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Books CCAR Press Torah

Challah as a Creative Language: Rabbi Vanessa Harper on Shaping Challah into Torah in Her New Book, ‘Loaves of Torah’

Rabbi Vanessa M. Harper, author of Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah, offers a preview of the book and reflects on how to creatively engage with Torah.

The most important preparation I had for the rabbinate (aside from my training at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, of course) came from my experience as a preschool teacher. And one of the most important things I learned in that role is that play and the exploration of different creative languages—like clay, paint, movement, song, cooking, etc.—are not only vital to our development when we are children, but that they open up entirely new pathways of thinking, learning, teaching, and experiencing the world even when we are adults. 

One of my soul’s creative languages, as it turns out, happens to be challah dough. This discovery gave rise to @lechlechallah—an Instagram-based project of interpreting Torah and Jewish tradition through intricate challah designs and accessible commentary—which in turn gave rise to a book of Torah commentary, Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah.

Loaves of Torah is, at its heart, an invitation to engage with Torah differently. As with @lechlechallah, the first thing you see when you open to a chapter is the image—a shape made from what is recognizably (in most cases!) challah dough, but not in the typical form we’ve come to expect; and each one an interpretation or teaching of Torah, though again, not in a form we typically expect Torah to take. It’s playful and serious, contemporary and traditional, immediately accessible and requiring interpretation all at the same time—much like Torah itself! 

The images invite one into the written commentary, which expounds upon the same verse as the midrashic challah image; the commentary is intended to be fresh and accessible to students of Torah at many levels. The really good stuff is what comes next: the questions for further study and the prompts for exploring the themes of the parashah or holiday through a creative medium or approach of your choosing. These are the invitations to the reader to take Torah into their own hands—not just to look at my response to the text, but to use it as inspiration to create a response of their own, in whichever language they wish to express themselves, whether it’s in words or a different creative medium (pro tip: there are a few years’ worth of Torah study discussion questions and classroom activities in here). And yes, there is a challah recipe, as well as instructions for how to shape the basic building blocks of my challah designs, for those who want to try their hand at making their own interpretive challot.

During the Revelation at Sinai, we read of the Israelites’ experience that “all the people saw the voices (ro-im et hakolot) and the flames and the voice of the shofar and the mountain smoking” (Exodus 20:15). That the Israelites saw sounds at Sinai is already interesting, but that they saw kolot, voices, is especially so. The Rabbis expound on this phenomenon in Sh’mot Rabbah, teaching: “Come and see how [God’s] voice would go out among Israel: each and every one according to [their] strength….Since the manna, which was one type, changed to many types according to the need of each and every one, all the more so, the voice…would change for each and every one” (5:9). The Rabbis teach that God spoke to each Israelite in a different voice at Sinai—hundreds of thousands of individualized voices of God speaking at once, using the precise language that each soul would best understand. Every person standing at Sinai that day experienced the same Revelation, but no two people experienced God’s voice in the same way. So too, all of us, whose souls were also present at Sinai, carry a different divine voice within that reveals a unique facet of Torah.

Each of these pieces of revelation is precious, and each comes with a different divine voice. A person’s Torah, therefore, is only revealed when we create space for the language that their soul speaks to flourish. My deepest hope is that Loaves of Torah creates some of that space for new Torah to be revealed by inviting more languages, more voices, into our Jewish learning and living spaces, as we continue to shape the collective Torah which we will pass on to the next generation.


Rabbi Vanessa M. Harper is Senior Director of Adult Jewish Living at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Reform Rabbi in Residence at Gann Academy. She is the author of Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah (CCAR Press, 2023).

Categories
Books CCAR Press Poetry Torah

The Challenges of Writing Modern Midrash: Alden Solovy on ‘These Words’

Liturgist and poet Alden Solovy discusses the inspiration behind These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah, his writing process, and his hopes for the book’s impact.

What inspired These Words?

