These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah was driven by imposter syndrome. Who am I, after all, to write a book teaching about the deeper meanings of the language of Torah? I’m not a rabbi. I’m not a Torah scholar. I have no Jewish day school foundation. I’m not a linguist or etymologist. I’m a poet-liturgist-lyricist. I write poems, songs, and prayers. Why, oh why, did I suggest this?!
So, I threw myself into the task of learning about individual words of Torah, often spending eight, ten, twelve hours a day in books, online, and engaging in conversations about Torah, Hebrew, Talmud, midrash, and the Sages, old and new. At times, the learning took me well beyond any text I’d previously encountered. The deeper I dug, and the further afield it took me, the harder I felt I needed to work.
Days became weeks. Weeks became months. Hundreds of hours learning Torah became thousands. Some evenings I’d dream about the words. Some mornings I’d wake with a poetic midrash spilling out of me. At times the learning led me to a poem. At times a new poem led me to a word of Torah. I entered some sort of Torah trance, which was thrilling and frightening.
When it was done—a first draft suitable for submission, anyway—I set it aside for a week in order to read it with “fresh eyes” before sending it to CCAR Press. The poems were beyond anything I’d ever written. And the divrei Torah on each Hebrew word looked completely foreign to me. How did I write that? Clearly, the work of learning how to study Torah at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies paid off.
In retrospect, the fact that CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Press Director Rafael Chaiken, and the chair of the CCAR Press Council, Rabbi Donald Goor, trusted me to write this book is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps, if one day my work warrants a retrospective, some journalist may say something like, “Although his previous work was regarded and beloved, These Words was when he truly discovered his poetic voice.”
Rabbi Dan Medwin, Co-Director at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, shares his thoughts on designing CCAR Press’s Reform Luach calendar app. Reform Luach is available on the Apple, Amazon, and Google Play app stores.
What inspired the creation of the Reform Luach app?
The initial work on the Reform Luach app was done by Rabbi Leon Morris with the help of Cantor Amanda Kleinman. They painstakingly created a detailed collection of valuable information for Reform communities. The app grew out of their dedication and hard work.
What makes this app different from other Jewish calendar apps?
The Reform Movement’s calendar is a combination of the Israel calendar for holidays and the diaspora calendar for Torah readings, with necessary adjustments made to keep both in sync. Other Jewish calendar apps have options for the Israel calendar or the diaspora calendar, but not both. Additionally, page numbers are included for the Reform Movement’s sacred books:Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and The Torah: A Modern Commentary.
Are there any special features of the Reform Luach app that users should know about?
The holiday and Torah portions can be downloaded to the default calendar on one’s phone, which can be synced with a larger calendar system (e.g., Outlook, Google calendar, etc.). There are links to read more about each Torah portion at ReformJudaism.org. A handy date converter is also included, which can go from Gregorian to Hebrew calendar and vice versa.
What was the most challenging part of creating this app?
The most challenging aspect of the process was initially understanding the complex interactions and special cases of the Reform Luach, and then translating the exceptions and readings into computer logic that our developers—who were not familiar with the Jewish calendar—could implement in the app. For example, when the eighth day of Passover falls on Shabbat and the following week’s reading is Sh’mini, this week’s reading becomes Sh’mini I, and the following week’s becomes Sh’mini II. However, when the following week’s reading is Acharei Mot, that reading is split into two parts and similarly applied to both weeks.
How do you recommend that people use the Reform Luach app?
There are a number of ways folks can take advantage of the Reform Luach app. Some use it as a quick reference tool to see the upcoming Torah portion or holidays, while others use it to plan their b’nei mitzvah calendar for the year by syncing all of the dates. It’s also a helpful resource for learning more about each week’s Torah portion.
In this excerpt from The Social Justice Torah Commentary, Rabbi 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, ParashatVayikra 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.
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 facesour 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.
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 theThe Mussar Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).
