Here we are on the eve of Shabbat, the eve of the Days of Awe, and the eve of Labor Day. Calendar coincidences like this give us the opportunity to contemplate familiar subjects from new vantage points.
The opening verses of this Shabbat's double parashah establishes the eternity of the connection between our people and the covenant forged at Sinai and reaffirmed at Moav:
"You are standing before God in order to enter into the Covenant of God and take the oath that God makes with you, so that God may fulfill God's promise to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is not with you alone, but with those who are here and those who are not here that God makes this Covenant and oath."
No matter where we Jews have lived, no matter when, we have with determination and commitment and creativity kept this Covenant with our God.
On the eve of this weekend, which is meant to honor laborers who built and continue to build this country, who have maintained and continue to maintain our infrastructure and homes and workplaces . . . indeed honoring all those who have and do work and seek work . . . and in this season of reflection and this Sabbath that affirms our connection to our covenant and our history as slave laborers, the findings of the Tannenbaum Institute's survey of the American workplace is most relevant: "What American Workers Really Think About Religion: Tanenbaum's 2013 Survey of American Workers and Religion."
In the introduction to the survey, the Tanenbaum staff writes:
If there is one conclusion to take away from Tanenbaum’s 2013 Survey of American Workers and Religion, it is that religion is relevant in the workplace. Not only is it a problem when a person feels unfairly treated on the basis of his or her beliefs – whether religious or non-religious – but tensions around religion are occurring, and are increasingly likely to occur, in our ever more diverse global workplaces. That said, it is important to recognize that the issues raised in this survey are complex and nuanced.
One-third of respondents have seen incidents of religious bias in their workplaces or have personally experienced them.
More than one-third (36%) of workers say they have personally experienced or witnessed some form of religious non-accommodation4 in their workplace.
It is sad and frustrating to see that religious affiliation (or the lack thereof) divides and marginalizes people at the place where we spend most of our time aside from home with our families . . . or perhaps even more than the time we spend home with our families! Perhaps the time will come when the Tanenbaum survey will reflect a small single digit percentage (I vote for 0%!) of workers experiencing or witnessing religious discrimination or "non-accommodaton" in the workplace. Until that time comes, it is our task to speak out, to ask for help and to try to find a way to bring this kind of redemption to the world ourselves.
Jewish immigrants in line at Ellis Island.
The opening words of this week's Torah reading are:
"And it shall be, when you'll come to the land that Adonay, your God, is giving you as a legacy..." (D'varim/Deuteronomy 26:1)
What follows are instructions about specific agricultural practices and ethical behaviors that constitute the conditions under which the Israelites will maintain possession of the land.
But this week, as our country's leadership considers pending immigration reform, it is time to consider the implications of those very first words . . . "when you come to the land . . . ."
In fact, the very beginning of the story of God and our people begins with immigration: God turned to Avram, out of the blue (literally!) and said: Lech-l'cha meiartz'cha . . . go, take yourself out of your land . . . and from that moment on we have been involved in immigrating and wandering and journeying: Ur to Sinai to Egypt to Canaan to Egypt to Canaan (no, not a typo) to Babylonia to the Land of Israel to the Mediterranean Basin and on beyond: Europe, America, Asia, Australia . . . . not for nothing the iconic term "wandering Jew."
Closer to home, I would imagine that all of us need only look back one, two, maybe three generations before we find the courageous immigrant matriarch and/or patriarch whose journey rooted our family in the United States. One of the few cliches that conveys a deep true is that the United States is a country of immigrants.
For this reason, today I proudly joined over 1000 rabbinic colleagues around the country in signing the following open letter to Congress:
Dear Members of the 113th Congress,
We write during this High Holy Day season as Jewish clergy of all streams to add our voices to the call for the swift passage of comprehensive immigration reform. From Abraham’s journey to Canaan, to our Exodus from Egypt, to today, we are a people that has over millennia continuously been expelled, been rejected, been freed, and been welcomed. This history of migration, coupled with the most-often repeated Biblical commandment to love the stranger inspires our advocacy for immigration reform that is common-sense, compassionate and reflective of America’s history as a nation of immigrants.
Today, over 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the shadows of our communities. Families face up to decades long backlogs in acquiring visas, workers are left without protections, and children are left behind as parents are deported. Our domestic security is undermined when people live in fear of cooperating with law enforcement, and our economy suffers when we do not safely and legally acknowledge and employ millions of our country’s workers. We can, and we must, do better.
