Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation


Proclaim Liberty . . . That Means North Carolina too!

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Paul J Everett.

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Paul J Everett.

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land; to all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25.10) So states our Torah portion this week, Behar. We know this verse as Jews. For us as Americans, though, this verse is seared into our minds, as it is carved into the Liberty Bell, which we can view in its glass encasement in Philadelphia. In the Torah, the verse occurs within the context of the Jubilee year, in which slaves are freed and lands revert back to their original owners. In America, the meaning is much broader: freedom from religious tyranny, freedom from externally imposed taxation, freedom of intellectual inquiry and development. The Declaration of Independence spoke of all human beings as being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

While this aspiration, born of the Enlightenment, was revolutionary in history, it would seem that all the logical extensions of the principle were not “self-evident.” At the time this verse from Leviticus was carved into the Liberty Bell, slavery still existed in America. Women’s rights were barely recognized and sorely limited. Various religious groups still suffered discrimination and exclusion at the hands of the majority populations of the localities in which they lived. LGBTQ rights? Forget it.

In the long history of humanity, we recognize that our country is still relatively young, and is still experiencing growing pains, frustrating as they are. We have had to evolve in our understanding and recognition of concepts and human realities that never had been recognized before. The argument over the rights of the transgender community is the latest, but certainly not the last frontier of the ongoing struggle to fully realize the aspiration of the liberty that is expressed on the Liberty Bell. At the moment, the spotlight is on the outrageous and unacceptable attempts of the State Legislature to discriminate against transgender individuals. The law that this body passed puts into place a statewide policy that bans individuals from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex – the sex they were born with. It also prevents cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBTQ people, and in this case, particularly “T.” NC Governor McCrory has vowed to uphold this law. This is a heinous act on the part of the NC state house, and must be fought by freedom-loving people all over the country. Similar laws are being crafted in other states as well. There was even one introduced into the Assembly of our very own state of New York, but was defeated. Thankfully our own Governor Cuomo signed a non-discrimination bill into law. But we note with sadness the recent attack upon a transgender individual right in our own backyard of Park Slope. So we have a lot of work to do.

While our Founding Fathers considered “unalienable rights” to be “self-evident,” it is clear that the fine points of what is included in these rights is anything but self-evident. Those of us who are concerned with the fullest realization of this aspiration, however, continue to the struggle with what it must mean for all of us. I am proud of our Reform Movement for its discussion and passage of the Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People at the Biennial Convention in Atlanta this past November.

Perhaps the most salient verse for us that is contained within our Torah is back at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, with the creation of human beings B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. “And God created the human in God’s image; male and female, God created them; and God blessed them.” (Genesis 1.27-28) Ultimately this is the source of our “unalienable rights,” and we are all obligated to respect and promote them.

Demand Justice

You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich, judge your neighbor fairly. (Leviticus 19.15)
 Merrick Garland from White House website on the day he was nominated by President Obama for the Supreme Court.

Merrick Garland from White House website on the day he was nominated by President Obama for the Supreme Court.

This week we are reading the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus. In addition to this calendrical position in the lectionary, the Reform Movement also chose this portion as the Torah reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur. It is that important and fundamental to the ethical framework of Jewish teaching. The verse I have quoted above from the “Holiness Code” is addressed to judges. The admonition is clear. It is an eloquent expression of the aspiration of Biblical Israel to create a justice system in which everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. There have been various artistic representations throughout history of “Blind Justice,” which represent the Biblical aspiration. Judges are expected to render their decisions based upon their interpretation of the law, and not upon favoritism toward the rich or sympathy toward the poor.

In all the head-spinning of the last few months of the Presidential campaign, it has almost all but been forgotten that there remains a vacancy on the Supreme Court, after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. President Obama, in fulfilling his Constitutional responsibility, has put forth a worthy candidate to be vetted and voted upon by the Senate. As yet, there has been virtually no movement on the approval and confirmation on Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. This is a blatant dereliction of duty on the part of the Senate. Justice seems to be the last thing on the minds of the senators who have refused to proceed with this Constitutional process until a new president takes office. At the moment, I won’t even begin to comment on the stakes for the future of American democracy if this obstructionism is allowed to continue.

While the United States is structured as a civil society and not a theocracy, there is no question that Biblical teaching informed the sensibilities of the framers of our Constitution and continues to inform our sensibilities as a nation. The notion of being “holy” within the Biblical framework means that the Jewish people are “set apart” from the surrounding peoples with regard to faith, religious observance, and ethical teachings. But the notion of being “set apart” ought to apply to the United States as well, with regard to our aspirations as nation to establish equal opportunity and equal treatment for all who come to these shores. If the judicial system is co-opted in a dangerous political tug-of-war, the risks to our democracy are very great. If we think of ourselves as a great nation, then we need to be better than that.