When I proposed The Social Justice Torah Commentary to the CCAR Press Council in December 2019, we were already in the midst of a heated presidential campaign—but then, aren’t we always? I could not have predicted the divisions and threats to democracy that were ahead. Some epidemiologists were already aware of COVID-19, but I was not. Though I had been engaged in racial justice issues for years—even specifically regarding extrajudicial executions of Black suspects by police—I could not foresee the murder of George Floyd or the way our nation would be both galvanized and divided by that crime and the protests that followed.
All that is to say that I did not expect and was not prepared to edit a Torah commentary focused on social justice in the crucible that was 2020. Contributors proposed their topics and wrote for the book during the spring, summer, and fall of last year. Though the book is dated and will be published in 2021, virtually every word of it was written and edited in 2020.
In the midst of the editing, I expressed a concern to Rafael Chaiken, Director of CCAR Press: Would the book be relevant by the time of its publication, let alone for years thereafter? So many chapters make reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, which I incorrectly imagined would be over long before the book would be in print.
Rafael calmed me. First, he reminded me that he and I had edited passages that seemed particularly tied to current events to make them more universal. Moreover, when contributing authors delved into problems that were brought into sharp relief while they were writing, they addressed larger and more timeless concerns. Even Rabbi Asher Knight’s piece on Parashat M’tzora, which addresses inequities revealed by the pandemic, is not written as a newsmagazine piece, calling for change limited to the moment of its authorship. Instead, Rabbi Knight addresses inequality that transcends the COVID-19 crisis: longstanding plagues in our healthcare system and the problematic ways people view those who are stricken. Yes, a large percentage of the book’s chapters confront racial injustice, but I hasten to note that the subject matter of virtually every commentary in the book was proposed before the murder of George Floyd.
Racial injustice is America’s most persistent and vexing malady. The summer of 2020 was a symptom of an infinitely larger problem, and no chapter of the book exclusively addresses the events of that time. Many of the commentaries on racial justice are not directly related to criminal (in)justice—including, among many others, Rabbi David Spinrad’s description of the way that systemic racism impacts access to water (Tol’dot), Ilana Kaufman’s argument for celebrating Jews of Color in our midst (B’midbar), and Rabbi Judith Schindler’s discussion of reparations (Eikev).
I am grateful, too, for contributors who proposed and wrote about injustices that are no less acute for their not having been one of the three issues most in the public eye in 2020. For example, Rabbi Marla Feldman addresses gender pay equity (B’reishit), Student Rabbi Evan Traylor confronts toxic masculinity (Vayishlach), and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss highlights mortality in childbirth (Tazria). These teachers remind us, as if we needed to be reminded, that gender equality remains an unrealized dream. I could claim that Rabbi Mary Zamore is prescient in addressing harassment in Jewish spaces (Vayikra), a topic that would explode in 2021, had Rabbi Zamore, like Rabbi Hara Person and others, not been spotlighting the issue throughout her career.
We could be forgiven for thinking that every year is election year in Israel, so 2020 was nothing special in that arena. Still, Israel is at the focus of several of our contributors’ offerings—for example, Rabbi Jeremy Barras’s chapter on the social justice imperative of supporting Israel (Lech L’cha), Rabbi Naamah Kelman’s piece on marriage inequality in Israel (Chayei Sarah), Rabbi Jill Jacobs’s critique of occupation (B’har), Rabbi Ethan Bair’s plea that we hear the full range of voices in discussions of Israel (Korach), and Rabbi Noa Sattath’s focus on Jewish supremacy (Ki Tavo).
I am grateful that CCAR Press, our diverse contributors, and I are able to present a book that delves deeply into Torah to call for justice in areas far more varied than those that rightly absorbed so much of our attention in 2020—not to mention more varied than I could name here.
Most amazing is that dozens of CCAR rabbis, rabbis of other movements, and an ACC cantor were able to muster these brilliant articles at exactly the same time that we were preparing for the most challenging and unprecedented High Holy Days of our careers. And most did so without time off that came anywhere close to approaching their usual summer downtime. For that commitment and for the sacrifice it bespeaks, our readers may be grateful.
Update: In the time since this post was published, the Supreme Court has ruled on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade. The CCAR is committed to continuing its advocacy for abortion access and reproductive rights. Read the CCAR’s statement on the Supreme Court decision.
