This past Wednesday our Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty in Rhode Island gathered for our 6th Annual "Fighting Poverty With Faith" Conference. A clear consensus among us all, clarified and beautifully expressed by our keynote speaker, Sister Simone Campbell of "Nuns on the Bus", is that wishing, complaining, even sermonizing isn't enough. We must act.
In that spirit, I bring you two resources. The first is an introduction to being a proactive citizen: how to communicate with your elected leaders to tell them what you want them to vote for. The second is a link to the legislative agenda set by the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty in Rhode Island. We hope very much that you will use these materials to convey your concern for Rhode Island's most vulnerable residents and encourage our elected officials to fulfill their responsibilities as the elected officials of all Rhode Islanders.
A Beginner’s Guide to Letting Your Legislators Know What You Want Them To Vote For*
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt, how he fell upon you on the way and cut off the weak ones at your rear, when you were exhausted and tired, and he didn't fear God. So it shall be, when Adonay your God will give you rest from all your enemies all around in the land that Adonay your God is giving you as a legacy to take possession of it, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the skies. You shall not forget. (D'varim/Deuteronomy 25: 17-19)
Amalek is the embodiment of violence and I would suggest that we can read the key phrase from Deuteronomy as a command to wipe out all memory of Amalek's actions. How can this be achieved? By erasing every act of violence that threatens security and safety. Anyone's security and safety. To make violence a distant, barely conjurable memory.
Recently, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island joined the newly-formed Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island. This is not an "anti-gun" coalition, but rather a collaboration of faith leaders from around our state who share a vision of Rhode Island as a "violence-free zone." Violence takes many forms and those who perpetrate violence use many instruments . . . from guns to knives to fists to words. Our premise is not that guns and knives and fists and words must be eradicated from society: for their are legal and legitimate and non-violent uses for guns and knives and yes, even fists, and certainly words. But the force of these instruments must not be directed against any human being. That is our contention.
As a first step toward achieving this vision, our Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island is joining with other non-violence bodies in our state for our rally this coming Tuesday, March 18th at 3:30 pm at the Rhode Island Statehouse. I will be speaking at the rally along with other leaders engaged in bringing the reality of life in Rhode Island closer to the ideal of our vision.
We will then proceed to testify at the General Assembly's House Judiciary Committee to address the pressing need of that body to act and bring to the floor pending legislation that will help create the violence-free Rhode Island we all crave.
The specific bill under discussion is HR7310 determines that a person who has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor will be banned from owning a gun in Rhode Island. In the state of Rhode Island, every child who has been killed in a domestic violence scenario has been killed by a firearm. Although we recognize the general principle that individuals have a right to own guns and keep them in their homes, that right, like many others we enjoy, need to be subject to parameters and guidelines. In the case of domestic violence, there is a sad record of violence perpetrated against family members . . . including family members who are bystanders, like children. When guns are taken out of the equation, the survival of victims and bystanders in cases of domestic violence rises.
Thousands of years after God enjoined us to wipe out violence to such an extent that acts of violence are just a faint memory, we are still struggling to achieve modest steps toward that vision.
I hope you will feel moved to join us at the Statehouse rally this coming Tuesday, and let our elected leaders know that you share our Religious Coalition's vision of a Violence-Free Rhode Island.
If ever there was Jewish clergy, in the sense of an intercessor between God and the people, who facilitated atonement, who held exclusive authority to perform rites and wear specific vestments it was the kohanim, the priests, the male descendents of Aaron. If all of Israelite experience, up until the destruction of the Second Temple, had centered around the sacrificial cult, there would be no Judaism, which is rabbinic Judaism, today. The Temple would have been destroyed and without the focal point of that sacrificial system, the Israelites would easily have been dispersed and absorbed into the surrounding cultures of the Roman Empire around them.
So what saved us? What was the safety net that caught us when the Temple fell?
The saving grace of our people was a populist movement that had begun to develop almost two centuries before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem: the rabbinic movement had begun. The existence of scholars who were not kohanim/priests is extraordinary in a general culture in which the leaders of pagan cultic worship held the esoteric texts and practices of their faiths in closely guarded, limited circles. The general population had no access to the most sacred texts and instructions.
