One of the key elements of this week's Torah reading is introduced in the opening passage. God instructs Moses: "Send men and let them scout the land of Canaan that I'm giving to the children of Israel...." From that moment to this very day, Jews have examined the Land from outside her borders and used the culled information to sustain our bonds to that place.
This past week was one of the times when diaspora Jewish communities all around the world were focussed sharply on Israel. The Knesset was voting to appoint the 10th president of the State of Israel.
Many of us regretted, but reluctantly accepted the inevitability of , President Shimon Peres' retirement. Over the course of his decades of service to the State of Israel, the people of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole, Shimon Peres has been much more a statesman than a politician. He has proven to be an insightful and wise leader and innovator.
After months of conjecture, lobbying, speculating and commenting, the members of Israel's Knesset have elected Shimon Peres' successor, Ruby Rivlin. Mr. Rivlin is a controversial figure from the point of view of Jews living outside the state of Israel.
I invite you to follow the link I've provided to read an insightful "Open Letter" to Israel's new president by Times of Israel blogger and president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Yehuda Kurtzer. You'll find a balanced and intelligent review of Mr. Rivlin's career and an intelligent presentation of the concerns raised here in the American Jewish community. I join Mr. Kurtzer in hoping that our most dire predictions about Mr. Rivlin's presidency will prove baseless:
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*
I remember watching how he handled the audience. . . . he had an authority over the audience that allowed them to relax and sing along with him. My eyes just opened up and I couldn’t believe what was happening in front of me. He would just wave his hand, and you could hear people singing.
Read more: Pete Seeger Remembered by Arlo Guthrie | TIME.com http://entertainment.time.com/2014/01/30/pete-seeger-arlo-guthrie/#ixzz2rzYEB8Y5
Pete Seeger was not a flower child . . . he was a man of simple tastes and deep convictions who showed us that speaking truth to power with humility and perseverance was the dignified way to protest: the environment, the Vietnam War, prejudice were all causes Seeger stood up for.
I have found no evidence that Pete Seeger was familiar with the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, but Seeger's response to a question about his own belief and faith links these two great sages:
When asked about his religious or spiritual views, Seeger replied: "I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.".
Pete Seeger was an iconic figure for America: he taught us to embrace our culture and our values and he taught us that our voices are essential, raised in song or prose, to the endeavor of living in a value-inspired society.
This week, Pew published another study that touches on a subject that troubles me deeply: the dynamic of hostility targeting religion and hostility targeted by religion:
The study examines government restrictions on religion and religious groups and social hostilities involving religion . . . two fields of inquiry that simply should not exist. Title of the rubric under which Pew published the study is "Restrictions on Religion." Appallingly, the title of the published study is "Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High."
The opening words of the study are:
"The share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. A third (33%) of the 198 countries and territories included in the study had high religious hostilities in 2012, up from 29% in 2011 and 20% as of mid-2007. Religious hostilities increased in every major region of the world except the Americas. The sharpest increase was in the Middle East and North Africa, which still is feeling the effects of the 2010-11 political uprisings known as the Arab Spring.1 There also was a significant increase in religious hostilities in the Asia-Pacific region, where China edged into the “high” category for the first time." (www.pewresearch.org)
It is inexpressibly tragic that religion is the catalyst for or the target of violence, hostility, hatred. It is a perversion of every true faith to turn the adherents of other faiths into targets of bias and hatred. There are so many factors that go into creating these lethal mixtures of restriction and hostility and faith . . . but they are not theological factors, they are economic and political and ethnic factors. Those who contend that religion divides people, creates barriers between people, take the name of religion in vain . . . and those who use the terminology and institutions of faith to create hatred and bias and violence take the name of religion in vain.
People of faith, people in whom the awe of God instills humility and gratitude and respect for all humanity know better.
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.
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!
A rabbi, an imam and a minister get on an airplane: sounds a bit like a joke . . . mostly we three companions have been on a journey of exploration and bridge-building and assumption blasting that has literally taken us places we never expected to go . . . . together. So, not a joke, but a lot of laughing has been involved.
The imam is Imam Farid Ansari a six-foot-something American born black guy who is an ex New York City cop and now serves as the spiritual leader of the Muslim-American Dawah Center of Providence and is the head of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement.
The minister is the Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, a few inches short of six foot American white guy from a family of Swedish immigrants who is a born and bred Rhody, an American Baptist Minister and is the Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
I am Amy Levin, a nice, short, middle-aged Jewish lady from New Jersey.
We three learn from each other all the time . . . we meet for diner breakfasts and scheme together and debate with each other and inch by inch have edged away from assumptions and caution to trust. Through the friendship and integrity of these two men have taught me that it’s ok to question my long-standing assumptions and to step out of my safe space.
My first ten years of life, my family lived in a mixed catholic and black neighborhood of East Orange, New Jersey. On my way home from elementary school, the Catholic kids from the parochial school that lay between my public school and our garden apartment, used to chase me into the neighborhood alleys calling me "dirty Jew" and scaring the bejabbers out of me. Christmas and Easter were not happy associations for me, they were, instead, reminders of my "different-ness."
