The Right Not To Remain Silent: Shabbat Vayikra 5777

 

RABBI JONATHAN E. BLAKE

MARCH 31, 2017

Over the last week and a half I have participated in two conferences that have become welcome annual traditions:  the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, CCAR for short (a fancy way of saying the Reform Rabbinate), this year held in Atlanta, and the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC—the gathering of the America’s foremost pro-Israel lobby.

Let me list the key differences.

The CCAR gathering is small, about 550 of us, all in one compact hotel.  AIPAC is huge:  18,000 delegates spread out over the entire city, assembling for major events in the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center, where the Washington Capitals and Wizards play.

The CCAR is for Reform rabbis only.  AIPAC is for everyone—Jewish people of every denomination, young and old, clergy and lay leaders, and thousands of non-Jewish delegates too, all part of the multiracial, bipartisan network of pro-Israel activists.  WRT brought an enthusiastic delegation of about 20 participants including high schoolers, graduate students, lawyers, doctors, financial professionals, full time volunteers, and one musician/teacher/b’nei mitzvah tutor.

The CCAR is our annual reunion with colleagues from across the US, Canada, and Israel.  Over prayer, study, meals, group activities and plenaries where the business of the conference is conducted, old friendships are strengthened, new ones kindled.  I met with the leaders of the Reform Movement in Israel, and pledged WRT’s support to continue to build a pluralistic and progressive Jewish society in the Jewish State even as they were heartened to hear that WRT has doubled down on Israel education, travel, celebration and advocacy here at home.

Rabbi Levy and I also came away enriched by our visits to the Center for Civil and Human Rights and The Temple, the landmark synagogue in Atlanta that was bombed during the Civil Rights struggle, an attack immortalized in the movie Driving Miss Daisy.

We took special pride in Rabbi David Stern’s inauguration as President of the CCAR—its first 3rd-generation president in 128 years.  Rabbi Stern hobbled up to the podium, both of his feet immobilized in boots following recent surgery, and said, “I… stand here in the presence of the generations that preceded me, aleyhem hashalom—my father Jack Stern and grandfather Jacob Philip Rudin, both revered presidents of this conference; my mother Priscilla Rudin Stern, who was the daughter of a rabbi, the spouse of a rabbi, the mother of a rabbi, and the mother-in-law of a rabbi, and was quite clear that the last was best.  Their legacy blesses and inspires me every day.  They are collectively either in the yeshiva shel ma’alah [the academy on high], or having a martini somewhere nearby.  (And I confess that when I prayed to the Holy One of Blessing to make me a rabbi more like Jack Stern, I wasn’t counting on the white hair and the limp.)”

We loved seeing a native son join WRT luminaries Rick Jacobs and Aaron Panken in the leadership of our Reform Movement.  Ashreinu—how greatly we are blessed!

AIPAC is also reunion of sorts—plenty of colleagues and congregants to catch up with.  It’s a learning opportunity, too—plenty of breakout sessions covering everything from Israeli advances in biotech to the complexities of the Syrian War, including the two sessions in which I participated, one a moderated conversation between Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute, and the author and intellectual Leon Wieseltier, and the other a panel discussion with activist and politician Einat Wilf and Knesset member Nachman Shai.

I was honored to add my voice to these conversations about how progressive values can inform our advocacy and how the Jewish character of the Jewish State can and must remain compatible with Democracy, and vice-versa.

And AIPAC offers an extraordinary array of opportunities for our leaders—elected and appointed, American and Israeli—to share their policy positions directed toward Israel’s security and peace.  At this year’s conference, we heard from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, Vice President Mike Pence, Tony Blair, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Kirsten Gillibrand, and many more.

Still, the main point of the AIPAC Policy Conference is not learning or listening; it’s lobbying.

The important voices at AIPAC are the voices of the American people—the Jewish community, to be sure, but also the many non-Jewish American constituencies who understand that to support Israel is to support the strategic interests of America and of Western Democracy in the Middle East, one of the world’s least hospitable environments for the democratic freedoms that we Westerners take for granted.

On Tuesday the thousands of AIPAC delegates met with Representatives and Senators and their staffers from all fifty states, Democrats and Republicans, thanking them for their bipartisan support of Israel, and urging them to adopt policies that will:  counter Iran’s regional aggression and sponsorship of terrorism; urge generous financial assistance for Israel’s security; support direct negotiations toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians; and oppose boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (the BDS Movement) against Israel.

In this regard, my time at AIPAC and my time at the CCAR Convention coalesced around a common theme:  raising our voices.  Not for nothing is the CCAR’s theme for 2017, “Harnessing Your Rabbinic Voice in Troubled Times.”  Not for nothing did Rabbi Stern’s sermon at the Conference send a message of hope and courage to a group of rabbis made anxious by a climate in which cherished Jewish principles have been challenged as “political”— I would argue, principles made political by the current fractious political climate.

Breakout sessions in Atlanta addressed this unique American moment’s unique challenges:  “An Ethics of Social Justice and Repair: Values and Strategies.”  “Prayer and Spiritual Resistance.”  “Living Out a Racial Justice Campaign in Your Community.”

