The Shofar, Temple Beth El’s monthly publication, keeps community and temple members up to date on what’s going on. Take a look at this month’s Shofar to see what’s coming up, or browse through the archives to see all that we’ve done!
Rabbi’s Ramblings (from the May Shofar)
If I could name a theme for this year’s CCAR conference, which I was privileged to attend last month, it would be “proximity.”
Bryan Stevenson, is an attorney and law professor. He is also a social justice activist. As the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and author of the book Just Mercy, Stevenson fights poverty and challenges racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. He has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. His Alabama-based organization has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent prisoners on death row, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.
Recently, EJI won an historic ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional.
Attorney Roberta “Bobbi” Kaplan and activist Amy Spitalnik represent the Charlottesville residents injured in the August 2017 white nationalist rally. They spoke to us of their groundbreaking lawsuit against white supremacists, neo-Nazis and affiliated hate groups – and about their new method of combatting violence based on racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.
On my return to the historic Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion with some six hundred colleagues, I was pleased to learn that the old gym on campus has been dedicated to the purposes of the local Jewish Family Services, which fulfills the mitzvoth of providing food for the hungry, community for the lonely, and counseling and advocacy for the mentally ill and other needful populations within the Jewish community. In addition to both kosher and general food pantries, the center has a vegetable garden, and engages rabbinic students as chaplain fellows.
What has all of this to do with proximity – and with the challenging Torah portion of Tazria, which happened to be the parasha we read from the Torah that week?
Simply this: in order to truly be of service to the suffering, the needy, and the infirm – whatever their particular needs might be – we need to get close to them. We need to beat down the real and psychological barriers that “protect” us from contact with people who make us uncomfortable, be they prisoners of the system, victims or perpetrators of hatred, the poor or those who suffer from some form of mental or emotional distress.
In our parasha, when a person comes down with a scaly rash or unsightly skin condition, a priest must examine them to ascertain the nature of their ailment. Not to cure it – but to provide a diagnosis, to name the afflilction as tzara-at or not-tzara-at. Naming alone is a source of power, yes? Even when we don’t know how to cure or fix something, we can at least describe it accurately.
We no longer worry about the condition of tzara-at – which, may I remind you, is and was NOT leprosy. But we ought to be very concerned about other reasons why we or society choose to quarantine people, to isolate them socially so as to immunize ourselves from their ills.
Injustice is not infectious. Poverty isn’t catching. Mental illness is not contagious. The hatred birthed by Ignorance can only be answered with knowledge.
We no longer have a priesthood, nor a Tabernacle over which to stand guard. But Torah charges us, even now, to be a mamlechet kohanim – a kingdom of priests, and an am kadosh, a holy nation. Unless we are willing to be proximate to those who suffer, we cannot fulfill this mandate.
Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein