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We Must Work to Ensure that the January 6th Insurrection Will Not Disrupt American Democracy


Reconstructionist Jews embrace living in both Jewish civilization and secular society. At the nexus of the Jewish and American civilizations is a wholehearted embrace of democracy. For us, democracy translates into practice the core principle of betzelem Elohim, the recognition that every individual is created in the image of God. Democracy advances millennia of Jewish experiments in self-governance, while also allowing deep and meaningful engagement with other ethnic and religious groups and full participation in broader society. Jews have flourished in democratic settings, and we have elevated democracy to the level of religious principle.

We watched in horror as an angry mob of armed militants, incited by the president of the United States and his enablers, stormed the Capitol to disrupt proceedings that would enact the will of our political system by certifying the election of a new president and vice president. This was a perversion of democracy. No one can reasonably equate the democratic right to peaceful protest with violent insurrection. It was devastating, though not surprising, that some insurrectionists displayed white supremacist, racist and blatantly antisemitic messages and symbols. Antisemitism is both an “explanation” and a strategy of such right-wing reactionary groups. As we saw in Charlottesville and Pittsburgh, Jews are targeted as Jews, and also stand in for other minority groups. All of these exclusionary ideologies sow division and fear, and ultimately lead to violence against all minorities — Jews, People of Color, Muslims, immigrants, and ultimately anyone deemed threatening or unacceptable. 

It was also clear to any observer that the preparation and response of law enforcement officials in and around the Capitol to this predominantly white mob were quite different from what we have seen in the case of peaceful protests by and in support of Black people, Indigenous people and other People of Color.  These divergent responses affirm once again that the color of our skin shapes the reality of our experience in America. We cannot continue to accept this systemic injustice.

We also saw, yesterday, a glimpse of what America can be, as the state of Georgia elected its first Black and its first Jewish United States senators.  Many of us can remember a time when it was unimaginable that such a result could be achieved in the Deep South. The people of Georgia allow us to admit the possibility that people of good faith, encouraged, enfranchised, and empowered to participate fully in our lawful, democratic processes can prevail over those voices that are quick to incite hatred and mob violence.

Judaism is an activist religion. Beyond professions of faith or identification, Judaism insists that we enact our values and commitments. American Jews participated overwhelmingly in the 2020 election season. We must act now in defense of democracy and in support of a vibrant, principled America that values all voices and that protects all minorities. We must insist that perpetrators — from those who instigated to those who acted — be held accountable. We must work to ensure that the Biden administration works with Congress to enact meaningful reforms in support of racial justice and voting rights, and to combat the white nationalist movement. 

Pirkei Avot teaches: It is not your duty to finish the work; neither are you free to desist from it. American democracy is a great, unfolding experiment that requires attention and effort. Let us renew our commitment to the work of furthering it.

We offer four sources of support and comfort: a d’var Torah Deborah wrote on the evening of the attack on the Capitol (originally intended to be delivered to Jewish members of Congress); two prayers for this moment written by Cantor Vera Broekhuysen and by Rabbi Arthur Waskow; and this prayer written by Rabbi Stephanie Crawley, published on Ritualwell.


— Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D. President of Reconstructing Judaism

— Seth Rosen, Board Chair, Reconstructing Judaism



The Obligations of Freedom: Parashat Shemot 5781

This Shabbat we begin the Book of Exodus. Our parashah, Shemot, traces the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt and begins to tell the story of their ultimate liberation. In Exodus, we move from the individual narratives of our patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis to the formation of the Israelite nation. Deliverance from slavery is a foundational story in Jewish history.

It’s essential to remember that the Israelites were not freed from slavery to just live lives without masters and do anything they wanted. After that miraculous moment of crossing the Red Sea and escaping the pursuing armies, they marched directly to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and to enter into covenantal relationship with YHVH, called Adonai. As their descendants, we must remember that we were redeemed to serve the highest principles, which we must constantly seek to discern. We were redeemed to be in binding relationship—with each other, and in that way, with the divine.

The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin asserted that there are two concepts of liberty, positive and negative. Psychologist Barry Schwartz helpfully explains:

Negative liberty is “freedom from” — freedom from constraint, freedom from being told what to do by others. Positive liberty is “freedom to” — the availability of opportunities to be the author of your life and to make it meaningful and significant. Often, these two kinds of liberty will go together…but [they] need not always. (The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less)

The freedoms enshrined in America’s founding documents have been inspiring and capacious for most Jews. We have been free to be Jews — to serve God, to build community — however we want. And America has been a place where Jews — at least those of us with white skin — can fully participate in broader society as Jews, to contribute what we have to contribute, to take advantage of what there is to offer. We have experienced both “freedom from” and “freedom to.”

