On Thursday, November 10, 2016, I walked into class at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York disoriented and in despair. Just two days before, I had arrived at school wearing an old pantsuit with an “I voted!” sticker on my lapel, full of excitement.
That afternoon, I was scheduled to teach the biblical concept of “an eye for an eye,” part of a two-part lesson in Teaching Bible to Adults that compares how ancient interpreters and modern biblical scholars treat a challenging biblical concept. My co-teacher, Lisa Grant, and I quickly agreed to scrap the lesson plan and instead share with our students the biblical texts we were thinking about on that day.
I first said to my students: “We study Torah so that we can turn to our sacred text at times like this, when we and those we serve most need guidance, comfort, and support.” I then recounted a story told in Exodus 15:22-25: Immediately after crossing the sea and celebrating with gratitude and wonder, the Israelites hit the road, only to find themselves without water for three days. When they finally encounter a source of water at a place aptly named Marah, they cannot drink the water, because it is bitter. After the people complain to Moses, he cries out to God for help. God shows him a piece of wood, which Moses then throws into the water, and the bitter water becomes sweet.
“American Values Religious Voices” is my stick.
That class got me thinking about the potential role that Bible scholars might be able to play at this moment in our nation’s history, particularly given the number of elected officials, like soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence, who purport to bring a strong religious sensibility to their work. So the idea developed of gathering the collective wisdom of teachers of religious scripture to articulate to our political leaders what we believe are core American values rooted and reflected in our various faith traditions. What if we could send a one-page letter to the new President, Vice President, Cabinet Secretaries, and Members of the House and Senate for each of the first 100 days of the new term? What if we could put 100 pictures of that diverse group of scholars all on one page, to show what America really looks like and what really makes America great?
It just so happened that HUC-JIR’s Symposium One took place the weekend after the election. Not only was its topic relevant, particularly with the first day’s focus on “The Role of Progressive Religion in an Increasingly Fundamentalist World,” but it just felt good to be with colleagues and students. The gathering gave me a chance to pitch my idea to President Aaron Panken, who immediately offered to fund the project.
At the Society of Biblical Literature-American Academy of Religion annual meeting a few days later, I shopped the idea around to as many scholars as possible. Throughout the conference, I started collecting what would eventually become a chart with names of 255 potential contributors. At the same time, I sent an email to my friend Lisa Weinberger, Creative Director and Founder of Masters Group Design in Philadelphia. Not quite realizing the scope of my request, I asked: “Would you be willing to lend your design expertise to help create a website and develop the other graphic elements the project might entail?” Lisa responded “Yes!” right away, and since then has spent the past two months working tirelessly with me to turn an ambitious idea into a concrete reality.
You can see the results of our efforts and learn more about the campaign at www.valuesandvoices.com. I invite you to subscribe to the letters, provide a link to the campaign on your synagogue or organization communications, and preach, teach, or write about the campaign and the content of the letters. Follow us and like us on social media, and encourage your followers to do the same, using the hashtag #valuesandvoices:
In Exodus, when our ancestors wandering in the wilderness face a dire situation, God does not simply fix the problem. God shows Moses a stick. Moses is the one who picks it up and throws it in the water. What is your stick?
Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss serves as Associate Professor of Bible at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She also served as Associate Editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, now available from CCAR Press.