Civilian Oversight of Chicago Police: Avodah Alumni and Partners Secure Major Win for Public Safety

After years of community actions and meetings in Chicago, the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance passed recently, creating the most comprehensive civilian oversight of a police department in the country. 

ECPS is designed to create a system of accountability for the Chicago police force, ensuring the health and safety of Chicago communities. The passing of the ordinance means the establishment of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability and the creation of more than 60 new elected officials. 

The Chicago Police Department has a reputation for corruption and misconduct that goes back decades. In 2014, an officer was caught on camera firing 16 bullets into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Despite the video evidence, it took a year for the officer to be criminally charged. It was the first time a Chicago police officer had been charged for an on-duty killing of a citizen in almost 35 years. The many previous attempts to reform the Chicago Police Department were thwarted by bureaucratic systems and lack of support from key elected officials, including previous mayors. 

“Chicago is notorious for the way our political system works and how it undermines the authority of the community, but we can win. And we have. And we will continue to win, as long as we remember that,” said Cydney Wallace, an Avodah Justice Fellowship alum (2017-2018). “Even if you’re facing a brick wall, if you keep chipping away and pushing on it, eventually it will break down. It’s really scary, but you have to keep working at it. You will encourage others to help make that change. The next person might be able to break the wall down.” 

The ordinance is a historic win for public safety and criminal justice reform made possible by a coalition of more than 100 community organizations, including an Avodah placement organization, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA). JCUA has been a leader on the effort for five years, with many Avodah alumni and Corps Members playing an integral role in JCUA’s contributions to the ordinance. 

“The success of this campaign is a testament to the persistence of the community leaders who took action,” said Jonathan Elbaz, another Justice Fellowship alum (2019-2020), who serves as the JCUA’s Communications Manager. “The coalition was composed of communities of all different backgrounds, races, faith traditions — we all shared similar goals but were coming at this from different experiences.”

Jonathan put his skills to use, helping to pen and execute strategies to garner public support. His time in the Justice Fellowship furthered his engagement in local activism.

“Avodah is a convener of really passionate, progressive Jews in Chicago — it connected me with other activists and organizers working in this city. Many of those leaders were involved in this victory for ECPS,” said Jonathan. “Avodah opened up a new sense of Jewish history and resistance for me — I saw new narratives about how Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere resisted unjust state power, took action, and had been in solidarity with non-Jewish communities. All of those values went into JCUA’s campaign for police accountability.”

“We all have the same goals and agendas — a healthy, safe environment for our families,”  Cydney said. “We just want to live and be free of unnecessary danger.”

Cydney volunteers on JCUA’s Community Safety Committee and is the co-founder of Kol Or, the organization’s Jews of Color Caucus. She has also been a board member for the last three years. She attended her first police accountability meeting in 2016 and has been heavily involved in the effort since, representing the JCUA on the coalition’s strike team, which met every week to make decisions about changes to the ordinance. Her experience in Avodah’s Justice Fellowship shifted her mindset around working with other community members.

“I genuinely thought white and white-presenting people knew what was going on and were choosing not to do anything about it. Hearing people be shocked at things like redlining — you can’t fake the kind of shock they had,” said Cydney. “It was really helpful for me to see the biases we all have and start having those conversations.”

While the passing of the ECPS ordinance is a major win, the work isn’t over. For the next year and a half, the coalition members will be reaching out to Chicago residents and encouraging them to run for the newly created Commission positions. On top of that, JCUA recognizes that the ordinance is not the end goal — just one step in the right direction to reimagining public safety. The coalition members will continue to fight for campaigns like “treatment not trauma,” which seeks to lessen the reliance on police in mental health crises. 

“These are our communities — we work, we live, we teach in these communities,” emphasized Cydney. “Jeremiah 29:7 says, ‘In its peace you shall have peace.’ I get that a lot of people question, ‘What does this matter to us?’ Nobody is safe until everybody is safe. Sometimes it will be you who’s not safe. We have people that are LGBTQ, have mental or physical disabilities, immigrants from other countries… We cannot allow violence to happen just because we don’t see it as ‘us.’”

A Pilot with a Purpose: New CBS show ‘The Activist’ features Avodah alum Rachel Sumekh

When you think of reality TV, the type of content that comes to mind may not be the most… meaningful. A new CBS show, The Activist, aims to change that. Its first season airs on October 22, and it features one of our very own Avodah alumni, Rachel Sumekh.

