Everyone Has a Right to Sanctuary – Parashat Matot-Mas’ei 2019


Parashat Mas’ei, the last portion of Ba-Midbar, is both backward and forward looking in nature: It is backward looking, because it begins with a recapitulation of all the places the Israelites sojourned in the wilderness; and it is forward looking because it contains instructions about the conquest of Canaan and the allotment of the land to the various tribes. Each tribe was to get a portion of the Promised Land proportional to its population: bigger tribes would get larger parcels of land, and smaller tribes would receive smaller portions. The Parashah points out, however, that the tribe of Levi was not to receive a dedicated portion of land. Instead, each tribe would have to give up some of its land to build cities for the Levites — 48 cities in all, or 4 cities per tribal territory. Of these 48 cities, 6 were to be designated as ערי מקלט, cities of refuge.

The City of Refuge is one of the Torah’s more peculiar institutions. According to today’s portion, a City of Refuge was a place designated for a person who kills someone to flee to in order to be shielded from the גואל הדם, the blood avenger, a relative or friend of the dead person who is out for vengeance — dibs, by the way, on the band name “Blood Avengers.” Interestingly, the Torah does not ban the practice of blood vengeance. Perhaps it felt such a ban would have been ineffective in curtailing these apparently widespread crimes of passion. So instead of engaging in the futile act of prohibiting something that people were just going to keep doing anyway, the Torah rather seeks to prevent further bloodshed by protecting the killer from the avenger.

It is interesting, I think, that it is only after the killer has taken up residence in the City of Refuge that he or she is actually put on trial. One would think that the Torah should have the case adjudicated outside the city in order to ensure that only those individuals who fit the narrow criteria of accidental manslaughter, the category of people that the City of Refuge was designed to protect, would be allowed in, that steps would be taken to keep out murderers, to deny them entry altogether. But the Torah’s primary concern is protecting the individual seeking sanctuary from the bloodlust of the avenger, even if that individual seeking sanctuary is himself or herself a criminal.

In other words, with the institution of these sanctuary cities, the Torah is making a bold claim — that every single person, regardless of legal status — regardless, even, according to verse 15, of citizenship status — has the right to be shielded from those who would seek to do them harm. Put differently, one does not have to prove the validity of one’s asylum claim in order to be granted asylum. One does not even need to be a citizen in order to claim or be granted asylum. According to Maimonides, everyone who seeks asylum in a city of refuge must be given asylum. It is against Jewish law to refuse anyone. The assertion that your life is in danger, whoever you are, and whoever may or may not be threatening you, is sufficient. And furthermore, in commanding not only that these cities be built but that they welcome in anyone making a claim for asylum, the Torah also insists that the state has a reciprocal responsibility to protect all who seek the state’s protection — again, regardless of legal status, regardless of citizenship status.

Now, you might well say that this is all technically true from a practical point of view, but it’s not as though hardened criminals would get to stay in the sanctuary city indefinitely. In fairness, when a person arrived at a city of refuge, the court would send messengers to bring him in for a trial. These messengers, by the way, also acted as bodyguards, protecting the accused from blood avengers. If it was decided that the individual had committed murder, he or she would be judged accordingly (and ultimately put to death). But if the judges determined that the killing was truly unintentional, the messengers would return him to the city of refuge. It’s important to bear in mind that, in practice, we know that the ancient courts almost never convicted people of capital homicide. The standards of evidence and testimony that the rabbinic tradition established and honored made it exceedingly rare for anyone to actually be found guilty of murder. Thus, we learn in the Mishnah: “A court that executes a person once in seven years is called a murderous court. R. Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Even once in 70 years!’ (M. Makkot 1:10). So, in practice, sanctuary was granted both to people who probably committed murder but were exonerated thanks to some technicality, as well as to people who were truly innocent of a capital offense. Anyone claiming the state’s protection could take refuge in a Sanctuary City.

Moreover, the Jewish legal tradition explains that the Cities of Refuge were more than mere citadels to shelter refugees from blood avengers. They of course had to provide protection, but they also had to be sufficiently livable places. For starters, they had to be easy and safe to access. The roads leading to the cities had to be easy for a refugee to navigate: Valleys were raised, hills were leveled, and bridges were built to make it easier to travel. There had to be adequate directional signage. And the state of the roads had to be thoroughly examined every year to make sure they were in good repair. In addition, the sanctuary cities could not be cut off from society and commerce. They had to be situated near populous trading centers.

Given all this, it goes without saying that the state was obligated to provide for the basic needs of all the inhabitants of sanctuary cities: The city had to have an independent water source so as to ensure a suitable and uninterrupted water supply. The state had to supply the residents of sanctuary cities with sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. But the state’s obligations went beyond basic needs, however, to cultural and religious ones as well: if a student became a refugee, his teacher had to be moved to the city of refuge so that he could continue to teach him Torah. If a teacher took up asylum, his school had to be uprooted and relocated in the sanctuary city. If the population in a City of Refuge were ever to dwindle, the state would have to transfer citizens — including priests, Levites, and average Israelites — from elsewhere to fill it back up. There is even a charming tradition that teaches the mother of the High Priest would personally bring the best foods and the finest clothes to spoil the inhabitants of the Cities of Refuge, asking in return only that they pray for the welfare of her child. The Cities of Refuge were thus never permitted to become indefinite holding cells, ghettos, or detention camps. They had to be places of civilization — of culture, of religion, of society — places of thriving. For “man does not live by bread alone,” as the book of Deuteronomy puts it. Rather, all human beings require meaning, purpose, and relationships — in addition to basic necessities — in order to live and thrive.

It’s unclear if these Cities of Refuge ever existed, or if they were simply one of the Torah’s more utopian visions that was never fully realized. But what is abundantly clear is how far we are today in this country from upholding the fundamental moral message of the Cities of Refuge.

Today, thousands upon thousands of people are fleeing some of the most dangerous and impoverished places in the world — places like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. I know how dangerous they are. I have been fortunate to travel to Honduras and Guatemala with American Jewish World Service and have seen the violence and the desperation first-hand. I have met victims of unthinkable abuses — both those sponsored by the state and those that the state is powerless or unwilling to prevent — people whose livelihood and bodies are under assault each and every day. Spend a week in the inner cities and rural hamlets of Guatemala and you will quickly understand why folks are willing to leave behind everything they know and walk on foot — sometimes carrying infants in arms — for weeks through dangerous terrain and in perilous conditions; evading gangs, cartels, and violent criminals in order to seek safe haven and opportunity in our country. The migrants coming to our border by the thousands are literally running for their lives, hoping to be let into our City of Refuge.

But instead of building safe and navigable roads for them, we are building walls, erecting guard towers, and stationing soldiers to prevent them from entering. Instead of providing them with sanctuary, we are locking them up in detention centers, where they are routinely denied suitable living conditions, sufficient food and water, and necessary medical care. Instead of providing them places to thrive, safe from their pursuers and free from fear, we are tearing children away from their parents and putting them in cages. And as if these outrages were insufficient, just this week, several new policies were announced that amount, effectively, to an end to even the semblance of an asylum system in the US, leaving some of the most desperate people on the planet vulnerable to their dangerous pursuers.

By the way, this is an important point to underscore for those who maintain that those who want to come to the United States should do so through legal channels, that the problem is not immigration but illegal immigration. Our current immigration and asylum laws are extraordinarily restrictive. We let in very few people, especially if they are from Central America. And even for those who qualify, the process is extremely cumbersome and the wait lengthy. Not enough people at risk qualify. Furthermore, even many of those who do qualify cannot afford to wait for their claims to be processed. By the time we deem them worthy to be let in, they may very well be dead. So it is not enough to insist on legal immigration. We must also demand that our laws be changed so that all who seek refuge here can easily do so.

Indeed, my very point is that we as a country are making a choice to treat Central American migrants seeking asylum as criminals, rather than as human beings in need of our help. The Torah’s Cities of Refuge are instructive for us precisely because they are founded on the principle that those seeking refuge must not be regarded as criminals. This is true even though, in the case of the Cities of Refuge, everyone who was seeking asylum was a killer; many were out and out murderers. But the basic moral message behind the Cities of Refuge is this: anyone who claims to be at risk is entitled to asylum, regardless of legal status, regardless of citizenship. According to the Torah, we simply have no right to deny refuge to anyone fleeing for their lives. We are commanded to presume the truth of their claims and to presume their innocence; to take them in and to care for them; to provide for their security, their sustenance, and their spiritual well-being. According to the Torah, everyone has a right to sanctuary. And that means, according to the Torah, we have a responsibility to provide it — an obligation to grant sanctuary to all who seek it.