But in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses decrees that everyone, men, women, children, will all have direct access to the Torah, the Instruction of God:
And Moses commanded them saying: "At the end of seven years, at the appointed time of the year of the remission, on the Festival of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before Adonay, your God, in the place that God will choose, you shall read this instruction in front of all Israel in their ears. Assemble the people--the men and the women and the infants and your alien who in in your gates--so they will listen and so they will learn and will be in awe of Adonay your God, and they will be watchful to do all the words of this instruction. (D'varim/Deuteronomy 31:10-12)
Those who came together to study and discuss Torah, while the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, were a populist movement. The Torah describes these men: wealthy and poor, landowners and shoemakers, with one thing in common: a commitment to exploring the depths of the Torah and making sure that the precepts of the Torah were being faithfully followed in a location and culture and economy significantly different from the place and language and culture and economy of the nomadic wandering generations who were present at Sinai. These scholars asked each other questions: What does this word mean now? How do we fulfill this mitzvah in this time and place? How do we integrate this piece of new realia into the framework of the Torah?
It is a conversation that continues until this very day on many levels . . . including, and most important, among "the men and the women and the infants", not just the scholars, not just the rabbis, but everyone who is part of the community.
There are lots of Jewish "things to do" . . . pray, give tzedakah/charity, support the institutions of the Jewish community, support one another through illness and bereavement, chose to keep the dietary laws of kashrut . . . but the Mishnah (the earliest layer of rabbinic text redacted in the 2nd century CE) declares that תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם / Talmud Torah kneged kulam / the study of Torah stands equally with all the other Jewish practices and observes combined. It's a bold statement. The traditional understanding has been that it is through the study of Torah that we will learn how and why and be inspired to pray, give tzedakah, support the community, take part in the community and deepen our individual Jewish identities.
The world of Jewish learning covers as wide a spectrum as the human experience itself . . . jewish learning leads to Jewish living. And Jewish living also covers a wide spectrum of identity and lifestyle and commitment.
It is for these reasons that the members of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island is offering our first public event: an evening of eclectic Jewish learning. Drash and Dessert. "Drash" is the Hebrew term for the exploration and interpretation of Torah. "Dessert", well that's self-explanatory: Jews come together and there has to be food, yes?
We are proud and inspired by the wide variety of topics on offer at our Drash and Dessert event tomorrow evening after Shabbat. Whether you have sent in an rsvp or not, we hope you will join us. Click here to see the full program including time table and descriptions of our 14 different study sessions involving 16 members of our Board of Rabbis!
I did catch a glimpse of a curious discussion about Jesus during the last few weeks triggered by Megyn Kelly, a news announcer for Fox News, who asserted, on the air, that Jesus was a white man...
Although Jesus was a historical figure, there are no contemporary images of him . . . but my guess is that he looked much like other people populating the Mediterranean Basin a couple of thousand years ago: dark hair and eyes, a rather swarthy complexion . . . .but his appearance is probably the least important characteristic of the man.
I was, admittedly, not the most enthusiastic student of history in college and rabbinical school, but the one course that did engage me was a course on the history of the Land of Israel during the Second Temple . . . part of which includes Jesus' lifetime.
Judea (as the Land of Israel was called at this time) was a fascinating, cosmopolitan region. Judea, with a few good harbors, was an international hotspot where Europe, Asia and Africa all touched. The region had been ruled by an independent Jewish regime, and was then under Syrian, Greek and Roman rule . . . so there was a myriad of cultural influences woven into the intellectual, economic and theological structures of the time.
The region, especially the beautiful northern area of Israel, the Galilee, was peppered with small towns which held weekly or bi-weekly market days so that farmers from surrounding areas could sell their produce and animals. Those market days also became days for the "pirka," the lesson taught by whichever itinerant scholar/rabbi happened to arrive in town on market day when people were gathered in one spot. Some of these rabbis, who travelled and taught throughout the region, were apparently quite charismatic and developed devoted followings. There were some who felt that the Kohanim, the priestly caste who were in charge of the Temple in Jerusalem and all connected with the sacrificial cult, were growing too powerful, too unilateral, too uninvolved in the lives of the people. Some who felt this way, promoted the study of Torah from the grassroots and formed the foundation of the rabbinic Judaism we practice to this day. Others criticized the Temple cult and sought a more spiritual path. Jesus was, apparently, one of these charismatic rabbinic figures.