The Activist is a competition where select activists are paired with high-profile public figures. The teams work together to address one of three important social causes: health, education, and environment. The person who gains the most support for their cause will be taken to the G20 Summit in Italy.

Rachel is an Avodah Chicago alum (2012-13). She is an Iranian Jew, a Los Angeles native, and self-described “big time Avodah fan girl.” She is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger, which is focused on ending college student hunger. The organization has served 2.5 million meals and helped pass over $70 million in legislation to combat food insecurity.

“I never thought I’d be on a reality show,” says Rachel, “But I’m not one to say no to the chance to take our cause to millions of people overnight.”

Want to help Rachel win? Follow along on Instagram or Twitter before September 1 and comment using the hashtag, #GiveEmHealthRachel.

Housing is a Civil Right: D’var Torah for Parashat Re’eh

Last week, we probed the Torah’s preemptive disgust at wealth hoarding, class entitlement, and civic irresponsibility, which crouched at the threshold of the Land of Israel, ready to seduce the Israelites as soon as they became securely housed landowners and stewards. This week, the Torah implements legal structures to ward off such wealth disparity. Whereas in Leviticus 25, the focus of the laws of the Sabbatical year was on ecological harmony, with the land observing a Shabbat of rest, here, in Deuteronomy, the focus is on economic equity: “Every seventh year you shall make a remission. This is the matter of the remission: every creditor who holds a loan against their comrade, shall remit; they shall not demand of their his comrade or kin, for the remission proclaimed is for YHWH” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 15:1-2). The Torah quickly makes explicit the goal of this policy: “there shall be no pauper among you” (ibid., 4). The Torah’s goal is the elimination of poverty. The Torah knows that major legislative structures do not solve all problems, though; if loans are to be forgiven, maybe rich people will simply stop lending and people struggling financially will have no pathway to financial recovery. “Should there be a pauper among you, from one of your kin, within one of your gates in the land that YHWH your God is about to give to you, do not harden your heart nor clench your hand against your kin, the pauper. Rather, open — yes open — your hand to them, and lend — yes, lend — to them enough for their lack, whatever is lacking for them” (ibid., 7-8). The Torah speaks to comfortable people here: always lend, even though you may not recoup it, and lend for whatever people lack. Before we continue, stop and think for a minute: what do people need? What counts as a lack and what is “enough for their lack/דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ”? Who determines it? How should a government regulate provision of needs?

The Rabbis operationalize this question with regard to people in a social category most likely to lack access to financial support at a time when costs are heaviest, thereby declaring that it is not just individuals liable for the the laws of our parasha, but it is, at least sometimes, the state’s responsibility to make the terms and goals of Torah law a reality (Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 67b, based on Tosefta Ketubot 6:8): 

“An orphan who comes forward to be married: A house is rented for him, and a bed and all his furniture are arranged for him, and after that, we marry him to a wife, as is said, “enough for his lack, whatever is lacking for him” (Deut. 15:8): ‘Enough for their lack’ — this is a house; ‘whatever is lacking’ — this is a bed and table; ‘for him’ — this is a wife, and so does it say: ‘I will make for him a sustainer, alongside him’ (Bereishit/Genesis 2:18).” For the Rabbis, human needs which the state is obligated to provide, include, at the least, furnished housing and stable relationships of care and support. Housing is at the root of this analysis: the midrashic definition of “enough for their lack” is housing. The Torah requires us to keep everyone housed; housing is a civil right.

This law does not just apply to providing housing to those who lack it, but making sure that when people are financially struggling, that they do not lose their homes. The Mishna (Pe’ah 8:8) legislates the poverty line, ie, the amount of assets below which a person is eligible to collect welfare. The Mishna sets that line at 200 Zuz; while historians struggle to estimate the assumed value of this amount of money, because economic disruptions changed the value over time, the most standard Rabbinic estimation, by the Or Zarua‘ (Rav Yitzhak ben Moshe, c. 1200-c.1270, Vienna; Or Zarua‘ I, Laws of Tzedakah 14), quantifies this poverty line as enough money for food and clothing for a year for a married couple. The Mishna clarifies that this poverty line describes liquid assets, money actually available for spending on household needs: property that is mortgaged as a lien to a creditor, or committed to a marriage insurance contract (ketubah) does not count as assets for this purpose. You don’t fully own anything that a debtor might come to collect from you tomorrow. Finally, the Mishna stipulates that housing does not count against one’s assets: “They are not obligated to sell their house or practical goods.” If the goal is to get struggling people back on their feet, so that “there shall be no pauper among you”, we have to keep people housed. If you lack access to liquid capital for a year’s worth of household necessities, you may collect public assistance; if you have stable housing, great! You’re more likely to be able to get stably on your feet via public aid. Housing is a civil right.

