A Call to Social Justice: Opening Remarks of the ACC/GTM Convention

Inside Leadership

A Call to Social Justice: Opening Remarks of the ACC/GTM Convention

Cantor Steven Weiss stands on a stage to give a dvar Torah before a sea of Jewish musicians wearing kippot and tallitot at a worship service

I start with much of a d’var Torah from Rabbi Wendi Geffen:   

When it comes to high drama, it’s hard to beat the portion we read this past Shabbat morning, Parashat Korach. When Moses’s first cousin, Korach, challenges the leader’s authority, Moses retorts by suggesting a “spirituality duel” of sorts, charging Korach and his band to return the next morning so each party can present offerings to God.

Korach’s offerings are rejected, and God renders a final sweeping judgment against the rebels by opening a chasm in the earth that swallows all of Korach’s people and their possessions.

Although the Torah does not offer great detail about the encounter between these two leaders and the nature of Korach’s complaint, many midrashim help to fill in those blanks.

One, in particular, from Bamidbar Rabbah, offers us some “behind-the-scenes footage” that not only sheds light on each man’s intention, but can have profound implications for how we enact our commitment to global social justice today.

In the midrash, Korach challenges Moses’s authority on issues of halachah—laws of observance. At one point, he asks Moses if a house full of Torah and Scriptural books stills requires a mezuzah on the door.

Moses answers that, indeed, it does. Korach laughs and, in a mocking tone, questions this logic: the mezuzah contains only two excerpts from Torah, while a house full of books contains its entirety! The midrash implies that for Korach, the spirit of the law (i.e. owning a substantial Jewish library) trumps the letter of the law (i.e., affixing a mezuzah to the door).

I believe that there is another interpretation of the midrash that carries universal truths that are applicable to global justice work today. We can also see the issue as a debate about the importance of the internal versus the external expression of commitment. Korach believes that what is on the inside (the library) outweighs what is on the outside (the mezuzah).

Moses, however, finds value in both: he never negates the importance of a home filled with Jewish books; but he asserts that, whatever the internal contents, the home must have a mezuzah on its door to demonstrate the residents’ commitment to God to those outside.

Making a parallel to the challenges we face today, the library represents the steps we take quietly and privately to make a difference in the world. This may involve our personal study of the Jewish values surrounding the pursuit of justice, or actions we take privately—such as giving tzedakah, volunteering or signing petitions.

The mezuzah, on the other hand, signifies how we act and engage others about social justice issues in a public, external way.

On a practical level, this means standing up for what we believe in, taking active steps to help bring about change in our time and entering into sometimes difficult conversations with friends to engage them to join us.

It means being open about the causes we support and the tzedakah we give to inspire others to do so as well; sharing links to articles or petitions and writing about the issues we support to spread our passion for them; or even wearing emblems like rubber bracelets, pins or clothing to signify that we support global social justice issues. It means marching and speaking out for things we believe in as so many here did this past January when millions participated in the Women’s Marches throughout the country.

When we pursue justice through the mezuzah approach, we educate others about the injustices in our world and use our own justice-seeking actions as a vehicle to motivate others to do the same.

We may, at first, feel uncomfortable with the latter. We, like Korach, may assert that it is what is on the inside that matters; that putting our righteous acts “on display” is superficial when we are already accomplishing the intended goal of the pursuit of justice. But truth be told, if we feel that we are incapable of bringing about true justice in our lifetime because of the limits of our individual reach, then we ultimately limit the collective impact of our actions by failing to do our part.

To speak up for what one believes in a peaceful, productive manner is not rebellion. It is as much a part of being a responsible citizen as paying taxes. Trying to influence the direction of public policy is not rebellion…it is an expression of all the values we hold hear. It is not going to crumble the order of things to question authority. If leadership has merit, it can stand the test of inquiry. Moses and Aaron certainly did.

My friends, the world changed on January 20th. All that we thought was right and just and settled was turned on its ear; and we cannot sit tight, and pretend that the actions taken at the highest levels of our government don’t affect us or our families.

They do, and it is our obligation to speak out, to stand up, and to help be the change that it is needed in this world.

Throughout the recent election campaign and beyond, we heard violent, exclusionary, and racist language not seen in mainstream politics in decades. We watched hate crimes take place against Muslims, and deplorable actions and threats against marginalized populations. And just moments before the start of our service this morning, elements of the travel ban was reinstated by the Supreme Court under the guise of national security.

My good friend and colleague Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center, Pesner put it best. He says:

“Our tradition’s ageless and enduring call of Torah to rodef tzedek – pursue justice – continues to inspire today’s Reform Movement. As members of the largest and most diverse Jewish denomination in North America – which includes liberals and conservatives, Democrats, Republications and independents alike – we have a responsibility, individually and collectively, to reject hate and to help heal our nation.”

I would take that one step further. As Jewish professionals – whether you are cantor, soloist, a musician, composer, or an organist – the need for tikkun olam (the need to help repair our world) at this moment in time is enormous. It requires each and every one of us here this morning to look deep within ourselves and to ask these simple questions: Am I doing enough? Can I do more?

Shimon, the son of Rabban Gamliel, says: “It is not what one says, but rather what one does, that makes all the difference in the world.” (Pirkei Avot 1:17).

URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs put it into perspective when he recently wrote in the Jewish Journal:

“Although one can certainly love Torah and follow different political paths, one cannot claim to be a lover of Torah and not care about how our society treats those in need, the weak, the vulnerable, the stranger and the oppressed.”

The work of social justice cannot simply be left to our rabbinic colleagues or lay people or others to shepherd. The door has been opened by us to help take the lead in our Reform Movement. Now we must walk through it proudly and declare our intention to advance our social justice goals. The American Conference of Cantors has joined with our URJ partners in the Brit Olam – A Covenant for the World – the world that we want, not the world as it is.                                               

We are called at this moment in time to stand up for the values that are central to our movement – to our belief system, and are now threatened:

A just immigration policy without the fear of deportation.

Affordable and accessible health care for all.

Equal pay for equal work regardless of gender.

Allowing women to make decisions about their own bodies.

LGBTQ equality.

Support for transgender rights.

Access to quality public education.

Reforming the criminal justice system and an end to mass incarceration.

Unfettered access to the ballot.

You can add your own to the list!

And one more thing: It is our obligation to speak out against the decision by the Israeli government to renew on the agreement to build an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The freezing of the plan to build a mixed gender space is a slap in the face to progressive and secular Jews throughout the world. Over the last three years, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke publicly and privately about how important the relationship is between Israel and American Jews and that he has our best interests at heart. But when push came to shove, he caved to the extortion of his ultra-orthodox coalition partners and turned aside all of the promises and agreements made, all to protect himself and his government.

We must speak out, and we must support the leaders of our movement as they seek alternative avenues and continue to work for a right and just outcome.

The challenges we face today are significant and we must respond to them robustly – and in new and creative ways. Each of us must be willing to do our part to protect and advance all that we hold dear.

I grew up at a large congregation on Long Island. Every time I sat in our main sanctuary, I stared at these sacred words from Amos, which permeated my soul: “Let justice well up as waters….and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

Let each of us declare our intention to follow the word of Amos: to take up the call for justice, righteousness and peace for ourselves and for all in our country who need our help.

I conclude with the words of Pirkei Avot, which guides me in my daily life: “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:21)

Ken yehe ratzon, may it be so.

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Cantor Steven Weiss, the cantor and director of education at Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, MA, is president of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC).

Cantor Steven Weiss

Published: 6/29/2017

Categories: Social Justice & Advocacy
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