That obligation is by nature communal. Each of us individually are not required to set up Cities of Refuge in our backyards and basements. But what we are required to do, I think, is demand of our government — which is the representative and agent of our body politic — that it upholds and acts upon our values, our ideas, and our commitments. That is why this Tisha B’Av we are joining with Jewish communities across the country — and with communities of conscience from all over our region — to protest our current immigration system, to speak out against the abuses being perpetrated in our name, and to demand a change in course. I invite you to join us here on Sunday, August 11 at 4pm to stand up for our values and to stand with the oppressed.

Just a few days ago, I was privileged to take my kids to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time, the emblem of refuge who stands upon the words “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I told them about “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” the homeless, our ancestors, tempest-tost to this land of promise. I tried to remind them that we are part of a nation of and by immigrants, that we descend from a perennially homeless people, that we believe that all human beings have been created equally in the Divine Image, even though, as we spoke, thousands of migrants were being subjected to unthinkable brutality on our watch. So I pray that we, we who bear the burden of our history and we who embrace our Torah, have the clarity to see what is happening now for what it is. May our hearts be softened and our passions ignited. And may we recommit ourselves to lifting our lamps beside the golden door, welcoming all in need of sanctuary to this land of refuge.

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Inner and Outer Work

This speech was originally given at the Spring Keynote event for the Chrysalis Institute (now The Innerwork Center) on May 2, 2019.

Within a six week span in late 2016, two things happened that changed my life:

The first was the November presidential election. Pursuing justice and repairing the world had always been central to my faith, but since becoming a rabbi I had usually steered clear of partisan politics. However, by the spring of 2016, the moral danger of a Trump presidency had become clear to me, and I decided I could no longer stand idly by. So I stepped right into the political fray, speaking out directly against Trump and campaigning unabashedly for Democrats.

My newfound activism was personally costly and professionally risky. Since I couldn’t neglect my congregational duties to engage in political action, I became less present for my wife and children, and I jettisoned self-care. And it was inevitable that my politics would alienate some of my congregants, potentially threatening both my job and my career.

When Trump won, I felt like my world was shattered; that all the sacrifices I made, and all the risks I took on had been in vain. Even worse, it felt like my failure had put lives in peril.

So, after a few days mired in shock and grief, I redoubled my efforts. I began organizing with like-minded friends to build a local resistance movement. I donated to organizations on the front-lines of the opposition. I signed every petition, and attended every protest. The great medieval Jewish sage, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, taught that every deed, no matter how large or small, has the potential to tip the world’s scales. I came to believe that if this was so, then it was my responsibility to keep the world from plunging into darkness.

About a month later, I was driving home from visiting an elderly congregant at Beth Sholom Home. At the intersection of John Rolfe Parkway and Gayton Road, another car ran a red light and T-boned me at full speed. My car was thrown through the intersection and flipped over entirely. I don’t remember much: the horrible sound of crunching metal and crashing glass; and the disorienting feeling of being upside down. I remember trying to open the door, gingerly unbuckling my seatbelt, bracing myself, and sliding out as carefully as I could. I looked myself over. I could walk and talk and see and hear fine. A Good Samaritan even marveled at how my hair somehow seemed to still be perfectly in place. I had cut my hand on some broken glass, and I accidentally kicked my sunglasses down a nearby sewer. But I was otherwise unscathed. I was lucky to be alive, much less in one piece.

In the days that followed, Mary Oliver’s beautiful and haunting poem, “When Death Comes” echoed in my mind:

“When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

Or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

As 2016 faded into 2017, I resolved to live in the spirit of Oliver’s words — to spend every available moment making of my life something significant. I promised myself that I would live in such a way that, if death were to come for me unexpectedly, I would be ready for it; that I would not put off until tomorrow what could be done today. For after all, who knew what tomorrow may bring?  

So I threw myself even more forcefully into organizing, donating, campaigning, petitioning, writing, speaking out, and marching for justice. I became a fixture at local rallies and interfaith actions. I traveled to DC, Philadelphia, and New York for protests. I helped pave the path for the statewide “blue wave” of 2017. I became the Chrysalis Institute’s landlord. 

I did all this in addition to my already heavy load of congregational and family responsibilities. But the world seemed to be on fire, and I felt obligated to extinguish the blaze.

Within a few months, I was exhausted and burnt out. I felt harried and scattered. I was constantly stressed, anxious, and reactive: easily agitated, perennially overwhelmed, and perpetually disappointed. I carried the stress everywhere in my body. You could see it on my face. And I found myself regularly losing my temper, which disproportionately impacted those closest to me.

During the summer months, Jewish congregations read from the biblical book of Numbers. And that summer, Numbers chapter 20 hit me especially hard.

The story goes like this: the Children of Israel, led by a prophet named Moses, escape from slavery in Egypt. They travel through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. But the journey is much longer and harder than they anticipated. The terrain is rugged, resources are scarce, enemies threaten, and patience wears thin. The people kvetch constantly. Moses has very little help carrying the burdens of leadership, and bears the brunt of the Israelites’ scorn. His emotional reserves are further depleted when, in a short span of time, his cousins mount a rebellion and his only sister suddenly dies.

Against this backdrop, the people complain to Moses about a lack of water. Moses appeals to God, and God tells Moses to speak to a nearby rock and command it to bring forth water. Instead of following God’s (admittedly strange) command, Moses excoriates the people for complaining and then angrily smashes the rock with his staff. Water erupts from the cracked stone, but God is furious. Moses is banned from entering the Promised Land.

That summer, I totally got Moses. He was so overwhelmed by his outer work — governing, teaching, preaching, leading, working tirelessly to turn this group of freed slaves into an exemplary society — that he had no space for compassion or empathy; he had no bandwidth to feel, check, and process his grief, fear, and rage. It was inevitable that he would explode in anger at the people closest to him.

And, perhaps paradoxically, I also understood God’s reaction: How could Moses do the outer work — judging disputes fairly, governing wisely, teaching his charges how to build an equitable and compassionate community — if he harbored resentment and was blind to his own callousness? How could God expect the Children of Israel to build a society in the Promised Land founded on the principle of loving your neighbor — and even the stranger — if their leader treated people with spite and cruelty?

That summer, I realized: the story of Moses and the rock was a cautionary tale for the activist, the advocate, the public servant, and, indeed, the spiritual leader.

Many of us are tempted to give all of ourselves to the outer work. The day, after all, is short, and the task is great. But unless we are mindful of our inner work — the condition of our hearts, the state of our souls — in time, we will render ourselves unfit to serve. Only when we nourish our inner selves can we give the best of ourselves to others, building the world we long to see without becoming hypocrites or pariahs in the process.

And just as it is true that the outer work is urgent, we are similarly on borrowed time with respect to our inner work. Caring for ourselves, like caring for others and the world, cannot wait. We cannot tend to ourselves merely when we have time, when we finally wrangle a day off or use our vacation days.

So how do we do both? How do we simultaneously prioritize self-care and care for others?

The first lesson is to remember our imperfections and limitations, to manage our expectations. The first century sage Rabbi Tarfon taught, “The work is not yours to finish. But neither are you free to desist from it.”

No matter how passionate we are, no matter how hard we work, no matter how devoted we are to the cause, no matter how talented or effective we are, it is extremely unlikely that any of us, whether individually or collectively, will complete the work — whether building a just, compassionate, and peaceful world, or enlightenment or spiritual perfection.

That doesn’t exonerate us from our obligations to refine ourselves and repair the world, but it does liberate us to pace ourselves and stop before reaching the point of exasperation or exhaustion. It allows us to be more forgiving of and compassionate toward ourselves when we fall short. It permits us to attain more balance.

