Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation

Archive

No Justice This Year

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16.18-20)

Our Torah portion this week contains one of the most well-known commandments concerning the formation of a just society. The leaders whom we, the people, set in authority, are charged with the responsibility to govern impartially, and not allow themselves to be influenced by the promise of personal financial gain, or swayed by personal prejudice.

Last week, the President of the United States tried to present a façade of impartiality—at least some may think that’s what it was—in condemning violence and hatred “on all sides” in Charlottesville, VA. But this case, as it were, has already been tried and settled. Nazism is the very embodiment of evil, and has wrought nothing but hatred, violence, brutality and genocide. This was not a time for impartiality. In this case, justice required clear and swift condemnation from the leader of the free world. But when it finally came, it was too little, too late.

The pursuit of justice is not the interest of this president. Because of this, the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Rabbinic bodies of North America have jointly arrived at a painful and sad decision. Every year before the High Holy Days, we arrange a joint conference call with the President of the United States. Whether Republican or Democrat, presidents have understood the importance of addressing and speaking with Rabbinic leadership of this country, particularly at this solemn and sensitive time of year. This year, however, in light of the outrageous and unacceptable behavior of this president, our Rabbinic organizations have jointly decided to forego this phone call. We are not interested in speaking with this president, and must make this joint statement of opposition to his behavior and his words over these past eight months, and particularly in light of these most recent ghastly events.

The statement of our organizations appears below. This is a sad day in America.

Rabbis Forgo Annual High Holy Days Call with President
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The High Holy Days are an opportunity for reflection and introspection. As the leaders of major denominations in American Jewish life, we have been deeply engaged in both, considering the events of the Jewish year that is ending and preparing spiritually for the year to come.

In so doing, we have thoughtfully and prayerfully considered whether to continue the practice in recent years of playing key roles in organizing a conference call for the President of the United States to bring High Holy Day greetings to American rabbis. We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.

The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels.

The High Holy Days are a season of t’shuvah for us all, an opportunity for each of us to examine our own words and deeds through the lens of America’s ongoing struggle with racism. Our tradition teaches us that humanity is fallible yet also capable of change. We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred. We pray that those who traffic in anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia will see that there is no place for such pernicious philosophies in a civilized society. And we pray that 5778 will be a year of peace for all.

Central Conference of American Rabbis
The Rabbinical Assembly
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Domestic Terror in Charlottesville

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Eternal your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day. . . (Deuteronomy 11.26-28)

So begins our Torah portion this Shabbat. Blessing or curse—the choice is ours.

Oh, my dear friends—what a horrible week this has been—A lovely young woman was buried on Wednesday; a resident of Charlottesville, Heather Heyer, z”l. Heather was a paralegal by profession, and as an individual she stood up against hatred and bigotry. That is what she was doing on Saturday when her life came to a violent end in a mindless act of domestic terrorism, perpetrated by a 20-year-old from Ohio. Having intentionally traveled to Charlottesville to march with the Alt-Right, according to his mother, he deliberately rammed his car into the crowd, killing Heather and injuring 19 other people. 20 years old, and already so poisoned; so damaged. He will spend his life in prison, and Heather’s life is over. And our country is wounded and bleeding.

On Tuesday, I participated in a webinar co-sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. We heard from several of our colleagues; most notably, Rabbi Tom Gutherz, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville. He explained to us that the synagogue is located right in the thick of things in the downtown area of the city—one block away from Emancipation Park in one direction, and one block from Justice Park in another. I looked up these two parks. Apparently, “Emancipation Park” used to be known as “Lee Park,” after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose statue was at the center of the maelstrom last weekend. “Justice Park” used to be known as “Jackson Park,” after Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general. This is the reality of the history of the South, and there are statutes, parks, streets, towns, and monuments throughout the South that commemorate the Confederacy.

An excellent account of what Rabbi Gutherz and his congregation experienced may be found in this fine article by the president of his congregation, Alan Zimmerman. Though some of you have already seen this article, I would commend it to all of you. It appeared in Monday’s edition of the Reform Judaism Blog: In Charlottesville, the Local Jewish Community Presses On. Of particular note is not only the response of the congregation and clergy, but also of their non-Jewish neighbors who came to stand with them in support. We will be discussing additional initiatives of the Reform Movement in the coming weeks.