What about renters? What is Torah and Rabbinic policy for how to keep renters stably housed? The Mishna (Bava Metzia‘ 8:7-9) legislates that landlords are required by law to provide “the door, the bolt, the lock, and anything which is the work of an artisan”, ie any feature of a home that a civilian could not keep up on their own. The Talmud (Bava Metzia‘ 101b) adds other details indicating that the landlord is obligated to maintain and pay for all structural elements of the home. If the home collapses, the Mishna teaches that the landlord must rebuild it as the same sort of housing as it was at the beginning of the lease: a landlord may not neglect a unit until it collapses and then rebuild a bigger or smaller unit that would be ill-fitting this tenant’s needs, in order to push them out and squeeze higher rent out of someone else. 

Moreover, a landlord’s rights to evict are severely curtailed. If a lease has unspecified duration, then during the summer months, a landlord must give 30 days’ notice and during the winter half of the year, the landlord may not evict a tenant at all, as the Rambam (1135-1204, Egypt & Spain) summarizes Rabbinic law: “One who rents a house to another without specification may not evict them without notifying them thirty days in advance, so as to enable them to find a place and not be thrown into the street, and at the end of those thirty, they must leave. When does this apply? In the summer, but during the rainy season, they may not evict them at all, from Sukkot until Pesach” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Renting 6:7). As a matter of applied law, later authorities adapt the Talmudic principles to their own settings, expansively protecting tenants from evictions. The rabbinic court in Meknes, Morocco, decreed that any lease, even a short-term rental, such as a month-to-month, shall be considered as a 12-month rental for the purposes of housing security: “We have agreed, and set forth a ruling, that whoever rents an apartment from this day onward, the owner shall not be able to make the renter leave it for a whole year. The year will start in the [spring] month of Iyar, and end in the month of Iyar, and the owner will not be able to make this person leave at all throughout this time. And the owner shall not increase the amount of rent due, and the only time that the amount could be raised is in the month of Iyar specifically. And even if the owner should make an agreement with the person renting the apartment to let him live there for six months, the owner still does not have the right to make him leave without his will before the month of Iyar. And we shall keep this ruling as our custom here for all generations to come” (cited in Rabbi Prof. Moshe Amar, Sefer Takanot, the Sages of Meknes, Morocco: 1996, as brought in Raphael Magarik and Tamar Zaken, “Are We In This Together? Rent Cancellation and COVID 19”.)

Not only that, but it is actually a matter of controversy in halakha whether non-payment of rent is a legal ground for eviction. Most opinions rule that it is, but it is not unanimous or settled. The Ritba (Seville, Spain, c. 1260-1330) takes for granted that if a parent rented a house and died, the children or other inheritors may use the property for the entirety of the rental and are not obligated in the rent, since the parent does bequeath property (eg the rental home for that period of time), but does not bequeath to them the financial responsibility for those possessions (Ritba, comment to Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 34b). Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1837, Posen, Poland), while balking at Ritba’s ruling, explains his legal rationale as follows: “immediately when their father rented, he took on a monetary debt, and he acquired the usage-right. And the inheritors can say, ‘Our father died, and we inherit the usage-right, but we won’t pay his debt.’ And it’s like one who bought moveable objects and didn’t give the money; the heirs get the objects but don’t pay the debt. Here, too, temporary rental is like a purchase” (comment to Shu”A, HM 341:3). Contemporary halakhic writer Rabbi Baruch Meir Levin, explains, “And according to the Ritva, apparently it would turn out that the same rule would apply to a renter who does not pay, that the landlord would not be able to evict him from the house and would only be able to continue to strive to receive the rental payment” (Landlord and Tenant in Halacha [2019], p. 83, n140). Dr. Raphael Magarik and Tamar Zaken explain further in their 2020 T’ruah guide to rent cancellation and COVID-19:

“In American law, there is a parallel distinction between debt that is evictable and consumer debt. That is, if you happen, independently, to owe your landlord money (say you bought a car from them and never paid), that is typically not evictable….The point…is that it is not so clear that Jewish law regards rental payments as evictable. You may owe the landlord money, and they can take you to a court and claim it. But they cannot necessarily evict you.” Rent may just be consumer debt, but not a prerequisite for staying in one’s home.