A study by the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of American Jews say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.1 American Jews’ widespread support for permissive abortion laws finds grounding in Jewish tradition’s approach to pregnancy and its end. Though the Torah makes no specific reference to any process resembling a modern abortion, the following passage from Parashat Mishpatim provides our tradition’s earliest guidance on the termination of a pregnancy:
When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:22–25)
The passage contrasts two scenarios in which two men are fighting and accidentally strike a nearby pregnant woman. The permutations differ only in who or what is harmed. In the first, only the fetus is lost, and the punishment is a monetary fine, paid to the woman’s husband. In the second, the woman herself is harmed or killed. There, the punishment is retributive: an eye for an eye and a nefesh—literally, “soul,” but in this case meaning a human life possessing personhood—for a nefesh. From this, we may derive the principle that a woman has the full status of a person, nefesh, while the fetus—though valued—has a lesser status.
The Mishnah expands this understanding of differential value by stating that if a woman’s life is threatened in childbirth, the fetus inside her can be destroyed, even to the point of “taking it out limb from limb, for her life comes before the fetus’s life.”2 Through the graphic language of this text, the Mishnaic author leaves no ambiguity as to whose life takes precedence. This text sets the standard from which all other halachah (Jewish law) on abortion flows. Later commentators debate in great detail the implications of this text, particularly the breadth or narrowness of the definition of a threat to the life of the woman.3 Some are more permissive of a range of emotional as well as physical impacts that could justify an abortion, while others understand the instances of permissibility with excruciating parsimony. Still, from the outset, Judaism can imagine some instances when an abortion would be permitted and even required.4
Furthermore, the Gemara concludes that prior to forty days, a fetus is not a person but rather is considered “mere water.”5 The debate about abortion in America hinges on questions related to what constitutes personhood and when life begins. But these are religious and spiritual questions, about which people of faith and conviction can disagree.
The Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that abortion is protected under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees a right to privacy, including a right to private medical procedures. For American Jews, the protection of access to abortion could also be understood under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. Because Jewish law permits abortion under certain circumstances as a morally acceptable choice, or even in some cases a halachic requirement, any law that limits a woman’s right to choose might limit a Jewish woman’s ability to make a decision in accordance with her religious beliefs. When people of faith seek to adopt laws asserting when life begins, they endeavor to enshrine their own religious understanding in law. In civic discourse, the fact that Judaism understands these issues differently can be a powerful antidote to the pervasive sense that religious voices are only to be found on one side of this debate. Judaism is unequivocally “pro-life” in that it values life in all its forms, both actualized and potential. But where that term has come to mean “anti-abortion,” then it is clear that Judaism allows for abortion under at least some circumstances and therefore calls us to advocate for civil laws that protect a woman’s right to access abortion services.
These texts and their subsequent interpretations are a vital resource for all of us who seek to affirm Jewish support for the choice to terminate a pregnancy and to advocate from a Jewish perspective for laws that protect reproductive choice. And we are called to go further; the law is only one facet of a full and holistic justice. Even as Parashat Mishpatim guides us to a choice-oriented understanding of abortion law, it also leaves us with the injustice of a silenced story.
The text in Exodus 21 begins with an act of violence perpetrated against a pregnant woman, and yet this woman is all but absent from subsequent conversation about this passage. Across the centuries, almost all of the voices of Jewish interpretation, and even many modern commentators, fail to acknowledge her story. The interpreters miss the opportunity to see her as subject, rather than object. To see the woman in this text as merely a hypothetical in a legal case study is to deny that cases such as these were very real to the people who experienced them. To reach a full sense of justice in our understanding of abortion, we must pair mishpatim (laws) with sipurim (stories). …
The full chapter by Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler and Rabbi Emily Langowitz appears in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block. To learn more and pre-order the book, visit socialjustice.ccarpress.org.
3. We recognize the complexity of this term and acknowledge that it is not only women who experience pregnancy and abortion and also that not all women can experience pregnancy. We offer this word for simplicity but intend it to include a broad range of experiences and identities.