Which brings me to the second lesson: getting the balance right. Here the Jewish tradition also has some powerful wisdom:

Every year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, observant Jews wear white robes called kittels, garments which resemble burial shrouds, and refrain from eating, drinking, bathing, and intimacy. In other words, on Yom Kippur, we rehearse for death. We remind ourselves that we are destined for the grave. We even recite a prayer called “U’netaneh Tokef,” in which we acknowledge our uncertainty about whether we will live or die in the coming year. We affirm not only that we are mortal, but also that each day might be our last.

But the prayer ends with an amazing line: “u’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha-gezeirah / repentance, prayer, and righteous action overturn the harshness of our fate.” Put differently, the way to make the most of whatever time we have, is to spend it doing three things: repenting, praying, and pursuing justice.

Note the ratio here. Only one of the actions prescribed is outwardly-focused. Two represent inner work. This hymn instructs us to dedicate ourselves to righteous action in the world. But more than that, twice as much in fact, we are to do the inner work embodied by prayer and repentance: Purifying and softening our hearts. Deepening our capacity for love, and expanding our spheres of compassion. Engaging in honest introspection and self improvement. Cultivating our faith and seeking out wisdom. Nourishing our spiritual strength and our moral courage.

And the prayer further instructs us not to wait: Don’t wait for the right time. Don’t wait until your external battles are won. Don’t wait until your worlds are conquered. Do it now. Make time, twice as much time, for your inner work. Because no one else will give it to you. And you can’t give to others unless you have enough for you.

We live in times that call for our passionate engagement. Our world is on fire, the need is urgent, and our time is limited. We are called upon to do our part to repair the world, seeing every day as potentially our last opportunity. But remember: only if we are fair and compassionate to ourselves will we reach the Promised Land of a loving, just, and peaceful world.

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The New Jerusalem


This sermon was originally delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia on April 3, 2019.

At the center of the Jewish Sabbath liturgy is a question. The Jewish worshipper asks God: “מתי תמלך בציון, when will You reign over Zion?” This is not an ordinary question, no mere invitation to small talk with the Divine. Rather, it is a yearning question, a question rooted in heartache and heartbreak. It is a question that evokes the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, an event that involved not only the deaths of thousands but that precipitated centuries of Jewish homelessness, powerlessness, and pain.

For more than two thousand years, the destruction of Jerusalem has come to symbolize the broken and perpetually unredeemed state of our world. Where you find allusions to the restoration of Jerusalem in Jewish texts, it is rarely referring to simply rebuilding a city’s structures or replacing its leaders. More often than not, it is speaking metaphorically. Restoring Jerusalem is Jewish for perfecting the world.

The perfection of the world, or tikkun ha-olam, is a core Jewish value. Some say it is the primary Jewish value, the thing Jews are obliged to do above everything else. Scholars continue to debate its full meaning, but in essence, tikkun ha-olam means the establishment of a social order that is aligned with God, which is to say a social order that reflects God’s defining qualities of hesed, love, mishpat, justice, and tzedek, equity. The ultimate goal of tikkun olam is the establishment of shalom, peace — a condition free from division and strife, in which every person sees herself as inescapably interconnected with everyone else, a society of unity that embodies God’s fundamental oneness.

It is, of course, hard to imagine a society governed by human beings which could look like this. After all, even when ancient Jerusalem stood, things were rarely ideal. According to tradition, the city’s ruin in antiquity was the result of unchecked hatred, pervasive injustice, and rampant violence.

And still today, when we have been fortunate to see the building of a modern Jerusalem upon the city’s former ruins, Jerusalem is both resplendent and fraught. It has magnificent contemporary structures and institutions and, at the same time, is plagued by insufficient housing and rampant poverty. It is both the beating heart of Jewish spirituality and also the epicenter of inter religious strife among Jews. The meaning of the Hebrew name Yerushalayim means “city of peace,” and yet Jerusalem remains a primary source of the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

That’s why our common ancestors envisioned that the world would only attain true perfection when God herself were sovereign over it. And when God’s rule is inaugurated, they naturally presumed that the seat of God’s dominion would be Jerusalem, Jewish tradition’s most significant city. From Jerusalem, God’s dominion of love, justice, equity, and peace would extend over all. In the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah: “כי מציון תצא תורה ודבר ה׳ מירושלים, Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem” (2:3).

But because Jerusalem has always been corrupted by human imperfection, Jewish tradition has held that God will rule our world from an altogether new Jerusalem, a ירושלים של מעלה, a heavenly Jerusalem, which will, in time, supplant ירושלים של מטה, the earthly Jerusalem.

When the ancient rabbis envisioned that heavenly Jerusalem, they looked upon a city of rubble and ruins, a city overrun by wild beasts, dominated by foreign occupiers, and beset by tragedy brought upon by a combination of Jewish failure and imperial brutality. So they imagined a glorious “city of gold and silver and of sapphires and rubies, of precious stones and of luxurious spices.” (Joshua Prawer, “History, Faith, and Beauty,” in The Jerusalem Anthology, edited by Reuben Hammer, p. 14.)

Such a grandiose vision would have been natural and understandable to a person crushed by a dark reality, as the ancient rabbis were. All of us, in moments of poverty or pain, imagine for ourselves a life opposite the one we are actually experiencing, a life of wealth and wellbeing, of comfort and plenty.

But the rabbis did not stop there. Alongside their vision of a “great and beautiful city that descends from heaven fully built,” a city with “houses and gates of pearl and doorposts of precious jewels,” a city where riches overflow their stores and lay in the streets for the taking, the rabbis added that among the readily accessible treasures in this new Jerusalem would be Torah, the repository of the sacred wisdom that, according to tradition, reflects God’s instructions for building a world of love, justice, and equity; and peace, a condition of inner and outer wholeness, in which internal strife and external division cease (Nistarot Eliyahu, Bet HaMidrash 3, p. 67f.). Where earthly Jerusalem was impoverished, the rabbis imagined heavenly Jerusalem as almost unfathomably opulent. And where earthly Jerusalem was beset by injustice, cruelty, poverty, and violence, heavenly Jerusalem would have an over-abundance of Divine instruction and harmony.

In other words, the rabbis envisioned that the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem were negative images of each other. And, in that sense, the rabbis envisioned that our world is but the negative image of a perfected world, a world redeemed. לא כעולם הזה עולם הבא, they taught. The world that is coming is not like this world (BT Pesahim 50a). Rather, it is, according to the third century sage Rav Yosef, an עולם הפוך, an inverted world, where that which is great in our world will be made low, and that which is lowly in our world will be exalted (BT Pesahim 50a).

If the heavenly Jerusalem is the rabbinic vision of a new world order, it is worth spending a few moments exploring what they imagined that order would look like. I think there are three major components: radical inclusion, social justice, and pervasive peace. Let’s discuss each of these:

First, let’s talk about radical inclusion. Among the prophecies associated with the heavenly Jerusalem is that it is big enough to include everyone in the world. The earthly Jerusalem is, today, about 50 square miles. In earlier eras it was much smaller.

But according to the second century sage Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, the heavenly Jerusalem will be so large that a horse running from one side of the city in the morning will not arrive at the other end until midday. I actually did the math here, and that means if we were talking about the world’s fastest horse running on the day with the least amount of daylight, Jerusalem would be about 275 miles across. Larger, of course, if it were galloping on the day of the summer solstice, about 385 miles across. The traditional commentaries unfortunately don’t clarify on that point.

But the numbers are not what’s really important here. What rabbinic tradition is trying to say is that while the earthly Jerusalem is notorious for not being large enough to accommodate all the people who might otherwise want to live there, the heavenly Jerusalem is large enough to include everyone. The heavenly Jerusalem has space and a place for all people.

Underscoring this point for the rabbis are the words of Psalm 122, which they understood not as a description of the Jerusalem that was or is, but rather of the Jerusalem that one day will be. The psalmist writes:

I rejoiced in those who said to me: ‘Let us go to God’s house.’

Our feet were standing in your gates, Jerusalem.