In particular, we support:
• Above all, bringing undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows” with opportunities to regularize their status upon satisfaction of reasonable criteria and, over time, pursue citizenship;
• Family reunification policies that significantly reduce waiting times for separated families;
• Border protection policies that are consistent with American humanitarian values and effective against illegal migration;
• Legal avenues for both high- and low-skilled professionals and their families to enter the U.S. and work in a way that protects their safety while meeting employers’ needs; and
• Creating safe, welcoming, and humane avenues for refugees and asylum seekers who have fled persecution in their homelands to find safety and freedom in the United States.
During this Jewish High Holy Day period, we assess individually and as a community our strengths and shortcomings and commit ourselves to doing better in the future. It is in this spirit that we write urging Congress to address the shortcomings of the past and strive to do better in swiftly passing comprehensive immigration reform in the next few months.
This was an exhilarating week at Torat Yisrael: we held four Open House events this week and welcomed a steady stream of prospective members interested in touring our new synagogue building, meeting our members, learning about our school, our services, our adult education and social service programs.
This is an excellent week to contemplate the significance of synagogue: why do hundreds of us so willingly and loving contribute our precious resources of money and time and good will and expertise to sustaining our congregation?
I found a thought-piece published in the Huffington Post this week rather inspiring. It was written by Tara Woodard-Lehman, Presbyterian Chaplain at Princeton University. Her piece begins:
Not long ago I was having a conversation with a college student. Like many young adults, this guy was a religious "none." He wasn't some sort of jaded post-religious person, but he also wasn't actively trying to find a religious home.
Despite his state of self-described religious none-ness, this student pursued conversations about spiritual things. And, as expressed by many students I talk with, he found my commitment to "traditional religion" quite curious.
He asked, "I mean, I get why you're into 'being spiritual' and 'helping people' and everything, but why bother with Church? I just don't get that part. Do you really think you need it?"
He went on to describe how irrelevant the Church was. In his view, all the Church once provided can be found elsewhere in civic life. From community service projects to book clubs; from outreach to the poor to potlucks; from meditation groups to support groups, he described the many other places that provide much of what the Church used to (and occasionally still does) provide.
I did my best to listen.
And you know what I concluded? He was, at least in part, right. If the Church is only what he described (a sort of glorified community center or service provider), it is a wonder anyone shows up.
I thought: If the synagogue is only a sort of glorified community center or service provider, it is a wonder that anyone shows up, too!
Reverend Woodard-Lehman, of course, provides her answer to why she needs church:
After giving it much consideration, I've decided that there is at least one very good reason why I need Church: I have a really bad memory.
It's true. I have a terrible memory. Especially when it comes to remembering who I am as a child of God. . . .
I forget who I am. I forget who God is. I forget God's Epic Story of Redemption and Liberation and Renewal and Beauty and Hope.
I forget. A lot.
On top of that, there are a gazillion other demands and voices that are vying for my attention all the freaking time.
So I admit it. I get tired. And I get distracted. And more often than not, I forget.
I need Church, because Church reminds me of everything that's important.
Yes! So does shul! We come together in our Jewish community, certainly to enjoy our Sisterhood Book Club and our end of summer barbecue (August 25th, don't forget to sign up!) and our support of the Edgewood Food Closet and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry (bring non-perishables to the barbecue, please!) and sharing wine and munchies at Shalom to Shabbat . . . but there are non-Jewish, secular versions of all these activities.
We need "shul" to remind us of what's important . . . and to come together with others who also want to be reminded of what's important.
In the context of the secular world outside our congregation we're "on our own." There is no way to be reminded that God is an ever-present, consistent source of strength and inspiration accessible to us any time, any where. But we walk into our synagogue and our Torah study and our liturgy and our discussions around all kinds of tables recharge or spiritual batteries, so we can take that assurance out into the world.
In the context of the secular world outside our congregation, there is no humility. Where, at the public library or the shopping mall or the gym are we going to be reminded that life itself is a gift from God? But in our synagogue, through our Torah study and our liturgy and our discussions around all kinds of tables, we come together from all sorts of backgrounds and motivations and learn to appreciate the Godly in each of us and we are given the opportunity to savor just being one sacred part of God's creation instead of moving through the world assuming we are each the center of the universe.
At Torat Yisrael, our congregation is the place where we can grow into these truths: that God never leaves us along, that we are part of something greater. At Torat Yisrael, these truths are sources of joy: we sing, we laugh, we build and grow as Jews because our tradition gives us so much to celebrate.
That's why we need shul!
Ask yourself: What are the observances and practices that most say "Judaism" to us? I'd imagine that somewhere at or near the top of your list would be: Shabbat.
Celebrating Shabbat in Jewish community has been a core experience for millennia. Indeed, one of the most profound statements about Shabbat was penned by a an early 20th century Jewish essayist who wrote: "More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews."
One of the striking things about this statement is that it was written by Ahad Ha'am (the pen name for Asher Ginsburg [1856-1927]) who was a secular Zionist thinker! Shabbat reigns in the imagination even of the non-observant Jew.