4. Many trace the split between lenient and strict positions to Rashi and Maimonides, respectively. See Rashi’s comment on Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzei-ach Ushmirat Nefesh 1:9. Rashi defines the fetus as non-nefesh (in keeping with our passage in Exodus), while Maimonides focuses his discussion on the fetus as a rodeif (meaning only if the fetus is actively pursuing the life of the mother should the pregnancy be terminated). For fuller discussion of the halachic texts that flow from each side, see Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
5. Babylonian Talmud, Y’vamot 69b.
Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixlerserves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas.
Rabbi Emily Langowitz serves as program manager for Jewish learning and engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.
Rarely does one have the opportunity to create a new edition of a book many in our movement have grown up with: B’chol L’vavcha: With All Your Heart: A Commentary on the Prayer Book, the beloved magnum opus of Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, z’’l, who was a rabbi, teacher, and friend to many Reform rabbis, cantors, and congregants alike. His warm, clear, and accessible writing provided introductions to and meditations on the major prayers of the previous Reform siddur, Gates of Prayer, for adults, teens, and children—equally useful in adult education, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, and religious school.
And it still does. However, the third edition of B’chol L’vavcha, just released by CCAR Press, adds new layers of learning and teaching to the familiar book. Many female and queer rabbis and teachers have found their way onto the pages as commentators; the book itself is the product of the labors of one Reform cantor, Sarah Grabiner, and two Reform rabbis, Hilly Haber and myself. Many contemporary poems and prayers have been added to bring diversity, new depths, new meanings, and new Torah to the familiar liturgy. Newly added sections—Kiddush and Havdalah—reflect today’s reality in which we, as Reform Jews, do not pray only in our synagogues, but just as often in our homes, particularly during the past pandemic year. However, perhaps the most basic but also the most remarkable change is the shift from the language and layout of Gates of Prayer to the words and aesthetics of Mishkan T’filah, making the third edition the perfect companion for any teaching on prayer, including iyunei t’filah.
Let me give you two examples:
Accompanying the Sh’ma, you will find this prayerful version by Rabbi Emily Langowitz:
Eloheinu Is our God
Echad Is One.
Listen, God-struggler. Was-Is-WillBe is a reflection of my own divinity. Was-Is-WillBe, the One who moves the universe, the One who knows that being can never be static, the One in whose image I am made, bears witness to my own unity.
I give thanks to that Spirit of life who allows for the continued revelation of self.
I marvel at the wonder of sexuality unfolding.
I lift up the truth of all the ways I have loved, do love, will love.
Critics hate the scene. It’s manufactured. It never happened. Fake news.
I’m talking about the episode in The Darkest Hour, when Winston Churchill, brilliantly portrayed by Gary Oldman, abandons his chauffeur-driven car in a traffic jam and takes his maiden voyage on London’s Underground to get to a cabinet meeting on time. There, he interacts with ordinary citizens who buttress the Prime Minister’s faith that surrender is not an option. The British people would rather fight to their own deaths than subjugate themselves to the Nazi monster.
No, Churchill didn’t take the Underground. Still, the encounter is true. Prime Minister Churchill was indeed inspired by the resolve of ordinary British subjects. History’s largest civilian sea evacuation of a military force at Dunkirk — compellingly portrayed in two films this year, both Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour — proves the point. The British people were truly willing to risk their lives to save themselves and their island from tyranny.
I have often taught that “truth” and “historical accuracy” are not the same thing. Torah, rather than contemporary film, has typically been my text. Take, for example, two different midrashim, rabbinic interpretations, of God’s revelation and the Children of Israel’s acceptance of Torah. In one, the Holy One offers Torah to one nation after the other. Each nation asks what’s in it, quickly rejecting Torah because of its prohibition of murder, stealing, and the like. Only Israel welcomes Torah without question. Another midrash, on the other hand, imagines that God lifts Mount Sinai off its foundation, holding the entire mountain over the Israelites’ heads, threatening to bury them under it if they will not accept Torah.