A Jerusalem that is built as a city that is joined fast together,

Where the tribes, the tribes of God, make pilgrimage…”

Earthly Jerusalem was famously a hotbed of division and strife: a place whose sanctity was contested by the various Israelite tribes, the point of rupture that resulted in ten lost tribes, and later ground-zero for inter religious sectarian violence among Jews. Earthly Jerusalem was in ancient times most likely not a city that felt welcoming or inclusive. For many, receiving an invitation to Jerusalem was not an occasion that would have evoked joy but, rather, anxiety and trepidation; who knew what kind of hostility one might encounter among the fractiousness that existed within its gates?

The sense that Jerusalem could not accommodate everyone has persisted throughout history, and remains true today, when many Jerusalemites are displaced through gentrification, poverty, and a lack of affordable housing; when Jews frequently come to blows with each other over their religious differences; and when Jews, Muslims, and Christians struggle to coexist there.

But the heavenly Jerusalem is the opposite. Heavenly Jerusalem is, in the psalmist’s words, a city “joined fast together,” meaning a city in which diverse peoples feel a deep connection to and responsibility for each other, a place where people of every tribe are embraced and included. Heavenly Jerusalem has both physical and spiritual room for everyone, and no one is made to feel left out.

Indeed, according to rabbinic tradition, the heavenly Jerusalem will be large enough not only to house all the living, but also all the dead. A core principle of rabbinic faith is that God will one day resurrect the dead, from the first human being onward, and bring them to Jerusalem. That’s a lot of people; over 100 billion! But tradition holds that God will make space in the new Jerusalem for all of them (Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Tzav, Leviticus 8:3). Yes, Heavenly Jerusalem will have plenty of room — room for the living as well as the dead, for the whole as well as for the broken; for she who is well-off, and also she who has fallen, for she who is healthy and also for she who is infirm, for she who is free and also for she who is oppressed (Paraphrasing the second blessing in the Amidah (cf. Rashi, Micah 4:6)).

The expansiveness and inclusivity of the heavenly Jerusalem extends not only to Jewish people but also to all who dwell on earth. Rabbinic tradition takes the words of the prophet Micah, that, in time to come, the peoples of all nations will say, “Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob; that God may instruct us in God’s ways, and that we may walk in God’s paths” to mean that in this future Jerusalem, Jew and non-Jew will sit down together at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood (Micah 4:2 (cf. Isaiah 2:3)). And it takes the words of Isaiah, who says, “I will bring [the foreigners] to My sacred mountain, and cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar. For My house shall be called a House of Prayer for All Peoples” to mean that, in Heavenly Jerusalem, all of God’s children will join hands as brothers and sisters. And just when you think God will put limitations on inclusion, Isaiah adds, “Yea, I will gather still more to those already gathered!” God will defy your expectations and welcome even more people into the city’s gates.

And this heavenly Jerusalem is not just radically inclusive, but thoroughly and perfectly just. The psalmist identifies Jerusalem as a place notable for its “thrones of justice,” that is to say, a city in which disputes between people are fairly and equitably adjudicated, in which social order is maintained because the rule of law prevails and resources are distributed equitably, and in which the moral order is maintained because all people are treated and nurtured as equals.

It is fair to say that this picture has never accurately portrayed the Jerusalem of past or present. But in the same way that rabbinic tradition understands the inclusive Jerusalem of Psalm 122 to describe a Jerusalem that one day will be, so too does it hold the psalmist’s vision of Jerusalem’s justness to be prophetic. A future Jerusalem, a heavenly Jerusalem, will be one synonymous with justice.

In this, the rabbis echo the vision of Isaiah, who prophesies that, one day, God will restore justice and wise counsel to Jerusalem, and, “After that, [Jerusalem] shall be called City of Equity” (Isaiah 1:26). And Micah similarly predicts that, in time to come, people will come to Jerusalem from all over the world, specifically to seek out the justice meted out inside its gates, a perfect justice administered by a perfectly just God: “Thus God will judge among the many peoples, and arbitrate for the multitude of nations, however distant” (Micah 4:2). In this new Jerusalem, justice would be done justly, and Torah — which demands not only administrative justice and distributive justice but also unrestrained compassion — will be readily accessible, freely taught, and passionately studied by all, Jew and non-Jew, instilling in all peoples a commitment to love and righteousness.

Yes, in this perfectly just Jerusalem on high, no person will suffer want, for the distribution of resources will be fair; no person will suffer discrimination or oppression, because all will be honored as equals; and no person will suffer from an unfair verdict or unjust incarceration, because in this Jerusalem, judgment will be perfect.

The embrace of full inclusion coupled with the presence of complete and pervasive justice leads inexorably to the third characteristic of the heavenly Jerusalem: peace.

Both Isaiah and Micah speak of a Jerusalem in which all the peoples of the world “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore / וְכִתְּת֨וּ חַרְבֹתֵיהֶ֜ם לְאִתִּ֗ים וַחֲנִיתֹֽתֵיהֶם֙ לְמַזְמֵר֔וֹת לֹֽא־יִשְׂא֞וּ גּ֤וֹי אֶל־גּוֹי֙ חֶ֔רֶב וְלֹא־יִלְמְד֥וּן ע֖וֹד מִלְחָמָֽה׃” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3).

Again, it is fair to say that the earthly Jerusalem has never been the site of tranquil and harmonious relations between people. Isaiah and Micah are describing a place not yet of this world, a city of peace whose model inspires all people to lay down their arms, destroy their weapons, and transform their tools of human destruction into tools for human flourishing.

According to rabbinic tradition, the peacefulness of Jerusalem is a direct result of its inclusivity and its justice. The 19th century Ukrainian scholar Malbim notes:

The need for warmaking is due to two things:

One, when two peoples do not have a common law, when their legal systems are completely different, the sword will judge and decide between them.

Two, to protect law and order within a country, so that people do not rebel and throw off the yoke of rule.

This heavenly Jerusalem will be comprised of all peoples, from the most diverse backgrounds imaginable. Peace is not possible without such radical inclusivity because, according to Malbim, divisions between people invariably lead to conflict. Peace only comes when people sense that they share more than they differ.

At the same time, members of a diverse society, even a society that is united under a common law, will inevitably clash. But because the people in the new Jerusalem will be ruled with perfect and equal justice, the typical reasons for conflict and war will become obsolete. And since there will cease to be a need to wage war, people will “beat their swords into plowshares” and never again learn war (Malbim on Isaiah 2:4).

That the Heavenly Jerusalem of Jewish tradition would be characterized by peace is unsurprising. The yearning for peace is an elemental human aspiration. For as long as our species has existed, we have always lived under the threat of annihilation. How wonderful it would be, in the words of the prophet Micah, “for every person to sit under her grapevine or fig tree with no one to make her tremble”?!

That’s why the desire to bring about peaceful coexistence is central to virtually every major religion, as it is in Jewish thought and practice. Three times a day the traditionally observant Jew prays for God to inaugurate a reign of universal peace in the world, and there are literally countless instances in which the dream of peace surfaces in Jewish texts and traditions.

But embedded in the Jewish aspiration for an elusive world peace, embodied by the Heavenly Jerusalem, is actually practical instruction. Peace is possible for human beings to attain. But it requires the creation of a thoroughly inclusive and perfectly just society. As the Talmud teaches, “The Holy Blessed One said, ‘I shall not enter Jerusalem above until I am enter Jerusalem below.’” In other words, the advent of the Heavenly Jerusalem depends on our making the Earthly Jerusalem an inviting place for the indwelling of the Divine Presence, a place imbued with the godly qualities of loving inclusivity, justice, and equity. When every human being is welcome and when justice reigns in the Earthly Jerusalem, then the Heavenly Jerusalem will finally be complete; its establishment on Earth not only possible, but inevitable. Why? Because in making the Earthly Jerusalem godly, we transform it into the Heavenly Jerusalem.

This insight is not simply true of Jerusalem. The persistent brokenness of the earthly Jerusalem is also pervasive and present in every city, and indeed all over the world world. Remember, then, that restoring Jerusalem is Jewish for perfecting the world. Thus, Heavenly Jerusalem is a model for a perfected world, and Jewish tradition insists that if we remake any and all of our cities in the image of God’s love and justice, they will become the Heavenly cities they were destined to be, and redemption will be at hand.

