Of community and country: Jewish leaders speak out

When we put the word out to the spiritual and organization leaders in our community to share with us their hopes post-Election Day, they responded thoughtfully, quoting texts from Torah to the Talmud to the academy, even Broadway. They reminded us that although the outcome wasn’t known at press time, one thing was clear: As a country, we have some rebuilding to do, and it begins with each of us. 

Below are their reflections, edited for length and adherence to the newspaper’s style. We thank the leadership of our community for their wise counsel, as together we move forward to heal our nation, strengthen our dialogue and renew our commitment to strong democracy.

—Sharon Wisch-Ray

Cantor Sheri Allen,
Congregation Beth Shalom

I keep thinking about the last scene in “West Side Story” (the movie). Tony is dead, and Maria, inconsolable, cries out to the rival gang members, “You all killed him! Not with bullets and knives! With hate! Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate! How many can I kill and still have one bullet left for me?” Humbled and shamed, her words affect them deeply and it’s clear this moment will set them on a better path. Both the Jets and Sharks pick up Tony’s lifeless body and carry him away. Perhaps not a happy, but a hopeful ending.

Ah, the movies. But I wonder what will have to happen for our community to be unified again. It must involve reaching out, remembering what all of us, as Jews, have in common: a history of suffering as well as achievement; dedication to fighting for justice, equity, civil and human rights; being the voice for the marginalized, the unheard, the “other.”

If this pandemic and election have taught us anything, it’s that we must work even harder to listen to each other, speak respectfully and exercise compassion, restraint, understanding and empathy. And practice forgiveness. That would be a good start.

Rabbi Andrew Bloom, Congregation Ahavath Sholom

Each and every one of us has a moral core that is based upon the goodness within ourselves and those around us. For those of faith, this moral code comes from the Torah, and more specifically from the Book of Leviticus. In Leviticus 19:18 we are taught that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD,” or in other words, we shall treat our neighbors like we would want to be treated ourselves and all this within the shadow of God’s light.

In order for our society to flourish, we need to remember another biblical teaching from the Book of Leviticus. In this teaching we are told that “You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy.” (Leviticus 20:26) In other words, our society needs to be based upon the belief that we must try and live up to the moral code that we received from God, and in order to do that we must not only remember the teachings from Leviticus but we must also live them.

It is my hope and prayer that at this divisive time, all of us, irrespective of our race, religion, gender or political beliefs, can come together so that the words of the Psalmist will ring true, thus allowing us to “live by the words of God and not die by them.” (Loose translation of Psalm 188:17)

Rabbi Kimberly Herzog Cohen, Temple Emanu-El

Just a few weeks ago, we read Parashat Noach. The ark building project is a powerful metaphor for us to continue to hold in our hearts and minds while we navigate the uncertain waters ahead. I believe God, or Shechinah, the Divine Presence, is the current of constant energy that can guide us through the darkest nights, who can fuel liberation, who can speak in the quiet of our heart. God, perhaps, is the wisdom that guides our hands to build the ark. God, perhaps, is the One who lifts our eyes to see the rainbow in the distance, refracted light amid the rain-laden skies. God is creation’s light, piercing through the tohu v’vohu, inspiring us to bringing form and substance to a seemingly amorphous world. As we make our way into the colder and darker winter days, we will construct arks for ourselves and others. We will continue to shine light. It’s who we’ve sought to be as a people of faith and who we yearn to become as citizens of this country. 

Michael Cohen,
Director of Rabbinical Services and Pastoral Care, The Legacy Senior Communities

Our diverse Jewish community must draw upon common values as we process election returns and attempt to cope with fever-pitch partisanry. Rabbi Isaac (Berachot 55a) teaches it’s a Jewish value to seek the consultative consensus of the community. The Prophet Jeremiah taught us to pray for the well-being of the country. And a prayer for God’s blessing upon our leaders has been in American Jewish tradition since an 1825 prayer book of the Reformed Society of Israelites.

Disagreement, too, is an honored part of Jewish tradition. Perhaps key to doing this is to remember to take upon ourselves seeing the value behind what those who disagree with us seek to protect. For example, if we show we care both about the imperative of keeping our country strong, and the duty to welcome the stranger, we might assist our nation to heal internal strife with a vision of healthy communal life to all. 

Rabbi Yaakov Green,
Head of School, Akiba Yavneh Academy

As citizens of this great nation and as Jews, we must never take for granted the opportunities granted to our people. I recently shared within our school community the responsa writings of Rav Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory, one of the greatest rabbinic authorities of our generation, in which he writes we have a legal halachic obligation to vote and participate in the democratic process as an expression of the Jewish value of Hakarat HaTov, of gratitude.