And our experience as a minority community in America has aligned with a broader American vision of freedom. In his 1941 State of the Union address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid out what he saw as four fundamental freedoms that he thought were universal: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. With this speech, FDR united Americans at mid-century as they prepared to face their greatest challenges, recovery from the Depression and entry into a world war.

We have seen a profound misbalancing of these freedoms in recent years and most especially during the coronavirus pandemic, when individuals are asserting “liberty” as a justification for not wearing masks, thereby compromising public health (a general concept) and potentially infecting anyone with whom they came into contact (very real individuals whose liberty and well-being are damaged by this behavior). More generally, a racialized nationalism has fueled a longstanding belief that freedom is limited only to a white Christian majority, with the outgoing administration actively blocking refugees, stripping away civil rights protections for minorities, refusing to fight or repudiate surging white supremacy, and actively undermining democracy.

In our parashah this week, we see Moses encountering the burning bush, discerning the voice of the Divine from within, and taking up the fight for what is just and liberatory in his generation. And we now stand facing the greatest challenges of our generation: a new reckoning with systemic racism, restoring the physical and economic health of our country after the pandemic, combating attacks on American democracy from within, re-establishing a shared sense of communitas; and confronting the climate crisis with resilience, equity and creativity. As fires, both literal and metaphorical, rage around us, it is our responsibility to discern — as did Moses — what is just and liberatory. We must dedicate ourselves toward effecting an equitable pandemic recovery, dismantling systemic racism, working for climate justice. We must do so in a covenantal fashion, with keen awareness of and commitment to relationship and mutuality. We must act as heirs of our legacy of liberation to ensure that we fulfill the opportunities and obligations of our freedom — as Jews, as Americans — to create an America where all can flourish.



A Prayer for this Moment by Cantor Vera Broekhuysen

May the One who accompanies humanity through danger after danger, attend this unstable transition of power. Guard all trying to do their jobs, all trying to fulfill their Constitutional oaths. Dissipate the fear and anger boiling over in our nation’s capital. Strengthen the mediators, and help return all hearts and minds to a rational, peace-seeking state.



A Prayer for this Moment by Rabbi Arthur Waskow


You Who taught us 3,000 years ago that the only king we needed was the Interbreathing Spirit of all Life,

You Who when we insisted we needed a king instructed us to limit the powers of a king,

You Who empowered yeomen farmers and taught us always to honor their own dignity,

You Who instructed Moses that every seventh year the whole people, even small children, should  assemble to rethink the Sacred Teaching,

You Who inspired Ezra and Nehemiah to call on the People to vote on whether they would affirm the Torah,

Inspire us now, at this moment of great peril —

Inspire us with the strength to demand the removal of a ruler —

Who has shown contempt for Your Creation and Your People,

Who has acted with cruelty to mothers, fathers, and children,

Who has incited a violent mob to attack the place where our representatives gather to struggle toward our good.

Inspire us to unite to affirm once more the sacred Image in our diversity

And to banish Cruelty, Subjugation, and Violence from the halls of leadership.

Counting Every Vote


Updated on November 9, 2020:

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris stand for many of the values and are committed to many of the programs that Reconstructionist Jews champion. We have much work to do to heal our broken world. We stand ready to act in partnership with all people of goodwill.


Original Statement (November 4, 2020)

The Jewish people have been around for millennia and Jews have lived in many different kinds of societies and under many different forms of government. We have flourished in America’s democracy, with its commitment of free and fair elections to choose our leader.

E pluribus unum honors the many diverse communities of America, including the Jewish community, and insists that we can find unity together. Democratic practices, like free and fair elections, are essential tools in this hard yet exciting work. We must fiercely defend and uphold all democratic practices—including allowing time for all the votes to be counted. The campaign is over and it is time for the will of the people to prevail.

Many American Jews considering voting to be a mitzvah, a commandment. It is essential that every vote is counted so that every voice is heard and so that our full-throated democracy can flourish. In Hebrew, the word for vote (kol) also means “voice”. The beauty of a democracy is that every voice can be heard.

Genesis 1:27 teaches that we are all created in the image of God. If we take that teaching seriously, that means that we all deserve to live in safety and to be heard. In a democracy, voting is an essential way of expressing the value and raising up the divinity of every person.