Imagine, for a moment, what our city would look like if it were thoroughly inclusive and perfectly just, if we weren’t — 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and 50 years after the Civil Rights revolution — just as segregated as we ever were, if not more;

if we were as insistent that a poor, African American renter deserved to stay in their home, or that the child of an undocumented immigrant deserved a place in our city, as we are about keeping statues of Confederate “heroes” on their pedestals;

if your zip code didn’t determine your life expectancy or the color of your skin your prospects for escaping poverty;

if 25% of Richmonders — and nearly 40% of our children — didn’t have to go to bed hungry at night;

if there were equal treatment under the law regardless of your race, religion, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

If we really ended racial segregation, welcomed and integrated immigrants, and made a truly inclusive city; if we distributed resources equitably and ensured full legal equality for peoples of all backgrounds; if we truly cared about everybody’s right to life, not just unborn babies — we may not attain perfect harmony, but we would get, I think, pretty darn close.

Jewish tradition is urging us, then, to not simply wait for God to bring the heavenly Jerusalem to earth. We must not only pray for “Thy Kingdom Come.” Rather, God is waiting, God is praying, for us to do the work that will make heaven on earth.

We gather today in observance of the Lenten season, a season of spiritual preparation for Easter. Of course, I am not a scholar of Christianity, so please excuse me if I get this wrong, but it seems to me that, through Lent, Christian tradition is saying that redemption requires preparation. One cannot fully embrace the redemptive power of the risen Christ without first preparing oneself. Perhaps ‘Thy Kingdom Come,’ but will we recognize it when it comes? Will we be ready for it when it comes? Will we accept it when it comes? These questions depend entirely on the work we do in advance. In a similar sense, Jewish tradition insists that we cannot simply wait for heaven to come to earth. We are responsible for making it possible.

Thus, on the Sabbath, a day of peace in which we cease our often mindless labors in the world as it is to envision the world as it might be, the Jewish worshipper asks, “When will You reign over Zion?” This is the question of a person who looks at the world around her and sees everywhere evidence of a world unredeemed. It is, in the words of the great 20th Century theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the question of a person who is not at home in this world, a being who cannot help but experience “spiritual homelessness in the sight of so much suffering and evil…” and who recognizes that in such a corrupt and broken world, God can never be at home, either (Man’s Quest for God, p. 62). The challenge and the task before us is therefore always to make of this world the place in which God truly intended for us to live, in which even God would be at home, a world of love, a world of justice, a world of peace. It is within our power to make of this world Heaven on Earth. And, because we can — indeed, we must.

May the One who makes peace in God’s realm make peace for us, for all Israel, and for all who dwell on earth. And let us say, Amen.

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Renewing our Vows: A New Approach to Intermarriage

Recently, my congregation’s lay leadership voted to permit its clergy to officiate at marriages between a Jewish individual and a partner from another background (with some important conditions), if and when the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and the Cantorial Assembly change their current Standards of Practice forbidding their members to officiate at such events.

I both championed and fully support my congregation’s move. We made our decision because we believe that the Conservative movement’s rule prohibiting its rabbis from officiating at intermarriages is rooted in outmoded halakhic reasoning, conclusions not corroborated by the empirical evidence, and failed strategy.

What follows is the reasoning that led me and us to this conclusion and momentous change. I am grateful to my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Jesse Olitzky for being my hevruta in studying about and thinking through this issue. I publish this essay in the hope that my argument might encourage my colleagues and other Conservative congregations to follow suit.

I will begin by saying that I am a proud Conservative rabbi. I have been nurtured by Conservative movement organizations and institutions my entire life. I am honored to serve a vibrant and thriving Conservative-affiliated congregation. And I am fully committed to the strength and vitality of my movement’s approach to Judaism.

But I believe the Conservative movement’s stance on intermarriage is wrong, and that it’s time for a change. My colleagues and I should be permitted to officiate at wedding ceremonies between a Jew and someone from another background in instances where it can be reasonably presumed that the Jewish partner will remain Jewishly committed, where insofar as a religion is practiced in the household it will be Judaism, and where any children produced by the union will be raised as Jews.

I have been drawn to this conclusion by reexamining the halakhic reasoning, the social science, and the strategic thinking that produced the Conservative movement’s ban in the first place.

The ban on Conservative rabbis officiating, participating in, and even attending wedding ceremonies between a Jew and someone from another background has been in place for over 40 years (however, it should be noted that, as of October 2018, the Rabbinical Assembly notified its members that, as it turns out, there was never officially a prohibition on attending interfaith wedding ceremonies, and now Conservative rabbis may feel free to do so).

The ban, called a “Standard of Rabbinic Practice,” was established around the same time as the first survey on American Jewish population trends reported a 23% spike in the intermarriage rate among American Jews since 1960. This study prompted widespread fears that the American Jewish community was intermarrying itself into non-existence. For example, the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York responded to the study by sponsoring a full-page advertisement in The New York Times declaring, “If you’re Jewish, chances are your grandchild won’t be.” The Conservative rabbinate shared these fears, and argued that the best way to prevent the disappearance of American Jewry was to take a firm stance against intermarriage.

The basis for this fear is the presumption that when a Jew marries someone of another background s/he will be swayed away from his/her tradition and community, and/or the children from such a union will be raised with little or no meaningful Jewish identity, attachment, beliefs, or behaviors.

This fear has deep roots. There is a biblical passage that many have interpreted as banning intermarriage because “they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods” (Deuteronomy 7:4). And the fear has remarkable resilience. In 1990, the lead researcher of an American Jewish population study wrote, “most children of mixed marriages will be lost to Judaism.”

This fear, however, was and is misguided.

As intermarriage has shifted in our time from crisis to simple fact of contemporary Jewish life (indeed, on a personal level, many of my own extended family members are intermarried), many have come to realize that intermarriage is not a threat to Jewish continuity, but rather an opportunity for Jewish flourishing and vitality.

A growing body of research challenges the equation between intermarriage and Jewish erosion, and points us toward an altogether new paradigm.

A recent Brandeis University study argues that Jewish identity, practice, and affiliation remains strong in intermarried households where the couple has exposure to Jewish education, observance, and community. Research out of Brown University adds that, when Jewish organizations and institutions adopt more inclusive postures toward intermarried couples and their children, those couples and their children “[remain] Jewish.”

In other words, who one marries doesn’t determine the Jewishness of one’s household as much as does Jewish learning and Jewish living. When Jewish organizations and institutions reach out to and include intermarried families in Jewish life, they become as likely as in-married families to remain Jewishly attached.

Conversely, when the Jewish community adopts an exclusionary posture toward intermarried families, we miss an opportunity to strengthen the Jewish partner’s connection to his/her tradition. Similarly, such policies inhibit our ability to bring the partner from a different background into deeper and more meaningful relationships with Jewish tradition and community.

In my experience as a congregational rabbi who strives to include interfaith families in my community, I have often found that partners from different backgrounds, even those who never have any intention of converting to Judaism, become highly involved in Jewish life when they feel invited to do so. They become active in their children’s Jewish upbringing, from bringing them to Religious School or Day School, to attending Shabbat services, to participating in Jewish rituals at home and in the synagogue. The exclusionary posture of the established Jewish community towards interfaith families does not only push away the Jewish partner from his or her tradition. It also prevents the partner from a different background from experiencing the beauty, richness, and joy of Judaism. But when we welcome and include intermarried couples and their families into our communities in every possible way, we substantially increase the likelihood that Judaism will remain a core part of their family’s life.

That fact – that the Jewishness of intermarried couples and their families is directly related to how much we as Jewish leaders reach out to and include them in Jewish life and community – calls upon us to reexamine our stance about the wedding ceremony itself.

In recent years, researchers have increasingly focused on the impact of Jewish wedding ceremonies on the Jewishness of intermarried couples and their children. It turns out that the wedding ceremony itself represents a unique opportunity to strengthen an interfaith couple’s Jewish identity and ties.

The data suggests that intermarried couples married by a sole Jewish clergy officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than intermarried couples who had other forms of officiation. They are three times more likely to raise Jewish children compared to intermarried couples who married under other auspices, and on multiple measures of Jewish engagement, including synagogue involvement, intermarried couples whose weddings were presided over by a Jewish clergy officiant look very similar to the in-married.

