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.