Tag Archives: Isaiah

Jewish Institutions Should Preach Social Justice From the Pulpit

This article was originally published on November 11, 2015 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

HaaretzSocial Justice is a central tenet of Judaism. Why, then, are rabbis and synagogues afraid to broach it?

Throughout my studies in rabbinical school, I was taught to not preach politics from the pulpit. The reasoning for this was backed up by the regulations of America’s Internal Revenue Service, which say houses of worship and not-for-profit organizations that receive tax-exempt status are “prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
These regulations have been misinterpreted as meaning we, religious leaders, cannot talk about any issue that’s deemed “political.” Yet all key issues facing American society are addressed by elected officials. And when they are, they are perceived to have become “political.” So, in turn, we conclude that we can’t talk about them for fear of mixing politics and religion.

This logic is completely misguided.

The fact that politicians address issues does not inherently make these issues “political,” and does not automatically bar rabbis and synagogues from taking a stand.

So why do these institutions really shy away from such issues? For fear of being controversial or labeled in an unpalatable way.

These communities are missing an opportunity to connect the values we, Jewish leaders, teach our children and the lessons of Torah we teach each Shabbat to the world that we live in.

So many issues that I have spoken about from the pulpit – including marriage equality, systemic racism, gun violence, prison reform, refugee crises, and modern day slavery – are anything but political. These are social justice issues.
There may be disagreements on how we as Jews address these issues or how we as Americans guided by Jewish ethics and values address these issues, and disagreement is healthy. But there can be no disagreement regarding our need as rabbis to speak about issues of social justice and address these issues with our congregations.

From November 13 to 17, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the congregational arm of the American Jewish community’s Conservative movement, will be hosting its biennial convention in the Chicago-area. This convention, labeled “Shape the Center,” is an opportunity for Conservative congregations and institutions to shape their future and rethink their purpose. Clergy, Jewish professionals, and lay leaders will be coming together during Shabbat and the convention that follows to discuss many issues facing the American Jewish community, in hopes to reshape their visions and to align their missions with the needs of its members.

Among the many presentations at the convention, I will be leading a discussion about putting social justice at the center of our communities, where I will emphasize the need to walk the path of the prophets. Judaism will not survive, let alone thrive, if we solely concern ourselves with the heady debates of the rabbinic tradition and ignore the world in which we live. The prophetic texts of the Bible teach us that Judaism and Jewish values is not just about our own personal actions; it is about impacting our society and our world.

It was Amos who said “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the humble” (Amos 2:6-7). It was Jeremiah was said: “Execute ye justice and righteousness … do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer. 22:3). It is Isaiah who challenged: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loosen the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him” (Is. 58:6-7).

Why are we so scared to share how Judaism has relevant lessons to teach us about facing the issues facing our society? Why are we afraid to be guided by the values of our tradition to change the world around us?

When looking at the now well-documented, inspected and over-analyzed Pew Study on the American Jewish community of 2013, we find that an overwhelming 69 percent of the community believe that living an ethical life is essential to their sense of Jewishness, and 56 percent add that being Jewish means working for justice and equality. If our goal in shaping our institutions is to create entry points for engagement, we should embrace the connection many in our communities make between Judaism and social justice.

Spiritual experience must be more than just Shabbat services. It must be rallies and public actions, too. Education must be more than just religious school and preschool. It must be protests and letter-writing campaigns to elected officials. We must not only assemble in our buildings for prayer. We must assemble on the streets, and in front of town halls and statehouses. We must see social justice as a core part of our congregations, and a core part of our Jewish identities.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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War & Peace

Like many of you, I enjoyed my Memorial Day weekend. I appreciated the long weekend to spend with family and friends. I spent Memorial Day weekend, like many of you on the beach and at the pool, lounging in the sun, and grilling burgers and hot dogs. Yet, this was a completely different experience from how Israelis observe Memorial Day.

