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In the Footsteps of Heroic Women

Last week we began our reading of the Book of Exodus, and the beginning of our enslavement in Egypt. Moses is undoubtedly the most preeminent figure in the story as it unfolds, and indeed, henceforth through to the end of the Torah. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the most heroic figures of last week’s portion are women: Yocheved, the mother of Moses; Miriam, Moses’ sister; and the two midwives, Shifra and Puah. The cruel and despotic Pharaoh orders all Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the Nile to drown, lest someday they rise up in combat against him. Shifra and Puah carry out their own personal resistance to this brutality by deliberately saving the Hebrew baby boys. When Yocheved gives birth to a baby boy, she hides him for a short while, but then takes desperate measures to save him. She places him in a wicker basket, wraps him in swaddling cloth, and enlists her daughter Miriam to follow him and watch over him as he floats down the river. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh who pulls him out of the Nile and adopts him. Miriam volunteers to “find” her a wet nurse, and “finds” Yocheved, making it possible for Moses to live with his own family for a time. And thus in addition to the four women I have mentioned, we must mention the daughter of Pharaoh, known in the Midrashic tradition as “Bityah.” While she knew the baby was a Hebrew, she participated in saving him, and went on to raise him as her own beloved son.

The salvation of the Children of Israel begins with women – women who are not afraid to stand up to the power and brutality of Pharaoh.
This past Saturday was a remarkable day indeed. On the very Shabbat when we were reading the stories of Yocheved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, and Bityah, a great “Women’s March” took place all over our country, and all over the world – millions of women, and men as well, marching shoulder to shoulder – to rise up against the intimidation and wrong-headed policies of the newly-installed Trump presidency.

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Women’s March in Washington D.C. 2017. Courtesy Wikimedia

(There were even 30 people marching in Antarctica!) A group of us left together from Union Temple after services and took the subway to East 14th Street in Manhattan, where we met up with several hundred Jews from the Downtown Kehilah, a consortium of liberal congregations in Lower Manhattan. We marched together up 2nd Avenue to 42nd Street, where we joined some 400,000 of our fellow New Yorkers in an unbelievable throng that stretched all across 42nd Street and then up 5th Avenue to Trump Tower. While we may have lost an election, we have not lost our values. The message was clear: we intend to uphold our values and our rights, and fight tooth and nail against those who would seek to undermine them.

Lest we forget, the day after the march, Sunday, January 22, was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. The decision put an end to underground networks and back-alley butchers, unwanted pregnancies, and risks to the physical and/or mental well-being of women and girls all over our country. Decisions over women’s reproductive lives were no longer the domain of elected officials, but rather the domain of women themselves – in consultation with their doctors and medical professionals, and, when appropriate, with their families and members of clergy. But the government is once again taking aim at the gamut of women’s health issues, particularly when it comes to reproductive choice. And while now the federal government is key, the state houses are critical as well, regarding the statutes in the health codes and criminal codes of individual states.

Here’s one way we New Yorkers can stand up to this now more imminent threat to women’s rights and integrity. As I have announced previously, on Monday, January 30, I am going to be in Albany at a Day of Action coordinated by Family Planning Advocates (FPA) in cooperation with Planned Parenthood of New York. I am a member of FPA’s Concerned Clergy for Choice. There is still a small window of opportunity for you to attend this important day of education and lobbying the members of the Assembly and State Senate. The information follows. I hope you will decide to attend, as we walk in the footsteps of the heroines of our people.

Tzedek U’mishpat – Righteousness and Justice

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At the 1963 March on Washington, left to right: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, Walter Reuther and Rabbi Joachim Prinz.

The Prophets of Israel raised their voices in the name of righteousness and justice. In fact these two concepts appear as a word pair numerous times throughout the Prophetic books of the Bible. In Hebrew, the word pair is צדק ומשפט – tzedek u’mishpat.

This week began with our celebration of the birthday of the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., surely one of the greatest prophets of our time, or any other. His soaring oratory and his clarion call for צדק ומשפט – righteousness and justice – inspired the hearts of all who heard it, and it is a message that continues to resonate around the world. The Jewish alliance with Dr. King was born out of that message that resides in our shared Biblical tradition and historic experiences.

