As our e-mail inboxes and snail mailboxes flood us with advertisements of Labor Day Sales and we makes plans for one last long weekend before we settle down to the serious work of the academic year, the fall, work responsibilities and the High Holidays, I think we should take a moment to contemplate the origins of this week's long weekend:
As one might expect, the institution of Labor Day in the United States coincides with the growth of the labor union movement at the end of the 19th century. The US Department of Labor website reports:
"Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."
The first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City. Ten thousand workers marched in a parade from City Hall to Union Square. Within a year or two, the celebration of American labor was moved to the first Monday of September and was marked by parades, speeches and picnics for laborers and their families to enjoy a rare day off together.
Work is understood in our tradition to serve as a means of establishing security, self-esteem and a sense of responsibility for society in general. Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies (Conservative) at the American Jewish University writes:
"...according to the rabbis, work is essential to personal development and to achieving religious depth and meaning. Through work, humans assume their places in the social order as active agents, like Adam. Work is a pathway to personal health, a conduit to greater understanding of Torah and of faith, and a mechanism through which one ultimately leaves a mark on this world. For a person's work to achieve and maintain this degree of personal and religious meaning."*
Rabbi Peretz's reference to Adam goes back to the passage in Breishit/Genesis in which God informs Adam that he will now be responsible for producing his own food "by the sweat of his brow." From this moment, humanity is transformed from God's "sheltered pets" in Eden to independent, responsible beings, creating and maintaining a social order, a system of justice and equity, developing ever-sophisticated means of producing food, clothing and shelter . . . which engage us to this day.
These are trying times for workers around our country, and in Rhode Island in particular. As so many of our neighbors, friends, colleagues find themselves out of work, our appreciation for work and its significance in our daily private, family and community lives grows.
These insights and appreciation have deep roots in our tradition. Rambam/Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah, a thousand years ago:
"One is at a high level if he is sustained by the efforts of his own hand, a characteristic of the pious of early generations. In this he merits all the honor and good of this world and the world to come, as it is written. "If you eat by the work of your hand, happy are you, and it will go well for you." (Tehillim/Psalms 128:2). Happy are you in this world and it will go well for you in the world to come."
I hope you will join me in a prayer that by Labor Day 2013, everyone in our community will know the deep satisfaction of "eating by the work of their hand . . . "
*"Social Justice and the World of Business," Walking With Justice, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, 2008.
The implications of one verse in this weeks's Torah reading are vast:
D'varim/Deuteronomy 16:30 Justice, you shall pursue justice, in order that you will live.
דברים טז, כ צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙
The verse is phrased to convey emphasis and focus: the repetition of the word צֶדֶק / tzedek draws our attention to the importance of the word and also to the possibility of understanding that word more than one way: tzedek can be translated as "justice" and tzedek can be translated as "righteousness." The verse, therefore, exhorts us to pursue both justice and righteousness by virtue of this repetition.
Then there is the choice of verb: תִּרְדֹּ֑ף / tirdof / you shall pursue.
There are so many other verbs that might have worked here. We might have been commanded to advance justice and righteousness, to elevate justice and righteousness, to embrace justice and righteousness . . . but instead the verb driving this mitzvah leaves no room for any passivity: we are to pursue justice and righteousness. And we are to pursue justice and righteousness in order that we might exist.
It is in response to the challenge of this mitzvah that I approach the campaign to eradicate circumcision taking place now within the German court system. For all that German government leaders like German Justice Ministry spokeswoman, Anne Zimmerman, have pledged to prepare legislation protecting religious circumcision in German (practiced by both Jews and Muslims), the fact is that this week a legal complaint was filed against a rabbi in Germany who serves as a mohel, for perpetrating bodily harm on an infant by performing a circumcision.
In the meantime, circumcisions continue to be performed within both the Jewish and the Muslim communities of Germany. Indeed, we might conjecture that this move is more an anti-Muslim than an anti-Jewish effort since there are so many more Muslims living in Germany than Jews (estimates put the Muslim population of Germany at something over 4 million people and the Jewish population of Germany at a bit over 110,000 people). Nonetheless, the court action in Hof was directed at a mohel. There is no equivalent of a mohel in the Muslim world: circumcisions are generally performed by doctors.
The German legal process is following standard procedures and the prosecutor's office in Hof, Germany, will devote a great deal of time in the next few weeks determining whether they should press charges. In the meantime, pressure on official levels is being levied on the German government to move quickly to protect ritual circumcision within their borders and government leaders are not unaware of the concern felt all over the world.