Granted, the Ritba’s position is not the majority view; nevertheless, there is precedent for Rabbinic courts ruling practically that a landlord may not evict a tenant for non-payment of rent. Magarik and Zaken cite a case, brought in Levin’s book, of Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg-Alter (1799-1866, Poland, the first Rebbe of the Ger Hasidic dynasty), who ruled against a wealthy landlord who tried to evict a tenant for non-payment of rent. The Gerer Rebbe compared the cash-strapped renter to the Mishna’s case (Gittin 4:5) of a person who is “half enslaved and half free”, and therefore eligible to marry neither an enslaved nor a free person, whom the slaver is obligated to free: Reasoned the Gerer Rebbe: “one might ask, ‘Why is his master obligated to take all the loss? Let the enslaved man go and gather contributions to redeem himself!’ Rather, you must say that since the enslaved man fell into the portion of the master, it’s on him to absorb the loss. And also here, since he’s your renter, it’s on you to bear this.” 

“‘Half-slave, half-free,’” Magarik and Zaken write, “is a beautiful way of talking about what it is to be a renter in the contemporary world: you can theoretically move anywhere, but anywhere you go, the yoke of rent is on you. The market promises choice but delivers exploitation. You live in the space in between what you can earn and what you’re obliged to pay, and at the end of the year, someone else has accumulated the money you’ve spent on housing.” Unpacking the logic of a 2020 legal responsum by Rav Asher Weiss that apartment renters in Israel were entitled to rent reductions when they left Israel during the COVID pandemic to return to their overseas home of origin, and were then unable to return to Israel for a long time, Magarik and Zaken bring home the legal implications of this rabbinic attitude to the landlord-tenant relationship: 

“[F]undamentally, we think that low-income renters who are remaining in their apartments but can no longer access their jobs are deprived of a significant, basic benefit from their rentals. On the level of svara (common sense), the economic reason most workers rent apartments in expensive places (e.g. the Bay area, New York, Chicago, etc.) rather than cheap ones (much of the country) is because those rentals afford them access to job markets with better wages. The heightened demand for apartments in expensive places, and thus the prices renters pay, is based on the presumption of access to jobs. Part of the point, in our opinion, is that one cannot cleanly divide between ‘residential’ and ‘commercial’ renters, since economically, low-wage workers have to rent apartments to access jobs. And thus realistically, one ought to disaggregate the benefits such workers typically receive, and if workers cannot work en masse, to reduce the rent.”

I’d like to close with a story about a 2nd Century Sage which reminds us of the emotional response to homelessness animating these laws protecting housing as a civil right, an emotional response which we should strive to hold onto, even as our dystopian state tries to dull us: “Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Hanania went to Rome and there he saw pillars of marble covered with thick blankets, so that they would not crack in the heat nor freeze in the cold. When he went outside, he ran into a poor person, with a thin reed mat beneath him and a thin reed mat on top of him. About the pillars, he read the verse, ‘Your beneficence is like the high mountains’ (Psalms 36:7), saying, ‘When You give, You give with abundance’. About the poor person, he read the verse, ‘Your judgments are the great deep’ (ibid.), saying, ‘When You beat down, You are exacting’” (Midrash VaYikra Rabbah 27:1). The sight of an unhoused human being lacking basic protection in a city so wealthy as to spend lavishly on climate control for buildings is a shocking, appalling sight, something that merits speaking in an, ominous, mythic, Biblical register. Homelessness is theologically challenging, forcing us to upend the meaning of Biblical poetry about God’s vast justice to describe, instead, God’s cruelty, as we name the horrific cruelties of God’s world. Homelessness is something that is associated with Rome, an evil empire, an occupier that murders Sages and dissidents. As long as there is any pauper in the land, as long as anyone lacks basic needs, as long as anyone is unhoused, we must experience that horror and translate it urgently into law. Housing a civil right.

Shabbat shalom.

To learn more, see Rabbi Jill Jacobs, There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law & Tradition (Jewish Lights, 2009) and Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press, 2011).