I remember how I spent my first Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, while living in Israel. Walking down the street, I stopped in silence, as did all other pedestrians, just as those in their cars pulled over and got out. A siren blared throughout the nation, acknowledging those who have fallen, protecting their land and their people. Here too, on Memorial Day we honor those who have done the same, yet as Americans, Memorial Day has turned into the unofficial start of summer, an excuse to jump in the pool and have a barbeque. Let us not forget the reason for this day though, honoring those who have served.

soldier FlagSo too, that is the job of Department of Veterans Affairs: to honor those who have served. The VA serves those who served in World War II and the Korean War, as well as those who spent the past decade fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and throughout the world. The role of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is to honor veterans and take care of them. They have failed.

On Friday afternoon, Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Eric Shinseki, met with President Obama at the White House and handed in his resignation. Shinseki said he did so because he didn’t want to be a distraction. He did so following Democratic and Republican congressional leaders calling for such an action. It was reported in November that there have been military veterans dying needlessly at VA hospitals because of long waits and delayed care. The truth is problems with the VA and long waits date back decades, but this issue was brought back under the microscope last month when it was reported that a Phoenix VA facility used secret waiting lists, to cover up the significant problem. The latest report about the VA suggested a link between employee bonuses and covering up wait times at VA hospitals. It is clear that Shinseki needed to resign. What such a resignation doesn’t do though is fix a system, and fix a culture, in which we neglect those who have risked their lives, or in the case of Memorial Day, fallen, protecting our freedom.

Last week, we began reading the book of Numbers, Sefer Bamidbar, and in the very beginning of the book, we have a census taken to prepare for an army. Moses is counting soldiers. The Torah portion Bamidbar also lists where each tribe should stand, a mention of military formations.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Naso, which concludes with the most well-known blessing of our text. We read in Birkat Kohanim the blessing of all blessings.

I want to focus on the last words of the blessing:

 V’yasem Lecha Shalom. May God grant you peace. 

We begin with blessings of of praise and protection, of happiness and grace. But we conclude with a blessing, with a prayer, for peace. That is what he hope for. That is what we strive for. So how is it possible that the book of Bamidbar begins with assembling the Israelites’ military preparing for battle, and yet, only one Torah portion leader, only a few chapters later, we pray for peace. How can we focus on the military, preparing for battle, and immediately after, pray for peace?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, emphasized that we live in a world of polarities: the fixed and the spontaneous, the joy and the sorrow, the celebrations and the periods of mourning. So too, we cannot experience peace, appreciate peace, and truly pray for peace, without knowing the reality of violence, of battle, of war. We do not pray for war. We do not run into battle. We fight when we must. As Golda Meir once said: We do not rejoice in military victories.

We praise God for survival, but we do not revel in the reality of war, be that as Jews, as Americans, as humanity. Rather, even at times of war, even as soldiers throughout the world work to protect us, we strive to fulfill Isaiah’s prophetic vision: that we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We pray for the time when we will have no need for weapons, we will leave in harmony.

Yet until that day is achieved, as long as we as a nation and as a people count the heads of young men and women, to prepare for battle, as long as we set up military formations, as long as we send our young men and women to the four corners of this earth, we must protect them when they return.

The blessing of “May God bless you and Keep you,” is not just when one is sent off into battle, but rather when veterans return home. May we protect them. May we give them the services that they need. May we ensure their safety, security, and health, just as they have fought for ours. And may the sirens in our hearts and souls blare, as we remember the lives lost. As we go about living our lives as our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, continue to strive to keep us safe, stationed here and abroad, may we always remember that it is our job to fulfill God’s blessings, it is our task to make such prayers a reality. It is our job to bring peace to this world. May we always mourn those fallen and properly take care of veterans when they return home, but may we also fulfill God’s promise:  V’yasem lecha Shalom. May God grant you peace. May God grant all of us peace. And let us say: Amen.

 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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