D'var Torah Masorti Shabbat
May 1, 2021
Reflection on the recent Israeli Supreme Court decision recognizing conversions by Masorti and Reform rabbis in Israel.
Heidi Schneider is the chair of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, which is the U.S. arm of the Masorti movement in Israel, dedicated to fundraising for and education about pluralistic, egalitarian Judaism in Israel. Heidi became committed to the work of Masorti after a mission to Israel with Rabbi Harold Kravitz that opened her eyes to the unique challenges faced by Masorti rabbinic and lay leadership in the Jewish state and the pioneering spirit that draws Israelis to join Masorti program and kehillot throughout Israel. Heidi is proud that Adath Jeshurun hosted the Twin Cities National Masorti Gala in 2017.
Heidi also served as president of Adath Jeshurun after years of service on the board of trustees, including acting as chair of the Adult Learning Committee and co-chair of the Adath Israel Committee. She is a volunteer speaker for the Jewish Community Relations Council, where she speaks about Israel and about Judaism in high schools, middle schools, churches, and civic organizations.
Heidi is a student of Mussar with the Center for Contemporary Mussar led by Rabbi Ira Stone, and she teaches Mussar classes at Adath Jeshurun.
Join us on Shabbat for more D'var Torah and discussions over Kiddush -
Dr. Steven S. Foldes, Ph.D
D'var Torah- Shmini
April 10, 2021
Making Sense of Vayikra: The Curious Case of Tzara'at
Today, we are well into Vayikra, a difficult book filled with things many of us find foreign and baffling at best, irrelevant and primitive at worst. The majestic story of creation and the fascinating stories of our earliest ancestors are over for the year. In Shmini we begin with animal sacrifice and end with kashrut, and along the way we encounter the death of two of Aaron’s sons because they proffered some kind of unauthorized fire offering to God. Vayikra is consumed with lots of prohibitions about things like menstrual blood, threats and curses, and what looks like an antiquated diagnostic manual for priests about leprosy. Why does the central of the five books in the Torah, the book with which children traditionally began the study of Torah, focus on this stuff? As we used to say in the 70s, "I can't relate!"
I would like to suggest that Vayikra, while it may contain an off-putting set of prohibitions, is the most ideological and in some ways the most central of our sacred texts. Today I am reaching back to my training as a cultural anthropologist to offer an interpretation to help us better comprehend this difficult text.
My starting point is that Vayikra cannot be understood in the same way we read the narratives of Sh'mot because Vayikra's source is the unique world of the priests. To our modern Western minds, this world requires a symbolic mode of interpretation in order to be meaningful. I will illustrate this by reference to the laws of "tzara'at," commonly translated as leprosy.
What is Vayikra about? For the priestly authors of Vayikra, the objective of life was kadosh, defined as holiness, sacrality, or being set apart. Howard Schwartz argues, in his remarkable book The Savage in Judaism, that the priestly authors of Vayikra sought in this text to communicate their cosmological interpretation of God's creation of the world. According to that account, one important aspect of creation was the classification of the natural world. As we know, God distinguished the light from darkness, the waters below from the waters above, and the land from the waters. Vayikra is similarly preoccupied with classification, the creation of order out of chaos. As Dr. Schwartz points out, this is a classic example of imitatio Dei. Just as God classified the world at creation, so God's holy people is expected to reaffirm and uphold the distinctions god implanted in the world at creation, and observing and extending these classifications was the path to achieve sacrality.
This is expressed in several ways in Vayikra. The Israelites must not mate two kinds of cattle, plant two species of grain in a single field, or weave a garment from linen and wool, materials taken from a plant and an animal. To do any of these things is to undermine the distinctions God embedded in creation. Similarly, Vayikra conceives of certain sexual acts, such as bestiality, as unnatural because they threaten the order established at creation. Further, on observing Shabbat, Israelites affirm the basic distinction between sacred and profane time, a distinction God also established at creation. In the priestly writings, then, creation and classification go hand in hand. Even a superficial reading of Vayikra shows that the priests conceived of classification as an integral part of the religious life. The creation story supplies a rationale both for the preoccupation with taxonomy in general and for many of the specific distinctions proposed in Vayikra.
According to Everett Fox, the priestly authors had in mind a world of desired order and perfection: a realm in which the human world mirrors the divine order portrayed in the creation story, creating distinctions in the natural and human world in which anomaly and undesired mixture are not permitted, and in which boundaries are zealously guarded. The result is a world in which everything and everyone are to take their place under the perfect worship of a perfect God, banishing or avoiding death, defect, and disorder. The majority of Vayikra concerns how to deal with what the priestly authors considered to be threats to maintaining sacrality.
The priests dealt with these threats through separation. Boundaries were erected around the human body. There is a boundary around what enters the human body, expressed through kashrut, which we encounter in today’s parsha. There is a boundary between life and death, expressed variously through laws concerning sexual functions and genital discharges. And there is a boundary about inner and outer surfaces, expressed through laws about tzara'at, to which I will return.
As is true with many other cultures, the priests enforced boundaries through the concept of purity. As written in today’s parsha, “This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” (Vayikra 10:9-10) The priests used the terms "tamei," or unclean, and "tahor," or clean. It is essential to understand that tamei and tahor are about ritual cleanliness or pollution, not about hygiene. Being tamei, unclean, was not a sin or a violation of the moral order. In the priestly view, one became tamei as a matter of course. Women, for example, became tamei every time they menstruated. Being tamei was a violation of the moral order only if someone in a ritual state of "tum'a" (n.) came into contact with "kadosh," the sacred, a transgression of a crucial boundary, and that was mortally dangerous. One who became tamei could approach the sacred only after being made tahor, clean. This transformation was achieved through ritual sacrifice and through water, which not so much cleansed as ritually purified the person who was tamei. That is how the priests created, enforced and protected a sense of sacrality.
The laws of pollution were put into place to protect the sanctuary, the priests and the people from estrangement from God, so that the land might not "vomit out" the people, as it previously had others who were not kadosh. Failure to observe the separations of God's creation led to impurity and was therefore profane. Unfortunately, as Rachel Adler and others remind us, some of the very boundary demarcations intended to establish right relations instead built certain injustices around gender and sexuality into the social fabric. Only in a patriarchy, for instance, would menstruation be seen as polluting. But that is a topic for another time.
In Vayikra the realm of the sacred is more than simply separated from the realm of the profane. As part of their vision, the priests elaborated God's classification of the universe by the qualities of wholeness, completeness, and perfection, which became in their view essential aspects of sacrality. From the priests' perspective, to be kadosh is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and of the kind. Indeed, much of Vayikra is taken up with emphasizing the physical perfection that is required of things presented in the Tabernacle and of the persons approaching it. The animals offered in sacrifice must be without blemish, women must be purified after childbirth, persons with tzara'at should be separated and ritually cleansed before being allowed to re-enter the sacred encampment. All bodily discharges are defiling and disqualify one from approaching the Tabernacle. Priests may only come into contact with death when their own close kin die, and the high priest must never have contact with death. He must be perfect as a man. In short, the concept of sacrality is given an external, physical expression in the wholeness of the body seen as a perfect container.
These are the salient characteristics of the priests’ uncompromising vision of the sacred people the Israelites were supposed to be. Clearly, the world described by the priestly authors of Vayikra was a rigid, and a very moral, universe. For every action carried moral significance, from the momentous act of worshipping another god to the seemingly minor act of using two kinds of materials in the same garment. As Dr. Schwartz suggests, this unbending perspective reinforced the hierarchical status of the priests, whose office was ascribed by virtue of birth rather than achieved due to study and apprenticeship.
But what, in this context, are the laws of tzara’at about? Why, indeed, are they here in the first place, together with the laws of kashrut and the Sanctuary? This is the only illness considered in Vayikra; What is unique about it? Is this an editorial lapse? Is this a section of helpful hints for the High Priest, a kind of priestly how-to? Clearly there is the common theme of ritual purity which links kashrut and the laws regarding tzara’at, but then why not consider other diseases that might also be contagious or physically disfiguring. Given the emphasis in Vayikra on being without blemish, why does Vayikra fail to consider the lame or the blind to be tamei, or those who have other contagious diseases? And why is it the priest who deals with this medical problem rather than a healer?
In fact, it is far from certain that leprosy is what these laws are about. The Hebrew "tzara'at" is of uncertain etymology. In the text, tzara'at designated a variety of skin ailments, but also referred to unusual changes in the appearance of fabrics and house walls. In the Greek translation of the Torah, tzara'at was rendered as "lepra," which means "a scaly condition." "Lepra" became "leprosy" in the Middle Ages. Tzara'at may have included leprosy but, unlike leprosy, from which it was not possible to recover at that time, apparently one could recover from tzara'at. The fact that tzara'at applied to textiles and houses as well as bodies indicates that a wide concept was being applied. I would like to suggest that the underlying concept was that visible imperfection in the skin, another boundary, transgresses the boundaries, disturbs the order of a sacred society.
