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*
The Israelites are permitted to have slaves themselves, but not in the manner of the Egyptians. They cannot overwork them. They cannot mistreat them (so an Israelite who knocks out his slave's tooth must set the slave free; Exodus 21:1). The rules that are imposed on treatment of slaves in the Torah involve a recognition of a slave's humanity and dignity, and they establish that a slave has rights. This was a crucial stage in the long process leading to opposition to slavery altogether. (Commentary on the Torah, pg. 406)
There is a principle of Jewish law that compels us to be as proactive as possible in bringing these girls back to safety, the mitzvah/commandment of פדיון שבויים / pidyon shvuyim / redeeming the captives. There is some controversy about the application of this imperative for it's roots are in the historic reality of the kidnapping of Jews for ransom over the years. Can we, therefore, consider it a mitzvah to redeem captive Nigerian school girls? Based on the writings of the great halachist [scholar of Jewish law] Rambam/Maimonides, I would say "yes":
Maimonides writes: “The redeeming of captives takes precedence over supporting the poor or clothing them. There is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives for the problems of the captive include being hungry, thirsty, unclothed, and they are in danger of their lives too. Ignoring the need to redeem captives goes against these Torah laws: “Do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy fellow” (Devarim 15:7); “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Vayikra 19:16). And misses out on the following mitzvot: “You must surely open your hand to him or her” (Devarim 15:8); “...Love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18); “Rescue those who are drawn to death” (Proverbs 24:11) and there is no mitzvah greater than the redeeming of captives.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyim 8:10-11)
- Continue to show public interest and concern for the girls.
- Encourage our legislators to fund the efforts to locate and rescue the girls.
- Extend expressions of sympathy and support to our friends, co-workers and neighbors of Nigerian origin.
- Reject vocally and with conviction the concept that the Islam propounded by the terrorists is in any way a true reflection of the Islam of peace and respect for humanity practiced by our Muslim neighbors here in Rhode Island.
We have collective hot button issues as well: events and phrases and words and images that are indelibly written into our very beings. You'd think that the distance of time or geography would lessen the power of these memories, but when we identify fully with the collective that has weathered the trauma, the gut reaction to reminders of that trauma remains. At the moment when we perceive those evocative images or sounds we find out how deeply our identification with our group (whatever group that might be) really goes. You are likely to witness a micro-expression of pain or anger on the face of a black friend hearing the "N" word, of a gay friend seeing a photograph of Tyler Clementi*, or a Haitian friend hearing a report of an earthquake....and on the face of an American Jew reading that Jews in the Ukraine are going to have to register, list their assets and pay a fine.
A few members of my congregation e-mailed links to news articles about the incident of the flyers being handed out to Jews leaving synagogue on the eve of Passover in the Ukraine. I admit, my stomach wrenched at those very evocative phrases: registering, bring your passport and your id card, list your assets . . . . I read and re-read. Of course my mind's eye delivered a slideshow of images from Nazi Europe, the Holocaust, the concentration camps . . . all in seconds before I had a chance to think. After a few deep breathes and reading a few articles, it became clear that no one is rounding up Jews in the Ukraine this week. It seems doubtful whether there was ever a serious intention to round up Jews in the Ukraine at all, but rather a heavy-handed attempt to influence the internal struggles over the fate of Donetsk.
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to reporters in Geneva after conducting talks with leaders from the Ukraine on the lowering of tensions there, said exactly what needed to be said: "In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable; it's grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable. And any of the people who engage in these kinds of activities, from whatever party or whatever ideology or whatever place they crawl out of, there is no place for that. "
Which doesn't mean, of course, that the situation should not be watched, or that anti-Semitism in Europe doesn't exist. But it does mean that the Jews of the Ukraine in 2014 are not in the same danger as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents during World War II. For lots of reasons.
All this during the same week we are settling our stomachs over the murder of three people at two Jewish facilities in Overland Park, Kansas. By a person with a decades-long record of both racism and anti-Semitism. The horrible irony of the murders committed by this man is that two of the people he murdered were members of a United Methodist Church and one was the member of a Catholic church.
Anti-Semitism is most certainly a hot button: our guts, our hearts, our memories all kick into action immediately when we hear of violence or threat or attacks on Jews. And there is good reason for our visceral reactions; they don't come from nowhere.
On the other hand, as in the cases of both anti-Semitic episodes this week, things are not always what they seem in the moment and we need to step back and apply perspective and intelligence to our reactions. And be smart and aware. And not over-react. Not easy, but very important.
*Tyler Clementi was the gay Rutgers student who committed suicide in 2010 when his roommate posted videos of Tyler in acts of sex with a male partner.
Members of our Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island joined me as part of the Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island. We stood with members of other non-violence and gun control organizations (including an eloquent contingent from the Ne explaining that the passage of specific legislation would contribute to making Rhode Island a safer place to live.
The bills we stood in support of would:
- Ban those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning firearms.
- Ban semi-automatic assault weapons from Rhode Island.
- Ban high capacity (more than 10 rounds) magazines from Rhode Island.
Passage of these laws would also make us more reliable neighbors to Massachusetts and Connecticut which have already passed such legislation.
Not everyone has the privilege I had of speaking directly to our legislators (at the House Judiciary Committee) . . . but our legislators do read Rhode Island's newspaper of record, The Providence Journal. If you live in Rhode Island, you can send a direct message to our legislators by participating in a very simple, one question survey: "So you support stricter gun control?" Your "yes" will help the members of the Rhode Island House of Representatives and Senate appreciate the desire of the residents of Rhode Island to make our state a safer place for everyone, of every ethnic background, of every economic level, of every neighborhood.