Wealth Hoarding is Incompatible with Religious Life: D’var Torah for Parashat ‘Eikev

The main theme of this week’s parasha is the entitlement and arrogance of rich people. The main thesis is that that entitlement and that arrogance, the main features of wealth, undermine religious life and social responsibility. While this theme and this thesis are pervasive, let’s train our focus on one particularly sharp articulation (Devarim/Deuteronomy 8:11-20):

“Be on guard lest you forget YHWH your God and neglect to observe [God’s] commandments, rules, and laws, which I command you today. Lest you eat and be sated, and build fine houses and dwell in them, and your cattle and sheep multiply, and your silver and gold multiply for you, and everything you have multiplies, and your heart becomes haughty and you forget YHWH your God — Who brings you out of the land of Egypt, from the slave house; Who leads you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions and thirst, where there is no water; Who brings you water out from flintstone; Who feeds you manna in the wilderness, which your parents had never known, in order to afflict you and in order to try you, to make it go well for you in the end — and you say in your heart, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand made me this wealth’, Remember that it is YHWH your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in order to fulfill the covenant sworn to your ancestors, as on this day. And if you do, indeed, forget YHWH your God and go after other gods and serve them or bow down to them, I bear witness against you today that you shall certainly perish. Like the nations that YHWH will cause to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not heed the voice of YHWH your God.”

The Rabbis offer us a Tl;Dr summary, since this message is as elusive as it is simple: “Human beings rebel against God only from satiety” (Midrash Sifrei Devarim #43). Accumulation of wealth leads to entitlement and arrogance, which leads to forgetting God, Who brings us out of Egypt. Moreover, rich people’s entitlement is the essential cause of rejection of God. Any other cause is a distraction: “Human beings rebel against God only from satiety.” Being rich is incompatible with religious Judaism. This idea is pervasive throughout Torah literature, but the pressures against dependent Torah teachers not to make rich people uncomfortable has led to the neglect of this prominent Torah theme. Maybe that’s not the reason why people tiptoe around the idea or skip it entirely; I don’t know. That’s just my sociological speculation. I’ll stick to my lane and share some representative Rabbinic passages unpacking the implications of the incompatibility of being rich with Torah life.

Rabbi Yitzhak Arama (c. 1420–1494, Spain) unpacks our verses with his own observations: “The impediments to achieving ultimate purpose are twofold, and stem from people having either too much or too little. Of the two impediments, having too much is undoubtedly the greater impediment on our path towards salvation. A surplus of worldly goods acts as a greater hindrance to our achieving our spiritual goals than a shortage of such material possessions. We know of many poor people who became great Torah scholars, whereas only a few Jews managed to combine both material wealth and great spiritual leadership in one person. Among those blessed with wealth, some have used it to provide comforts for their families, others, such as the tribe of Zevulun, to enable others to pursue a life of Torah study not interrupted by the need to earn a livelihood. However, the vast majority were snared by material wealth to feed their own greed. As a result, all the good their wealth might have accomplished was wasted. Of the latter people, David says ‘they have ended their days in vanity, their years in confusion’ (Psalms 78:33). Deuteronomy 8:11-14, warns of the dangers of wealth which can lead one astray” (Akeidat Yitzhak 41 1:6). That is why, he explains, God made the people sustain themselves through manna for their first forty years of communal life, which was given equally, in abundance, and with no possibility for accumulation. The necessary training for the possibility of engaging in commercial choice was years of radical equality, provided by the Central Government, God Godself. If you hold a lot of wealth, that means you have an urgent responsibility to redistribute it, because it is not properly yours and puts you in grave danger.

The Hid”a (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806, Jerusalem) raises an astute observation. The Torah expects that rich people will forget God and threatens Divine capital punishment for doing so. How can God punish someone for forgetfulness? Much ink has been spilled in the Jewish legal tradition, in general, as to whether one can be held accountable for forgetting something. While many authorities argue that one can, many others argue that one cannot, since forgetting is involuntary, almost by definition, and therefore should be regarded as an unavoidable circumstance, for which one cannot be held legally liable. However, notes the Hid”a, everyone agrees that if one begins with criminal negligence and ends under unavoidable circumstances, one is legally liable. For example, if you have legally committed to being a guardian of someone’s property and you exercised negligence — eg, failing to secure it properly, and then later lost it under unavoidable circumstances, you’re liable (Shulhan Arukh, HM 291:6). The Hid”a explains that the attitudes of entitlement and arrogance that accompany wealth accumulation (“your heart becomes haughty”) are themselves criminal, and therefore, even if the subsequent forgetting is involuntary, you’re liable for it: it is a product of your criminal entitlement (Homat Anakh on Deut. 8:13, cited in A.Y. Greenberg’s ‘Itturei Torah VI, p. 67).

What is the character of forgetting God about which the Torah is so concerned, against which the Torah warns so grimly, and which it sees as a direct consequence of wealth accumulation? Surely any rich person reading this is saying, “Well, that doesn’t refer to me. I’m not that kind of rich person; I haven’t forgotten God. After all, I’m studying Torah right now!” There are many rich people deeply committed and habituated to mitzvot and religious practices and deeply committed to the community. Does that empirically disprove the Torah’s thesis in this week’s parasha? Alternatively, does it show that wealth accumulation has risks, but it’s possible to overcome them through devotion and dedication? If you’re rich, just keep praying and learning and doing the mitzvot, and working extra hard to praise God for the gold, silver, big houses, and wealth you’ve accumulated? Who is the God whom you must not forget? “YHWH your God Who brings you out of Egypt”. Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap (1882-1951, Jerusalem) notes that the verb is in the present continuous tense, not the past tense: “Who brings you out”, not the more common, “Who brought you out”. Even if you remember that God brought you out, in the past, as an historical event, “but you don’t feel that the exodus from Egypt continues uninterrupted eternally, at each and every moment, this is considered forgetting God, which comes from arrogance.” (Mei Marom, cited in ‘Itturei Torah VI, p. 67). Another recent expression of this was expressed in a famous 1966 letter to the Chicago Federation of the Reform Movement, by one of their leaders, Rabbi Robert Marx (1936-2021, Chicago), founder of Avodah placement the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, explaining why he was taking the very controversial step of publicly aligning with the fair housing movement, marching with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the masses of poor Black Chicagoans uprising against racist, exploitative abuses Black people faced — and still face — in the housing market: “I feel that freedom is Judaism, that Passover is not 3,000 years old — that it is today, and that we are part of it. I feel even more deeply that unless Jews — Jews who are devoted to their faith and their synagogues, as I am devoted to my faith and my synagogue — unless all of us are involved in the crucial issues of the world, Judaism will not exist in future generations for our children and our children’s children. And perhaps it ought not to exist.” If we remember that the exodus from Egypt is ongoing, that God is still liberating the oppressed, that Passover is today, then then we must be in the movement to stop rich people from hoarding wealth they’ve accumulated by shaking down the poor and vulnerable, the wealth they’ve hoarded by underpaying workers for labor, by outsourcing jobs to the least regulated market, by wiggling out of their responsibility to pay taxes, by abusing the planet and sticking the bill on the public and dumping toxins most aggressively where poor people live. Jewish continuity is worthless if it is not grounded in wealth redistribution.

Our parasha says J’Accuse to people pre-emptively smacking their lips at the bounty of a land to which they may already be starting to feel entitled. The Rabbinic tradition continues to do so. The Talmud records a disgusted condemnation of its contemporary, wealthy Jews: “Rav Natan bar Abba said that Rav said: The wealthy of Babylonia will descend to Gehenna.” The Talmud connects this to the experience of one Shabbetai bar Marinus, who came to Babylonia and requested participation in a mutually beneficial business venture, but was shut out and refused by the local wealth-hoarders, who then added insult to injury by refusing even to provide this visitor with food. The Talmud approvingly quotes the conclusion he drew that these rich people are not Jewish. “Anyone who has compassion for creatures, it is known that they are of the descendants of Avraham, our father, and anyone who does not have compassion for creatures, it is known that he is not of the descendants of Avraham, our father” (Talmud Bavli, Beitzah 32b). Similarly, the Talmud elsewhere attributes to King David the recognition of three distinctive, identifying marks of Jews: “They are compassionate, they are bashful, and they are performers of lovingkindness” (Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 79a).

