Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Yom Kippur 5779/2018
The very first commandment given to the Israelites is the commandment of Rosh Hodesh (and thus the instruction to keep a calendar), received just as they are about to leave Egypt and become a people. On this verse, Rashi, the prolific French medieval torah commentator, famously inquires: Why did the torah not begin with this verse? Why start with the Creation of the world and all that follows until now? Rashi concludes by saying that the previous material from Creation until the first commandment comes to justify the eventual conquest of the land and the future time of Jewish sovereignty.
Rashi, who lived through the programs, adopts a particularistic interpretation of the torah: it is a book about and for the Jewish people, a legal code to be lived out by the inheritors of the tradition.
I have been thinking about Rashi and imagining that if were to visit SAJ today, he might ask: “Why would a synagogue, an institution built to teach torah and perpetuate the Jewish people, be called ‘Judaism that Stands for All?’ Why would Judaism stand for anything but itself?
On Rosh HaShanah, I spoke about SAJ’s new brand identity and tagline “Judaism that Stands for All.” I spoke then about the concept of radical welcome. Today, I invite Rashi here for some intergenerational rabbinic conversation over this “machlochet” (disagreement). I seek want to answer the question that he or others like him who take a particularistic read of torah over a universal one might raise about a synagogue that stands with and for those who are oppressed and those seeking freedom and justice, whether or not they are Jewish, of another faith, or of no faith.
I answer Rashi in two ways: first, through the textual tradition that begins with Genesis. And second, through the history of the Jewish people.
First: Let’s examine at the beginning, with the foundational texts of our tradition.
Ironically, I believe the answer to “Why Judaism should Stand for All” lies in the very question that Rashi asked: the fact that the torah starts exactly where it does: Bereishit Barah Elohim. “In the Beginning, God created.” The torah starts with all of Creation, a universal humanity to teach that our story is part of a much larger story. A few verses later, we learn of the creation of adam, a single human being who is both male and female created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of Divine.
From humanity’s singular origin story, the rabbis draw spiritual lessons that appear modern but go back to at least the 2cd century.
The rabbis talk about diversity: The midrash says: the singular creation expresses “the grandeur of the Holy One of Blessing, for when a person makes many coins from one mold, they all look alike; but when God fashions each person in the stamp of the first, they are all different.” Human diversity, according to the torah and its interpretation, isn’t something to be tolerated or God forbid reviled; it is a sign of Divine wonder.
They teach about equality: The midrash teaches, “Adam was created alone for the sake of peace among people, so that no one can say to another ‘My father was greater than yours.’” Human beings are meant to be equals.
Most significantly, they speak about the value of every life: According to well rabbinic teaching, creation starts with a single person to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, it is as though that person destroyed a complete world, and whoever preserves a single soul, it is as though that person preserved a complete world. Abraham Joshua Heschel calls this a unique contribution of Judaism, saying, “To our common sense, one human being is less than two human beings; Jewish tradition teaches us otherwise.” A single human life is a world.
Generations later, written into the Jewish code of law, the Shulchan Aruch, is the edict that it is a mitzvah- a positive command– to break Shabbat to save a person in danger. To reinforce the command, Joseph Caro, the author of the Law Code makes the strongest statement possible, saying: “One who hurries to do this is praised. One who asks about this (doubts this, questions this) is a murderer.” Let’s let that sink in- this was written in 1563; it is just as powerful and intense as it was then as it is today.
Never in the torah, never in the midrash, never in the talmud, never in the Shulchan Aruch does it say that these texts are only about Jewish lives.
The beginning of our torah isn’t just a “warm up” for commandments, it is a worldview that insists on the dignity, equality and value of every single person. It invites us into an active stance of seeking to ameliorate the pain and suffering of others, whether within or beyond the Jewish community. This is what our faith and our tradition demand.
Second, I would answer Rashi and others like him by pointing to the history of our people.
On Yom Kippur, we recall the martyrs who died throughout Jewish history, especially calling upon us to remember the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Those of sephardic backgrounds have different stories but we share experiences and times of persecution. Our history of Jews in America is brighter but even still, we have faced discrimination. In the mid-1600s, Peter Stuyvesant, Mayor of New Amsterdam, blocked Jews from building synagogues and even attempted to block Jews from entering the city altogether.