But there is a second Jewish value that we must truly focus on right now. In this heightened climate of frayed nerves and fragmentation, where the slightest comments could be taken in a way that causes strife and discord within our communities, we must ensure we do just the opposite. Our Jewish value of social responsibility must be enforced now more than ever so that we all remember the implicit civility required within our civilization.

Our passion for politics must be matched, or better yet surpassed, by our passion for speaking about politics kindly. We must ardently take care to honor the person to whom we speak and with whom we disagree. The “other” must be met with compassion. School cannot successfully teach society’s children to communicate respectfully when we as adults do not hold ourselves accountable to this sacred value.

Rabbi Nancy Kasten,
Chief Relationship Officer, Faith Commons

We will do well to remember the teaching of the Rabbis in Numbers Rabbah 13:15-16 that “there are 70 faces to the Torah.” Absolutism has never been a part of our tradition and trying to claim one truth will only lead to increasing divisiveness and sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred. The first step in reconciliation is to listen to one another rather than assuming we know what others think and feel. In a recent video for HIAS, Executive Director Marc Hetfield encouraged us to “Make America greet again.” We must make room in our hearts and minds for ideas and narratives that challenge our assumptions and greet the people who represent them as human beings, created in God’s image, worthy of dignity and respect.

Rabbi Jeremy Litton,
Director of Jewish Life and Learning, Levine Academy 

The Talmud in Berachot 58a states: “The Rabbis taught us that one who sees a large gathering of Jews should make a blessing : “Blessed be you, God, who knows all secrets.”  The Talmud asks, “Why is a blessing said at this time?” The Talmud answers, “Since all these people have different ideas and different looks.” The Ben Ish Chai, the leading Rabbi in Baghdad in the 1800s, expounds on this statement. He says that to see a people comprising different professions, ideologies and physical looks who can still gather together because of their demonstration that a shared Jewish experience is primary, a blessing is necessary. I know I speak on behalf of the Levine Academy community when I say we look forward to making this blessing as we see the larger Dallas community reunite physically from COVID-19. Yet, additionally, we want to exclaim this blessing after the election in our demonstration and recognition that we continue to be a people who can differ in ideology and looks and yet remain together as one.

Rabbi Andrew Paley, Temple Shalom

In the aftermath of the election, there are some in our community who are deeply afraid, angry and mistrustful of our democracy. The beauty and pain of a democracy such as ours is that we cannot love democracy only when the candidate we support wins and shun democracy when the opposite occurs.

As Boston University professor Stephen Prothero says, “…our nation rests not on agreement about its core values, but on a willingness to debate them. The way to wisdom lies not in affirming simple truths but in engaging in difficult discussions about them.”

The Jewish response to personal and national events is to exercise the gift of hope. For even when we grieve, we praise God; in dark times we light a candle, because hope is a power that is stronger than any one moment in time. What we need now is more kindness and compassion to be called forth to vanquish the divisions that are so evident. We cannot wait for our elected officials to do this. We must be the examples we seek.

Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky,
Congregation Shaare Tefilla

Our broader Jewish community has seen a great deal of heated rhetoric in the time leading up to the election. People are expressing their political viewpoints in ways that are insulting, counterproductive and, ultimately, un-Jewish. No one should ever impugn another person’s concern for the future of the United States, their love of Israel or their credentials as a Jew based on the candidate they vote for. The issues facing us as Jews and as Americans are way too important to be reduced to short and abusive soundbites, and to be encapsulated in snarky memes. If politics must be discussed, it should be done respectfully, through an understanding that different intelligent and thoughtful people can arrive at different conclusions about the same issues, and that there is plenty of room in our tradition to find sources that back each position. 