The roots of Shabbat are found in the creation story of Genesis. After a day-by-day account of what God created each day, Breishit/Genesis relates: "God had finished, on the seventh day, the work God had made, and then ceased, on the seventh day, from all work of creating. God gave the seventh day a blessing and hallowed it, for on it God ceased from all work, that by creating, God had made." (2:2-3)
The initial model of this seventh day is that of a day of rest. This was a groundbreaking concept in the ancient world, in which no concept of a weekly day of rest existed.
Since that first concept of a day of rest, our Jewish people have embroidered on, deepened, enriched the concept of our day of rest. Our great theologians have waxed poetic about our Shabbat:
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (The Sabbath):
"Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else."
Shabbat, teaches Rabbi Heschel, is the opportunity to step back, slow down, appreciate the mystery and the holiness that surrounds us. Shabbat gives us the opportunity to savor our own holiness, by virtue of the soul implanted within us by God.
Almost two thousand years ago, a midrash (homiletic text) related:
"Israel said before the Holy One, Blessed One: 'Master of the world, if we observe the commandments, what reward will we have?' God said to them, 'The world-to-come.' They said: 'Show us its likeness.' God showed them the Sabbath." (Otiot de-Rabbi Akiva).
The world to come: In Judaism, this is a time that will be free of strife, free of struggle. We will no longer be plagued by disease or fear or insecurity. Shabbat is meant to give us a glimpse of just such a time.
Jews who savor this imagery will save their best clothes and best food for Shabbat. Friends will gather around each others dining room tables, enjoy generous meals, sing, talk about Torah and life, laughter and indescribable warmth.
As we cross the threshold into the sacred time of Shabbat this evening, we at Torat Yisrael will gather together for social community (at Shalom to Shabbat this evening before services), for a unique prayer experience (with our unique Friday evening service designed for the month of Elul preceding the High Holidays) and for multigenerational, interactive study (at tomorrow morning's Torah at the Table). These are the ways we here create for ourselves a glimpse of the world to come.
I am proud to have submitted the following Op-Ed piece to the Providence Journal with Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland, President of the Governing Board of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
Op-Ed: Keeping the Experiment Lively: The Case of Marriage Equality in Rhode Island
Rabbi Amy Levin, Temple Torat Yisrael, East Greenwich.
President, The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland, West Warwick
President of the Governing Board, Rhode Island State Council of Churches
“That it is much on their hearts … to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained … with a full liberty in religious concernments….”
- The Rhode Island Charter, Granted by King Charles II, July 8, 1663
As a state, we should feel significant pride in our recently-passed Marriage Equality legislation which came into law this week. Years of respectful public debate, with passionate advocacy on both sides of the issue, have led to the fact that here in Rhode Island there is now officially recognized civil marriage between people of the same gender. We are thoroughly engaged in the "lively experiment" to maintain the "flourishing civil state" mandated 350 years ago in the charter granted by King Charles II.
As a state, we should feel significant pride in the explicit provision of the legislation that protects the theological discretion of every faith community in Rhode Island to create and perform religious marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples--or not. In so doing, Rhode Island's marriage equality legislation embodies the "full liberty in religious concernments" that is equally at the heart of the charter that created Rhode Island.
The commitment to experimentation in order to foster thriving civil society along with fidelity to the principle of religious liberty makes Rhode Island a stimulating and inspiring place to live.
How extraordinary that the ethos of experimentation is a foundation stone of our state. By virtue of our lively experiment, Rhode Island’s civil culture is, and has always been, diverse, inclusive, pluralistic and aspirational. Our continuing lively experiment requires openness and a sense of responsibility and imagination and a streak of practicality. That these qualities continue to shape the civil life of our state should most certainly be a source of pride.
The spiritual leaders, the clergy, of an impressively broad spectrum of faith communities in Rhode Island share in our own engaging, mutually respectful and lively community. We who serve people of Jewish and Muslim and Christian and Unitarian and Buddhist and Hindu and Bahai and Quaker faiths enjoy relationships of mutual trust and respect that are strong enough to weather the times we find ourselves on opposite sides of an intense issue like civil marriage for same-gender couples. "Some of our best friends" are clergy whose religious commitments obviate religious marriage for same-gender couples. "Some of our best friends" are clergy whose religious commitments require religious marriage for same-gender couples.
No matter where we stand on the comprehensive theological map of Rhode Island, we are all committed to sensing and cherishing the spark of the sacred in each other and in every human being.
Mazal tov, congratulations to those of us who live in this state which recognizes civil marriage for same-gender couples. May our civil experiments remain lively and our religious liberties flourish!
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.