Last Monday, Rabbi Jeremy and I were fortunate to be able to attend a local interfaith commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Aug 28 1963 March on Washington. Faith leaders from all over the region gathered at the JCC to learn together and share sermons about the need for justice in our society today, a need that is as great as it was 54 years ago when Dr. King gave his most famous speech. Dr. King’s dream is still alive; it is, of course, unfulfilled. 169 local priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams signed a joint declaration, which we read at the ceremony, re-affirming our obligations as clergy to fight hatred and to stand together for compassion and inclusion.
This section of Devarim / Deuteromony is all about justice. It begins with the statement in last week’s parashah, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof,” “Justice: you shall pursue justice,” (that’s my translation), and the Torah’s requirement to appoint impartial judges and law enforcement officers. The thread of justice continued this week with an assortment of other commandments that maintain the holiness in human relationships. For example, the obligation to pay a day laborer promptly and not take advantage of him (Deut. 24:14), or the commandment not to despise the foreigner among you, because we know what it’s like to be foreigners (23:8). We have to allow needy people to pick up produce that has fallen to the ground, and otherwise glean from our fields (24:19, e.g.), but they are not allowed to take more than their share (23:25).
We have an obligation to make sure that our society is a just one. And, as Maimonides explains at the end of the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed, the mitzvot (holy opportunities derived from the Torah) are there not only for us to fulfill, but also for us to extrapolate moral behavior according to the spirit of the law. This principle is known in Hebrew as “lifnim mishurat hadin,” that we should behave within the line of the law. So yes, having a just society means setting up legitimate courts, honest weights and measures, and making sure that some of your produce is set aside for the poor; these are all explicit in the Torah. But extending that line, creating a just society also means that we have an obligation to step forward in the event that your leadership does not. It means that we each have a personal responsibility to make sure that our society is just, and we might fulfill that by supporting organizations that protect the right of everybody to vote, for example, or by making sure that our laws do not discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, gender, religion, and so forth, or by working to ensure that our public schools offer a worthy education to all who enter.
There has been much recent concern over public statues that feature people who stood for abhorrent things, like slavery. This was, of course, part of the back-story for the events that took place in Charlottesville, VA a few weeks back. I think that there are certainly good arguments for taking down statues to Confederate leaders.
But there is also another way. What do we do with the symbols of an unseemly past? We teach. We talk about them. We study.
There are many such examples in our siddur (prayerbook). To cite just one, consider the image of resurrection that is featured in the second berakhah of the Amidah, the standing prayer that we recite each day. Yes, you heard that right: resurrection. When we say, “Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayye hameitim,” we are saying, praised are You, God, who brings the dead back to life. It is a paean to the ancient understanding that when the Anointed One, the mashiah (messiah) comes, faithful Jews will be resurrected and get on El Al flights to return to Israel, which will be united again under the kingship of a descendant of King David. In today’s Jewish world, some groups have elevated classical messianism to the point where it is an essential part of their theology, despite the fact that no such idea exists in the Torah.
But messianism has always been an uncomfortable area for contemporary Jews, including your faithful rabbinic correspondent. We don’t treat each other justly for some eschatological reward (something to which we can look forward at the end of times). Rather we treat each other justly because it is the right thing to do in the here and now, that the reward comes from elevating the qedushah / holiness in our relationships.
And so, while the Reform movement replaced “mehayye hameitim” with “mehayye hakol,” restoring life to all, we in the Conservative movement say the original text, while reinterpreting the berakhah to mean that God is the source of all life. It does not have to be about messianic resurrection; it can be about how God works as a force in nature all around us, providing the spirit that nourishes all of us in life and in death. We take our traditional text and reinterpret the words, thereby conserving the tradition and making it work with our contemporary values.
But of course, that requires explanation, and you will find one if you look in the margin of Siddur Lev Shalem on a page with the Amidah (e.g. p. 186). In the Conservative movement, we have a long and glorious history of re-interpretation. So the message for today is, whether we take down statues or not, let’s make sure that we make our interpretation explicit.
Let’s make sure that every child knows that slavery was deeply wrong, that racism is wrong, that anti-Semitism is wrong, that anti-immigrant-ism is wrong. Let’s make sure that our elected officials and judges and law enforcement officers do not unfairly target people with different skin color. Let’s make sure that we acknowledge the divinity in EVERY human being, the Godly spark that motivates us all to do good for each other in this world.
It is a long-standing Jewish tradition to recite a prayer for the secular authorities of the jurisdiction in which we live. (One of the most interesting features of old siddurim is to find the prayer for the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or, as referenced in Fiddler on the Roof, a blessing for the czar and/or czarina).
Week after week we pray for our country, that of the United States of America. They are roughly the same words that we have been saying for many years (Lev Shalem, p. 177).
We are living in a time in which many people are in pain. Many in our this great and prosperous nation are suffering from disenfranchisement, from the scourge of readily-available, inexpensive addictive drugs, from the cycles of poverty which afflict us from generation to generation, from the growing gap between rich and poor, from the closing of steel mills and coal mines to the looming threat of unemployment from self-driving cars and trucks and the coming automation of, well, everything. We are frustrated by stagnant wages and the outrageous cost of health care. We are frightened at the prospect of emboldened racists and anti-Semites parading through our streets, and the attendant regression in race relations. We are once again roiled by the fear of immigrants in our midst. We are living in a time of great philosophical divide in our country, and the reluctance to compromise on a range of issues.
As the center of American Judaism, we have what to teach the world about these things. We, particularly as Conservative Jews, understand listening to all sides, left and right. We understand the value of maintaining tradition while reinterpreting and explaining for today to reflect contemporary sensibilities.
In our prayer for the country, we said the following:
Help [the inhabitants of this country] understand the rules of justice You have decreed, so that peace and security, happiness and freedom, will never depart from our land.
If there were ever a time that we needed those words, it would be right now. If there were ever a time in which we needed those ideals, it is the current moment. And so we have to get out there and teach our Torah, our values.
To have peace, happiness, freedom, and security, we need justice. And justice requires thoughtful reflection, to making sure that the choices we make will ultimately support the institutions that we have set in place. We cannot respond out of hatred and fear of the other. We cannot support authority figures who seek only to destroy institutions and prop up the bigotry-mongers. We cannot violate the sacred ideals of democracy and individual protections which immigrants to this great nation have sought for centuries. We have to make sure that our leaders follow not only the rule of law, but also the spirit. Lifnim mishurat hadin.
We have the potential to reignite those values. Because, in the words of Pirqei Avot (the 2nd-century collection of ancient rabbinic wisdom), “Im lo akhshav, eimatai?” If not now, when?
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/2/2017.)