This, in many ways, is not surprising. As the authors of a recent study on the subject put it, “Weddings are a pivotal moment in the life of all couples, but particularly so for intermarrying spouses. The process leading up to the ceremony can provide a unique opportunity for the couple to articulate their religious identity, commitments, and connections to a larger community.”

This analysis comports with my experience. When I agree to officiate at any couple’s wedding, I usually meet with the couple no fewer than five times. At these meetings, we discuss the ceremony, along with its liturgy, its symbols, and its multifaceted meanings, in great detail. We talk about the unique challenges and opportunities of married life, and I work with every couple to improve their communications skills and strengthen their bonds. And, not unimportantly, I talk about religion and values, and how each couple might uniquely enrich their and their families’ lives through Judaism and involvement with the Jewish community.

During these meetings, I form a close relationship with each couple. Because of the unique opportunity to spend such quality time together, and because of the intimacy of the context, the time leading up to a couple’s wedding is, I feel, when I truly become their rabbi. Additionally, I typically encourage couples to hold a celebration announcing their forthcoming wedding, an aufruf, at my synagogue during Shabbat services. In this way, my community forges or deepens their connections with these couples and vice-versa. In my experience, planning a wedding with a couple is a truly singular opportunity to form strong Jewish connections with them, an opportunity that is not easily matched at any other point in a couple’s life, including when they have children or when their children become Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

For these reasons and more, officiating at a couple’s wedding is an act of Jewish welcoming, engagement, and relationship-building without parallel.

Furthermore, the fact that an interfaith couple seeks out a rabbi to officiate a solely Jewish wedding ceremony is in itself not insignificant. More and more, Americans are asking friends and family members to officiate their weddingsinstead of seeking out a member of the clergy. So, whether a couple asks me to officiate because the Jewish partner grew up in my shul, or called me out of the blue because they need an officiant and heard good things about my officiation, or are just trying to make their Jewish grandmother happy, I do not take for granted the fact that a couple wanted a rabbi to preside over the most important moment of their lives, and that they wanted that moment to be infused with Jewish symbols and rituals. Given the realities of our time, we can indeed see the simple act of reaching out to a rabbi to officiate at a wedding as a desire to maintain a strong connection to Jewish ritual, tradition, and practice.

I believe, therefore, that the time has come for a change in the Conservative movement’s thinking and approach. While it is true that the classical understanding of the halakhic tradition regards intermarriage as forbidden, our movement has long held that “where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way.” The question, then, is not whether intermarriage is compatible with halakhic norms as we’ve inherited them, but rather whether there is a desire among the Conservative rabbinate to understand and apply halakhah in a way that permits intermarriage.

I believe there are compelling reasons to do so. As I pointed out above, the strategy of holding fast to the prohibition on rabbinic officiation at intermarriages while encouraging endogamy and conversions has not stopped Jews from intermarrying. If anything, it has driven Jews, in particular Jewish partners in interfaith relationships, to leave our congregations and our movement, and in many cases to divest from Jewish life altogether. It has turned out to be a historic and colossal missed opportunity to strengthen the Jewish connections and commitments of Jews (and their partners from other backgrounds). It has driven Jewish family members of intermarried couples – parents and grandparents – away from our synagogues and movement, unwelcoming as we have been of their children. And, most painfully, this strategy has turned away untold numbers of people from different backgrounds who, while perhaps not ready to convert to Judaism at the time of their weddings, might have eventually discovered joy and meaning in Jewish life, and would have, down the line, been moved to convert.

If those reasons are sufficient motivation for the rabbinic will, as I believe they are, what would be the halakhic way?

According to inherited rabbinic tradition, the prohibition on intermarriage originates in Deut. 7:1-4. Understood simply, this passage forbids Israelites from marrying Canaanites because such relationships might lead the Israelite spouse (and/or any children produced by the union) to adopt the Canaanite spouse/parent’s religion. The Torah does not forbid all intermarriages, for any reason. Rather, the Torah restricts intermarriage between Jews and certainpeople of other backgrounds, and for a specific reason. Where the person of another background in question is not one explicitly banned, and where the rationale no longer holds, the prohibition cannot be invoked.

The prohibition of Deut. 7:1-4 does not – and was never intended to – apply in instances where it can be reasonably presumed that the Jewish partner will remain Jewishly committed, where insofar as a religion is practiced in the household it is Judaism, and where any children produced by the union will be raised as Jews.

I recognize, of course, that to understand the biblical commandment this way would overturn the interpretation and application of the passage by many ancient and medieval rabbis, who expanded the prohibition to include all people from other backgrounds. In the halakhic tradition, this reinterpretation would be a radical legal move, and one not to be undertaken lightly.

But I believe current circumstances warrant such a step. The halakhic tradition recognizes that, sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures. The Talmud teaches that when maintaining a prohibition would erode the Jewish people’s commitment to the tradition as a whole, even a clear biblical prohibition can be set aside. This principle is known as “hora’at sha’ah,” the demands of the moment.

Historically, halakhic authorities in the Conservative movement have been willing to invoke the hora’at sha’ah principle, uprooting biblical prohibitions when circumstances warranted. We already celebrate and sanctify relationships that were previously deemed as biblically or rabbinical prohibited, and we have even boldly and beautifully created new ceremonies and legal contracts for these relationships.

Fortunately, in this case, we needn’t go so far as to abrogate a biblical prohibition. Instead, we Conservative rabbis need only invoke our authority (authority we have long maintained we possess) to overturn the classical interpretation and application of the passage by rabbis of bygone ages who expanded the original biblical prohibition.

For all the reasons outlined above, I believe present circumstances warrant invoking the “hora’at sha’ah” principle with respect to intermarriage, overturning rabbinic precedent to restore and uphold the plain and limited meaning of the prohibition in Deut. 7:1-4. This means that when a couple affirms Judaism will be the sole religion practiced in their household and that any children produced by the union will be raised as Jews, the union is not prohibited by Jewish law, and Conservative rabbis ought to be permitted to officiate at the wedding.

How would a rabbi know and ensure that a couple is prepared to make and adhere to such an affirmation? Of course, nothing in life is certain. People can change during the long span of a marriage. And people can sometimes deceive in order to get what they want. However, this is as true of endogamous couples as it is of interfaith couples. There is no way to know for sure whether an interfaith couple will ultimately build a faithful Jewish home together, just as there is no way to know for sure whether a Jewish couple will do so.

However, the social science strongly suggests that when a couple seeks out a rabbi to officiate their wedding and agrees to a ceremony conducted exclusively by Jewish clergy and solely with Jewish rites, a rabbi can both predict and ensure that the couple intends to build an exclusively Jewish household. Conscientious rabbis can further ascertain a couple’s intentions in the course of pre-marital conversations and planning, as well as provide meaningful support and guidance about building a Jewish home and life together. I believe that my colleagues and I are trained to have the sensitivity and judgment necessary to develop appropriate standards and criteria for determining a couple’s Jewish commitments. And when a couple does demonstrate that their household will be a Jewish one, my colleagues and I should be able to sanctify their union.

Of course, I do not believe Conservative rabbis should be required to officiate intermarriages. I admire and respect my colleagues who, for various legitimate reasons, will continue refuse to do so. I simply believe my colleagues and I should be permitted, that we should have the choice, that our movement’s leadership ought to respect our understanding of tradition, sensitivity to people’s needs, and halakhic authority, enabling us to do what we believe is right in this matter, as we can in every other matter that comes before us as rabbis. As a proud Conservative rabbi who loves Conservative Judaism and believes it has much to offer the Jewish people and humanity, I do not want to, nor do I believe I should have to, leave my movement, or risk damaging or splitting it, over this issue.

At the same time, one of the hallmarks of Conservative Judaism has always been “tradition and change.” Sometimes, change is initiated from the top-down. And sometimes, change can and must be driven from the grassroots, by visionary congregations and clergy pioneering a new path. I called for and embrace my congregation’s new policy, which will enable me to officiate at weddings between a Jew and someone of another background when the above criteria are met, in that spirit. As soon as the Rabbinical Assembly changes its policies, I will joyfully and proudly officiate at such ceremonies. I hope other Conservative clergy and congregations will be inspired to declare publicly that they feel similarly, demonstrating to our movement’s leadership that rank-and-file clergy and congregations are ready for a new direction on this issue.