This week’s Torah portion, Vaykira, the first in the Book of Leviticus, is often mischaracterized as a litany of sacrifices and offerings, gothic in its portrayal of slaughter, blood and entrails, mind-numbing in its catalogue of sheep and oxen, bulls and turtle-doves, unleavened cakes of flour and oil.  But at its heart Vayikra is a handbook for getting right with God.  The sacrifices draw the offerer’s attention to his or her own behavior—ritual or ethical—and seek to recalibrate the distance between the Jew and God when we stray too far.  Forgot to fast on Yom Kippur?  Make an offering.  Improperly immersed yourself in the mikveh?  Make an offering.  Got a simcha in your family for which you want to express gratitude?  Make an offering.  Just want God to know that you’re there?  Make an offering.

In its discussion of “getting right with God,” of establishing spiritual balance after the disruption of sin, Vayikra notes:

נפש כי-תחטא ושמעה קול אלה והוא עד או ראה או ידע אם-לוא יגיד ונשא עונו

[Concerning] a person who sins by hearing a public threat, or witnessing, or seeing, or knowing [about it], and still not speaking up—that person shall bear the responsibility.

One cannot easily or definitively say what exactly the Torah’s writers had in mind here; what kind of “public threat,” exactly, is meant?  Still, where the cause reads ambiguously, the consequence does not.  This is the Torah’s version of the now ubiquitous sign:  “If you see something, say something.”  We are Jews.  We do not keep silence, least of all in the face of a public threat—a blight on society, a moral failing, a risk to the innocent or vulnerable—we do not hold our tongues.

Midrash tells this story:  “A man is passing from one place to another and sees a palace going up in flames, [apparently abandoned.]  He says to himself, ‘Can it be that this burning palace lacks an owner?”  At that moment the owner of the palace looks out [from a turret] and says, “This palace belongs to me.”

And then the man—Avraham, Abraham by name—concludes, “So too the world cannot lack a master,” even though it is burning.  For this reason, the midrash teaches, God selected Abraham to become a father of nations, a leader of peoples.

Because even though the world is burning—strike that—because the world is burning—God needs us to take notice, to speak up, to demand justice, to get involved.  A person who sins by hearing, witnessing, seeing, even merely knowing about a public threat, but who fails to speak up—that person bears the responsibility.

Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, explains, “Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be.  It is in that sacred discontent that Abraham’s journey begins.”

In these turbulent times, too many people of conscience and commitment in our communities—rabbis and cantors, to be sure, but also laypeople of every age and stage and point of view—are choosing not to speak their conscience, not to voice their views, out of fear of triggering an argument among family, or losing friends or congregants.  How many of you are worried about Passover Seder this year for just this reason?  As we gather on our festival of liberation, should we, for instance, keep silent about the plight of the refugee now that a longstanding matter of religious principle has, of late, been thrust under the klieg lights of partisan politics?

Judaism would not have us hold our peace when the world is on fire.

In part that’s why CCAR and AIPAC were so refreshing.  As you can imagine, put 500 rabbis in a hotel, or 15,000 Jews and a few thousand pro-Israel activists in a hockey rink and you will have no shortage of outspokenness.

In any other year the two experiences back-to-back might have proved fatiguing; I return to WRT energized and engaged, supported and strengthened.

I return to WRT excited to find commonality of purpose in last week’s temple mission to the deep South, where Rabbi Levy, Cantor Kleinman, and Eliana retraced the steps of the Civil Rights movement with 100 WRT eighth grade students and parents; thrilled to hear the stories of our Confirmation students who traveled earlier this month with Rabbi Reiser and Cantor Kleinman to Washington, DC, to lobby in the halls of Congress on Reform Movement positions.

These experiences teach our children and our congregants that the Jewish responsibility to speak out in the face of public threats belongs not only to clergy, but to all of us.

I return to WRT remembering why our own Rabbi Jack Stern’s printed anthology of sermons is called The Right Not To Remain Silent.

And I return to WRT carrying the visceral imprint of one experience that, ironically enough, required of me no speech; indeed, it demanded perfect silence.

In the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights you will find an interactive exhibit.  It is a lunch counter.  There are four seats in a row and each guest at the counter is asked to put palms face down on the counter and wear headphones.  A 3-dimensional audio soundscape immediately transformed me, the listener, into one of the Greensboro Four, the students who sat down at a lunch counter inside the Woolworth store at 132 South Elm Street in Greensboro and asked for a cup of coffee.  Following store policy, staff refused to serve the black men at the “whites only” counter and manager Clarence Harris asked them to leave.

The shouting, jeering, threats and curses grew louder in my ears.  After two minutes the chair began to jostle.  I got up, shaken, having lasted longer than most museum patrons.

The four freshmen in Greensboro stayed until the store closed at night.  Witnesses to a moral—and mortal—threat, armed with nothing more than the power of their own nonviolent resistance to do the talking for them, they showed a burning world that things could change.

Shabbat Shalom.

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