[URJBiennial] Integrating Social Justice Throughout the Congregation
[URJBiennial] Plenary: Robert Reich

[URJBiennial] Plenary: Robert Heller and Rabbi Michael Melchior


I had a delightful lunch with two new friends, a rabbi and a Jewish educator, which I promised not to blog, though we had some excellent conversations. (One metaphor I couldn't resist writing down: that the Reform trend toward reclaiming once-abandoned observances is like the second-wave feminist philosophy which makes it possible to choose lipstick. Expect a post expanding on that notion sometime after the conference.) Meanwhile, here's a partial transcript of the afternoon plenary session, which featured Robert Heller, chairman of the board of trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Michael Melchior, an Orthodox rabbi and member of the Israeli Knesset.


Robert Heller, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the URJ

"We have chosen the Reform movement because it stands for something, not because it is not-Conservative or not-Orthodox... We Reform Jews see the challenges of a world in need of repair, and we respond to them."

"When we Reform Jews insist on pluralism, recognizing that no group holds a monopoly on truth, and when we draw lines to draw people in rather than to isolate or exclude them, we...follow in the steps of Abraham. Abraham's insistence on justice and his audacity in challenging God to be just speak directly to us. Tikkun olam, social justice and heeding the prophetic voice are core Reform principles...We must be God's hands, doing what is just and right in this world."

"Too many Jews accept the canard that Reform means minimal. I am tired of the notion that our practices are less than authentic. ...We work with the other streams of Judaism on issues of common concern whenever possible. But it would be a mistake to conclude that movements and denominations are no longer important, or that there are no significant differences between us."

"The hands-on social action work of our congregations is extraordinary....But advocacy is important too....We must not erect a wall between spirituality and social justice. Speaking out for what is just and right does not mean being partisan, but it does mean speaking out on policy issues that reflect our core values."


Then Robert Reich spoke, which will get its own blog post -- I transcribed most of his remarks, and they deserve to be read on their own. And then came a presentation by:

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Deputy Minister, State of Israel

He began by recounting a midrash from S.Y. Agnon's Nobel acceptance speech: about the priests at the time of the Temple's destruction, tossing the keys to the sanctuary into the blaze, saying to God, "You gave us the duty of protecting this holy place where our people connect with You, but we can't fulfil that dury anymore, so we're giving back the keys." And a mighty Hand came down from heaven and took the keys. When the State of Israel was created, he said, we got the keys back.

[I'm not comfortable with that interpretation of what Israel means. Then again, Rabbi Melchior is an Orthodox rabbi who serves in the Israeli parliament; it's no real surprise that he and I have different theologies on this issue.]

"If our responsibility is only to ourselves, our houses, our communities, our sector of the Jewish people, we will not able to do anything; we will not be worthy of a future. [We deserve a future] only if we succeed in taking responsibility -- this is the whole concept of human rights! Every person, every place in the world who is hurting, who is suffering, we need to reach out to that person. And if it's not applied for every person everywhere, then it's not human rights or human dignity."

"We are standing at a crossroads.... It's important, which glasses we take on to read our texts and study our tradition. There can be no renewal, no reform, no progressiveness without a deep commitment to the past and to our roots, in order to build our future. Not to be a hostage to our past, but to build on our past and on our traditions."

He told a story about being interviewed by Israeli right-wing radio, and how they slammed him for believing in the need to negotiate with the Palestinians, given what the Torah says about Abraham being promised "the whole land." And his response: we need to read carefully! Because in that same text, that same week's portion, we read about how Abraham's people had a heavy argument with Lot's people. Lot's people wanted to take all the produce, the crops of the land, because God had promised it to them. And Abraham's people said, "yeah, sure, God promised it, but there are people living here. And as long as they live here, it belongs to them also." So in the same chapter where Abraham was promised everything, Abraham and Lot had this argument, and Abraham went to Lot and said, "we have to disengage!" Abraham and Lot had their big split over this issue. This is also in the text.

"If you study our texts carefully, you can find everything you want. You can! But the challenge of our generation and our future [is], we have to interpret our texts in the way I believe is inherent in every line of the Torah: you shall love the other because this is how you were born as a nation. When God showed himself to the Jewish people His calling card was not 'I am the Lord your God who created heaven and earth,' but 'I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery!'...This is the principle you have to follow when you build your society."

He noted that he and we don't agree on everything. [much laughter] But he recounted the midrash that in this week's Torah portion when Abraham is circumcised at ninety-nine, God Himself comes for bikkur cholim, a pastoral care visit. And then three visitors arrive, and we know they're angels, but Abraham doesn't know that. He doesn't know they're messengers. He thinks they're Bedouins, walking in the desert, needing a place to wash their feet and a meal. So he runs out to greet them, leaving God behind in the tent! "From this our Sages say that if you have a chance of doing charity, doing lovingkindness, you're allowed to leave even God behind."

"We [Orthodox and Reform] might be in disagreement on parts of our theology and issues of halakha. We have our serious differences which have consequences and I don't want to put them aside. But we're living in an age where it's permitted and it's necessary to put the theology a little aside in order to do what is necessary for building the Jewish people."

He talked about our commonalities (Reform and Orthodox) despite our differences on halakha. He noted that on Yom Kippur when we say the communal al chet, we don't talk about the sins of eating unkosher food, or breaking Shabbat, or not wearing tefillin. We talk about how we failed to create a just world. That's what we say when we stand before God for those 25 hours! And that says something about what really matters.

And he talked about Abraham who argues for Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham is concerned with the fate of the whold world, not just the Jewish people. And this is why he is a patriarch for all monotheists. Noah was concerned only with his own family; Abraham was concerned with all of the peoples. In this way, Abraham was more advanced than Noah.

He talked also about Israel, which, he argued, has never known a day of peace in its 57 years; which is threatened for its mere existence rather than for its policies. He said the impact of this within Israeli society is that the real issues of building a just society have been put aside. Education, environment, social gaps, poverty don't get addressed. He talked about how tzedek (righteousness) must lead to tzedakah (charity). He said that political parties get elected by promising peace, even though they've ignored the rest of the problems of Israeli society. "We can't afford to do that anymore."

And he ended with a prayer -- the lines that close out the kaddish, the amidah, so much of Jewish prayer. Oseh shalom bimromav: may He who makes peace in the heavens make peace for us. Rabbi Melchior suggested that we need to take the first steps toward the peace we want God to give us. If we build bridges and coalitions, if we make peace as we can, then we can ask God to bless us with peace. We end the amidah with three little steps back, symbolizing that we need to step back a little, withdraw a little, make room for the Other. And then we can make demands on God, when we've done our job, done what we can to make peace.

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