The priestly authors did not regard tzara'at as just one disease among others. Tzara'at was a "nega," a "plague" or a "smiting," the manifestation of extreme divine displeasure. For, unlike the person in a routine state of tum'a, ritual uncleanliness, tzara'at did not merely exclude the defiled person from the Sanctuary, it barred that person from all human society and sent him or her into mourning. This carried the implication that the victim did something awful to deserve his or her fate.
Over the centuries, this inspired the rabbis to search for causes. Tzara'at became associated with slander and gossip through Midrashic punning on "metzora," meaning "leper," and "motzi ra," meaning "slanderer." This association served generations of rabbis well as a proof text when they sought to condemn slander and gossip in their communities.
What was tzara'at, this smiting, about in the world of the priestly authors of Vayikra? Let us return to the priests and their vision of sacrality, and to their concern with classification, separation, ritual purity and wholeness. I have argued that we should understand the laws of Vayikra as the priests' concerted attempt to create sacrality in the community by imposing boundaries to protect the sacred from the profane chaos of daily life. The skin is itself a boundary. As anthropologist Terence Turner points out, throughout the world the skin is perceived as a link between the biological person and the social world in which he or she lives, between the biological individual and the "body social." In the Amazonian society he studied, the Kayapo, Professor Turner observed elaborate body painting and other ornamentation of the skin, which he interpreted as a way that this society's culture was literally as well as figuratively imposed on the biological person. Jews are familiar with this, are we not? What else is circumcision if not the literal as well as symbolic imposition of Jewish culture on the male body?
Tzara'at may have been the inverse of this. It appears to have been the physical manifestation of an inner disorder, an eruption of disorder that threatened the perfection of the individual and the order of his or her social world. In this sense, tzara'at undermined the priestly vision of a world modeled on creation, with its carefully drawn boundaries and separations. Of course, there were other biological disorders, but it may be that tzara’at represented something more, possibly a physical manifestation of an unstated violation of proper social relationships in the community, a sign that might emerge on the skin of a person, on a garment, or on the walls of a house. I suggest this based on evidence from other cultures where, when envy or hatred disrupts the social fabric, an oracle may be consulted to identify the source of the social breach. In this case, the priest may identify the source of the disruption in the person, garment or house, and attempt to resolve the breach by sending that person out of the encampment, and to a symbolic death.
If this interpretation is right, then it may explain why it is a priest who had to discern that a person, a garment or a house was suffering from tzara'at. For it was the priests who were invested with the spiritual expertise to identify any threats to their vision of a carefully ordered sacred society. The role of the priest was not medical; He did not attempt a cure. His task was to eliminate the threat to the priestly vision of a strict moral universe posed by the ritual impurity of tzara'at, which he did by proclaiming the sufferer tamei and sending him or her into isolation. But in isolating the afflicted person the priest's purpose was not to protect the public health. Other, more virulent diseases did not require isolation. The priests' purpose in isolating the sufferer of tzara'at, in banishing the sufferer from sacred time and space and sending him or her symbolically to the grave, was to prevent the spread of ritual impurity and, perhaps, to eliminate a threat to the wholeness and integrity of the community.
We no longer live in the world of the priestly authors of Vayikra. Tzara'at is no longer an active concept for us. But through a symbolic interpretation of the text we can come much closer to understanding the centrality of the seemingly arcane preoccupations of Vayikra, such as tzara’at. Here is a question we might consider that derives from this interpretation of Vayikra. As we’ve seen, boundaries were central to the priests. They saw boundaries as extending God’s work in the creation, and as the way to create a sense of the sacred and enforce an ordered and moral society. Today, we live in a relativist and highly individualistic world, in which many of us rebel against any boundaries imposed by experts and authorities. Some of us still practice the boundaries established in kashrut and shabbat, an inheritance from the world of the priests. Is there more can we learn, is there more we want to learn, from the priests’ vision for how to live a Jewish life?
1998 Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
Bamberger, Bernard J.
1981 "Leviticus," In W. Gunther Plaut (ed.), The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
1990 The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
1995 "Leviticus: Now He Called," In Everett Fox (ed.), The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books.
Turner, Terence S.
2012 “The Social Skin.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (2): 486–504.
Bio: Steven Foldes, Ph.D., is a social scientist with over 40 years of experience conducting public health and health services research and leading research teams. Currently an independent research consultant and Adjunct Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Foldes previously worked in leadership positions in state government and private industry. His policy-related publications have influenced state and national policies, such as his work on the healthcare costs of tobacco, which helped pass the Minnesota Freedom to Breathe legislation in 2007 that ended tobacco use in public places. His more recent work focuses on psychosocial interventions for caregivers of persons with dementia, and the economics of youth homelessness.
D’var Torah-First Day of Pesach 2021
March 28, 2021
The Unfinished Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry
Chag Sameach. My thanks to Rabbi Weininger for his kind invitation to deliver the D’var Torah on this, the first day of Pesach this year.
I am appreciative of and grateful for the support of both the clergy and the lay leadership here at Adath for their encouragement and involvement over the years for the Rescue of those Ethiopian Jews that remain in Ethiopia longing to be re-united with first degree blood relatives in Eretz Yisrael.
As we hold our Seders and celebrate Pesach, we re-learn each year about the hardships imposed on the Israelites while they were slaves and oppressed in ancient Egypt. We re-learn about their miraculous redemption and the Exodus from Egypt.
What better time than Pesach to bring to the attention of Jews here in our congregation as well as elsewhere an awareness of the Unfinished Exodus in East Africa where 8,000 Jewish lives remain at risk today and have been at risk in some cases for as many as 40 years.
That precious remnant of an ancient Jewish community has been waiting for the completion of its Exodus for far too long. There is a clarion call for World Jewry to help to hasten the completion of the Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry, yes in our time, and hopefully before next year they can be in Jerusalem as they and their ancestors have dreamt for over the many centuries since biblical times.
While the Israeli government and World Jewry both earned high praise, and deservedly so, for the airlift of about 15,000 Ethiopian Jews back in 1991 under Operation Solomon, many were left behind.
It’s important to understand the background of life in Ethiopia and some world history as it pertains to the present day situation of Ethiopian Jewry living there.
Let’s begin with geography. Ethiopia is a mountainous region in eastern Africa. It is generally accepted but cannot be definitively established that Ethiopian Jewry traces its origins to a union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In ancient times, as was the case in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, there were marriages between relatives in royal families of different nations for political and economic alliances.
So too did Solomon have many wives in his day and at least the one with Makeda, the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, was for matters of national interests including trade. It is generally acknowledged and believed by Ethiopians both Jewish and non Jewish that the issue of that marriage was a Prince of Ethiopia known as Menelik. The Ethiopians are very proud of this historical linkage to King Solomon.
Surprisingly perhaps there was a time in Ethiopian History when the Ethiopian Jews had their own minor kingdom. While they prospered for many years, eventually they lost a war and were subjugated. They were oppressed by their Christian and Muslim neighbors. They were relegated to certain occupations such as farming and blacksmithing of metals. The latter was considered the work of the devil and was relegated to the Jews. The general population and, in some rural areas yet today, many Ethiopians are fearful of and discriminate against Ethiopian Jews as they believe that Jews turn into hyenas at night.
In the late 19th century the European Rabbi Fleitlovich traveled to Ethiopia to learn whether or not there were Jews living there. He had heard tales of the existence of Ethiopian Jews from travelers to Ethiopia which, at that time, was ruled by Italy as part of the European colonization of the continent of Africa.
Ethiopia is a mountainous country and the Jews lived in remote locations and stayed to themselves as a matter of cultural and economic survival. For those of you that have seen travelogues and feature stories about Christianity in Ethiopia, Aksum is the location of a major Christian church and holy site. It is claimed with pride by the custodians that guard the church that the Ark of the Covenant is there. Non Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are prohibited from entering that sanctuary. The historical connections between biblical Israel and Ethiopia are strong and remain to this day. When one tours Jerusalem one becomes aware that among the four Christian sectors of Jerusalem, one is controlled by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to this very day.
This helps to frame the history of Ethiopian Jewry in Ethiopia as Emperor Hailie Selaise in the mid 20th Century referred to himself as the Lion of Judah. And it was a descendant of his that negotiated the ransom of the Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon in 1991.
Our own congregant Herman Markowitz, in his official capacity as a senior executive of the United Israel Appeal, worked behind the scenes with fellow Minnesotan Sen. Rudy Boschwitz to facilitate the transfer of the $35 million ransom payment to the Swiss bank account of President Mengistu thatresulted in the airlift of the
15,000 Ethiopian Jews under the direction of and with the blessing of then President George Herbert Walker Bush.