My sacred work as a rabbi is to help bring Jewish individuals closer to Torah, and to bring Torah closer to Jews. Jewish wedding ceremonies are significant opportunities to fulfill this rabbinic calling. My colleagues and I have missed too many of these opportunities, and for too long, shrinking in fear from an erosion narrative that could just as easily be seen as an opportunity paradigm.

The time has come for a new approach. In so doing, we will undertake a renewal of vows: a renewal of the vows we make as rabbis to strengthen the bonds between Jews and their tradition, and a renewal of the vows every individual Jew makes with God and Israel to perpetuate Torah from generation to generation.

(Originally published at: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/renewing-our-vows-a-new-approach-to-intermarriage/)

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The Disappeared: A Richmond Rabbi Takes On Human Rights In Guatemala

The history of Guatemala’s secret abductions reminds us how important the principle of universal equality really is — and points out how far from that principle the United States has gone.

On a recent trip to Guatemala with rabbinic colleagues from around the country, I learned the story of a boy named Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. Marco Antonio reminded me so much of my own son: He loved to draw and write so much that even when he couldn’t find a pencil or paper, he would draw pictures with his finger in the air; he loved outdoor sports, bike riding, and Star Wars.

Tragically, that’s where Marco Antonio’s story ceased to be normal. In the early 1980’s, at the height of Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict (1960-1996), Marco Antonio’s older sister, Emma Guadalupe, became involved in student-led protests for democratic reforms and human rights. One day, she was kidnapped outside of her school by members of the Guatemalan army, presumably as a punishment for her activism. They took her to a military zone, where she was repeatedly tortured and raped. Despite this, after nine days, she managed to escape and return home.

The army set up an intelligence operation to find Emma Guadalupe. Within days, agents had tracked her down. They stormed the family’s house, but Emma wasn’t home. Unwilling to leave empty-handed, the agents took Marco Antonio while his mother looked on, powerless to stop them. He was never heard from again. He was disappeared. He was 14 years old.

Before traveling to Guatemala on a trip organized by American Jewish World Service, I had never heard the terms “to be disappeared” or “to disappear someone.” It was a usage of the verb “disappear” I had simply never encountered. In Guatemala, meeting with human rights advocates and victims of state-sponsored abuses, I heard these terms repeatedly. It turns out that “to be disappeared” or “to disappear someone” is a common term in the world of human rights, although the more proper term is an “enforced disappearance.”

An enforced disappearance is the secret abduction of an individual by the state or its agents. To disappear someone is to make someone vanish indefinitely without a trace, telling no one about where they were taken and what has happened to them. This is different than kidnapping someone, or even imprisoning or murdering them; in those circumstances, the status of the person apprehended is generally known. When someone is disappeared, the objective is the uncertainty; the point is for the victim to go missing and for no one to know what has happened.

Guatemala has a history of extrajudicial forced disappearances. Forced disappearances were a deliberate and systematic government strategy during the period of the Internal Armed Conflict, designed to psychologically torture and terrorize segments of the population into submission. As of 2013, there are 45,000 people who were documented as disappeared during the conflict era. And given the fact that many conflict-era war criminals still populate Guatemala’s ruling and political class and that corruption and repression remains widespread, the tactic continues as a strategy of the security and intelligence services — often with impunity — to this day.

Marco Antonio is one of those 45,000 disappeared Guatemalans. Still today, nearly 40 years after his disappearance, and over 20 years since the end of the Guatemalan Civil War, his family has never been told what happened to him, and no one involved in his disappearance has even been charged with a crime, much less brought to justice.

The establishment of a just society is the indisputable theme of my tradition’s sacred scripture, which Jews call the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). For instance, the Torah demands the death penalty for the perpetrators of crimes like the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio: “He who kidnaps a man — whether he has sold him or is still holding him — shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). That law is but one of many expressions of the famous biblical perception of justice: “you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (21:23-25).

Contemporary commentators sometimes criticize this biblical approach to justice as brutal, violent, and unnecessarily harsh. The ancient Jewish rabbis, too, were somewhat uncomfortable with the practical application of this biblical law of retaliation, substituting where they could monetary damages: an eye for the monetary equivalent of an eye, a foot for the monetary equivalent of a foot, and so forth. And yet while the rabbis may have been squeamish about actually cutting off the hand of a violent perpetrator, and while they correctly pointed out that, in effect even if not intent, this kind of retaliatory justice can result in injustice, they did not challenge the basic moral assertion embedded in this biblical teaching.

The basic moral assertion of the Torah’s legal system is that all lives have equal value, that everyone must be treated as equals under the law. The life of a noble and the life of a peasant are legally equivalent — their eyes have the same value, their hands have the same value, their feet have the same value, their bodily integrity and dignity are equally worthy.

Astonishingly for a Bronze Age text, the Torah even goes so far as to extend this equality of status to foreigners, people who otherwise in the ancient world would have never been considered social equals with citizens. Yet the Torah says “you shall have one law” for citizen and stranger alike (Leviticus 24:22), that the foreigner is to be considered legally equal to the native-born, and even goes so far as to enshrine special protections to the alien to ensure their fair treatment.

The Torah, while admittedly imperfect, was a revolution of values in its time, and advances a core principle that we have yet to fully realize even in our time. It thus challenges us, in every place and in every age, to advance societies in which all people are considered and treated as equals, in which no life is treated as more important than another, and in which no life is treated as less worthy than another.

When I reflected on what I witnessed and learned while in Guatemala, this was the principle to which I kept returning. Guatemala today remains a country of profound inequality: Nearly 60% of the country is impoverished, and about a quarter of the population lives on less than $1 per day. About half of all Guatemalan children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished. All of these inequities and more disproportionately impact Guatemala’s large Mayan population, the country’s indigenous inhabitants. Corruption and impunity remain rampant. If you are wealthy or well-connected, if you possess political or economic power or enjoy proximity to the powerful, you benefit from legal and extralegal privileges unimaginable to the poor and weak majority.

There seemed to be a direct line between centuries of colonization and exploitation (including American-orchestrated overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically-elected leader in 1954) and the wholesale slaughter of native communities during the conflict period to the discrimination, poverty, and oppression rampant today. The legacy of considering some Guatemalan lives as more valuable than others keeps a select few wealthy and powerful while preventing the majority of the population from rising.

It is why, for example, whole communities can have their lands confiscated by the state with no just cause or fair compensation, and be forced to live in makeshift tent villages in the wilderness with inadequate access to food, water, and healthcare, while fighting years-long battles in the courts that they are likely to lose. It is why human rights activists and journalists are routinely threatened, harassed, imprisoned, and even murdered or disappeared with impunity by the same people they are protesting or trying to expose as corrupt or criminal. It is why very few perpetrators of atrocities during the conflict era have been prosecuted for their crimes. These were the people I met in Guatemala. This is what a society looks like when the lives of some are considered more valuable than the lives of others.

More troubling still, I could not help but hear in all of this echoes of my own country’s history and present realities. As I encountered past and present injustice in Guatemala, the longest government shutdown in American history dragged on. Hundreds of thousands of government workers had been furloughed without pay for weeks over a demand, leveled by some of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful individuals, that we treat some people — namely, asylum seekers and migrants from Central America — as less deserving of dignity and opportunity as others.

The shutdown, of course, merely compounded cruelty upon cruelty. Even without a wall, current immigration policy perfectly illustrates how we today treat some lives as inferior to others. What, after all, was happening at the border over the past year if not the forced disappearances of hundreds of migrant children, some of whom died in our custody? Why are those fleeing violence and poverty from places like Guatemala less worthy of dignity and opportunity than anyone else?

It increasingly dawned on me that, similar to Guatemala, the U.S. was built upon a foundation of plunder, exploitation, and brutality; our history replete with legally ordained inequality and judicially enforced discrimination. One can draw a straight line from those historic injustices to the facts that, today, roughly one in every five American children live in poverty, more than two million Americans are incarcerated, and our rate of income inequality is greater than any other democracy in the developed world. And every single one of those inequities disproportionately impacts Americans of color.

It was painful to consider whether my own society’s injustices were differences of degree, rather than kind; that even in America, in practice if not in theory, some people’s lives matter more than others. What, I wondered, will become of us if we remain on this path?