Mordecai Kaplan, the founding thinker of Reconstructionism, taught that “where there is no diversity, there is no freedom.” Our ability to live freely and thrive in the United States depends thoroughly on other people’s ability to do the same. And only in a fully constituted democracy, where people have the ability to choose their leaders and, when necessary, to remove them from office, can such diversity and freedom flourish.

President, Reconstructing Judaism; Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Presidential Professor, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Jewish Clergy Letter in Support of Right to Protest


Over 800 Jewish clergy from across the Jewish spectrum signed the following letter, including over 200 members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Among the signers  are Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructing Judaism; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis; and Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, chief executive of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly. The Times of Israel reported on the letter on June 11, 2020. 

The text of the letter follows.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, to march is to pray with our feet. Throughout American history, the right to protest peacefully has been a hallmark of free expression. In the past week, clergy of all faiths have joined in and supported protests happening in cities nationwide, spurred by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon “Sean” Reed and too many others to name, Mr. Floyd was a victim of the nation’s long history of brutality against people of color, and particularly Black men. Protests are a just response to all-too-familiar anger, frustration, and pain. I stand for the right to peaceful protest and call on our nation’s law enforcement and elected officials not to interfere with this bedrock First Amendment expression.

Pursuing Justice

Joint Statement of Solidarity by Jewish Communal Organizations



Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association were about 180 Jewish communal organizations issuing a statement urging our political leaders and all our fellow Americans to treat this public health crisis as a moment for kindness and solidarity, and to make extra efforts to reach towards one another in support, not look to blame or scapegoat.

Statement Against Cut in Nutritional Aid

Reconstructing Judaism and Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association logos
Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association join our friends at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger in denouncing the Trump Administration’s final rule to strip nutritional benefits for nearly 700,000 food-insecure Americans. Hunger is not a political tool to be played with. Food security is a human right. We strongly endorse the important message Mazon has shared in their statement of December 4th, 2019, shared in full below: 

Logo for Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger

“In response to the Trump Administration’s announcement today to restrict nutrition benefits for nearly 700,000 Americans, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger expressed its anger that the Administration has cruelly and needlessly restricted access to the most basic of human needs for those who are among our nation’s most vulnerable. So-called “able-bodied adults without dependents” or “ABAWDS” will now be denied Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) after three months, unless they can find work. Hunger is not and has never been a meaningful incentive to find employment when employment is not there to be had.

Currently, “ABAWDs” must meet specific work requirements in order to access three months of SNAP benefits in a thirty-six-month period. For the past twenty years, states have been given flexibility to waive this three-month time limit in areas with high unemployment or insufficient jobs. USDA’s Final Rule removes these important protections and would result in unprecedented cuts to the country’s most successful and important anti-hunger program.

“We are appalled at the persistent attacks by this Administration to purposefully make life more difficult for those struggling with hunger, especially those populations that are often overlooked and who have unique barriers to employment, including veterans, those living in rural America or on Tribal Lands and college students. USDA’s rule change does nothing to encourage ‘self-sufficiency’ and instead provides a blistering reminder of what can only be described as a deliberately pernicious strategy to undercut already marginalized populations that deserve our support instead of mandated restrictions to critically needed food,” said Abby J. Leibman, President & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

Earlier this year, MAZON submitted formal comments to USDA about this proposal and coordinated a letter signed by 60 Members of Congress, citing the negative impact this regulatory change would have on vulnerable Americans.

Those comments highlighted the difficulty in finding employment for so many Americans despite a desire to do so. Among those “ABAWDS” who personify this struggle, America’s veterans often struggle in silence. An estimated 1.4 million veterans live in households that participate in SNAP; however, veterans often struggle to find jobs that match their skills, especially if they have little work experience beyond military service. Furthermore, many recently-transitioning veterans take temporary jobs but struggle to find full-time sustained work—these individuals might not be able to report 20 hours of work per week in order to receive SNAP benefits.

Leibman said, “Ensuring that all veterans, especially those with undiagnosed or hidden disabilities, have access to adequate and nutritious food is critical and is the least this nation owes to its returning and injured soldiers. Too often, these brave men and women face unique challenges in securing full-time work when their military service ends. Not having the support to put food on the table during these times is unconscionable. What a terrible way to treat those who have defended our liberties.”