With this historical background we now have a better framework for understandingthe current situation in which 8,000 Jewish lives remain at risk in war-torn Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, back in the 1980s, the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews lived in the hill country and the mountainous regions of Ethiopia where they were subsistence farmers with crops and cattle. The nation was then like many third world nations, lacking communications such as postal service, telephones, and transportation.
To provide a limited comparison, consider American history back in the revolutionary war times. How difficult would it have been to communicate an important message to someone living in the remote hills of Appalachia? So too it was not easy to get information from the major cities such as Addis Ababa and Gondar where the Jewish Agency staff were working to develop ‘The List’.
To be eligible to be airlifted to Israel during Operation Solomon, it was necessary to be interviewed by staff and then formally added to the list. Alas, many Ethiopian Jews living in remote areas either were unaware of this need or were too ill or frail or financially unable to travel to get registered.
Today, there are Ethiopian Jews with first degree blood relatives in Israel that have yet to be authorized to be flown to Israel. And their situation is dire to say the least.
We read about the ten plagues in Egypt. Most of us have never seen first hand a sky filled with locusts that descend upon crop fields and eat all of the crops. Yet in the last twelve months there was such a biblical scale plague of locusts in Ethiopia. To its credit, Israeli agricultural experts and pest control technicians were sent by the Israeli government and their efforts brought some limited relief.
Nonetheless the crops suffered in the aggregate and prices of staples such as the grain known as ‘tef’ (with which Ethiopians make ‘injeera’ a pancake stylebread) increased sharply. The demand for the limited supply of grains was further exacerbated by the need of the government to feed its soldiers that were fighting insurgents near the border with Eritrea. Jews in that region were at additional risk because of the bloodshed and war crimes that were committed by Eritrean soldiers that crossed the border to help the Ethiopian government in its struggle against the rebels in that region.
During the last twelve months, Israel has earned high praise for the airlift of about 2,000 Ethiopian Jews under the Law of Family Reunification. Because of some doubts about the Halachic status of the Jews that remain in Ethiopia, it is not easy for Ethiopian Jews to be admitted to Israel under the Law of Return. If they are allowed entry under this law, they must submit to a formal Orthodox conversion process.
While the airlift of the 2,000 is praiseworthy, there remain today in Ethiopia this at least another 8,000 Ethiopian Jews that are living mostly in squalor and subsist on as few as 500 calories per day. Nursing mothers, pregnant women, and children under the age of 5 are deprived of proper nutrition. It is heart breaking to realize that the health and brain development of these children may penalize them for the rest of their lives once they finally get to Israel.
The Ethiopian Jews sold their farms and moved years ago to the major cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa to be ready to travel to Israel on short notice. They remain in misery and deplorable conditions yet to this day. And in a very practical sense they suffer like the ancient Israelites suffered in Egypt.
However, there’s where the contrast and challenge exist. There is no heartless Pharoah to deny them their Exodus. The Ethiopian Government or any corrupt politician no longer requires a ransom payment. Rather, they are at the mercy of political bickering and politics as well as the bureaucrats and their budgets in Israel.
They are hapless and without resources in a land literally plagued by locusts, poor crops, warring factions, and the ever present hostility from their non-Jewish neighbors.
They live Jewish lives observing kashrut and Shabbat and the Festivals according to strict practices. Their children, whenever possible, attend classes on Hebrew and other subjects to prepare them to be successful in their new lives in Israel when their time to go there to live is at hand.
These resources are NOT provided by the Israeli government in any meaningful amount. Were it not for the efforts of several NGOs based in the U.S. including NACOEJ, more would have died from malnutrition and illness. Only during Pesach does the Jewish Agency provide Passover rations. The other 51 weeks of the year they do not provide relief. The Ethiopian Jews rely on the kindness of North American Jewry.
They are exceedingly patient people. Back in 2006 and then again in 2015 the Israeli government promised to complete the effort, they were patient and hopeful. Between 2015 and until about twelve months ago, little was done. We hear governmental leaders in our own communities and state complain about Unfunded Mandates imposed by the federal government on these state and local governmental units. The same unfunded mandates were issued the Israel’s Knesset several times.
In 2006, the Lebanon War broke out and that disrupted then halted the airlift and absorption efforts. In 2015 the Knesset approved the complete transportation and absorption of the Ethiopian Jews yet it failed to provide any funding to the Ministry of Absorption to do so.
As we celebrate Pesach and read the words that all who are hungry are welcome to join us at our Seders and we are encouraged to show concern, compassion, and care for others can there be a better time for us to consider and then act upon the need to complete the Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry?
North American Jewry must be the primary advocate for the speedy completion of this modern day Exodus.
As the most affluent Jewish community in the history of the world, can we do anything less than raise our voices and urge our Jewish communal leadership, both lay and professional, to act with dispatch to relieve the suffering and complete this historical modern day Exodus?
The closing words of the Seder – Next Year in Jerusalem – could become a reality for 8,000 Ethiopian Jews if we act now with urgency and resolve.
Let us hope for and work towards making it possible that these 8,000 Ethiopian Jews will be with their families at a Seder in Israel next Pesach.
My Ema was born in Pulawy, Poland in 1922. My Saba moved her and my Savta when my Ema was three or four, because Pulawy had been taken over by (I believe) Soviets and my Saba was concerned for his family. They moved to what was then known as Palestine, and eventually Israel became a state, as we know. I can’t remember what year it was that I was told there was an invasion and all the people were murdered. Only one of my mother’s family members survived.
My mom joined the British Army and met my father on a train to Cairo. They say it was love at first sight, but, my Ema wanted to live in the Land of Milk and Honey and thought all Americans were rich, and my father was raised to believe all Jews are rich. Boy, were they fooled!
After they were married, my father sent my Ema and my sister who was born in 1945 to the States to live with my father’s people. (Side note: My sister was the first baby to travel in a military plane overseas. She's actually in the Guinness World Book of Records.) My father's people were all Christians and they hated that my father married my Ema. The only ones that helped her was my Grandma and my father’s youngest brother.
I wasn't raised Jewish. In fact, I barely knew what being Jewish meant. When I was very young, I knew that there was something different about my Ema because she always talked funny on the phone. And when she would write to my Savta, I couldn't read what she was writing. We lived in Niagara Falls, NY and eventually I learned some things about being Jewish, including what anti-Semitism was. One day, when we were on our way to the lake for a BBQ, we stopped on the side of the road, and my father got out of the car and he was screaming and yelling and my mother was crying. I didn't understand what they were doing and then as we drove away, I saw a sign that said "no dogs or Jews allowed.” It wasn’t written in by someone; it was actually a part of the sign.
My siblings and I attended church and it was very weird for me because at that time the ministers and Sunday school teachers were still preaching about how the Jews killed Christ and were bad people. Eventually, I was the only one attending church, and I just would shrink down in the pews because I thought they were talking about my Ema (they were) and that was hurtful.
Years later, I asked my Ema why she sent me to Church and she said, "Because I wanted you to learn about God.” And I said, "I could have learned about God in a Synagogue or from you, but you sent me to a place, instead, that was teaching me about Jesus and how the Jewish people were murderers.” I think it was probably more about my father and his family than anything else. I didn't understand why he cared if we went to a Synagogue or not - he married a Jewish woman, why would you care that your children were Jewish?
Fast-forward to when my Ema passed away in 2012, I decided to move to where my daughter was living in Florida, but I didn't like it there at all. I was home-sick for Minnesota. I called my headhunter and told her I was moving back. I asked her to find me some interviews to do because I would be in Minnesota the following week. She called me right back and said there was an opening at the synagogue by where I had lived in Minnetonka, but I’d have to be there tomorrow as they were at the end of their interview process. I was on a plane the next day.
When I walked into the building, you're gonna think this is weird, when I walked into the building and I walked up the spine I was just like, I can't even describe to you the feeling that came over me but it was like being wrapped up in a warm blanket when you come in from the cold- you know that feeling your body gets. It was so wonderful and I said "no way!" I'm thinking of myself, no, "really?" As I’m walking, I look up and I'm talking to my Ema, "Did you send me here? Is this from you?”. And so then I met with Bernie and Barbara and it was a wonderful interview. They passed me on to meet with the Rabbis and Jim Sherman. I walked out of the room we were interviewing in and there was Giselle and they introduced me to her, and I told that her shoes are going to be big ones to fill (since she had been there 27-28 years). She said I would catch on. Her eyes reminded me of my Aunt June – another sign that I loved. I thought “OMG I'm gonna be working at a synagogue - that's gonna be a breeze compared to working in corporate” because corporate was... at times difficult. It was people trying to climb ladders and, you know, kicking you on their way up and so it was kind of miserable. I had been in the corporate world since 1974 so it was time for a change. Boy, was I in for a HUGE surprise – there's lots of work that must be done for our congregation!