Did either version of these events actually happen? Did the rabbis even imagine that they had? No. The rabbis weren’t writing history. They were teaching religious truths. One midrash argues that there are times when we must proceed on faith alone, following a God Who has earned our trust. The other acknowledges that Torah can be a burden which we may be hard-pressed to observe.
I understand why the reviewers abhor The Darkest Hour’s Underground scene. Truth is under assault in America today. National leaders eagerly purvey falsehoods to reinforce the narratives they want our population to embrace. Our prayer book is among the many Jewish sources that extol truth, insisting that it’s “first and last.”
The Darkest Hour doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. It’s not a history book with footnotes. Instead, it’s a work of art, creatively portraying an historical period to teach timeless truths. We might call it midrash.
As we journey the Book of Exodus, and extending through Passover, we may be repeatedly subjected to arguments about whether the Exodus ever happened. Rabbi David Wolpe, who (in)famously gave a sermon suggesting that it had not, faced a Herculean task in the December 24 New York Times, reviewing a new book that claims that at least some version of the Exodus did happen, The Exodus, by Richard Elliot Friedman.
The Exodus, like Churchill’s descent to the Underground, might never have happened. The story, though, is indisputably true. God is our hope and our salvation, assigning to the Jewish people a Moses-like responsibility to partner with the Holy One to bring liberation to all the world. That’s true, whether it happened or not.
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.
Perhaps you are like me – stumbling through my days in a perpetual state of exhaustion. It could be for many reasons: long hours of work, the weight from our personal lives due to matters we are facing individually, and, perhaps even weightier, issues our loved ones are facing, which we can’t help but carry with us. We are exhausted from the human and natural disasters in our immediate communities, in our nation, and lands across oceans; the tentacles of these tragedies reach as close as the smart phones in our pockets, and the news alerts literally flashing before our eyes, even as we close them in sleep.
It’s probably time for a very long nap.
Unfortunately, sleeping through life is not an option. One of my strategies for gathering energy is to heed our tradition’s call to Torah. Often, I experience the text as a source of sustenance and strength. This week’s portion, Vayera, is a rich collection of legend and lesson, but it does contain a pericope that threatened to deplete my already low reserves, as it is both distasteful and shockingly relevant: the second episode when Abraham passes off Sarah as his sister in return for his safety and for profit. In and of itself, this episode is highly disturbing. But here we are, tackling it for a second week in a row. Facing it again is an exhausting task, especially knowing that we will only have a week of relief before encountering it for yet a third time, when we turn to Toldot and confront Abraham’s son, Isaac, committing the same atrocity against his wife, Rebecca.
There are plenty of objectionable texts scattered throughout our sacred literature, but somehow this motif has always felt particularly offensive to me. Maybe those of you with Biblical names share with me a sense of personal investment in your namesake; Sarah’s narratives tug at me with an almost familiar grip. It could also be that, unlike other troubling texts, this one comes at us again and again and again. This thudding repetition is a searing reminder of the ugly misogyny embedded in our tradition. This year, it carries a more deeply resounding echo, coming in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, amid the scores of declarations surging forth. The description of Abraham’s growing accumulation of wealth and his continuing rise in stature, emerging from the exploitation of Sarah’s body, palpably repulses me. I hear in Abraham’s weak protestation that he felt endangered, in his deflection claiming the people of Gerar don’t fear Adonai, in his irrelevant explanation that Sarah actually is his sister (sort of), echoes of Weinstein’s nauseating attempt at an apology: he is suffering from an illness, he is a product of a different normative reality, he really does respect women and support women.
I recognize that this text was written in ancient times, with different social mores and gender roles. But this is not a justification. The bulk of the Torah, including passages buttressing this incident, completely upend norms, voicing calls for radical theological and moral change. The Torah is a force for good.