This rule change would also exacerbate hunger among Native Americans, an already vulnerable and frequently overlooked population. One in four Native Americans is food insecure (double the national average of one in eight people). Despite reports of high employment nationally, unemployment remains a huge issue in Indian Country, in some cases as high as 21%. SNAP waivers for these communities literally save lives.

“MAZON will do everything we can to continue to fight against this regulatory attack, because no matter a person’s circumstance, no one deserves to be hungry,” Leibman said.” 

Letter Opposing Rollback of Predatory Lending Protections



Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assocation were among seventeen Jewish organizations writing to the Consumer Protection Finance Bureau in opposition to an administration proposal to rescind protections against predatory lending.

Statement Opposing Restrictions on Food Aid



Reconstructing Judaism joined 35 national faith-based organizations in a statement opposing attempts to restrict states from providing food aid to the hungry.

Letter Opposing Repeal of Johnson Amendment (April 2019)



Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association were among 131 organizations sending a letter to the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committes, urging them not to repeal or weaken the “Johnson Amendment” that currently ensures that tax-exempt organizations do not support or oppose candidates for political office.

Letter Opposing Repeal of Johnson Amendment



Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association were among 109 organizations sending a letter to the House of Representatives, urging them not to repeal or weaken the “Johnson Amendment” that currently ensures that tax-exempt organizations do not support or oppose candidates for political office.

B’tselem Elohim: Jewish Ethics, Sexual Harassment and the Workplace of the Future


This article by David Teutsch, Mira Wasserman, and Deborah Waxman was originally published on December 15, 2017 as the lead feature in eJewishPhilanthropy at the following address: http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/btselem-elohim-jewish-ethics-sexual-harassment-and-the-workplace-of-the-future.

The #metoo campaign is an unprecedented demonstration of the difference that good people can make when they come together to seek justice. From Hollywood to Congress, powerful people are reckoning with patterns of abuse and domination that went unaddressed for generations.

The outpouring of truth-telling has already toppled perpetrators in politics, entertainment, and the media. This is a moment of decision. If #metoo is to bring lasting change to every corner of society, extending safety and justice not just to those who garner media attention, but also to the women and girls who remain the most vulnerable to harassment and assault, now is the time for turning brave speech into effective action. This moment confronts us with the urgency of making our workplaces, homes, and communities spaces where all women, children and men can flourish. In Jewish life, there is a new readiness to address past wrongs and change organizational cultures. How can the wisdom of Jewish tradition guide us in this moment of decision and possibility?

The most basic thing Jewish tradition teaches us about human beings is that we are all fashioned b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. Disrespecting another person inevitably involves failing to see the divine element in the other. It is wrong to treat anyone as an object; every person has inherent kavod, dignity. From this perspective, it should be obvious that sexual harassment in all its forms is wrong. Repeated propositioning, coercive pressure, unwanted touching and physical violence are all completely unacceptable.

Unfortunately, this core message of Jewish ethics has sometimes been eclipsed by a sensibility that protects the reputations of powerful individuals at all costs. This is a grave misreading of the Jewish ethical tradition. Jewish tradition places a strong value on avoiding l’shon hara, speech that, while true, will lessen the hearer’s opinion of another person. But this value is not an absolute principle. One is enjoined to do l’shon hara in the form of warning (azhara) to save someone from danger, whether it is physical, emotional or financial. One is also required to offer tokhekha, reproof, when someone has done something wrong and should be urged to do t’shuva, to apologize and not to repeat such behavior in the future. The Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ code of Jewish law, even goes so far as to say that one who fails to offer rebuke bears responsibility for the sin (Deot 6:7). Thus, from a Jewish perspective it is imperative that we face harassers and harassment in all their guises and do what we can to put an end to these demeaning and destructive behaviors.

One way that contemporary secular law has been used to avoid azhara is the use of confidentiality agreements as part of financial settlements. Such confidentiality agreements ought to be prohibited by law so that repeat offenders – and most offenders are repeat offenders – can be detected and dealt with. Banning confidentiality agreements would have aided in identifying pedophiles in the Catholic Church. It would have also bared Harvey Weinstein’s evildoing years ago.

The current tidal wave of women speaking out may mark a sea change in how American society deals with these issues. However, women speaking up is not enough. There must be a vast increase in education and training around these issues in schools, corporations and institutions of all kinds if such behavior is to be banished. Such programs must examine the way that the assertion of power, an inflated sense of entitlement and objectification of women are essential parts of sexual exploitation.