The language of Torah, its richness and nuance, begs not only for exploration, but for celebration in poetry. Throughout Jewish history, Torah has been our single greatest writing prompt for scholars, mystics, poets, musicians—all of us.

This is your fourth CCAR Press volume. How does it differ from your other works?

The previous volumes provide poetic liturgy. This book combines expository writing with poetic interpretation of Torah. I explore seventy words of Torah with deep dive essays into each word, followed by a poetic midrash inspired by that research.

What was the most challenging part of writing this volume?

Switching back and forth between left-brain Torah study and right-brain poetic interpretation was a constant challenge. What challenged me most, however, was the research. Each word is a universe, spectacular in depth and meaning. I felt compelled to keep learning and learning about each word.

How did you select the words in the book?

My selection process was more art than science. I began with a set of 120 words that interested me, supplemented by words suggested by friends. From there, the words themselves guided me to add, remove, or replace them, prompted by my explorations.

How did writing this book impact you?

Writing These Words was a profound and transcendent experience. I experienced what I can only describe as a “Torah trance” mind state. Intense. Beautiful. Challenging. Frightening. After the book was completed, I then faced my first post-writing melancholy. Later, rereading the book in print, I found an unprecedented joy and elation having written a volume of modern Torah midrash—I didn’t know that was in me. 

How do you hope These Words will impact readers?

Wouldn’t it be beautiful if reading this book inspired others into their own journeys of exploring words of Torah? I hope the book will be used in Torah study, for writing sermons, as part of interfaith dialogue, and as a source of readings used in worship. Most of all, I hope the book inspires more poetry rooted directly in learning Torah.

Alden is available to visit communities for speaker events and book clubs. For more information, please email bookevents@ccarpress.org.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, and These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah, all published by CCAR Press. Read more of his writing at tobendlight.com.

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Books CCAR Press Torah

Reclaiming Prophetic Judaism: Rabbi Barbara AB Symons on Her New Book, ‘Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah’

Rabbi Barbara AB Symons, editor of Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah, discusses the origins of the volume, the process of creating it, and what she hopes it will bring to the haftarah canon.

What was the inspiration for Prophetic Voices?  

In synagogues, as a faculty member at URJ camps, and at the URJ Biennial, I came to the realization that we were not hearing from the prophets. My own rabbinic education also lacked such focus, even though we in the Reform Movement spoke of “Prophetic Judaism.” It was an issue beyond Jewish literacy; it was an issue of not being called to action. At a conference run by the Religious Action Center in 2018, the final (brilliant!) session was an offer to take the microphone, share an idea about social justice, and invite others to join you for an hour to work on it. Over the following year and a half, on and off, our small group continued to work on it, and that eventually led to my proposal to CCAR Press.

Was there something new you personally learned while working on the book? 

Many things! I learned about the history of the haftarah cycle and how the term “Prophetic Judaism” came to be. I was reminded how the haftarah has the flexibility to connect to any part of the Torah portion, which is an invitation for creativity. I learned how much insight contributors can share in a mere 250 words, and I was exposed to many of the alternative texts for the first time. 

What was the most challenging part of editing this volume? 

With 179 contributors, there were a lot of emails! Because of the skills of the CCAR Press team, who were the professionals, the most challenging part for me ended up being helping potential contributors understand what this book was seeking to accomplish.

How did you determine which additional Jewish American holidays would receive haftarah readings?   

We had an open call and gave the examples of Independence Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pride Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Juneteenth, and Mother’s/Father’s Day. Forty-two holidays ultimately appeared in my inbox, characterized by authenticity, passion, insight, and vulnerability.

How do you hope readers will use Prophetic Voices

I hope that it will bring the prophets and prophet-like voices beyond the bimah and the sanctuary into our daily lives. Each interpretation ends with a call to action. Some are direct, some are indirect, and some are questions, but overall the idea is to reclaim Prophetic Judaism as a verb.

The subtitle for this book mentions “renewing and reimagining” the haftarah cycle. What do you mean by that?  