I know what you’re thinking: this is bigoted, self-serving, and empirically ridiculous ethnic essentialism, and yes, unavoidably, some rich people in our community will make farcical claims on the backs of these texts: Jews are definitionally kind, and I’m a big-shot Jew, so what I do is kind. The Rabbinic tradition reads in a different direction, a direction more like Rabbi Marx’s framing of what Judaism means. The Rambam (Rav Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204, Egypt, Spain) uses these texts to warn us against cruelty in three different legal contexts. In the laws of tzedaka, he warns that if anyone who balks at redistributing their money “and is cruel and not compassionate, we should suspect their lineage, because cruelty is the domain of idolatry” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:2). When someone has paid appropriate restitution for a damage they did to another person, shows genuine contrition, and asks for forgiveness appropriately, the person they originally wronged should not dig in on their grudge and refuse reconciliation, as “this is not the way of the seed of Israel” (Laws of Injury and Damage 5:10). Finally, in the laws about marriage and sexual relationships, the Rambam codifies the Rabbis’ strenuous urging that Jews not delegitimize other Jews, questioning their status and lineage: “all [Jewish] families have the legal presumption of legitimacy and it is permitted to marry with them.” Then he shares the exemptions, including, “anyone who is arrogant or cruel, disdains creatures and does not show kindness should be suspected” for not being a Jew (Laws of Forbidden Intercourse 19:17). In other words, the Rabbis are saying: if you conduct yourself in corrupt, cruel, or sociopathic ways, you’ll be ex-communicated. The root core of that inadmissible behavior is wealth hoarding. And we’re willing to lose members over maintaining that culture.

I’ll close with a story from, perhaps, a more courageous moment in American Jewish history, when the message of this week’s parasha was, perhaps, more embraced by the rabbinic class. Nelson Morris (1838-1907) was one of the richest men in America at the turn of the previous century, through wealth accumulated as owner of one of Chicago’s three meatpacking empires, Morris & Co. — companies notorious for wage theft, vicious strike-breaking, horrific safety conditions and animal abuse, as depicted in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle. He was also a prominent member of Sinai Temple. One day, he walked in to services in the majestic, 2,500-seat sanctuary, on the same day that the Chicago newspapers splashed a lead story that Morris’s company was stealing from the city by building pipes around the city’s water meters in order to avoid paying for the exorbitant amount of water used in his factory. Sinai’s rabbi, Dr. Emil G. Hirsch (1851-1923) sermonized that day on the law we read last Shabbat in the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shalt Not Steal”, and deep into his sermon, pointed at Nelson Morris, and quoting the words of Nathan the Prophet to King David after David sent innocent Uriah to his death in order to take his wife, Bathsheba (II Samuel 12:7), the rabbi thundered at Morris, before the stunned congregation, “Thou art the man!” Morris walked out and Sinai lost him as a member. Had he not said it like it was, they would have lost Torah as a member.

Shabbat shalom.


Helping Move Others to Brighter Futures: Elianna’s Service Year in Review

“It’s really powerful to be connected to people and organizations in the fields of social justice and change-making in Maryland,” says Service Corps Member Elianna Cooper (2020-2021 DC cohort). 

Elianna has spent the last year serving as the Montgomery County Community Organizer for Jews United for Justice (JUFJ). The organization’s work spans issues including state-level immigrant rights, prison reform, and police accountability. Much of Elianna’s work has been tied to the legislative cycle, changing what her role looks like on a day-to-day basis. Before session, for instance, she focused on political issue education and helped set up pre-session meetings with legislators. During the session, she watched Maryland Senate and House hearings, facilitated watch parties, and tracked the status of different bills. 

Elianna focuses on advocacy, helping volunteers to prepare and give legislative testimony, going to actions, hosting legislative watch parties, and organizing political education events. One of her fondest memories took place at the very end of the Maryland General Assembly, during which the legislators worked until midnight. Elianna and her JUFJ colleagues hosted a virtual Zoom event that framed this level of dedication with a Jewish lens. “It was really powerful to be on Zoom until midnight with people that were also engaging and watching the session until the very last second.”

JUFJ’s model works in coalition with locally based partner organizations, allowing Elianna to engage with various community leaders. “The JUFJ leader base is full of incredible, smart and kind people who are really invested in the work. I’ve enjoyed learning and growing from them. Through my placement, I have grown a lot professionally. I’ve been given substantive opportunities and robust responsibilities.” 

Her ability to handle those responsibilities have secured another opportunity for her — a job. Elianna will be staying on at JUFJ after her service year ends. “Throughout this work, I developed immense respect for the work that JUFJ does and the ecosystems where they work. I had a couple conversations with my supervisor about whether there was an opportunity for me to stay and we found that there was.”

Elianna and friends.

Outside of JUFJ, Elianna said she appreciates Avodah’s holistic approach to its Service Corps. She added that the communal living and Avodah programming she’s experienced over the last year has provided her with a “great space” for reflection and introspection, both privately and in community with others who are on similar journeys. 