When I started working at Adath, I was learning and seeing all the things that were going to teach me about this Jewish lifestyle. I read lots of books from the library; I went to services on Shabbat not long after I started, and the up and down and up and down and I was like, "oh man” because it's not just for half an hour. You're going to be up and down for a couple of hours. Suddenly... Cantor Buckner began to sing and the congregation joined him. I closed my eyes and I was listening to them sing, and tears rolled down my face, because I know… I swear... in the background I heard my Ema’s beautiful voice. And I remembered growing up with songs that the congregation was singing that sounded like what my Ema would sing. And the congregation sounded so beautiful.
It's been seven years, almost eight since I joined Adath. I have been so blessed to be here working with and for wonderful people. A staff and congregation like no other… that I love to work for and with as we travel through life cycle events. I have no doubt who I am now and the way of the Jewish people is completely in-line with what I have always felt to be true. I have come full circle.
Dr. Mitch Bender
D’var Torah Vayikra
March 14, 2021
Adath Antiracism Committee Community Discussion
Thank you for the honor of delivering the D’var Torah for this Adath Antiracism Committee (AAC) meeting. It has also been a privilege to be a member of the Committee and participate in its work. The Committee believes that a frank discussion of racism, both individual and structural, can lead to progress towards ending racism in both the Adath and at-large communities. The tragic events of last summer occurring in Minneapolis as well as in Pittsburgh, Poway, California, Charleston SC, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri and other locations have galvanized our community into action, with the hope of making progress towards the end of racism. In addition, Jews of color in the Adath community have openly discussed the anguish and discomfort with some of their Adath experiences. This loyal group of congregants is seeking a secure and fulfilling place in their congregation for people of color. Clearly, now is the time for both discussion and action.
My task today is to discuss this week’s parsha, Vayikra, and what it might teach us about our response to racism. Vayikra means “to call out.” Hashem calls out to Moshe in the Mishkan or Tent of the Meeting. This parsha continues with the elaboration of the laws of ritual sacrifice to Hashem and how the Kohanim are to conduct themselves during this ceremony. Through animal sacrifice and the detailed and meticulous ceremony that surrounds it, the Hebrews would be able to make expiation and atone for their sins. I must admit, however, that I had difficulty relating the text to our topic today, making progress towards ending racism.
If we define anti-racism as ACTION AND DEEDS against racist behavior, I asked myself, “what insight does Parsha Vayikra teach us about becoming anti-racists? Fortunately, Rabbi Weininger was able to help guide me towards the teaching of Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Shalom in Teaneck, N.J. His teaching forms the framework of this D’var Torah. I want to thank both Rabbis Weininger and Pitkowsky for their guidance. Their assistance was invaluable.
The first word in today’s parsha is Vayikra. As previously mentioned, Vayikra means "to call out". Vayikra’s final letter, as written in the Torah, is the aleph and it is traditionally written by the Torah scribe with a letter smaller than the rest of the word. Why is this so, what does it mean and what can it teach us about our response to racism? One explanation from a 14th century commentator (Ba’al Haturim) is that when Moshe was acting as a scribe for writing the Torah, he did not want the reader to think that he was important enough for Hashem to have a planned conversation with him. Moshe wished to lower his profile. He therefore intended to leave off the aleph from the word Vayikra. The intention was to change the word “Vayikra” to “vayikar,” altering the sentence from “The Lord called to Moshe” to “The Lord had a chance encounter with Moshe.” Moshe, the prophet who according to the tradition, had a special relationship with Hashem and was the only prophet to “see God face to face.” Yet Moshe wished to convey to the reader his sense of humility. He becomes the role model for humility, despite his unique status.
Another commentator, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain offers another perspective on the issue of the small aleph. As previously noted, the aleph is the final letter in the word Vayikra. However, it is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the first letter of the Ten Commandments (The Decalogue). The first word of the Decalogue is anochi, and the statement is, “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” – I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt and house of bondage. Sachs opines that the diminutive aleph teaches us that Hashem’s presence is not only manifested in grand gestures (examples- parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah, the Ten Plagues), but also in the small, every day, seemingly mundane events of our daily lives. The fact that we are alive is a miracle and therefore, the way we conduct ourselves on a daily basis is important. This extends to how we treat others, including people of color, people with disabilities, people with sexual orientations different from ours and those from disadvantaged groups. Ordinary, routine and seemingly unimportant daily actions can have great impact on others. Thus racism, both on an individual and structural level has a great impact on these vulnerable groups.
To be clear, structural racism refers to things like redlining, people of color paying higher mortgage rates than White people, medical disparities between Caucasians and people of color, higher incarceration rates for Blacks and Latinos and challenges for people of color in the education system. Thus, People of Color, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and the LGBTQ community feel, ‘less than,” excluded and believe that White people have special privilege in our society, known as White Privilege. Perhaps one remedy for this is to adopt the Moshe humility model and have White people shed their hubris, acknowledge their privilege, cease to be judgmental of those who look different from them and be respectful in their communication with members of the Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, and LGBTQ communities. The diminutive aleph in today’s parsha is serving as a teacher for us. It teaches us to act with more humility and let go of arrogance and insensitivity. It reminds us that our daily actions and language have profound impact on others, particularly with the more vulnerable groups.
As Hashem called out to Moshe in the Mishkan, Parsha Vayikra calls out to us to address racism both in our congregation and community at large. Our response should include humility, appreciation for all the blessings in our daily lives, compassion for those who are not yet liberated, and ACTION toward ending racism and increasing opportunity for everyone. We Jews understand the bitter taste and malevolence of racism and oppression and we are reminded of this at every Seder we attend. We have been liberated- now, it is our obligation to help liberate those facing racism. The Torah is exhorting us to take action. We can do this. Hashem does not suggest that we pursue justice, but rather demands it in the phrase "Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof". We have taken action and supported the oppressed before- It is in our spiritual DNA, and together, we can make progress in helping to end racism.
What changes and personal sacrifice are you committed to making in your daily life this year? What will you reflect upon not only at Yom Kippur, but next year, 5782 when we read this Parsha anew?
For more information visit Adath Antiracism Committee webpage at https://www.adathjeshurun.org/antiracism
D'var Torah Vayakhel-Pekudei
HIAS invites us to sign a welcome letter to our elected members of Congress encouraging leadership on issues affecting refugees and asylum seekers. Sign the welcome letter here.
I am very grateful to have this opportunity to speak today at Adath’s participation in Refugee Shabbat, a HIAS-led initiative that has been observed this year at over 300 congregations in the United States as well as in synagogues located throughout Canada and Europe. In a sense, Refugee Shabbat mirrors and reinforces a central ethos of the Jewish people of maladjustment to gross injustices perpetrated toward our fellow human beings and an insatiable search drawing upon the rich tapestry of Jewish theological teachings, ethics, history, and experiences to repair the world.
As you quite likely know, HIAS was initially established as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Throughout its existence now totaling over 100 years so as to make us the oldest continuously operating refugee rights organization in the United States, HIAS has served as the voice of the American Jewish community dedicated to refugee protection. HIAS has always and continues to stand for a single overriding proposition: we rescue, protect, and provide dignity to people whose lives are in danger for being who they are – that is, people who are persecuted for their religion, skin color, sexual identity or sexual orientation, political thought, social membership, or other inherently unalterable characteristic.
But in the adherence to this commitment, something profound has changed within HIAS and the world in which we live. For much of its existence, HIAS rescued refugees because they were Jewish; today, we rescue refugees because we are Jewish.
So, permit me to illustrate how HIAS has changed while simultaneously remaining unchanged in our commitment to refugee protection.
In the early 1950s, a survivor of the Shoah appeared at the local immigration office in New York City for a naturalization interview, which required her to pass a rudimentary test in American civics. Each question posed by the examiner was met by a blank and confused stare, until the examiner, Leon Rosen, asked the following: “Madam, what is the highest law of the land?” to which the applicant triumphantly responded: “HIAS.”
I had previously thought that this was a charming although an anachronistic story until just over a year ago, during a trip I took to South America to visit various HIAS offices, I entered a refugee shantytown in Barranquilla, Colombia along with some HIAS employees. Upon entering this camp and arising seemingly out of nowhere, a young Venezuelan refugee girl, probably around 5 years old, literally flung herself at the HIAS child psychologist in our group, and through her laughter, tears, and an embrace that would not end, this girl poured forth an excited monologue in Spanish, none of which I understood except for her recurrent recitation of “HIAS” which at least for that moment and presumably for many moments thereafter was for her the highest law of the land.
