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American Values, Religious Voices: A Letter to America’s Leadership

Elsie Stern

Photo of Elsie Stern

Elsie Stern, Ph.D., Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Bible, RRC

On the 50th day of President Joe Biden’s administration, Elsie Stern, Reconstructing Judaism’s vice president for academic affairs, penned a letter addressed to the president, vice president and all members of the 177th Congress. This wasn’t a lone act but done in conjunction with American Values, Religious Voices: a national, nonpartisan campaign to demonstrate how the teachings of diverse religious traditions can offer insight into shared American values. Starting on Inauguration Day, a diverse array of religious scholars has been sending a letter a day for 100 days, to the president, vice president and members of Congress.

Four years ago, Stern was instrumental in launching the project.  The compilation of 2017 letters was later published by the University of Cincinnati Press as American Values, Religious Voices: 100 Days, 100 Letters (University of Cincinnati Press, 2019). Reflecting on the 2017 campaign,  Stern, who wrote Letter 100 in that first collection, noted, “I would love to see this project with every presidential election. I think this one grew out of a sense of urgency and anxiety, but the idea that these incredibly wise religious traditions have a lot to say to folks who have just ascended to positions of enormous power isn’t specific to this moment.” 

Read Stern’s March 10 letter below, or view it on the American Values, Religious Voices website by clicking here

Dear President Biden, Vice-President Harris, and Members of the 117th Congress,

I write on the fiftieth day of your administration — the midpoint of your first 100 days.

In Jewish time, we are also “in the thick of it.” We are in the middle of the Jewish calendar and about halfway between the holidays of Purim and Passover. In our annual cycle of scripture readings, we are almost halfway through the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Each of these middle moments has its own character and its own message.

In the Hebrew calendar, we are in the month of Adar, about which we are advised to increase joy. In the middle moments, the euphoria of a new start wanes, and we need to work harder to maintain buoyancy, optimism and vision. At the same time, we are halfway between Purim and Passover. On Purim, we read the book of Esther, which reminded us of the danger of chaos and misrule. On Passover, we will celebrate the possibility of liberation. In this space in between, the fear and relief of Purim linger even as we begin to anticipate the liberation to come.

This week we are also nearing the middle of the Torah, as we finish the account of the building of the tabernacle in the book of Exodus. This is an “all hands on deck” project whose results are palpably transformative: “When Moses finished the work…the Presence of God filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34). The completion of the tabernacle makes a place for the holy amidst the nation. Next week, we will begin reading Leviticus — a policy and procedures manual for the ancient priests. Thus this juncture in the Torah reminds us that both the adrenaline fueled act of building and the ongoing efforts of governing (be it temple or nation) are sacred work.

In this moment in the middle, may you find energy and joy as you lead us, we hope, from chaos to liberation, past the highs of the “start-up” phase into the sustained work of governing. May your work create the conditions for wholeness, justice, and peace for all in our midst.

In peace,

Elsie R. Stern, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

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