My husband, baby daughter and I moved to Israel in September 1981. The first week we were there, I walked past the main department store in downtown Jerusalem. The window display declared in huge letters and lots of sparkle: Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year! Referring to the impending holy day of Rosh Hashanah . . . . Not the secular calendar date of January 1st. I wasn't in Kansas anymore. I wasn't in suburban New Jersey anymore. I was part of the majority culture for the first time on my life! I relaxed in a way I never had back in the States. Now the people around me were going to be celebrating my holidays, school vacations were going to coincide with my festivals, restaurants were going to be kosher wherever I went . . .
Being not-the-minority was a revelation. Through the twenty years of living in Israel, which included lots of economic and social challenges, I never lost the sense that I was where I belonged, I was in my place and the people around me were my people.
. . . . For the most part . . . I was living in a rather siloed culture, in the middle of western Jerusalem. But I did have a few encounters with my Arab neighbors ... Before the first intifada (which began in 1987), my daughter and I would encounter Arab moms and kids from the Arab village across the road at the playground that lay between a Jewish and an Arab neighborhood. The kids played together. One day, a young Arab mom offered me a fresh almond from a little bag she brought to the playground. But encounters like that disappeared . . . a fence was built alongside the Arab side of the playground . . . when the intifada began.
After the intifada began . . . our apartment building was at the edge of our Jewish neighborhood. Across the street was a bare hill and in the valley over that hill was an Arab village. And one evening, coming home late from work, I got out of my car and a rock came sailing over the hill at me. And another one. It took me a minute to realize what was happening . . . and then I ducked behind my car and yelled (in Hebrew) “I didn’t do anything to you!”
So, my inclination was to stick to my Jerusalem: the part of the Jerusalem that speaks Hebrews and closes school for Hanukah and empties the bread shelves during Passover. For the girl that used to be chased home being called “dirty Jew,” it was a whole new experience being surrounded and protected by “my own.”
And then a dozen or so years after leaving Israel, I’m sitting at a Providence diner with a minister and an imam . . . not my natural comfort zone people. We began with the premise that all three of our faith communities are co-existing in Rhode Island and we should try to deepen the interfaith conversation since we’re all here anyway.
Our diner conversations led to join press conferences where we have stood together for mutual respect between our communities, compassion and peace in the Middle East. We brought an exhibit about the history of Islam in the United States to Rhode Island.
And then we we were invited to speak at a symposium in Jerusalem about green and sustainable pilgrimage. We were billed as the “collaborating clergy” . . . as we planned our presentation we began to realize how far we’d come, how much trust had grown between us and how odd it seemed that our collaboration was such an extraordinary thing that we had to be imported to Jerusalem from Rhode Island to explain how we do it.
Rhode Island, with Roger Williams’ legacy of religious liberty, is a very conducive place to build bridges between religious leaders and religious communities like those that Don and Farid and I have built.
The first place we visited was a baptismal site on the western bank of the Jordan River . . . As we followed the slope down toward the river we came to a wooden boardwalk on which several groups of Christian pilgrims from Africa and Asia and Latin America and Europe were each gathered, readying themselves for immersion in the Jordan. As an Israeli living in Jerusalem, I would note the turn from winter to spring by the sudden spurt of tour busses on the streets . . . including those carrying Christian groups . . . but I’d never witnessed the reverence of Christians for the Holy Land that I had only experienced as my Jewish Holy Land.
We then moved on to the mosque of Nebi Musa . . . which is Arabic for mosque of the Prophet Moses . . . which should sound a bit like the Hebrew the Navi Moshe . . . . and Don and I watched as Farid reverently bathed his feet and disappeared inside the mosque to pray. Farid emerged from the mosque, and we returned to Jerusalem.
Even though I am the one with the Israeli ID card, each of my travel buddies had connected to places in my land to which I could only be a visitor. I had been so focused on our role at the symposium, our travel arrangements and accommodations, that I really hadn’t thought that much about what the experience of moving through Israel with a faithful Muslim and a faithful Christian would be like. That first day, I gained an appreciation for the significance of this land in the faith traditions of my friends . . . but I still held on to a sense of ownership, I felt as though I was offering the gifts of unique experiences to my friends.
Over the next few days, as we engaged with the participants of the symposium, I became the humble tourist: Don and Farid were embraced and welcomed by the Christian and Muslim communities of Jerusalem’s Old City and villages on the West Bank of the Jordan River . . . they went to places I could not go and they came back with beautiful stories about warm welcomes and meals at family tables. I wasn’t the only one welcoming them to Israel and showing them around any more . . . I was sharing the privilege and watching their spiritual enrichment from the sidelines.
Don and Farid showed me facets of my own country that I had totally missed because of politics and wariness and my own enjoyment of being part of the majority for a change.
Abraham, the biblical Abraham. His name, translated from the Hebrew means “father of many peoples.” We keep forgetting that. I was trying to own Abraham in a rather exclusive deal until I travelled to the land of Abraham with two other of Abraham’s children: there is so much more truth in the expanded family of Abraham’s children, of Jews and Christians and Muslims. The Torah recounts the moment of God’s blessing to Abraham: the original Hebrew is: vnivr’chu b’cha kol goyei ha’aretz . . . all the nations of the land will be blessed through you. All the nations of the land . . .
It’s more than ok to let go of the assumptions that you may think are providing you with a sense of security and a sense of place. Find yourself some out of the box true friends and give yourself the gift of a new perspective and a new humility.
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.
"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."
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.
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