So, permit me to take a journey with you in exploration of the commitment of HIAS to effectuating a statement made by the Reverend Martin Luther King at Temple Israel – not the one on Hennepin Avenue, but rather in Los Angeles – that “we are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
We are commemorating today the second HIAS-led Refugee Shabbat. The first such commemorative initiative took place roughly two years ago, and it also attracted the participation of hundreds of synagogues seeking to express their unquenchable support for the cause of refugee protection, although this event tragically ended a week later with the murders of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which the murderer, right before entering the synagogue, posted on Social Media “HIAS likes to bring invaders in to kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
In its essence, Refugee Shabbat is a HIAS-organized initiative intended to create sacred time and sacred space to focus on and rededicate to the protection of the stranger. I believe that this observance has six main resonances for our own lives as American Jews, consisting of the following:
1. Its observance is a recognition that the Torah commands us 36 times to love and welcome the stranger. This is a personal prescriptive imperative. It cannot be delegated to the sovereign or to any third party. Quite simply, this is our personal responsibility. This is such an important and perhaps even counterintuitive notion that the Torah does not even give us an option simply to act kindly to the stranger. Rather, the Torah is direct and unequivocal in its commandment to love the stranger for we were once strangers.
2. Second, Refugee Shabbat constitutes a recognition that there is no hierarchy in human value because Judaism adheres to and honors the belief of B’tzelem Elohim – that we are all conceived in the image of God. Whether life springs from the master work of a deity or is a biological evolutionary function, Refugee Shabbat reaffirms that there cannot be any justification or gradations in the essential value of human beings, much less policies of exclusion, minimization, discrimination, stratification and persecution.
3. Third, Refugee Shabbat draws upon the central and recurring story of the Jewish people of persecution, displacement, migration, and resilience, and then weaves together this narrative saga with our collective memories, morality, and learning to create in the words of Elie Wiesel the foundational principle of hope for a better world.
4. Fourth, Refugee Shabbat constitutes our immediate connection to our own personal narratives – that is, to the lives of our own ancestors. I would surmise that nearly all of the congregants in this sanctuary, to say nothing of the overwhelming population of Israel, have ancestors who fled persecution precisely in the hope of creating better lives for their progeny, so this is an opportunity to recognize and honor not only that they endured, but that they prevailed.
5. Furthermore, in our work on refugee protection, HIAS on behalf of the Jewish people interacts with persecuted populations throughout the world, and in so doing, we oftentimes change their narratives on the Jewish people. In short, we are performing quite corollary work to the JCRC in that we declare that it is precisely because we are Jewish that we extend hope and protection in the creation of new lives to those who have few options and little hope.
6. And finally, Jews have something quite akin to an ownership interest in the U.S. refugee program. The entire development of U.S. laws recognizing that humanitarian protection should be grounds for immigration relief is embedded in the Refugee Act of 1951, the keystone document creating a right of protection to those being persecuted, which was a long-overdue reaction to the xenophobia and moral myopia that witnessed the refusal of the United States to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Shoah.
In terms of the identity of HIAS, we were created by American Jews over 100 years ago as an assertion of Klal Yisroelto assist, protect, and resettle Jews fleeing the pogroms of czarist Russia. Throughout the entirety of our existence, we have facilitated the rescue and preservation of Jewish communities in peril, from Russia, the Soviet Union, Northern Africa, the Middle East, Nazi Germany where 23 HIAS employees died providing protective services to victims of Nazi atrocities, and the list of theatres in which HIAS in essence has said the resonating words of Hineni, here I am, is coterminous with each and every episode in which Jews found themselves imperiled simply for being Jewish.
The germinating seeds of HIAS were planted by the American Jewish community and it is from this sliver of a population comprised of people with big hearts, unparalleled generosity, and ethical resolve that over the course of our existence we have evolved into one of the world’s most impactful and most honored humanitarian relief organizations. We maintain operations today in 16 countries located on 5 continents providing direct humanitarian relief to over 1.4 million people whose lives are in danger simply for being who they are. We have a $90 million budget and our principle funders are the United States Government – in particular, the Department of State, the Department of Health & Human Services, and the U.S. Agency for International Development – the United Nations, private foundations, corporate funders, and individual contributors. We are the only faith-based organization holding a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees, the world’s chief agency for refugee protection, which makes us the chief implementer of a wide range of global initiatives on behalf of refugees.
The history of HIAS can be broken down into 3 stages:
1. For most of our existence stretching until roughly 1995, we were involved in the rescue, migration, and resettlement of Jewish refugees mainly to the United States.
2. In our second stage of operation, we maintained our focus on the resettlement of refugees and vulnerable populations in the United States, but the beneficiaries of our services expanded from solely Jews to nonsectarian refugee populations, owing chiefly to the blessed reality that the number of Jewish refugees requiring protection had diminished dramatically.
3. In our most recent incarnation which was accelerated substantially by the restrictions on humanitarian protection under the Trump administration, we pivoted significantly to the global stage so that we now provide protective services to refugees in 16 countries located on 5 continents. We are the largest and most impactful refugee rights organization currently working in South America, largely focusing our efforts on refugees from Venezuela, which today is the world’s second largest refugee population.
Today, there are over 80 million persecuted individuals requiring protection, which is the highest such figure in human history. Our language has even developed its own lexicon that categorizes more precisely individuals needing protection – refugees, asylees, internally displaced persons or IDPs, and migrants. The trend line strongly suggests that this figure will continue to increase owing to nationalism, xenophobia, political oppression, climate change, economic downturn, and other push factors that marginalize the “other.”
HIAS seeks to address this tragedy in human history by striving for 3 outcomes:
1. The safe integration of refugees into their host countries, most of which are in the developing world;
2. The repatriation of refugees to their home countries assuming they will be safe and secure; and
3. Resettlement to a third country, which in the HIAS context is disproportionately the United States.
With the election of the Biden Administration, we expect to see a recommitment of the United States to humanitarian values as a cornerstone of our immigration as well as global policies. HIAS is quite well positioned to effectuate key objectives enunciated by the administration in the following specific geographic areas:
1. The Biden Administration has declared its intention to set an annual refugee admissions quota of 125,000, which is a stark increase from the current paltry level of 15,000 that was set in the last year of the Trump Administration. HIAS is one of 9 national resettlement agencies that has been empowered to effectuate the U.S. refugee program. Essentially, we work abroad with the U.S. Department of State and the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees to identify vulnerable refugees who also have good prospects for successful resettlement in the United States based on a myriad of factors. HIAS provides sustaining support during the entire ramp-up abroad during which refugees are vetted for admission to the United States, a process that can take well over a year, arranges for their transferal to the United States and entrustment to our local community partners, most of which are Jewish Family & Children Services, and oversees their successful, ongoing resettlement experience in the United States.
2. The Biden Administration has pledged to undertake a major stabilization initiative to address the humanitarian degradation currently producing the refugee crisis in South America, where HIAS is the largest refugee protection agency in that region. Venezuela currently represents the second largest refugee population in the world, but there are also substantial refugee populations coming out of the Northern Triangle, Nicaragua, and Colombia. We provide life-saving services of incalculable benefit to refugees in such areas as: legal representation that allows refugees to access legal protection and benefits; mental health and psychosocial services to enable refugees to overcome the trauma arising from their previous experience of persecution and violence; economic inclusion so as to provide refugees with the tools to economically succeed and gain economic viability in their host countries; and interventions against gender-based violence directed toward LGBTQ refugees and women and girls who are disproportionately victims of predation and sexual exploitation.
3. Perhaps the most immediate challenge facing the Biden Administration is the situation at the southern border which over this past period of time has witnessed a deplorable series of developments – separation of families, incarceration of children, deprivation of asylum applicants to any form of due process, refugees languishing in Mexico who thereby become subject to exploitation and violence. As the only humanitarian agency maintaining offices both in Mexico and in the United States, HIAS has begun to team with the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees to develop orderly programs intended to reunite families and identify the most vulnerable individuals stuck in Mexico and to then develop programs consistent with U.S. legal norms, economic priorities, and environmental policies to allow asylum seekers to access the U.S. judicial system to determine whether they indeed have a “well-founded fear of persecution.”
While HIAS has a breathtakingly broad global sweep, we ultimately rely on the involvement and commitment by American Jews. Here is a list of actions that each and every one of us in this sanctuary can take:
1. Write Congress to support asylum relief, professionalization of our immigration courts, and an expansion of global humanitarian relief.
2. Join the Facebook group entitled “Jews for Refugees” to keep abreast of new developments pertaining to refugees.
3. See the HIAS Events Page on our website and sign up for various HIAS webinars that explore different facets of refugee law policy and individual experiences.
4. Donate air miles to allow us to reunite children with families.
5. Contribute to bond funds intended to release immigrants from detention (and in this regard, thanks for the Minnesota Rabbinical Association for its work in opening up new avenues for post-conviction relief to immigrants and refugees).
6. Patronize refugee-made products, services and establishments.
7. Contact the Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs within the Mayor’s Office of the City of Minneapolis.
8. Join the HIAS Online Book & Film Club.
9. If you are a Spanish speaker, volunteer remotely to support the HIAS Border Response Team working out of Ciudad, Juarez, or see about volunteering with a local agency representing asylum seekers.