We don’t need to recount all the details of the history of the Jewish people to comfortably assert that the Jewish community has known marginalization and oppression. And as we have seen in the last two years, anti-Semitism is alive and well today, manifesting in various guises. Because of that history and present, it is incumbent upon us to speak out and to act.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of our congregation and of the Reconstructionist movement, of blessed memory, speaks of the special obligation of Jews not just because we have been oppressed but also because we have been accepted. He says, “If Jews are fully integrated into American life without forfeiting their historical and contemporary identification with the Jewish people — they should make their own contribution to the realization of the American dream.” For all to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I share a personal story that brings together these two points and speaks to the power of being a Judaism that Stands for All. This past summer, I had the profound experience of traveling to San Diego to support Latinx leaders who were organizing a mass protest against the family separation policy and Operation Streamline (which was about to take effect on the San Diego border).
Operation Streamline is an initiative of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice started in 2005, expanded under the Obama administration, and further expanded in this administration that adopts a “zero-tolerance” approach to unauthorized border-crossing.
When a person crosses the border, even if they are seeking asylum — which is a legal right — they are arrested and charged with criminal counts, either a misdemeanor or a felony. Then, up to 70 people come into a courtroom, in shackles, to be tried as a collective. There is little to no time to talk to a lawyer. They cannot have their case heard individually.
As I say often at SAJ, we need to agree on the specifics of immigration policy, but I hope we can agree that whenever human dignity is undermined, we need to do something about it.
When I realized there was something meaningful and concrete I could do to help, I made my arrangements to go to San Diego in support of Mijiente. When I arrived, I quickly observed that this was a protest envisioned and led by those most directly impacted- including undocumented immigrants, trans and queer folk. Allies were invited and welcomed lovingly into the fight.
The second thing I noticed was a significant number of kippot and other outward signs (i.e. t-shirts, buttons) of a Jewish presence. I had traveled to San Diego because I had received a call through T’ruah: Rabbis for Human Rights and Jews for Racial Economic Justice of New York, two organizations of which I am a proud member. Others came through Bend the Arc or local organizations.
The evening before the protest, I had the opportunity to speak to many of my fellow comrades present about what brought us here. One person said: “I am here because my grandmother was an asylum seeker. If she has not been let into America, I would not be here today.” Another said: “I am here because this is what it means for me to be a Jew in the world. I show up where I can. I fight for what’s right.”
The Jewish contingent met for a morning prayer service and then gathered with a large interfaith group. It was clear that we, the smallest religious minority, made up the largest group of faithfuls who came in solidarity. During and after the protest, I kept hearing from folks that I met, “We are so grateful to the Jewish community for showing up for us.” “Thank you for being here. We see you and we need you.”
Being a Judaism that Stands for All is about recognizing our shared humanity, the basic equality, dignity and uniqueness of each soul. It is about actively working to prevent the destruction of human life and showing up in whatever small or large ways we can.
Being a Judaism that Stands for All is about recognizing our history and our individual privilege(s) and utilizing that privilege to support and amplify the work of those seeking self-determination.
Being a Judaism that Stands for All is about proudly showing up as Jews and members of a Jewish community. When we do, we also have the potential to gain friends that we can call on in times when the Jewish community needs help. And we see that we all share in a common struggle. For, as Emma Lazarus said and Martin Luther King amplified: “None of us are free until all of us are free.”
Thanks to the SOJAC committee and Reproductive Rights committee, there are many opportunities (continued, new, expanded) to practice this work of standing with and for at SAJ. I encourage you to learn about our efforts and consider a way to get involved.
Over and beyond the specific opportunities, I invite each of us to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be part of a synagogue that is Standing for All? What shift in understanding of Judaism or synagogue life might this inspire? What might it be like to SAJ to be known in the wider community as an ally? What will be possible for our community and our city when we live into this bold vision?
May we be blessed with courage, strength, empathy, memory, and a sense of a shared destiny, for 5779 and beyond!
Exodus 12:2- Commandment for Rosh Hodesh. See Rashi on Exodus 12:2
Btselem Elohim Genesis 1:26–27
Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 328:2
Mordecai M. Kaplan, The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, page 163