This week will end with the inauguration of a new president, one who made it his obsession to delegitimize President Barack Obama – an obsession motivated by racism and xenophobia. Now he has publicly and brazenly insulted and denigrated one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, Congressman John Lewis, a man who has devoted his life to the cause of צדק ומשפט – righteousness and justice.

It is perhaps fortuitous, perhaps ironic, or perhaps a little of both, that on this coming Shabbat we will begin our reading of the Book of Exodus and the story of our people’s enslavement in Egypt by a cruel and despotic leader. In our Passover Haggadah we read the litany of our troubled history, as we repeat the refrain, “many tyrants have risen against us.” It will be incumbent upon us, out of the foundational narrative of our history as a People, and our more recent history as champions of tzedek u’mishpat, to stand up and speak out to uphold these values in the face of pressure that we can only now anticipate with great alarm.

In this spirit, I offer an extraordinary speech that was given at the March on Washington as a “warm-up,” if you will, to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I have sent it to you in years past, but it is worthwhile for us to listen again. The speech was delivered by Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz, z”l, the then Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Livingston, NJ. He was on the podium alongside Dr. King at the march in his capacity as President of the American Jewish Congress. Read the text and listen to Dr. Prinz. He refers to the experience of Egypt as our spiritual and historic motivation.

Words That Come From the Heart, Enter the Heart

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Meryl Streep Calls Out Trump for Imitating Disabled Reporter at the 2016 Golden Globe Awards

Some of you may have seen the Golden Globe Awards on TV last Sunday night. Meryl Streep was awarded the 2017 Cecil B. DeMille Award, a special award for her astonishing range, skill, and depth as an actress, and for the profound impact she has had upon all of us through her extraordinary gift. During her acceptance speech, she leveled stinging criticism against President Elect Trump, specifically for his public and unabashed mocking of a disabled news reporter, who had called out Trump for lying when he accused the Muslim community of New Jersey for cheering in the streets after the attack on the World Trade Center. Surely, we all will remember the sight of Trump’s “performance,” if I can characterize it as such, when he did this nasty imitation. Many have said that under all normal circumstances and expectations, his campaign should have come to a halt right then and there. That is essentially what Ms. Streep said as well, as she described it as a moment that broke her heart.

We all know that in past years some of Ms. Streep’s colleagues have been sharply criticized for using awards ceremonies to make political statements – Vanessa Redgrave and Marlon Brando, two of the more notable. But this is no ordinary actress, this is no ordinary year, this was no ordinary election, and this is no ordinary future president. No, there is nothing ordinary about any of this. So, Meryl Streep leveled her attack upon Mr. Donald Trump, and everyone paid sober attention. One of the MSNBC commentators – I think it was Chris Hayes – suggested the next day that Mr. Trump could have used the event to show that he possessed even an ounce of graciousness and personal maturity, by inviting Meryl Street to meet him at the White House in a conciliatory gesture. But this is Donald Trump, remember, and graciousness and maturity are not part of whatever he’s about. So instead, true to form, early Monday morning he sent out a tweet calling Streep “an overrated actress and a Clinton flunky.”

But in addition to the tweet Monday morning, Kelly Anne Conway appeared on CNN’s “New Day” with Chris Cuomo, and told Cuomo that we needed to look into what’s in Trump’s heart. Conway complained, “You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”

I have one word for that: baloney. How are we supposed to know what’s in a person’s heart when what’s coming out of his mouth is as coarse and mean-spirited as anything I have heard anywhere, let alone from the highest levels of government. As an American citizen – an American patriot – I don’t think it’s too much to expect that the President of the United States be able to express himself in a thoughtful and sophisticated manner. That is what I expect from my President, no matter what part of the electorate sent him there.

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President Obama Surprises VP Joe Biden with Presidential Medal of Freedom on January 12, 2016

A contrast in every possible way. . . . Yesterday, President Obama paid tribute to Vice President Joseph Biden, surprising him at the end by presenting him with the highest American civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Honor. And he added an extra honor by presenting it “with distinction.” Toward the end of his extraordinary remarks, Mr. Biden quoted a verse based on a teaching from Talmud Berakhot 6b. The actual expression in Hebrew is: דברים היוצים מין הלב נכנסים אל הלב – “Words that come from the heart [of the speaker] penetrate the heart [of the listener].” Joe Biden brought this verse as a commentary on the strength and kindness that has always flowed both ways in the relationship between himself and President Obama, and the dignity with which President Obama has conducted himself in the White House.