Two days ago, the AP reported:
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle weighed in while on a trip to Liechtenstein, saying that "Jewish and Muslim traditions must be allowed to be practiced without legal uncertainty."
"We cannot risk Germany's reputation in the world as a country of religious tolerance," he said. "From my perspective it's necessary now to rapidly come up with clear regulations."
But the Torah does not command us to sit back and wait for justice and righteousness to unfold, it commands us to pursue justice and righteousness. To that end, I encourage you to write a short note to Germany's Ambassador to the United States and let Mr. Ammon know that we Jews in the United States are concerned that this issue be resolved in a just manner very soon. You may write to:
The Honorable Peter Ammon
Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany
2300 M Street NW
Washington, DC 20037
You should, of course, phrase your note to reflect your own understanding or and concerns about the matter, but here is a draft of a note which you may use "as is" or edit to your own taste if this is helpful:
Dear Mr. Ambassador,
One of the blessings of being an American Jew is the fact that I and the rest of my co-religionists are able to observe the tenets and practices of our faith here without fear or self-consciousness. The Jewish practice of circumcising our newborn sons at the age of eight days has been observed by every generation of our people in every place we have lived for over 3000 years.
To posit that we, as a people, have been perpetrating bodily harm on our precious sons for millennia is absurd. To allow German citizens to threaten the religious practice of Jewish and Muslim adherents within your borders should be anathema to your government and your people.
I write to you in the hope that you will find a way to convey my expressions of concern to your government and to let them know that we in America, individuals, communities and national organizations, are all waiting anxiously to hear that the religious practice of circumcision will be protected within your borders by irrevocable Germany legislation.
With blessings of peace, "l'shalom"
This week's parashah reviews the animals whose meat is "kosher", that is, "proper" for consumption by those who seek to maintain the brit/covenant with God. It's a list that is familiar to many: mammals must have a split hoof and chew their cud (cows, sheep, goats, deer, bison, buffalo . . .); water-bound creatures must have both fins and scales (salmon, tuna, yellowtail, cod, scrod, tilapia, sea bass, trout . . . ); and birds must not be birds of prey (turkey, chicken, geese, ducks . . . ).
Clearly, those who commit to following the guidelines of kosher eating have plenty to eat!
When it comes to mammals and birds, however, meeting the criteria described in our Torah reading this week is not sufficient: in other words, a Big Mac, even without the cheese, is not kosher even though the burger is beef (meaning meat cut from a mammal with a split hoof that chews its cud). There is a further step that is required: kosher slaughter / shechita.
Kosher slaughter is designed to render the animal unconscious before it has time experience pain or panic from an inability to breath. In one forceful, smooth, pass of the knife, the trachea, esophagus, carotid artery, jugular veins and vagus nerve are all severed. In order to be certified as a "shochet", a ritual kosher slaughterer, people go through rigorous training and supervision before they are allowed to work on their own.
As the shochet stands before the animal to be slaughtered, he (usually he) recites the following blessing:
“Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with God's commandments and has commanded us concerning ritual slaughter.”
The shochet's blessing, our extra effort to locate and purchase kosher meat, the blessing we recite before we eat that meat ("Baruch atah Adonay, eloheinu melech ha'olam, shehakol nihyeh bidvaro." Blessed are You, Adonay our God, for everything exists by God's word.), are all meant to keep us mindful of the fact that a life God created has been sacrificed for our nourishment and pleasure.
These days, we find our meat packaged in neat little plastic packages: it is so easy to lose the connection between the ground beef in the package and the animal from which it was cut. (Hence, the cuts of beef chart, above.)
These days, we are inundated by packaging, advertising, expert advice of all kinds, all funded by huge food-producing corporations. How easy to fall into the trap of believing that cookies come from Nabisco, chips come from Wise and fish sticks comes from Gorton's . . . . our tradition, our framework of kosher eating keeps fresh in our minds the truth that our nourishment comes from God. Conagra, Kraft, all those huge food-producing corporations would be out of business without the nourishing plants and animals God placed on this earth to sustain us.
So, no, there is nothing anachronistic about the laws and observance of kosher eating . . . I'd say we need them now more than ever!
I just got returned from three weeks in Israel. Israel is where I spend quality time with my kids and their significant others, with friends who have been part of my life since my 20 years living in Israel, and it is where I re-charge my spiritual batteries.
It is often the case that my annual summer visit to Israel coincides with the observance of Tisha b'Av, the fast commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians and the Romans in turn.
