the Torah’s dual emphasis. Famously beginning “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), the Holiness Code proceeds in the very next verse to tell us how to achieve this lofty, overarching goal of being holy. It first articulates an obligation toward other human beings, namely our parents, and then proceeds without pause to what may be viewed as a ritual commandment, the obligation to observe Shabbat. As the passage continues, injunctions to avoid idolatry and specific regulations about consumption of sacrifices are interspersed among directives about fair labor practices, care for the aged, and providing for the poor and needy. The message is clear: Israel serves God no less by pursuing social justice than through proper worship.

Even commandments that appear to regulate exclusively ritual matters often have ethical ends. For example, Professor Ruhama Weiss and Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz will persuasively argue in these pages that the laws of kashrut (dietary regulations) cannot be fulfilled absent fair labor practices and the ethical treatment of animals. Thanks to Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, we will see that requiring purification for a person who has given birth, a practice out of use since Temple times and abhorrent on its surface, must inspire us to demand that our society ensure proper reproductive health care for all people. And Rabbi Craig Lewis will excavate the detailed regulations for creating the priests’ bejeweled choshen (breastplate), marshaling parshanut (commentary) alongside gemology to formulate a persuasive argument for equity in education.

Rabbis and others who articulate social justice arguments are sometimes accused—not always unfairly—of basing a complex and controversial assertion about society merely on a pithy phrase from Torah, such as one of the three aforementioned beloved passages, with little depth. This volume is both an antidote to that accusation and a refutation of it. Here, a diverse array of members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) and our colleagues in other movements, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion faculty, Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) staff, and lay leaders1 build their social justice arguments on robust and creative employment of parshanut haTorah (Torah commentary), including academic biblical exegesis, classical midrash and commentary, modern midrash, and more.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer begins his chapter with the familiar verse “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger” (Numbers 15:15), but he does not reach his conclusion about the rights of immigrants until he has drawn on sources as diverse as the Talmud, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dennis Prager, Ibram X. Kendi, and the Brown-Driver-Briggs biblical lexicon. While Rabbi Tom Alpert begins his commentary with “justice, justice…,” (Shof’tim), he builds his argument about the ongoing need to uproot the sin of racist lynching by turning to the next verses, an apparently ritual commandment forbidding the Israelites from erecting “a sacred post,” a form of idolatry.

The Social Justice Torah Commentary is not, therefore, a book “about” social justice, nor, even in its breadth, does it seek to address every ill that faces our world. Instead, it probes deeply into each Torah portion to shape an argument that confronts injustice in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. I am grateful for the learning, teaching, and creativity of the contributors who enable CCAR Press and me to place The Social Justice Torah Commentary into your hands.


1. Many of the authors fall into more than one of these categories.


The Social Justice Torah Commentary is now available from CCAR Press. Browse the table of contents here.


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the CCAR’s Vice President for Organizational Relationships and also edited the The Mussar Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).