In a world where a president can be elected despite talking on camera about grabbing women’s private parts, we have a long way to go. When a major political party pours money into a senatorial race to support a candidate who has been banned from a mall for harassing teenage girls, we know that the old-boy mechanisms are still in place. Such men have been in denial when they should be experiencing shame, and they have a broad cohort of people who support them in their denial.

Women in recent weeks who have spoken out about what has happened to them have forced a significant number of men to acknowledge wrongdoing, but it is striking how often such apologies have been imprecise and generic: “I apologize if I hurt anyone.” Much of the time these men are so accustomed to treating women as objects that they are genuinely unaware of the psychological damage they have done to their victims. These men show a startling lack of empathy. Otherwise they would be unwilling to inflict such harm. Unless men come to see women as subjects rather than objects, only the fear of embarrassment and punishment will affect their conduct, and that would be insufficient to stop it. Making permanent change requires re-education of men – athletes, executives, actors, politicians, laborers and schoolboys. It also requires the creation of circumstances that protect women who speak out.

Permanent change also requires policy changes. Partly to avoid lawsuits and partly to protect productivity, more organizations are adopting policies regarding relationships among employees, use of demeaning language, safe reporting mechanisms, and so on. Such policies ought to be adopted by all employers and organizations. Responsible leadership involves checking to ensure that such policies are in place, that everyone in the organization knows about them, and that they are enforced in a way that protects complainants from retribution.

In Jewish organizations, female staff members are sometimes subjected to sexist treatment and outright harassment by board members and other volunteers. Some of the worst behavior of this kind has been exhibited by wealthy donors who expect “special treatment” in light of their gifts, creating awkward and unpleasant situations for women who do fundraising. This will only stop when senior executives, and particularly senior male executives, step in and make it clear that such conduct is unacceptable. Of course it takes moral courage to do so because there is a risk that a major donor may walk away from the organization, but the integrity of the organization and the safety of its staff and volunteers ought to take precedence. The obligation to protect the kavod, dignity, of others and the obligation to offer tokhekha ought to take precedence in every Jewish organization.

While it is true that the overwhelming number of sexual harassment incidents involves men treating women, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations are victimized. When men and boys are harassed and exploited, they might be fearful to come forward because of notions of masculinity and entrenched homophobia in our society. Homophobia also contributes to the harassment of lesbians, who might be targeted precisely because they are not sexually available to men. Protection for all whistle blowers and swift and meaningful punishments are needed if the impact of #metoo is to be long-lasting.

One of the steps needed to ensure that the changes underway retain their momentum is to ensure that the consequences are appropriate to the crimes. Unwanted touching is morally reprehensible, but it is not nearly as heinous as rape or child molestation. The frequency of wrongdoing, its seriousness, the age of the victim and the impact on the victim and on the broader environment all deserve careful consideration when deciding how to respond. Speedy, thorough investigations, measured punishments, and public disclosure are part of what is needed to bring the changes American society needs to sustain our commitment to human dignity.

When Jewish organizations attempt to protect perpetrators rather than call them to account, we compound the injury to those who have been harmed. While certain ethical violations are appropriately addressed by employers, allegations of criminal wrong-doing should be adjudicated in courts of law. Yet another response – particularly when crimes occurred long in the past – is to pursue a course of restorative justice. This is an approach that brings victims, offenders, and community members together to make a plan for restitution and reconciliation. This approach aligns with Jewish ethical teachings in that it seeks justice for victims even as it supports offenders in pursuing t’shuva.

What we are saying, in short, is that Jewish ethics requires us to do proper education and training around these issues; that organizations of all sorts must have procedures in place to do swift and fair investigations and mete out appropriate punishments; that people who come forward with complaints must be protected; that leaders have an obligation to create an atmosphere that actively discourages abuses of power; and that Jewish leadership requires the ongoing defense of human dignity. With all those changes, harassment will finally become fully disreputable in all its forms – from cat-calls on the street to propositions at work, from ogling to touching to outright violence.

The #metoo campaign has brought us to the threshold of a transformative shift in our culture. Brave women, children and men have taken the risk of telling the truth, offering reproof to harassers and abusers and to the leaders and institutions that have protected them. Let’s work together to ensure that these acts of bravery become a foundation for lasting change.

Rabbi David Teutsch, Ph.D., is the former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Rabbi Mira Wasserman, Ph.D., directs the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Colllege’s Center for Jewish Ethics.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College & Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.



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