If all lives have intrinsic and equal value then we yet have considerable work to do at home. And, if we accept this core principle of justice, then the inequities in a faraway place like Guatemala must also concern us. We should care about a foreign government disappearing a child before his parent’s eyes, because if all lives have equal value, no parent anywhere deserves to fear such a horror any more than you or I do. If all lives are equally precious, than the systematic murder of an entire population should matter to us whether it is happening to our own people or to people halfway around the world. The principle is universal. It transcends borders and applies across national, ethnic, and religious divides. And it calls us to attention and to action at home, in Central America, and, indeed, everywhere.

The biblical tradition insists that all lives have equal value. Moreover, it demands not just that we cherish this principle but also that we build a society, and ultimately a world, that enshrines and ensures the equal worth of every human being.

(Originally published at: https://rvamag.com/rva-global/the-disappeared-a-richmond-rabbi-takes-on-human-rights-in-guatemala.html)

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Remarks at Islamic Center Standing Together Event (March 17, 2019)


Asalamu aleikum. Peace be upon you, my brothers, and sisters.

As I utter those words, I am cognizant of how painfully ironic it feels to be extending greetings of peace to a community shattered by a cruel and horrific act of violence. How can we speak of peace in a world torn apart by malice and terror, in which people of faith cannot even gather in their sacred spaces for prayer without fearing the next eruption of malevolence from men indoctrinated in white supremacist hate, emboldened by the cynical words of callous leaders, radicalized on the internet, and armed thanks to political cowardice and negligence? How can we speak of peace in this moment? How can we speak at all?

Sometimes, when the hurt is too raw or the anger is too fierce, all there is to do is cry. Like so many of you, I have done my share of crying since I first heard the news on Friday morning — I weep for the dead, I weep for their families, and I weep for Muslim people everywhere, for the attack on Muslim worshippers in New Zealand was an attack on Muslims everywhere, a devastating reality that I as a Jew know all too well. I cry because an act of terror like this rips off the scab of my own wounds that had only just begun to heal. I cry because of the brokenness of our world in which such tragedies seem not only frequent but inevitable. I cry for my children, for all of our children, to whom we’ve bequeathed a world in which they are not safe anywhere, not even in their schools or in their synagogues, their malls or their mosques.

But my faith affirms that in my tears, I keep good company. According to Jewish tradition, God is also perpetually in tears due to the brokenness of our world. One of the first teachings in the Babylonian Talmud, the central sacred text of my ancient rabbinic ancestors, is that God arises several times each night, unable to rest, and roars like a lion in pain, crying out, “Woe to Me! For because of My children’s sins I destroyed My house, burned My Temple and exiled them among the nations of the world” (Tractate B’rakhot 3a).

In the rabbinic consciousness, the destruction of the ancient Temple was the greatest of cataclysms, an event that involved not only the deaths of thousands but that precipitated centuries of Jewish homelessness, powerlessness, and pain, and as such, it came to symbolize the damaged and unredeemed state of our world.

A piece of me draws comfort from this notion, that God looks down at what happened in New Zealand and cries out loudly like an injured lion

But I also believe in this teaching my tradition is offering us more than the mere comfort of an empathetic God. According to the ancient rabbis, the sin that resulted in the destruction of the Temple was sinat hinam, unfettered, free-flowing hate. It’s not that this hatred was baseless — which is how the term sinat hinam is often, but wrongly, translated. People then, just as today, had reasons for their animosity, however misguided those reasons may have been. What was unrestrained was people’s willingness and ability to act on their hate. My rabbinic ancestors taught that ruin and catastrophe, destruction and death, is the inevitable end result of a society where hatred is not only pervasive, but also unchecked. Each and every night, then, and especially on a night like tonight, God wails and weeps along with us because of the devastation loosed upon the world thanks to hate run rampant.

But if unrestrained hate is the cause of the world’s brokenness, then we also know the way toward repair. The way to begin putting the shattered pieces of our hearts and our world back together is through ahavat hinam, unfettered, free-flowing love.

What kind of love is that?

It’s the love that propelled the Muslim community to lead the charge in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Jewish community after the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings. It’s the love that drove Muslims and Christians to form human chains around synagogues all of the country to protect Jewish worshippers with their own bodies. It’s the love that brought people of all backgrounds to the airports and to the mosques all over the country in outrage and in solidarity in the face of travel bans and persistent Islamophobia emanating from corridors of power. It’s the love that brings us all here tonight, a love that has moved us time and again to stand together — too many times— in defense of the vilified, the dehumanized, the marginalized, and the vulnerable in the face of resurgent and resilient threats to their freedom, equality, and safety. It’s the love that says whatever our differences, we are all of us brothers and sisters, children of the same God, all of us equal in our worth and infinite in our dignity, all of us fundamentally responsible to and for each other.

It is, in the end, the love of 71 year old Daoud Nabi, one of the victims of the shootings in Christchurch. Daoud stood at the door of the mosque, warmly greeting everyone who entered, even the terrorist who ultimately killed him. “Come in, brother,” were his last words before he died saving a fellow worshipper from a bullet.

Daoud’s love tragically did not spare him from death. But if all of us commit ourselves to that same love, that same graciousness, and that same hospitality; if all of us commit ourselves to welcoming the stranger and seeing in the face of the other our brother or our sister; if all of us here tonight commit to advancing unrestrained love in the face of a world torn asunder by free hate — it might just save us. We might yet be able to put the broken pieces of this world back together and build of this world a sanctuary fit for the indwelling of a God of compassion, justice, and peace. May we merit to see such a world built speedily and in our days.

May the memory of those we mourn be a blessing, and may they find their comfort in Paradise. And may we soon bring God’s peace upon us, and the whole world.

Salaam, shalom.



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The Heart Repair of Hanukkah: Blessing Each Other’s Light

Compared to many other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is relatively simple. Sure, there are many lovely customs — latkes, dreidels, sufganiyot, gelt, and the like — but the essential practice of the festival is lighting the menorah each night. And, just as we do when we perform other mitzvot (commanded ritual acts), when we kindle the Hanukkah lights, we recite a blessing.
Unique, however, to this particular mitzvah is that we are not only obligated to recite a blessing over candles we light ourselves, but also when we see someone else’s kindled menorah (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 23b). In other words, if I am driving down Monument Avenue, and I see a lit menorah in someone’s window, I am supposed to recite the blessing, “…who made miracles for our ancestors in those days, in this season.” This is the case even if it’s the home of a complete stranger, even if I hadn’t lit my own menorah, and even if I wasn’t planning on lighting candles at all. There is no other mitzvah like this, in which we recite a blessing over a deed done by another person!
It is this distinct feature of Hanukkah that leads Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to identify Hanukkah as the holiday of heart purification. On Hanukkah, we are asked to celebrate our neighbors, to bless the work of their hands. We are given an opportunity to set aside ego, narcissism, and self-congratulation, taking — to borrow language from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — our minds “out of the narrowness of self-interest.”
On Hanukkah, in other words, we are invited to see our fellow human beings from God’s vantage-point, a vantage-point of unconditional and infinite love, of parental pride that is equally bestowed on each and every beloved child.
Hanukkah, then, according to Reb Shlomo, is an annual opportunity to repair this defect in our hearts, to realize that we are all of us children of the same Parent; siblings, who were not brought into being to compete against each other or to tear each other down, but rather to celebrate one another and lift each other up.
It’s no coincidence that the heroes of the Hanukkah story, the Maccabees, are kohanim, priests. Rabbinic tradition teaches that the defining characteristics of the first High Priest, Aaron, were that he “loved peace and pursued peace, loved people and brought them close to Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). On Hanukkah, we celebrate the triumph of Aaron’s children, the victory of peace over violence, of love over hate, of generosity over meanness, in the hopes that it will inspire us, too, to embrace and practice those qualities.
Today, it is far too common to see people building themselves up by tearing others down. Hanukkah urges us to make a different choice, to see the light that others are kindling in the world and offer our blessings. If we can practice doing this for eight nights, maybe, just maybe, it will become habitual. And with hearts so repaired, the repair of the world will not be too far behind. Hanukkah same’ah!
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