On Monday, August 28, Stephen and I will be marching in Washington, DC, in the “Ministers March for Justice.” It is co-sponsored by the National Action Network and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Early in the morning, the RAC will hold a prayer session for rabbis, after which we will join our colleagues of other faiths at the Martin Luther King Memorial, for the 1.7-mile march to the Department of Justice, where we will present a list of demands concerning voting rights, healthcare, criminal justice reform, and economic justice. The hope is that we will be 1,000 strong. But in the current atmosphere of open, blatant, unabashed racism and bigotry, aided and abetted by no less than the President of the United States, I hope and expect that we will far exceed that number.

On August 28, 1963, The Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., z”l, sent out a clarion call for justice to this country, founded upon the ideals of freedom and liberty for all human beings. While we have made progress since that day, it is excruciatingly clear that we have a long road ahead of us to realize these ideals, particularly as Dr. King so eloquently expressed them.

Our Torah puts before us a choice between blessing and curse. There are those in our country who have chosen the curse. We must stand up and demonstrate that the blessing is far more powerful. I know that our hearts are united in praying that this coming Shabbat will be peaceful for all of us, and for all who live within our borders.

The following is the statement issued yesterday by the CCAR, of which I am a proud member.

Central Conference of American Rabbis Condemns President Trump’s Response to White Supremacist Domestic Terrorists

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Central Conference of American Rabbis is outraged that the President of the United States has repeatedly equivocated in condemnation of the white supremacists who rained terror and violence upon Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. The President’s failure to differentiate Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, and white supremacists of the self-proclaimed “Alt-Right,” on the one hand, from those who stood up to that threat and an imaginary “Alt-Left,” on the other, only encourages racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic hate-mongers to continue their reign of terror.

Reform rabbis across America and around the world join in solidarity with our colleagues in Charlottesville and the community they serve. We are grateful to Alan Zimmerman, President of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, for eloquently sharing the congregation’s story with the world. That community bravely gathered on Shabbat to serve God and humanity in an atmosphere that no Jewish community has ever faced in this country, reminiscent of Germany as Nazis were coming to power.

We grieve with all who mourn the death of Heather Heyer. May her memory be a blessing to the loving family and community she leaves behind. We pray for the healing of all who were injured. We pray for our country, that it may once again reflect the words of its first President, George Washington, who wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, “Happily, the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Rabbi David Stern
President

 

Rabbi Steven A. Fox
Chief Executive

Grace After Meals

It is a common practice for many religious traditions that some form of prayer or blessing is recited before meals. In general, these express an awareness of how fortunate we are to have this food to eat, and that we cannot take it for granted. Theistic traditions like ours also acknowledge that the raw materials—fruits and vegetables, wheat and other grains, etc.—come from the earth. And since God created the Earth and all that issues from it, ultimately the produce of the Earth belongs to God. So, for instance, when we eat bread, we acknowledge God as its source:

 :בְָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמּוֹצִיא לֶֽחֶם מִן הָאָֽרֶץ

 Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the Earth.

It is a commonly held belief that saying blessings of this sort over various kinds of food makes the food holy. Frequently rabbis are asked to “bless the challah.” But perhaps blessing the challah is not what we are doing at all. Perhaps, in fact, it is just the opposite. . .

There is a fascinating article in the Journal of Biblical Literature by Baruch Bokser, who had been on the faculty of UC Berkeley, called: Ma’al and Blessings Over Food: Rabbinic Transformation of Cultic Terminology and Alternative Modes of Piety (JBL 100/4, 1981). In this article, Professor Bokser looked particularly at a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Berakhot (Blessings) 4:1. Dr. Bokser observed:

     Saying a blessing prevents me’ilah, the unlawful use of something which
     belongs to God. When the individual recites the blessing, he or she
     acknowledges that the food was originally owned by God and that now it
     represents a gift. One thereby receives permission—or is granted
     dispensation—to make use of the divine bounty. The blessing’s effect,
     therefore, is to release the object from the status of the divine bounty.

