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Health Care and Core Jewish Values

Planned Parenthood website screenshotWe are reading this week the “Holiness Code,” in the Book of Leviticus. It is the same portion that we in the Reform Movement read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, because it contains some of the most fundamental values of ethics and decency that are embodied in Biblical teaching. “You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind. . . You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19.14,16). The “Holiness Code” implores us to protect the poor, the weak, the elderly, and the stranger. This is a core value of Judaism.

As American Jews, we bring this core value into the public sphere in the demand we make upon our government – that its policies and precepts reflect this basic human decency. But yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, the US House of Representatives flagrantly ignored this most basic concept of decency, as it voted to vacate the Affordable Care Act, and place millions of Americans in jeopardy – the poor, the elderly, the weak, the sick and disabled, at the top of the list.

One of the primary targets of the House was Planned Parenthood. The excuse is abortion. But this is a smoke screen. In fact there already has been a ban on public funds for abortion. But Planned Parenthood provides the gamut of health care services for women, and for men: breast cancer screening, pap smears, colon, prostate, and testicular cancer screenings, birth control, infertility treatment, HPV tests, and the list goes on. For many women and men around the country, Planned Parenthood is the only source of treatment and preventative care that they have. This cut in funding to Planned Parenthood is vicious, and could have deadly consequences.

If I may admit to it, I have to say that have never been able to understand this dynamic in American politics during the election cycles of the past several decades. With regard to health care in particular, it has always seemed as though the very people who stand to lose the most in our country have repeatedly voted against their own best interests. Latest estimates put some 24 million Americans in jeopardy of losing their health coverage. Those with various “pre-existing conditions” will be running up medical bills that will threaten their very stability, and that of their families. It simply defies reason.

As a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I proudly stand with the statement it issued yesterday in its condemnation of the “American Health Care Act.” Please take a moment to read it.

Prayer and Sacrifice

The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship and Identity in Jewish Liturgy by Yoel Kahn. Oxford University Press

This week we begin our reading of the Book of Leviticus, much of which focuses on the ancient system of animal sacrifice. Within the context of the ancient world, this system was the primary modality of vicarious atonement for sins. The priests (Kohanim) would serve as divinely-appointed intermediaries. They would dash the blood of slaughtered animals upon the altar in the inner sanctum (Kodesh Kodashim – the “Holy of Holies”), and through this blood, the people would be cleansed of their sins. A bit gorey sounding, I admit, but in the ancient mindset, very serious business, which had to be carried out with utmost precision. Out in the desert wilderness described in the Torah, this took place in the Mishkan – the “tent” that was erected by the people. Eventually, according to the Biblical chronology at any rate, this of course was replaced by the magnificent Temple that stood in Jerusalem called the Beit HaMikdash – House of Holiness. In the outer courts the Levitical choirs would sing and the instruments would play, suggesting a grand spectacle of pomp and circumstance. The actual sacrificial act in the Kodesh Kodashim, however, would be carried out in complete silence.

Fortunately, once the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jewish community was ready to move on from this system of vicarious atonement. Rabbis replaced the Kohanim as the leaders of the community, and prayer and mitzvot replaced animal sacrifice. But, just as the minutia of the sacrificial rites had to be observed absolutely according to prescription, lest we incur further guilt, so too subsequently did the words of our mouths have to be uttered with great precision. Otherwise, they would go unheard, or even worse, rejected. Prayer, then, is a serious business. And its evolution and development through the ages, particularly as our community and our reality has evolved and developed, has always been a very serious business.

This past Saturday we were blessed with a brilliant and fascinating presentation by Rabbi Yoel Kahn, our guest scholar for the Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus Memorial Lecture. Rabbi Kahn gave us an extraordinary glimpse into the development of three specific prayers of our liturgy, particularly concerned with the changing status of women, non-Jews of one description or another, and those with some sort of disability, in the eyes of those writing and/or funding the prayer books. As the adage goes, “history is written by the winners.” Well, that goes for prayer books as well! In his book, Rabbi Kahn identifies some of the “winners,” and what their various agendas really were. Rabbi Kahn’s book is: The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship and Identity in Jewish Liturgy. He offered to personally autograph copies at the reduced rate of $30 (the list price is $45) to any of our congregants and friends who would like one. If you would like to order a copy from Rabbi Kahn, please send me an email, along with whatever dedication you would like, and he will be delighted to send it to the temple for you.

“What will THEY say?!”

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Return of Spies” by David Ascalon

Within our Torah portion this week is a remarkable exchange between Moses and God. We remember that Moses sends twelve scouts, one from each of the tribes, to scout out the Land of Israel. The scouts return with fruits of the Land, but ten of them bring reports of doom and gloom: “It is a land that devours its inhabitants. . . There were giants in the land, and we were as grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in theirs.” (Numbers 13.32-33) But the other two, Joshua and Caleb, dissent: “The Land is an exceedingly good land; a land filled with milk and honey. . . Let us by all means go up, for we will surely conquer it.” (Numbers 13.27, 30) Unfortunately the crowd sides with the naysayers.

At this God becomes exasperated with the Children of Israel. Virtually since they left Egypt they have whined and complained, and rebelled against the divinely appointed leadership of Moses. Even after the marvels and miracles, they have little faith in God’s power. God is ready to zap them into oblivion. But Moses intervenes. Ever the loyal buffer, Moses tries to mollify the Almighty. And he does it with a little “psychology,” if you will. To paraphrase: “Almighty, You went to all this trouble to free these people from the bondage of Egypt, and deliver them into the Land. And now you’re going to mess it all up? How would it look, especially to the Egyptians? Do You want them to think You’re a phony, or a turncoat, or that You don’t actually have the power that You claim to have? What will THEY say?!”

Many of us generally try not to fall into the trap of worrying about “what THEY will say,” whoever “THEY” happen to be at any given moment. If we second-guess our every action, our every word, our every decision in life based on what THEY will say, we risk paralyzing ourselves in the fear that nothing will ever be good enough.

On the other hand, there just might be some usefulness, on occasion, for us indeed to worry about what THEY will say. We do not live in isolation from one another. Our words and actions, even our appearance at times, can and do have an effect on other people. We represent ourselves, so to speak, as we present ourselves to those around us. Often, we represent others as well: our families, our organizations, various groups with which we are associated. On certain occasions then, it might not be all that harmful if, before we speak or behave, or appear, we consider how this will be perceived in the eyes of others, and how it will reflect upon ourselves and others whom we care about.

What will THEY say? Not the end-all and be-all, but a question worthy of consideration.

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.