It may feel wrong for me to compare Harvey Weinstein to Avraham Avinu. I was sickened thinking this, and questioned whether I should articulate it. But we can’t avoid discomfort any longer. The fact is, this text makes me feel marginalized and injured by our tradition. And if a desire to protect what we love and who we are dissuades me from sharing this truth, or prevents others from hearing it, we are not going to get anywhere in tackling the issues that our community – Abraham and Sarah’s very descendants – are living in this moment. If we can’t struggle with the reporting of Abraham’s offense, how can we find the courage to face what has been said about Elie Weisel, what has been admitted by Leon Weiseltier? And if we can’t open ourselves to recognizing the misdeeds of our heroes, our teachers, how will we be able to in any way tolerate dealing with violations committed by our colleagues and friends? How will we be able to be honest in facing our own acts of silence and complicity?
The Talmud teaches, “ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim – the actions of the fathers are signals to the sons.” Isaac is evidence that no matter what the historical or cultural context, turning away from what is ugly and hiding what is unjust and immoral, will reinforce instead of resist offensive behavior.
Commentators grapple with this sister/wife motif, but fall short of expressing outrage at Abraham’s behavior. However, the greatest authoritative voice in Jewish tradition has expressed the horror of this episode: the voice of the Torah itself. That this story finds itself in the text not once, not twice, but three times, is a call to attention. What felt to me incessant I now realize is insistent.
Only in facing the distaste I felt for this passage, and in overcoming my fear of publicly addressing it, did I recognize what now seems so obvious. The power and wisdom of our text is that it provokes us to face the worst of who we are with the purpose of instigating us to become the best of who we are.
The retelling of this story – a story still continuing until today – is a reminder that as much as we might be embarrassed or shamed or hurt by a part of our collective history, or even an episode in the personal narrative of our lives, such reportings must not be ignored or pushed into the shadows. We must give voice to them and face their implications.
I know we come to this moment tired. But we cannot perpetually sleepwalk through the minefields of our lives. We may encounter the words inked onto our scrolls, and the actions etched into our days, feeling defensive, guarded, exhausted. But we carry with us silos of strength and energy. We are bolstered by the resonant voice of our Torah that incessantly and insistently pushes us towards better, urging us to do the work – the hard work – that is our sacred task.
Rabbi Sarah Reines serves as the interim associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel in NY.
If ever you meet a fellow Jew and you can’t place where you’ve met before, after a game of “Jewish Geography,” you might just concede and say, “well, at least I know we were together at Sinai.” For it is said, that the souls of ALL Jews (even those who choose Judaism later in life) were together at Mount Sinai to receive and witness the revelation of Torah.
As we rejoice in the holiday of Shavuot- the holiday that commemorates the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, we actually have an opportunity to remind ourselves that the Torah and the wisdom of Judaism continues to be revealed to us each and every day.
Thanks to my friend and mentor, Rabbi Jeff Sirkman I have learned to call any moment of revelation a “Sinai Moment,” in honor of the fact that we all have a chance to “stand at Sinai,” we all can have a sense of revelation that in some way deepens our connection to Torah, our faith and Judaism in general.
Without going into all the “mushy details,” for me, a major “Sinai Moment” in my life came on my second date with my husband. As he stood outside the Karaoke restaurant where we were to meet, I looked up and just felt a sense of revelation- I knew something was different, I knew I was experiencing something incredibly special in my life. I didn’t know what exactly, but I knew something was being revealed to me. Some of you may even be able to pinpoint one or hopefully multiple “Sinai Moments” in your own life. Was it the birth of a child? Or when, thank God, you overcame something terrible in your life? Or was it something else?
Right now and at all times we should be open to witnessing a “Sinai Moment.” At this very moment, each of us can live out the words expressed in Deuteronomy 29:14, and be like our elders who stood at Sinai and those who weren’t there, but still accept Torah. We can make the decision to accept Torah, in that we must take on the challenge to live out what it means to be Jewish and to be part of a community, in whatever way it is revealed to you.
Like all of the souls at Sinai, we need to actively accept the yoke of being a Jew and being part of a community. Together it is up to us to do our part to remember the past, celebrate the present, and secure the future of Judaism by being open to “Sinai Moments” and all moments of Revelation.
Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov serves Temple Anshe Hesed in Erie, PA. She also blogs about the recent loss of her father at www.kaddishformydad.com