So, thought a Jewish lens, Jesus was a rabbi, preacher and teacher. Quite human. Quite effective. Not of divine origin (or no more of divine origin than any other human being) and not a savior.
Certainly, this man's legacy has inspired a compelling faith. As a Jew, I admire the best of Christianity . . . which I suspect doesn't have much to do with Santa . . . and remain deeply nourished and inspired by my own tradition, rooted in the Torah, anchored by rabbinic teaching, which directs my attention to God more than any human being.
Well . . . not all of us.
On the eve of Thanksgiving, please read with care and take to heart the following article by Rabbi Steven Gutow of the Jewish Center for Public Affairs:
Huff Post Politics: Americans Are Falling Off the Food Cliff -- We Can Stop the Pain
Posted: 11/16/2013 1:20 pm
This week, just days before Thanksgiving, lines at food banks will be growing. This is not unexpected. In fact, unbelievable as this may sound, this was scheduled. On November 1, 47 million Americans on SNAP (formerly food stamps) began receiving fewer benefits thanks to the expiration of funding from the 2009 stimulus. For a family of four, that reduction comes out to about $36 less for food for the month. Which brings us to this week; when those suddenly reduced grocery budgets begin to run out.
Congress saw this coming. We knew that even as food prices were increasing, working families, the unemployed, children, the disabled, and seniors would start to receive less assistance and problems with increased hunger in America would ensue. But not only were we allowed to go over the food cliff, Congress is actually debating even more cuts to SNAP. The Senate Farm Bill includes a $4.1 billion cut - almost equal to the $5 billion cut this month - and the House is making the Senate look like a humanitarian body by proposing a cut of $39 billion, eight times more devastating to the poor than the already problematic Senate proposal.
What made the fall from the food cliff even more painful is that we have been pushing our most vulnerable towards the edge for months. In March, the sequester went into effect, slashing nutrition assistance to low-income women and children, limiting the capacity of food banks, and cutting Meals on Wheels deliveries to homebound seniors. Not to mention cuts to Head Start and LIHEAP, the energy assistance program that had alleviated the need for families to choose between paying their heating bills and buying food. But that pain of the sequester was quickly forgotten because last month's government shutdown caused even more harm by diminishing these services even more. No doubt, 2013 has been a difficult year. And things are not looking better in 2014 as the next round of sequestration cuts goes into effect in January.
Bit by bit we are tearing holes in the fabric of our national human needs programs, and I fear the repercussions not only for those who need our assistance and protection, but for our nation. With one in seven Americans facing hunger, we went over the food cliff this month. Before that, the costs of disagreements that led to the government shutdown and sequestration were felt most by those with the least.
This week, as the food banks around the country work to meet the planned food cliff, we must acknowledge the choices we are making. Private charity is a noble but insufficient substitute. According to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, the estimated dollar value of all food distributed by U.S. charities this year is $5 billion, the same amount as the cut that took effect this month.
However, we are still able to change our course. Instead of demonizing and punishing those who need support in this season of plenty and thanksgiving, let us unmask the face of hunger in the United States and dedicate ourselves to overcoming it. The truth is, over half of those who benefit from SNAP are children and seniors. For unemployed adults, SNAP serves as support to help them through difficult times with more than half of enrollees leaving the program within a year, most of whom are only on the program for 10 months or less. Instead of taking away food from those in need, we should strengthen this program which feeds families, helps children do well in school, and supports the most vulnerable.
With each cut, our country pushes more Americans down the food cliff. How long until we stop noticing the fall? This Thanksgiving, as many of us sit at our tables for an annual feast, more of our fellow Americans will have less to eat. With this stark reality we must choose a different path. Now is the opportunity. As they actively negotiate a Farm Bill, Members of Congress, acting on our behalf, should open their hearts and offer an outstretched hand to those who have fallen over the food cliff. Simply, there should be no more cuts to SNAP.