All this is based on a simple fact: words have power. What we say, and how we say it, is a powerful thing. But in addition, we have to remember that our hearts are within us and are invisible. We cannot see into each other’s hearts, so we have to take the words of our mouths as the points of entry. “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.” WORDS – that come from the heart [of the speaker] penetrate the heart [of the listener].

Taking this into consideration, there are three words with which we conclude our reading of the Book of Genesis this Shabbat, and indeed, with which we conclude every book of our Torah: חזק חזק ונתחזק – Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek – Be strong; be very strong; and we will strength each other. In this time of uncertainty and trepidation for so many of us, perhaps these words are the most important for us to carry in our hearts. It is by joining our hearts and speaking words of kindness and encouragement to each other that we will help to buoy ourselves and each other.

The Intolerance That Is Intolerable

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Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati Hit with Swastika

This past Tuesday morning, a swastika was spray-painted on a sign at the entrance of the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College. Here is the notice that was sent to the HUC-JIR community by President Aaron Panken. A photo of the sign, as it appeared on the Facebook page of a colleague of mine who serves a congregation in Cincinnati, appears below Rabbi Panken’s message.

Dear friends,

This morning, the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) was vandalized. The sign at the entrance to our Cincinnati Campus was defaced with a swastika. The paint was easily removed and the sign quickly repaired. The incident is under investigation by local police.

For more than 140 years, HUC-JIR has been devoted to the values of pluralism, open dialogue, and the pursuit of knowledge. We pride ourselves on being a vital and engaged part of the Cincinnati community. Our academic institution of Jewish higher education lives, teaches, and brings the values of diversity and tolerance to the community, the nation, and the larger world. Our faculty, students, staff, and alumni, proudly representing all faiths and backgrounds, work together to build a just and humane world.

We will not let this act of hate alter our important work. We are indebted to the people of Cincinnati who have stood by us for generations and who have offered their support again today. Tomorrow, a new day will dawn and the values we hold dear will continue to light the way.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D.
President

It is not known at this point who perpetrated this act of hateful vandalism. I’m not accusing our incoming president of instigating or condoning this particular act. Nevertheless, the reality is that hateful sentiments were stirred up during the many months of the U.S. Presidential campaign, and those inclined to express personal bigotry were emboldened by a good deal of the rhetoric and mayhem that occurred. It’s as though the social norms of decency that tried to drown out the echoes of racism and intolerance were stripped away with total impunity.

We New Yorkers are accustomed to living in a highly pluralistic atmosphere, with HUC-JIR as one of numerous Jewish institutions in our midst. For those of us, however, who may not be familiar with the Cincinnati community, I can say that HUC-JIR occupies a position of great prominence in the history and contemporary life of the community, and has occupied a significant place in the acculturation of the Jewish community in that city from the beginning. Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875 by Rabbi Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise, the “father” of American Reform Judaism. The Jewish Institute of Religion was founded in New York in 1922 by Rabbi Dr. Stephen Samuel Wise – no relation to Isaac Mayer Wise. HUC merged with JIR in 1950. HUC-JIR is the professional training ground for the rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal service workers of the Reform Movement. In addition to the campuses in Cincinnati and New York, there are campuses in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. This brazen act on Tuesday is particularly shocking and insulting, not only to HUC-JIR, but also to the entire Cincinnati community, which has accorded great friendship and respect to the institution, and to the Jewish community, from the very beginning.

Those of us who are alumni and supporters of HUC-JIR are outraged and saddened by this act. Union Temple has had an ongoing relationship with the College-Institute through the rabbis, cantors and educators who have served, and are serving the congregation, and also through the support of our Sisterhood, by way of the Women of Reform Judaism, and Brotherhood, through the Men of Reform Judaism. In addition, our former Rabbi Emeritus, Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, z”l, served on the HUC-JIR faculty in New York for a number of years. We echo President Panken’s assertion of “the values of diversity and tolerance,” which we will continue to promote, now, and in the years to come. It is clear that America is entering a new reality. But the values we espouse as American Jews are very old, and are as strong now as they were in the beginning. The responsibility for their perpetuation now rests squarely on our shoulders.