When we recite a blessing over food, then, rather than sanctifying it, we are de-sanctifying it! We are effectively removing it from the realm of the holy, and placing into the realm of the ordinary, so that we ordinary mortals can partake of it without presuming upon God’s property.

In addition to blessings for various kinds of food, Jewish tradition prescribes blessings for after meals as well. Most familiar to us is the Birkat HaMazon, Blessing of the Meal, commonly translated as the Grace After Meals. Technically, we only recite Birkat HaMazon after a full meal that opened with bread, and thus with the motzi. Thus we not only remember the Creator of Earth before we partake of the Earth’s bounty, we do the same after we have partaken of this bounty.

Our Torah portion this week contains the key phrase out of which the Birkat HaMazon grows (Deuteronomy 8.10):

 וְאָֽכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ

V’achaltah, v’savatah, uveirachtah et Adonai Elohecha, ‘al ha’aretz hatovah    asher natan-lach.

When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land which God has given you.

The body of the text of Birkat HaMazon is Rabbinic in composition, and focuses on four primary themes: a blessing of thanks for the food, a blessing of thanks for the Land of Israel, a prayer for the holy city of Jerusalem, and a blessing of thanks for God’s goodness.

On Shabbat and Holy Days, the Birkat HaMazon is preceded by Psalm 126 (Shir HaMa’a lot, Song of Ascents).

Since it is our practice at the temple to sing Birkat HaMazon at our communal meals, assuming they have begun with a Motzi, you might want to take a look at the text and listen to a wonderful rendition by a cantor of the Reform Movement, so that you can practice it at your leisure. Here is the link, from the Union for Reform Judaism.

http://reformjudaism.org/practice/prayers-blessings/daily-blessings-birkat-hamazon-grace-after-meals-short-version

For some, blessings before meals may desacralize food. But at the very least, they serve to remind us of how fortunate we are to have enough to eat, and remind us to help those who do not.

Even If We Are Not Alike

This is our second week into the final soliloquy of Moses at the end of the 40-year journey through the Wilderness. The Book of Deuteronomy features a recapitulation, and in some cases, a reinterpretation of the events leading up to this moment, as the Children of Israel stand at the Jordan, preparing to cross into the Promised Land.

Within this week’s parashah is an admonition that we are compelled to look at with complete honesty:

And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you. (Deuteronomy 4.1-2)

As we study the development of Jewish belief and practice since this text was written over 2-1/2 millennia ago, we certainly see that the commandment not to add or take away has been taken with a grain of salt by every generation. Many Orthodox Jews see this process as an interpretative one, with each generation deepening its understanding of the original intent of the text, and honoring that intent while responding to the ever-changing world around us all. On a certain level, Reform Jews respond much in the same way, but also forthrightly stating our desire to embrace the “spirit of the law,” even if at times we cannot, or will not, embrace the “letter of the law,” whether it be on practical or ideological grounds.

 

Yesterday (Thursday) the Gay Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem. The sign in rainbow colors was the official sign of the Israel Reform Movement. It bears one of the most fundamental precepts of the Torah: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19.18). We read it on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

A cantor friend of mine posted a photo on his Facebook page of the black and white sign that he saw at the parade. The block print is the verse above from Leviticus. The written addition in Hebrew script across it that someone thought to insert into this precept reads: “even if he is not.” The entire statement in a workable translation is: Love your neighbor—even if he or she is not exactly like you. It is an eloquent expression of the need to “add” to the text from the perspective of our own time and understanding.

 

It has taken us a long time as a society to evolve to a better understanding and embrace of LGBTQ life. The transformation of the Reform Movement in this regard really only began in the 1980’s. That’s just shy of 40 years ago. 40 years is the amount of time that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert. Now in our text, they stand at the Jordan River, preparing to cross over into the Promised Land. While this Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem yesterday, it is safe to say that the LGBTQ community has not yet fully arrived in the Promised Land. But the fact that almost 25,000 people marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem yesterday represents a giant step in that direction.