Rabbi Steve Gutow is the President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. For more information and updates, visit here and follow @theJCPA on Twitter.
After listening to my dear friend and colleague, Don Anderson, say some generously complimentary things about me, I responded with the following:
When I was a little girl in East Orange, New Jersey, I was often chased home by kids in a local parochial school . . . they’d chase me through the alleys in our neighborhood and called me “dirty Jew.” When I was a young mother living in Jerusalem, I had rocks thrown at me from the Arab village across the road as I parked my car one night early on in the intifada years. I was not a promising candidate for interfaith leadership. The proximity of Christians and Muslims was more threatening than reassuring.
Jews engaged in the study of the Torah and rabbinic literature don’t sit in concentrated isolation in a library . . . we sit across the table from a chaver, from a study partner, and we examine, debate, argue, postulate, explore . . . the premise is that two heads are better than one. The premise is that one person, no matter how brilliant, just cannot bring out all the depth of meaning of a text alone. We each need a study partner to challenge us, teach us, show us paths we’d never be able to discover on our own.
Indeed, the premise is that where two people come together to study Torah, the shechinah, God’s most imminent nurturing presence, draws even nearer.
I can tell you that the collaborative effort I have engaged in with Reverend Don Anderson, Imam Farid Ansari, Reverend Betsy Garland and so many other inspiring faith leaders in our state has been a journey of exploration, personal growth that has led to spiritual fulfillment. I have learned from and been inspired by my chaverim, my partners. These people have shown me paths I never would have discovered on my own.
The actions for which I am being honored this morning mean a tremendous amount to me and I am proud to be standing before you as the recipient of this year’s Rhode Island State Council of Churches Faith Leader of the Year Award. Reverend Mercedes and Bishop Wolf and Reverend Balark, whose ranks I join today, the previous recipients of this award, are each visionary and inspired leaders. The leadership of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches has taken an extraordinary step by bestowing this most respected award on a churchless rabbi. Members of my terrific . . . and patient . . . congregation, Temple Torat Yisrael of East Greenwich, are here today to support me and to express our congregation’s appreciation for this recognition. There is another whole delegation of leaders from the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island who are also here in support and appreciation . . . the significance of this award is not lost on any of us . . . and is, indeed, treasured by all of us.
None of my actions, none of my achievements have been attained by sitting in concentrated isolation in my study . . . trying to build bridges between faith communities in a unilateral process is like clapping with one hand. It can’t be done.
Getting an award for the work I’ve done with my partners in faiths makes me a little nervous . . . because somehow the bestowing of an award feels like a summing up. But I don’t feel done with any of this; we have way too many more journeys to take together. There are still so many mistaken assumptions waiting to be blasted, so many barriers of wariness to lower, so many infinitely rich bridges of trust to build. The conviction that real faith creates a safe space for mutual respect and reciprocal learning fuels this journey. I first sat down at those tentative breakfasts with Reverend Anderson and Imam Ansari in the hope that we might demonstrate in some small way that real faith fosters peace. We’ve achieved much more than I had ever hoped with my chaverim, my partners in faith. When we come together to live the principles of all our faiths, the shechinah, God’s most imminent, nurturing presence, draws near and blesses our joint enterprise. Let’s keep that shechinah very busy!
This year, we're trying something new . . . stuffed animals are still invited, but now our live animals are invited, too! Instead of meeting during services, we're going to gather in front of the synagogue with our (leashed) dogs and (caged) gerbils as well as our favorite stuffed animals and we'll sing our favorite Noah songs and perhaps tell a story or two, as well. And have a nosh, of course.
I noticed that when the Christian congregations in our area invite the members of their congregations to bring their animals along, they are offering a "blessing of the animals." Being an animal lover myself, I am all in favor of sharing our Jewish community with our own animals, too.
But the idea of "blessing the animals" wasn't really working for me . . . and then I understood what wasn't working.
