Today is March 17th, known to most of us as St. Patrick’s Day. It is also our congregant Howard Simka’s birthday – Happy Birthday Howard! For many of us in the orbit of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion [HUC-JIR], however, March 17th is significant to us the birthday of one of our esteemed past presidents, Rabbi Dr. Stephen S. Wise, z”l. Rabbi Wise founded the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1921. Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875 by Rabbi Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise (no relation to Stephen). In 1950, the two institutions merged to become the premier institution for the training of Reform rabbis, cantors, educators, and Jewish communal service workers.
The birthday of Isaac Mayer Wise, appropriately considered to be the “father” of American Reform Judaism, was March 29, 1819, in Bavaria. Because March 17th and March 29th are only ten days apart, HUC-JIR designates a day each year that falls in close proximity to both birthdays as “Founders’ Day.” This year, Founders’ Day was celebrated yesterday, on March 16th. In keeping with his unparalleled wit, Stephen Wise always wrote all his documents in green ink as a nod to St. Patrick, perhaps the more famous of the two (though I suppose that depends on whom you’re talking to). And, as an homage to his teacher Stephen Wise, Rabbi Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, z”l, the dean of modern Jewish theology, also wrote in green ink. I remember the papers I wrote for Dr. Borowitz that were returned with Dr. Borowitz’s characteristically clear and carefully thought out commentary, all laced in green!
Since we marked Dr. Borowitz’s first yahrzeit a few weeks ago, this Founders’ Day was dedicated to his memory, and a retrospective of the innovative hermeneutic he formulated in 1948 as “Covenant Theology,” just as the world was coming to grips with what had befallen our people in the War, and the astonishing opportunity that awaited us on the eve of statehood. The two speakers at yesterday’s ceremony were Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, Chancellor Emeritus of HUC-JIR, and Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, National Director of Admissions and Recruitment at HUC-JIR. Both are outstanding scholars of Jewish theology, Dr. Sabath having earned her Ph.D. on “Freedom-in-Covenant: The Gifts and Challenges of Eugene B. Borowitz’s Theological Quest.”
Rabbi Ellenson included in his remarks an excerpt from Dr. Borowitz’s 1990 publication, Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenant Responsibility (Wayne State University Press, 1990). In this contentious political climate, particularly amid the battle on Capitol Hill over the Affordable Care Act and/or its replacement, these words seem particularly apt, as Rabbi Ellenson noted. Dr. Borowitz articulated his primary “criterion for measuring the adequacy of a political arrangement.” He wrote:
“Being a Jew who, against the odds, has rather regularly been in synagogues for most of his post-bar-mitzvah life, I have had it drummed into me by repetitive Torah and prophetic readings that a social order is judged by the text cases of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. . . Or the poor. The Bible believes that we are positively obligated to one another. Hence when people have special needs it is our duty to help them. . . We must not pervert justice for the poor or prevent it from functioning for the stranger, the orphan or the widow. The weak and powerless must not become disenfranchised. But the Bible goes far beyond structural entailments. It prescribes our substantive obligations to others less well-situated or competent. We must plead the case of the widow and the orphan. We must give food and money to the poor. (The nearby poor are our first but not our only responsibility.) We must leave the corner of our fields and what fell in the harvesting for the poor and the stranger who dwells in our gates. We must separate a tithe for the poor. These are not options, warmly recommended to the good-hearted. They are commandments; religious laws of the state in that odd theo-political situation (to borrow and re-direct Buber’s term) which the Bible describes.”
I was particularly moved by Dr. Ellenson’s choice of this passage in particular, out of the extraordinary body of writings that Dr. Borowitz bequeathed to us. The reason, in part, was a short, yet stunning statement earlier this week by Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, son of Former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., and grandson of our own Former New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, z”l. Mr. Kennedy responded to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s characterization of the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act as “doing an act of mercy.” At this, Congressman Kennedy ripped into the Speaker, saying:
“I was struck last night by a comment that I heard made by Speaker Ryan, where he called this repeal bill ‘an act of mercy.’ With all due respect to our speaker, he and I must have read different Scripture.
“The one I read calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, and to comfort the sick.
“It reminds us that we are judged not by how we treat the powerful, but by how we care for the least among us. Defined in purely secular terms, compassionate treatment for those in distress. It is kindness. It is grace. There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill.
“This is not an act of mercy. It is an act of malice.”
Joe Kennedy is Irish Catholic. No doubt, today he will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. We are Jews, and we honor the memories of two of our great teachers who wrote in green ink. But the Torah and the Prophets that we study and cherish are the same. So are the values. So too, are the responsibilities that all of us bear – for each other, and for our country.
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