Rabbi Ari Sunshine, Congregation Shearith Israel

A famous midrash, rabbinic legend, on this past week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha, uses a parable of a traveler passing by a birah doleket, usually translated as a palace in flames. The traveler can’t believe that a palace could be left to burn and calls out, wondering if there’s anyone home minding the castle, and the owner peeps his head out and says “Here I am.”  The rabbis think of Abraham as the traveler, the castle as the world, and God as the “master of the house.” Abraham sees the world on fire and questions how a concerned master could let it burn, and God responds by identifying God’s self as the master and then calling on Abraham to go, lech lecha, and be God’s partner and agent in bringing ethical monotheism to the world. If you are wondering why no one else stopped and expressed concern as Abraham did, note as well that the phrase “birah doleket” could also potentially be translated as something like “a castle aglow in light,” perhaps torches prominently displayed and brightly burning on top of all the palace walls, which would probably be rather impressive to behold. This midrash is an apt framework for where we find ourselves as a country amid these charged and contentious elections. Right now there is a great divide in our country, on its most basic level between those who believe our society could not be more broken or on fire, and those who believe that, on balance, the palace is shining brightly and we should continue moving forward on our journey. However each of us chooses to interpret the birah doleket, please remember this: We are all, every one of us, travelers together in this journey in our country and partners in our world. Whether we are like Abraham and call out because we see something that is in flames and needs to be fixed, or we are like the implied travelers who may not have seen any reason to stop because things look considerably brighter, each of us and all of us collectively share responsibility for the palace, for our country. We need to find ways to bridge our divides, to collaborate, to heal and to rebuild. 

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, Congregation Beth Israel

This week’s Torah portion offers insight into the reality that exciting new beginnings, such as the birth of Isaac, can lead to conflict and challenges. Life is filled with blessings and life is often difficult. Both are true.

I do know with great certainty that regardless of who wins the election, a good portion of our community will be celebrating and a good portion of our community will be upset. With that in mind, I am praying for peace.

I pray for peace within our congregation and our community. I pray for peace within our state and our nation. I pray that we will move forward together, continuing to support each other through our personal challenges and those we face as a people. 

Rabbis Stefan Weinberg and Michael Kushnick,
Congregation Anshai Torah

The social fabric of our country is unraveling. The level of derech eretz — the manners that guide our interactions with each other — is plummeting to an unprecedented level. 

Following this election, we will be tested. Nearly 50% of us will be losers. Nearly 50% of us will not get our way. How will we respond? Will civil unrest headline the news reports once again? 

We must remember God’s charge to Abraham — “ve’hiyay bracha — be a blessing!” Refrain from insult; remind each other we have much more in common than that which divides us; demonstrate to our children how to accept defeat, gracefully; and, live as though we are worthy of the gift of life. Together, we must strive to ensure the United States of America reunites, overcoming the strife and distrust echoing across our country. 

Rabbi Howard Wolk, Community Chaplain, Jewish Family Service Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation Shaare Tefilla

We must pray that calm and civility rule the day. It would certainly be appropriate to recite Tehillim (Psalms) for our beloved country. Likewise, the “Prayer for The Welfare of the Country” should be said.

Beyond these actions, each one of us must resolve to speak and interact with others with respect, civility and esteem. This should apply in discussions with family members and colleagues, whether our interaction is in-person or via Zoom.

We must be informed and motivated by the Jewish values of: recognizing the value of every individual, kindness and reverence.

Jewish values are to be practiced in the street as well as the home; in the workplace as in the synagogue .

In the Torah reading for this coming Shabbat, the portion of Vayera, Abraham verbally wrestles with Hashem regarding the inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Beginning in Genesis 18:23, Abraham asks about 50, 45 and 40, down to 10 “righteous people in the midst of the city.” If there are righteous individuals “in the midst of the city,” will not Hashem spare the cities from destruction?

The Hasam Sofer asks: Why does Abraham say “in the midst of the city?” Why not simply state, “in the city?”

He answers that there were many righteous people in the cities, more than even 50. But they weren’t seen; they did not leave their homes. They did not make an impact on their communities. They were not in the midst of their cities. They did not take their values into the streets. It was if they did not exist.

The vitality of Judaism and the strength of Jewish values is that they impact and strengthen our communities. We demonstrate our dedication to the ethics of Torah by adhering to them in our daily lives.

Elana Zelony,
Congregation Beth Torah

I believe synagogues can lead the way in modeling civil discourse. At Beth Torah, we’ve started a sermon series called “L’shem Shamayim — for the Sake of Heaven.” L’shem Shamayim describes the spirit of the arguments between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The two schools of thought disagreed about many things, but they argued for the sacred purpose of revealing God’s truth. 

This sermon series involves a congregant from the political left and a congregant from the political right collaborating to create one sermon on a controversial topic. I help both speakers find Jewish texts that articulate the Jewish values behind their positions. Our goal is to give complex issues the thoughtfulness they deserve, and by doing so experience what it means to have an argument L’shem Shamayim. The series begins this Saturday, Nov. 7.  Our topics include opening our sanctuaries during the pandemic, abortion, universal health care and civil disobedience. 

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