In Judaism, our blessings are directed toward God . . . so when we are pausing to appreciate the cats and iguanas and parakeets we love, it's not so much that we are blessing them, or even asking God to bless them . . . rather we are blessing and praising God for having created these wonderful creatures and bringing them in to our lives.
I hope you'll join us with your furry or scaly or plush friend tomorrow. We'll share our admiration for Noah, the world's first champion of animal rescue, sing a little, meet each other's pets and thank God for bringing so much beauty and blessing into our lives.
Our joy in the Torah comes from the unique place this text holds in our tradition: it is through the Torah that we find our collective identity as a people; we learn our history, our values, insights into the human character and insights into God. The Torah constantly challenges us with spiritual and behavioral goals which can engage us for a lifetime. The Torah provides us with hope in our future as long as we have a community with which to study and live with and provides comfort to us through the Torah's many assurances of God's love for us and commitment to our covenant, our brit, with God.
One of the Torah's greatest gifts to us is itself: unlike many other ancient faiths, the knowledge of, engagement with our quintessential sacred text was never reserved for an elite few . . . just weeks ago, as we read the book of Deuteronomy at Shabbat services, we were witness to Moshe commanded that the Torah be read aloud as the entire people were gathered together: men, women and all those old enough to understand. Every single Jewish soul has a direct connection to our Source . . . to God and to sacred text God has put into our hands.
This is one of the reasons why Simchat Torah is so powerful: each of us holds a scroll in our arms . . . we dance and sing and rejoice in our identities as Jewish individuals in a thriving Jewish community . . . . and it is the Torah we embrace that makes us possible.
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.
- 4-in-10 employees at companies without clear processes for handling employee complaints are looking for a new job, compared to 2-in-10 employees at companies with these processes.
- Half of non-Christians say that their employers are ignoring their religious needs.
- More than half of American workers believe that there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims.
- Nearly 6-in-10 atheists believe that people look down on their beliefs, as do nearly one-third of white evangelical Protestants and non-Christian religious workers.
More than one-third (36%) of workers say they have personally experienced or witnessed some form of religious non-accommodation4 in their workplace.
- The most commonly experienced or witnessed forms of religious non-accommodation are being required to work on Sabbath observances or a religious holiday (24%) and attending company-sponsored events that did not include kosher, halal, or vegetarian options (13%).
- Nearly half of non-Christian workers (49%) report experiencing or witnessing religious non-accommodation at work.
- White evangelical workers (48%) are equally as likely as non-Christian workers to report experiencing or witnessing religious non-accommodation at work.
- Two-in-five (40%) atheists also report experiencing or witnessing religious non-accommodation at work.
- Employees at companies that provide flexible hours for religious observance are more than twice as likely to say that they look forward to coming to work.
- When companies have policies on religious discrimination, their employees are less likely to be looking for a new job.
- Regardless of a company’s size, workers whose companies offer education programs about religious diversity and flexibility for religious practice report higher job satisfaction than workers in companies that do not.
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.
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.
Rabbi Levin lived in Israel for 20 years and was the second woman to be ordained by the Masorti/Conservative Movement in Israel.
Aaron / Kohanim
At Times Of Tragedy
Bar / Bat Mitzvah
Bring Back Our Boys
Community / Kehillah
Covenant / Brit
Deuteronomy / Dvarim
Exodus / Shmot
Exodus / Shmot
Genesis / Breishit
Halachah / Jewish Law
Holiness / Kedushah
Holocaust / Shoah
Isaiah / Yeshayahu
Israel And Jewish Observance
Jewish Fast Days
Kiddush Hashem / Sanctifying God
Korban / Sacrifice
Leviticus / Vayikra
Masorti: Israeli Conservative Movement
Memorial Day / Yom Hazikaron
Mitzvah / Commandment
Month Of Sivan
Mourning / Aveilut
Numbers / Bamidbar
Passover / Pesach
Pidyon Shevuyim / Redemption Of Captives
Power Of Speech
Privacy And Security
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Rabbi Avraham Soltes
Rabbi Brad Artson
Rabbi Laura Geller
Reverend Martin Luther King
Song Of Songs / Shir Hashirim
Tabernacle / Temple
Western Wall / Old City Of Jerusalem