Traditional sources put some of the responsibility for the destruction of the Temple on the shoulders of the Israelites themselves, for our ancestors were guilty of the flawed behavior "sinat hinam" / senseless hatred. It seems that even two thousand years ago, people lashed out and condemned each other in the name of self-righteousness. Jew condemned Jew. Non-Jew condemned Jew. Jew condemned non-Jew. You get the idea...
Actually, it's not hard for you to "get the idea" because these scenarios are so familiar today among the polarized and polarizing religious communities that plague every Abrahamic faith tradition. Jews have religious fanatics. Christians have religious fanatics. Muslims have religious fanatics.
Intolerance in the name of God is such an oxymoron....
It seems that no matter which side of the Atlantic I find myself on, the toxicity of religious self-righteousness is there to be dealt with. I have often commented on the irony that the only country in the world in which a marriage I conduct is not recognized is "my own" country, Israel. Earlier this year, a nine year old girl from a religious family was spat upon my ultra-Orthodox fanatics because she was "dressed immodestly." ....Really?
In Israel I was brought close to tears by the horrific murder of innocent, peace-loving Sikhs in their own house of worship and then came home to learn of the vandalism suffered by our friends in the mosque in North Smithfield.
There are a lot of things of which we have too much in this world, like pettiness and selfishness and self-righteousness, and hunger, and homelessness. And there are a lot of things of which we have too little in this world, like theological humility.
How dare anyone limit the capacity of God to respond to sincere expressions of faith? How dare anyone claim that they know the will of God better than any other human being? Even Moses, the human who was most intimate with God, is described as "anav m'od", as very humble. Indeed, I would posit that the closer one is to God, the further one is along the path of one's spiritual journey, the more humble one would feel . . . for how could we feel anything but humble if we are truly in awe of God?
Our congregation's move to East Greenwich engages us in the life of the greater East Greenwich community more fully than in previous years, when we were still rooted in Cranston. The faith community here in East Greenwich is a mutually respectful and supportive coalition of houses of worship in town. We saw this ourselves when the clergy of several East Greenwich churches wrote letters on our behalf to the East Greenwich Zoning Board and came to testify at a number of Zoning Board meetings as well.
My clergy colleagues in these churches have told me that together their congregations sustain and maintain an Interfaith Food Cupboard housed at St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Peirce Street. This is a model of community cooperation with which we are familiar through our participation in and support of the Edgewood Food Pantry housed at the Church of the Transfiguration on Broad Street in Cranston.
East Greenwich enjoys a reputation as a beautiful town with affluent residents and a superb public school system. This is a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. There is another side to East Greenwich from which many of us are sheltered: there are hungry adults and children in town who the professionals call "food insecure." That means they do not always know if there will be a next meal, let alone where it is coming from.
Chris and Steve Bartlett, who run the EG Interfaith Food Cupboard at St Luke's have reported that in July alone 256 individuals received food from the Cupboard, and this includes 21 new families who had never turned to the EG facility for this support in the past.
This coming Shabbat is referred to in our calendar as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. The consolation is God's response to us on the loss of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD at the hands of the Roman Empire. The loss posed a fundamental theological challenge to Judaism, as it was through the korbanot, the sacrifices at the Temple that Israel drew closer to God and atoned for their transgressions. In an early rabbinic gloss on the Mishnah (Avot d'Rabi Natan 4:5) Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai consoles a colleague who is mourning the loss of the Temple. Rabbi Yohanan says: Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness. For it is written (Hosea 6:6): "Lovingkindess I desire, not sacrifice."
Our consolation, at this distance of two thousand years, should also be expressed through acts of lovingkindness. I hope you will all take a moment during the summer weeks that remain to drop off non-perishable food at our TY house for all three of our food-support projects: the Edgewood Food Closet, the Chester Kosher Food Pantry, and our East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. You can designate where you want the food to go, or you can leave it to Beverly Goncalves, our Social Action Chair, to divide up the food and pass it on to those who deliver it.
Here is some basic information about the EG project:
East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard
The Interfaith Food Cupboard, located in St Luke’s Parish house on Peirce Street, is open from 10:30 AM -12:00 noon each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The service is available to any East Greenwich resident, member of an East Greenwich congregation, referral from a clergy or someone in need of emergency food. We are currently asking for donations of the following food products: canned ham, chicken or fish, cereal, oatmeal, canned fruit, soups, pasta sauce, juice and juice boxes, jam/jelly and crackers. Other products that we always need include staples like cooking oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, mustard, sugar, flour, coffee, tea, etc. If you would like to make a cash donation rather than food, your check can be sent to your clergy or directly to the EGIFC. We have a very dedicated volunteer staff and on their behalf, we thank you for your support of the East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. Chris and Steve Bartlett
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.