Tag Archives: Prophets

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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We Must Be Prophets

On Tuesday June 2nd of this past week, I intentionally wore orange. While orange is my favorite color, I donned such a hue with a specific purpose. I wore orange as part of the first annual National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Such a day of awareness was brought to the national level with the help of Everytown for Gun Safety, but it was not the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT or at the Movie Theater in Aurora, CO that sparked this day of awareness. It was not the systemic racist shootings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, or Michael Brown that launched such a day of awareness.

wear-orange-gun-violence-awareness-dayRather, the day was started by the friends of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was mistakenly shot by gang members in a Chicago Park in 2013. An honors student who only days earlier had performed in Washington DC at President Obama’s second inauguration, Pendleton and her friends were taking cover in a Chicago park during a rain storm when two men thought the group gathering together was a rival gang and began shooting. Her friends launched Project Orange Tree, asking people to wear orange on Tuesday because it would’ve been Hadiya’s 18th birthday. Everytown for Gun Safety brought such a day of awareness to the national level and elected officials and legislators, actors and actresses, athletes, and so many others, tweeted out just as I did, that they were wearing orange to raise awareness.

As my colleague and teacher Rabbi Aryeh Cohen pointed out, I’d rather than elected officials symbolically wearing orange, we need them to pass legislation to truly make this world a safer place. And so, a day after I attempted to raise awareness through pictures, tweets, and hashtags, I woke up and got dressed, this time putting on a white dress shirt instead of orange. That day, I followed the news closely as Maplewood Middle School was on a Code Red lockdown because a seventh grader brought a loaded 9mm Glock handgun to school at lunchtime.

A day later, I again got dressed, but instead of orange, I put on a blue dress shirt and followed the news closely that Columbia High School was on a Code Yellow lockdown because a student brought an air soft gun to school.

Thank God, no one was hurt. And yet, as the scare of gun violence and the realities of the world that we live in hit much closer to home, we must realize that raising awareness, wearing orange, only does so much and only takes us so far.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat B’haalotecha. In the Torah portion, we are introduced to Eldad and Medad, who remain in the camp and as God’s spirit rests upon them — v’tanach alehem heRuach — they acted as prophets. Yet, when Joshua hears of this, he is outraged. Next in line to take over as leader and serve as the mouthpiece for God, Joshua complains to Moses, but Moses responds in Numbers 11:29:

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all of God’s people were prophets and that God would put God’s Spirit on them!”

Moses’ hope is my hope: we must all see ourselves as God’s prophets, and thus, walk in God’s ways, striving to create a safer and more peaceful world, reflective of the world that God set out to create. As prophets, we all have a responsibility to build a safe community, to speak out and stand up, and assure that our children are safe. Just as v’tanach alehem haRuach, as God’s spirit rested upon Eldad and Medad, I pray that v’tanach aleinu haRuach, that God’s spirit will rest upon us as well. We must be prophets so that our children will not have to live in a world where they need to walk through metal detectors in order to take a math test or carry their books home from school in a bulletproof backpack. We must be prophets so that firearms and bullets aren’t sold at the same store that sells food, clothing, and video games.

Some of us may disagree on the solution, but we can all agree on the problem: more than 30,000 people killed every year in United States because of Gun Violence. May we join together, advocate together, and pray together, to ultimately force change together. May God’s spirit rest upon everyone. And may we one day see a day when we are all safe.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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