10. There may be some opportunities for lawyers to engage in pro bono projects representing asylum seekers.
11. We recently concluded an agreement with Airbnb in which refugees can avail themselves of substantially reduced short-term lodging, but even here, additional resources are needed to underwrite housing arrangements.
12. Donate used technology equipment or serviceable baby items to refugee families.
13. Incorporate the HIAS Freedom Haggadah into your Passover Seder observances.
Again, thank you for allowing me to share this HIAS saga with you and for your involvement in this year’s Refugee Shabbat.
Conversation over Kiddush:
HIAS is one of nine refugee resettlement agencies, six of which are faith-based. I would be very grateful for your thoughts as to what is the unique Jewish voice in refugee resettlement. What is it that we bring that is so empowering and so life-altering?
Robert Aronson, a member of Adath, is an immigration attorney at Fredrikson & Byron in downtown Minneapolis and he concurrently serves as the Chair of HIAS. Over the course of his career, he has represented innumerable foreign nationals, largely Jews from the former Soviet Union, in attaining safety in the United States. He is a graduate of the Indiana University School of Law and was a Fulbright Fellow at the law schools of Harvard University and Moscow State University. In 2017, Bob received the Sidney Barrows Lifetime Achievement Award of the Cardozo Society, the affinity group of Jewish lawyers, jurists and law students in the Twin Cities, for his professional achievements, community service and love of learning.
D'var Torah Tetzaveh
February 27, 2021
Continue the conversation with Adath's Antiracism Committee on Sunday, March 14, 2021 at 7:30 pm. Pre-register here to join on Zoom.
Today’s Torah portion is an interesting one in that it is heavy on details. It methodically documents how the menorah of the Tabernacle is to be lit every day as well as how to construct the ephod and holy garments for Aaron the high priest and his sons. Sometimes it is easy to see a list of details and just go through the motion of completing it, but as Jews we have an obligation to try and seek to understand the deeper meaning.
This Dvar Torah was a group effort by members of Adath’s Antiracism Committee, and as such, found the descriptions of clothing to be prepared for Aaron as the Kohen Gadol, very compelling. Aaron’s holy garments are described in such detail that we could draw an actual picture of what he looked like as the high priest.
It is reasonable to ask why G-d demanded that his high priest to be so ornately and specifically dressed. We read about how Aaron’s garments were constructed to shoulder the burdens of his people through the two shoham stones, one on each shoulder. Clearly the details hold significance. They symbolize the actions he needs to take as a high priest. In addition, the breastplate must have been wondrous to see with all the gemstones laid in gold. We imagine that one could probably see and identify Aaron and subsequent high priests from a distance.
As a group, we thought about what assumptions other Jews made about Aaron when they saw him in his holy garments. Did they assume him to be important? Probably. Did they assume him to be special? Probably. Did they think he must be a person of good character? Probably.
We could go on and on about what qualities or characteristics we could assign to Aaron based on his garments. So, what are the implications for us as Jews.
We are going to imagine ourselves getting ready for synagogue. If you’d like to, close your eyes. Please imagine that it is a time when we are able to be together in the synagogue in person, something we are all looking forward to! What are you choosing to wear? Do you put on a kippah? Are your parents’ voices in your head telling you what not to wear? Are you choosing it based on comfort or appearance or because it belonged to a grandparent? How does it make you feel? If you closed your eyes, you can open them now.
We all choose what to wear for many reasons. It makes us feel a certain way, it makes people perceive us a certain way, it signals to others something important about who we are, whether we want it to or not. As Jewish people preparing for synagogue, we may make certain choices such as putting on a Kippah or magen david necklace to connect us to our Jewish identities and other Jews. We can wear these special things or we can choose not to, depending on context or circumstances. Are we in a place where we feel safe to be Jewish?
Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen talks about the concept of a “Hiddur Mitzvah, the enhancement of a mitzvah through the adornment of the act. This is why we say kiddush over fine wine in a beautiful cup rather than over juice in a paper cup. Both will fulfill the minimum requirement of the mitzvah–but by adding beauty we add to the holiness of the act.” For Jewish people the way we dress may enhance our relationship to G-d. And how lucky we are to not only have these ways to connect to our people, history and G-d and be able to fulfill this Hiddur Mitzvah, but to have safe spaces in which to do it.
For others, the way they dress that feels connected to their authentic selves and their histories may put them in danger. Furthermore, there are aspects of our identities that we cannot choose to take on and off like we do with our clothing. Our skin color, for example, is not something that we choose. And often the choices we make about what to wear in tandem with our race can lead people to judgements. Here in Minnesota and all around the United States, everyday fashion choices have to be carefully considered by people of color, Muslim people and transgender people just to name a few.
We are going to ask you to imagine together with us again. Once again, if you’d like to, please close your eyes. Imagine you are walking down the street and you see someone walking towards you. They are wearing baggy pants, an oversized sweatshirt and a hoodie zipped up and with their hood on. How are you feeling? Do you imagine yourself looking at this person or averting your eyes? What thoughts come to your mind? Are you imagining this person as White or Black? A man or woman? Would it matter if it was just one person or a group?
Open your eyes. Unlike Aaron, who was chosen to be the Kohein Gadol because of who he was and was dressed accordingly, today, many times we form judgements, not just about what a person wears but about who they are as a person or the circumstances of how they are living their life. It is a snap judgement that we are trained to make without even knowing we are making it.
Today, numerous examples exist that show how dress, religion, and/or actual physical characteristics that can’t be changed all impact what we think of a person. For those in the Black community, wearing hoodies, baggy pants, and vibrant colors impacts peoples’ perceptions of them. Hoodies and baggy pants generally make us think of athletes, thugs, bad kids, or kids looking for trouble, not smart, intelligent, kids looking for opportunities for advancement. Even if you saw a white kid wearing these same clothes, you may judge them first based on the clothing that they are wearing and the associations you make with it. Then when you realize that the color of their skin doesn’t fit your assumption, your thinking may be challenged.
This does not only happen at a personal level but also at a systemic level. Black women are one and a half times more likely than white women to be sent home from work because of their hairstyle. Whether on purpose or accidentally, Black women are discriminated against for having natural hair that does not align with white beauty standards. White hair and hairstyles are the default of what we assume smart and professional people should wear, but that requires those born with a different curl pattern to spend countless hours, hundreds of dollars, and sometimes the use of harsh chemicals to achieve a look that is perceived as professional. This is being fought with “The Crown Act'' which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” This law prohibits race-based hair discrimintation, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of a persons’ hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots. As of 2020 “The Crown Act'' has been signed into law in 7 states. It was considered in many others including Minnesota, but was not passed.
Hair in the workplace, or baggy pants on the street both illustrate some of the ways people’s identities, clothing and positions come into conflict. It might be easier if we could say we were judging people only based on their clothes, not their race. Unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that. It is not just about what Aaron wears but about who he is that informs judgements of him. It is a person's race, gender, religion and more that inform how they are perceived by others. To think we judge people based only on one aspect of their identity, such as their clothing, is both inauthentic and dangerous. It creates a world where we go through making assumptions without being aware of what we are doing.
The Crown Act highlights a powerful way to mitigate judgement based on people's appearance and race. There are many examples of how these judgements are not so easily stopped and can be violent or even lethal towards others. In 2020 the Human Rights Campaign reported at least 44 transgender or gender non-conforming people were violently killed. These people were predominantly Black or Lantinx transgender women. We cannot say for certain that these people were killed because of how they dressed but trying to dress authentically as a transgender person certainly puts you at risk. The fact that these people were predominantly Black or Latinx further highlights that not only what we wear but our race causes people to judge us. This parsha highlights that even to G-d the way people dress is important. Aaron is commanded to wear garments that reflect his position. So how can we be okay with living in a world where people are judged and put in danger because they dress in a way that reflects their position and identity.
We need to challenge ourselves to consider the assumptions we make about how people look, that there may be a very good reason, a deep history and connection for all people to their choices of clothing. That a transgender person dressing in accordance to their gender identity or a Black man choosing to wear baggy clothes are also Hiddur Mitzvot. That if what Aaron wears highlights his holy position and we respect that then the choices of these people reflect their positions and are deserving of the same respect. We make these judgements automatically and unintentionally but this is a call to action. We need to start noticing our own tendencies to judge and react to people who aren’t like us. We can appreciate the times that we feel safe enough to express our Jewish identities and want to make space for others to express their identities as well. In this way we can lift up the holiness within each of us.