“Renewing” refers to better understanding and finding relevance and inspiration from the prophets of the traditional haftarah cycle (such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos). “Reimagining” refers to allowing haftarah, which means “conclusion,” to go beyond the N’vi-im (Prophets) section of the Hebrew Bible to texts that deserve to be “between the blessings.” Those texts include verses from the K’tuvim (Writings)—such as Job and Psalms—and expand into Jewish texts from the Talmud, poetry across the ages, music lyrics, fiction pieces, official government declarations, speeches, and more. These not only conclude the Torah reading but punctuate it. Furthermore, the book offers three new haftarah cycles: the Omer cycle, the Elul cycle, and the Winter cycle (from Thanksgiving to Chanukah).

Rabbi Barbara AB Symons is the rabbi of Temple David in Monroeville, PA, and the editor of Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah (CCAR Press, 2023). Rabbi Symons and select contributors are available to visit communities for speaker events and lifelong learning classes. For more information, please email bookevents@ccarpress.org.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Poetry Torah

From Imposter to Midrashist: Writing ‘These Words’

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.”

These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah is available for pre-order at thesewords.ccarpress.org.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press. Read more of his writing at tobendlight.com.

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CCAR Press Reform Judaism Technology

CCAR Press Interview: Rabbi Dan Medwin on the Reform Luach App

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 SiddurThe 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.

Learn more about more CCAR Press Reform Jewish apps at apps.ccarpress.org


Rabbi Dan Medwin is the designer of the Reform Luach app. Previously, he was the CCAR Director of Digital Media.

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).

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Editing ‘The Social Justice Torah Commentary’ in the Crucible of 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.


The Social Justice Torah Commentary will be published in November 2021 and is now available for pre-order. Browse the table of contents here. Those who pre-order are eligible to receive online access to the initial parashot to begin the year of Torah study. Forward your confirmation email to info@ccarpress.org to request access.


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is also the editor of  The Mussar Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).

Categories
Books CCAR Press Torah

Abortion and Reproductive Justice: A Jewish Perspective

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. 

In light of the recent Texas anti-abortion law that has gone into effect, we are sharing this excerpt about reproductive justice from The Social Justice Torah Commentary, forthcoming in November 2021 from CCAR Press.

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.


1. Pew Research Center, “Views about Abortion among Jews,” Religious Landscape Study, 2014, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape- study/religious-tradition/jewish/views-about-abortion/.

2. Mishnah Ohalot 7:6.

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. Fixler serves 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.

Categories
Books News Prayer

B’chol L’vavcha: Renewing a Classic

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:

Sh’ma Listen.

Yisrael God-struggler.

Adonai Was-Is-WillBe

Eloheinu Is our God

Adonai Was-Is-WillBe

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.

.בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ, אַחְדוּת הָעוֹלָם, שֹֹֹֹּּּּוֹמַעַת הָאֱמֶת

B’ruchah at Yah, achdut ha-olam, shomaat ha-emet.

Blessed are You, Oneness of the world, who hears my Truth.[1]

And the book closes with a moving reflection by Rabbi Andrea Weiss, PhD, Provost at HUC-JIR:

Lech L’cha

Go forth on a journey.

Go by yourself.

Standing at a crossroad

You venture from the known to the unknown.

Some journeys must be made alone.

Go to yourself:

Spiral inward and unwrap your past

And your potential.

Remember that the soul which you have made

Is unique and holy.

Go for yourself:

Smell the fragrance

Which spread across the land

As you roam and wander.

Refresh yourself

Under the tree which grows by a spring

At the side of the road.

Make your name great and

Make your life a blessing.[2]

Go and have a look at this book, so that it can accompany you and your people on your journeys!


Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, is the Editor at CCAR Press.


[1] Previously published in Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells , edited by Rabbi Denise Eger (New York: CCAR Press, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Emily Langowitz.

[2] Previously published in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: CCAR Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008). Copyright © 2008 by Andrea Weiss.