Click this link and you will be able to read a Providence Journal article about the gun legislation debate and you will also find the one-question survey. I hope that everyone reading this blog will agree that the pending legislation will bring us a little bit closer to a violence-free Rhode Island . . . a vision which those who legally own and safely store and use guns can certainly embrace as well.
Here is my testimony delivered to the House Judiciary Committee of the Rhode Island General Assembly:
I am Rabbi Amy Levin, President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island and rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich.
Our Board of Rabbis, twenty-six colleagues from a comprehensive spectrum of denominations of Judaism, unanimously moved to become early and active partners in the Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island.
That's quite a vision, isn't it . . . A violence-free Rhode Island.
Our Religious Coalition's vision of a "violence-free Rhode Island" may seem like the pie in the sky day-dreaming of a bunch of clergy . . . for whom utopian envisioning is an occupational hazard . . . but I am here to tell you that we clergy don't work in ivory towers, we conduct the funerals of the men, women and children who lose their lives to violence, we sit at the hospital beds of those who suffer maiming physical and psychological wounds inflicted through violence. Were you to be present with us at the cemeteries and hospitals and houses of mourning you would share our sense of urgency about working towards a violence-free Rhode Island.
Were we to dedicate the time, and gather together many of the people in this room for a wider-ranging discussion, we would find that violence is a complex phenomenon and that firearms represent only one element in the chaotic morass that is violence. Indeed, our General Assembly legislators took a significant step on another violence-related front last year when you passed legislation funding educational efforts directed at domestic violence through marriage license fees.
But the pending legislation we are discussing today all focus on firearms. In the context of our acknowledgement that the overwhelming majority of those who legally and safely own firearms for hunting and target practice and personal security are responsible and well-motivated individuals who also embrace the concept of a violence-free Rhode Island, we do urge you to vote on behalf of all the residents of our state.
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island turns to you: You have the capacity to save lives:
We urge you to prevent individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning firearms.
We urge you to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines from Rhode Island.
We urge you to ban firearms from school grounds.
We urge you to take these concrete steps bringing us that much closer to a violence-free Rhode Island.
In the special additional Torah reading appended to tomorrow's Parashah/Torah portion, we are enjoined:
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.
When I was getting ready for my wedding back in the '70s, my fiance and I were diligently "cutting edge" by getting blood tests for Tay-Sachs before the wedding. We were two young Ashkenazic Jews and we were under the impression we were covering our bases of genetic vulnerability with that one blood test.
Shari Ungerleider, the Coalition's Project Coordinator, and Randy Glazer, the Coalition's Chair shared their personal stories of giving birth to children with genetic disease and the dearth of testing and/or mis-reading and misdiagnosis involved in their respective pregnancies.
There are a few points in Ms. Ungerleider's and Ms. Glazer's presentation that were compelling new information for me. Although I do always think it would be nice if readers of this blog liked what I've written so much that you'd be moved to share the blog with your family and friends . . . this week I am specifically asking you to. Please use whatever sharing techniques you have at your disposal.
Here are some of the things I learned:
- It is not that these are "Jewish" diseases: Genetic diseases are obviously passed on through our genes. Over the millenia, Jewish people have largely lived in, and married within, self-limiting communities which has created an identifiable gene pool. You may remember, several years ago, a story hit the news that researched had identified a DNA marker for kohanim. That research was possible because for so long Jews have tracked our lineage so carefully. So it is not that these are "Jewish" diseases, but that it is possible to track the incidences of these diseases more easily in Jewish populations.
- Where do your family members come from? There are diseases whose frequency is documented in three Jewish backgrounds: Ashkenazic [central and eastern European origins], Sephardic [western Mediterranean origins] and Mizrahi [eastern Mediterranean origins]. Each of these communities is identifiably subject to a specific list of genetic diseases based on the individual's geographic origins.
- It's way more than Tay-Sachs: The Coalition maintains a list of genetic diseases that should be tested for depending on your genetic roots. The following comes from the Coalition website:
Currently, carrier screening for 19 genetic diseases which affect persons of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage is available (see list below). With advances in genetics this list is likely to grow in the future.
Sephardic and Mizrahi Diseases
There is no single pre-conception screening panel for persons of Sephardic or Mizrahi Jewish background. Persons of Sephardic or Mizrahi background should discuss their own particular family heritage with a doctor or genetic counselor and be screened accordingly. There are currently 16 genetic diseases that affect persons of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish heritage for which screening is available. Screening recommendations are based on geographic origin.
Cystic Fibrosis and Spinal Muscular Atrophy
Screening for Cystic Fibrosis and Spinal Muscular Atrophy are recommended for persons of all backgrounds. We include them in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic and Mizrahi disease lists.
- Who should get tested? Any couple planning on having children should get tested if: 1> both the man and the woman are Jewish (including two Ashkenazic Jews or some combination of Ashkenazic and/or Sephardic and/or Mizrahi). 2> If either the man or the woman are Jewish or have at least one Jewish grandparent. 3> if, as a same-sex couple, the Jewish potential parent is planning on either donating an egg or sperm for the in vitro fertilization.
- Seek sophisticated genetic counselling. Most ob-gyn physicians do not focus sufficiently on the issue of genetic testing. Your rabbi can obtain a referral for you or you can go directly to the Jewish Genetic Diseases Coalition for a referral.
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!
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