This is lifelong work, learning to notice the ways we are thinking and making the conscious choice to think differently. We hope to create space for each of us to begin or continue this work. We have two opportunities we would like to extend to you all. First, at the end of services today please join us for breakout rooms where we will be diving into each of our own relationships to assumptions we make about people based on their race and clothing. Dudley Deshommes-Kohls will lead us into that conversation with breakout groups led by other members of the Adath Antiracism Committee.The question we are going to start with today is, think of a time you made an assumption about someone based on how they were dressed. How did their identity influence your assumption either in support of it or contradicting it? The goal is to take some time to think about how this comes up in our own lives and reflect on that together. If you find that conversation meaningful and would like to continue to dive deeper with us, we invite you all to join us on Sunday, March 14th at 7:30 pm for a facilitated conversation around antiracism in our own lives. Thank you and shabbat shalom.
Conversation over Kiddush:
Think of a time you made an assumption about someone based on how they were dressed. How did their identity influence your assumption either in support of it or contradicting it?
Continue the conversation with Adath's Antiracism Committee on Sunday, March 14, 2021 at 7:30 pm. Pre-register to join on Zoom.
Welcome to Congregants of Adath!
In this series, we'll be highlighting congregants who are making a difference within the synagogue and/or within the greater community.
This week's Congregant of Adath is Etta Barry, chair of Adath's Inclusion Committee.
Having grown up in the Twin Cities and as a member of Adath, Etta (and her mother and siblings), have played a constant role as leaders in the community. Click play to hear her Inclusion story and about how we can help the Inclusion Committee achieve its goals.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), which is a unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities and mental health conditions and those who love them. To learn more, visit Adath's Inclusion Committee webpage. The Inclusion Committee is always looking for new members!
D'var Torah Mishpatim
February 13th, 2021
I take up this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, The Book of the Covenant. Covenants create relationships, and obligations. In Mishpatim, God sets forth the rules or moral laws that will govern the relationship between God and the Israelites.
As distinguished from other societies at the time, the laws of Torah are based on divine principles embedded in the world. The Torah’s overall emphasis is on three interrelated principles; human equality, freedom, and dignity. The dignity of a human being is central. These laws or principles are intended to create not only a just society, but a Holy one.
Why is it important that these are God given laws? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in You Shall Be Holy; A Code of Jewish Ethics (vol.1) states: “Indeed, without God, by what authority can one argue certain activities should be permitted and others forbidden? Ivan Karamazov says ‘If there is no God, all is permitted’”. Without divine authority, we get moral relativism, leading often to moral confusion and ultimately, a moral void. It’s not the transgression, but the forgetting. That’s where I think we are today.
To be clear, I believe that truth itself includes a diversity of viewpoints. I speak here of a constructive morality of responsibility; a morality that respects the dignity of every human being—and the integrity of God’s natural world.
It’s a perilous time for our nation, as we rebuild our society from its multiple systemic failures revealed in the face of the pandemic. We are also on the verge of ruining the planet.
In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks last book, (may his memory be for a blessing) titled Morality; Restoring the Common Good in Historic Times, he describes how we live in today.
“A free society is a moral achievement. Over the past fifty years in the West this truth has been forgotten, ignored, or denied. This is why liberal democracy is at risk.
Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for all of us together.
If we focus on the “I” and lose the “We,” if we act on self interest without a commitment to the common good… we will lose so much else. Nations will cease to have societies and instead have identity groups. We will lose our feeling of collective responsibility and find in its place a future of competitive victimhood. In an age of unprecedented possibilities, people will feel vulnerable, humiliated, and alone.
The market will be merciless. Politics will be deceiving, divisive, confrontational, and extreme. People will feel anxious… aggressive, unstable, unrooted, and unloved. They will focus on promoting themselves instead of the one thing that will give them lasting happiness; making life better for others. Freedom itself will be at risk from the far right and the far left…”.
What are the moral principles of MIshpatim that can inspire the vision we so urgently need to rebuild our nation?
First, Mishpatim says that knowledge of the law is the obligation of an entire people, not a privileged class of specialists. We are all responsible. Responding to the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites proclaim, (Ex. 24:7) “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” Our moral codes become our framework for living.
Second, Mishpatim commands us to balance both righteous and compassion. (Lev. 19:33-34) “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Third, justice and compassion relate to friend and enemy alike. (Ex 23: 1-4) “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong…nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute. When you encounter your enemy's ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him”.
Fourth, Etz Hayim notes that all the Torah's rules regarding slavery, debts, and indenture, inhibit economic enrichment at the expense of others. They are meant to protect the poor from exploitation. [ Ex. 22:24] "If you lend money to My people, to the poor...do not act toward them as a creditor. “ In other words, do not impose upon them a burden you would not take upon yourself were you in their shoes.
Fifth, and of central importance today, the laws of Mishpatim point to the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people, and of humanity with the natural world.
To illustrate interconnection and interdependence, I will quote from the renowned scholar of twentieth century eastern European history, Timothy Snyder, in his latest book Our Malady; Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary.
In December 2019, hospitalized with sepsis, he was paralyzed and gravely ill. He kept a journal of the powerful emotions that rescued him from near death. In his prologue, titled “Solitude and Solidarity” he writes; “It was an intense rage and a gentle empathy that sustained me…I felt nothing cleaner and more intense than my rage against deathly illness…. The rage was beautifully pure, undefiled by an object…. I raged therefore I was.
My first extended thought after surgery was about uniqueness. No one had ever moved through life as I had, making just the same choices….I wanted my rage to lead out of the bed and into another year…. My rage was my life….
Yet slowly and softly a second mood impinged, one that sustained me in a different way; a feeling that life was only truly life insofar as it was not only about me….I recited to myself the way my children’s lives were bound to my own. What mattered was not that I was unique but that I was theirs; their father. Every bit of their existence involved the expectation of my presence. They had never not touched me….I imagined what would change without me…I watched their future unfold without me in my mind’s eye—and then I reeled it back.
This…recognition, that my life was not my own, this gentle empathy escorted me away from death. The rage helped me see myself. The empathy placed me among others…it was not important that I was unique and special. It was important that I was inside other people, in their memories and expectations, a support in the shape of their lives, a buoy during difficult passages.
The empathy… worked together with the rage. Each mood revealed a truth, an element of me. Neither was enough, I needed both…the fire and the water, the solitude and the solidarity… to get well, to be free. ”
Plato said, “The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos, and live in another’s world.”
Finally, the study of Torah and the keeping of Shabbat anchors us in all of this: With these practices, performed within community to create community across our differences, we safeguard it, our collective remembering, the integrity of our moral laws, and our faith traditions.
To summarize, at this perilous fork in the road of our nation’s history, we need to bring the “we” back into our consciousness. We are all responsible, and it moves us away from our dualistic mindset.
Our problem is discursive. If we do not talk differently, we won’t think differently. We need a language, a moral narrative, to articulate our moral instincts. We need to engage in ethically informed conversations, across our differences.
Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it bring about a better society and a better world? These are the general questions we must ask with a view to the welfare of the whole.
In addition, in the name of our interconnectedness and interdependence, we need to rethink the role of the “public”. What are the public policies that would bring about a just, compassionate, and more peaceful society, public policies that respect the dignity of all people? What are we willing to commit to make that happen?
I believe our young people have the vision we need. I hear it in The Students’ Prayer.
The Students’ Prayer:
God, help our country to seek equality amongst people, that all minorities are treated fairly, and create peace between political standpoints.
May this country be blessed with peace, justice, and acceptance. May our leaders be guided by the strength of truth and compassion. Let our leaders be wise and helpful in their decisions for everyone to be treated equally, and with respect.
In times of uncertainty, allow us to continue leading a life of gratitude and kindness. Allow us to continue creating special memories with the people we love. Allow us to let times of uncertainty not make us weaker, but even stronger than we were before.
There are lots of reasons to be scared, and many reasons to be frustrated. But the unseeable future will be better. We need to be optimistic. We decide when change is needed, and we take the steps to make that happen.
May we feel connected and stable, feel steady emotionally and mentally, feel healthy and in the right mindset, feel ready to overcome the obstacles in our path, feel safe making our decisions, feel prepared and educated for the unknown, and feel accepted for our actions and words.
And let us say: Amen.
– Adath Confirmation Class of 2021/5781, January 19, 2021 (Inauguration Eve)
Conversation over Kiddush:
Here is a quote from Dr. Yehuda Kurzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It’s his definition of pluralism from a lecture, “Pluralism in the Face of Injustice”.
"True pluralism...is rooted in the belief that truth itself includes a diversity of viewpoints, and it translates into the commitment to build societies of mutual respect. Pluralism is a belief system in which we make room for the opinions and whole selves of others, and a tool to build a society that is improved by the presence of difference."
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Parashat Mattot Masei
July 18, 2020
There are so many controversies swirling around our country. It is hard to get one’s brain wrapped around one before we have moved on to the next one. There is one controversy that I want to take some time to focus our attention on because the underlaying issues keep surfacing as the presenting issues change.
The issue I call your attention to is that of wearing masks. I will confess that I have barely been in any store to see it directly, but there are ample reports on social media about confrontations taking places in which people walk into stores without wearing a mask. It is not uncommon that a scene ensues in which people assert their right not to don a mask. They explain that it is a matter of their personal freedom to choose not to wear one. When governments have established a mandate, as the Minnetonka City Counsel did this week, the response from some is that it is impinging on their liberty. They appeal to that most venerated document the US Constitution that declares:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
This debate has been playing out all over the US. This week the Governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, who has encouraged the voluntary wearing of mask for public safety, voided orders from 15 local governments, asserting that it is an infringement on people’s freedom to require them to wear a mask that even he agrees would protect all involved from COVID-19. And yesterday Democratic Gov. Tim Walz announced that he has not made a decision on issuing a state wide facemask mandate to control the spread of COVID-19 because he is hoping that, rather than relying on a unilateral an Executive order, he can get Republicans to join him in creating such an ordinance.
I find it appalling that so basic a health practice as the wearing of masks has become a political football and a badge for some of political identification. While there were mixed messages early in the pandemic about the value of wearing masks there is no real debate about the value of wearing masks in order to maintain the health of the public and contain the disease. Four days ago. The Director of the national Center for Disease Control Dr Robert Redfield stated, “We are not defenseless against COVID-19. Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow the spread of the virus- particularly when used universally within a community setting.” In an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association, the CDC’s Redfield asserted that “universal face coverings in public would help get the pandemic under control within 4 to 8 weeks.” As each day new records are broken in this country for the number of COVID-19 cases that total 3.5 million and more than 135,000 deaths, among the highest rates in the world, I find it quite shocking that there are those who world refuse to wear a mask on the basis of asserting their personal freedom.
I am once again pleased to be able to tell you that our MN Rabbinical Assoc, under the leadership of our Rabbi Weininger and Rabbi Jill Crimmings of Bet Shalom, issued a statement a few days ago advocating for mandates requiring the wearing masks. (Pull it up on the screen). Thank you to our member Rabbi Ryan Dulkin who drafted this statement, which is deeply grounded in Jewish teaching about the obligation we have “to take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for one another.” The letter is filled with biblical and rabbinic references showing that we have “to take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for one another” represents the fundamental thrust of our faith.
Let’s take a moment to look at mitzvah ma’akeh, with which you may be less familiar than other texts to which it refers. This is the biblical requirement from Deut 22:8 that commands a homeowner to erect parapets (railings) around the roof of one’s house to prevent someone from falling off. You might find that odd wondering what they were doing on the roof of the house to begin with? Houses in rabbinic times had flat roofs and this meant that the homeowner even had a positive obligation to protect someone who invited himself to sleep on the roof of the house. This mitzvah ma’akeh of parapets is applied widely to support the obligation that one must protect oneself and others from harm, to the best of one’s ability. This principle is hard wired into the very “DNA” of the Jewish people, which is in a covenantal relationship with God (as pointed out in my intro to Ahava Rabbah and to the Haftarah).
This week’s first portion Mattot has a great example of communal responsibility. I asked you to take a look on Numbers 32 when the Israelites’ journey through the desert has finally brought them to the border of Canaan, on the eastern side of the Jordan River.
We encounter the incident of the Reubenites and the Gadites who are said to be cattle herders. They claim that the land east of the Jordan is just perfect for the purpose of raising cattle so they tell Moses, 32:5 “It would be a favor to us if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.”
Moshe responded to the tribes of Reuven and Gad saying, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?’ I will spare you Moishe’s long speech berating them for looking out for their own welfare, rather than for the entirety of the nation and the dire consequences they and all Israel will experience if they make such a selfish choice. The rabbis heap further scorn on the greed of these tribes saying in Midrash HaGadol that these tribes did not have more cattle than the other tribes, “they just spent more time thinking about their cattle.” See Etz Hayim p. 951. The Reubenites and the Gadites shrink under Moshe’s withering critique and respond that of course they will cross over to join in the battle together with the rest of the tribes of Israel, they just want to be able to return to this area and have it as their portion.
The message is clear that central to the Jewish ethos is an expectation that one will focus on the community’s wellbeing and not just on one’s own. This is the furthest thing from the language we bear bandied about in discussion of health mandates for wearing masks that will protect everyone as being an infringement of my freedoms.
In thinking about this approach to living that honors the preciousness of every individual but demands responsibilities for the whole nation I turned to a wonderful chapter of my teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics, JPS 2002 . It one of three volumes on Jewish ethics published in 2002 by the Jewish Publication Society. It remains an essential set for one’s Jewish library. In the opening chapter Rabbi Dorff explores the “Fundamental Beliefs That Guide Jewish Social Ethics.”
In the chapter he describes exactly how the Jewish, Christian and American secular stories, graphically portray each tradition's beliefs about the individual, society, and the goal of living. p. 3
…the Jewish and American understandings of the nature of community and of the status of the individual within the community have some important similarities. In the minds of many American Jews, these mask the significant differences between the two concepts. Indeed, many American Jews want to believe that their Jewish self and their American self fit neatly together, like hand in glove, with no contradictions or even tensions. As we have seen, though, American ideology depicts the community in a "thin" sense, by which membership is completely voluntary and may be revoked by the individual at any time and by which the purpose of the community is predominantly pragmatic. In contrast, Judaism's sense of community is "thick," which means that its members are organically part of the communal corpus and cannot sever themselves from it and that the purpose of the community, while partially pragmatic, is essentially theological, “to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Ex 19:6) p. 25-26
It is no wonder that we sometimes feel pulled as American Jews between the individual thrust of Americanism holding up as a model the idea of rugged individualism and the Jewish ideal of communal obligation. In the case of the current controversy over requiring the wearing of masks we can see the evidence that the assertion of individual freedom over communal responsibility can leave many people sick, or even dead.
We need to follow Dr Redfield’s wise counsel, “All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”
On the clear basis of Jewish law, I and our MN Rabbinical Association, with no hesitation say that we are all obligated as Jews to wear masks to protect ourselves, our neighbors and our world. We need to send that strong and clear message to ALL of our elected representatives.
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Adath Jeshurun Congregation
Minnesota Rabbinical Association Advocates For Mask Mandate 7/14/20
My eyes pine away from affliction; I call to You, O LORD, each day; I stretch out my hands to You” (Psalm 88:10)
The Minnesota Rabbinical Association calls on our governor, lieutenant governor, and elected leaders to put in place all reasonable measures that will help our community reduce the spread of COVID-19, particularly by mandating the wearing of face coverings in public.
Our world is experiencing the most widely felt international plague in a century. Many states in our country are witnessing record new cases daily. We are losing loved ones to COVID-19, many more are experiencing debilitating illness, our livelihoods are under threat, and our children’s education and well-being are at stake.
Communal challenges require communal responses. We must take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for one another.
The core of Jewish tradition centers on the value of life (Deuteronomy 30:19). The saving of life supersedes all other religious duties (Mishneh Torah, Shabbat 2:1). Moreover, Jewish tradition teaches that “a person should never remain in a state of danger and say, ‘a miracle will be performed on my behalf ’” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a).
We look to our sacred Scriptures for guidance. Face coverings fulfill the mandate set out in the book of Deuteronomy 22:8, which commands home builders to erect parapets around a roof to prevent anyone from falling from it. Jewish tradition understands this verse to be broadly applicable to any reasonable measure that will protect public safety.
We have learned that those infected with COVID-19 can spread the disease before they are symptomatic, which makes wearing a face covering in public all the more crucial. We find support for this practice in the words of Leviticus 19:14, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” If we work together, we can change the dangerous trajectory we are on. Let us be strong, and let us strengthen one another.
Rabbi Kassel Abelson, Rabbi Esther Adler, Rabbi Morris Allen, Rabbi Shalom Resnick Bell, Rabbi Norman Cohen, Rabbi Jill Crimmings, Rabbi Barry Cytron, Rabbi Alexander Davis, Rabbi Max Davis, Rabbi Ryan Dulkin, Rabbi Shosh Dworsky, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, Rabbi Avraham Ettedgui, Rabbi Jeremy Fine, Rabbi Jennifer Hartman, Rabbi Sim Glaser, Rabbi Yosi Gordon, Rabbi Tamar Grimm, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Rabbi Harold Kravitz, Rabbi Jason Klein, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg, Rabbi Lynn Liberman, Rabbi David Locketz, Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein, Rabbi Micah Miller, Rabbi Tobias Divack Moss, Rabbi Cathy Nemiroff, Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman, Rabbi Avi Olitzky, Rabbi Debra Rappaport, Rabbi Adam Rubin, Rabbi Jeffrey Schein, Rabbi Adam Spilker, Rabbi David Steinberg, Rabbi Sharon Stiefel, Rabbi David Thomas, Rabbi Heidi Waldmann, Rabbi Aaron Weininger, Rabbi Michelle Werner, and Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman
Adath clergy, staff and congregants share