She offers this advice to our incoming Service Corps cohort: “Approach everything with a deep sense of curiosity — be looking for the things you find engaging and resonant. Also, be confident. You have a lot you can contribute to your house, community and placement. You’re there to learn, but also to contribute.”

Elianna is excited to be continuing her advocacy work through JUFJ. “I really believe in change at the systemic level. A lot of the issue areas that myself and my housemates work on are, in a lot of ways, big and complicated. But, there are also real solutions to them. Especially legislators and communities working together can do things to make things better. Community organizing holds such a key role in moving people and communities toward brighter futures.”

Jewish Spirituality as a Life of the Law: Halakha and the Jewish Left — D’var Torah for Parashat VaEthanan

In our parasha, Moshe, in his final charge to the Israelites, completes the recapping of their story which occupied last week’s parasha and moves into his review of the mitzvot (commandments) and multiple exhortations not to abandon them upon entering the land. After warning them not to add or detract from the mitzvot, and reminding them how harshly God can punish violators, Moshe says the following (Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:5-8):

“Look, I have taught you laws and statutes, just as YHWH my God commanded me, to do accordingly within the land which you are about to enter to inherit. And you shall observe them and do them, for it is your wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the nations who will hear all these laws, such that they should say, ‘Surely, this is a wise and discerning people, this great nation!’ For what great nation is there whose god is close to it, as is YHWH our God in our every calling out to Him?! And what great nation has laws and statutes as just as this entire Torah, which I put before you today!?”

There are a couple of striking things about this passage, regarding the nature of Jewish law. First, it is the laws that are considered our wisdom before the nations, inducing them to proclaim our greatness. Other aspects of Jewish life may surround the mitzvot, but ultimately, the epicenter of our Jewishness before the nations is the mitzvot, which will wow our neighbors with their insight and justness. Second, not only are the laws good, but it is the laws that demonstrate God’s closeness to us. We should not understate the distance between the rhetoric of these verses from contemporary, (Christian?), popular conceptions about law and spirituality. Over the last century and change, many Jews — both those who reject mitzvot as well as those who observe them — claim that mitzvot and halakhot (commandments and laws) are arbitrary or meant to be not understood or that the pursuit of any reason for a mitzvah beyond “God commanded it” is futile and a waste of time. Religious versions of this philosophy can be found most explicitly in the writings of Yeshayahu Leibowitz and more elegantly in the writings of various rabbis of the Soloveitchik dynasty, including Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. That worldview is undercut by the Torah itself in these verses, which assert that the mitzvot should be so transparently comprehensible that non-Jews, upon learning about them, say, “Wow, what a smart and just law for a smart and just people!” Moreover, against a popular conception that the real heart of a spiritually connected life is ecstatic, rapturous, or meditative personal engagement with God, the Torah tells us here that it is our laws which impress our neighbors as reflecting a deep closeness with God.

The Torah’s conception seems pretty far from our experience. How could the Torah think that mitzvot would have such an effect?  To put it differently, how does the Torah here imagine the laws to be, so that they will have that effect in the world? And where does this passage point progressive and radical Jews to a relationship with halakha, Jewish law?

First of all, if the laws are our “wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the nations,” then that means that Halakhah must not be esoteric; it is meant to be accessible to anyone. One of the tests of any ruling or argumentation should be whether it can be comprehensibly explained to reasonable people who are curious and interested, even if they are not well-educated in Rabbinic texts or currently highly practicing of mitzvot. It also means that Jewish law must engage with the wisdom of the world. Rav Sh’muel bar Nahmani says in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: What is the source for it being a mitzvah to calculate astronomy? As it says, ‘for it is your wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the nations’. What are the wisdom and discernment that are in the eyes of the nations? Astronomy” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 75a). Jewish law must refract through the people’s wisdom, wherever it is located in any time and place. Halakha is not a list of stuff of interest to a clique; it is a culturally-specific prism through which we refract wisdom, a culturally-informed language through which we communicate knowledge and morality with the world.

Second, if Jewish law is meant to be widely and popularly inspiring, that means that it cannot be monovocal. It’s agility and potency must make room for human dispute, in accordance with the different assessments of reasonable people to the values at hand or the likely consequences, costs, and benefits and different choices. Good decisions are those considering values and consequences. Bad decisions are those that mechanically crunch supposed rules or formulae without translating them to the situation at hand. I can understand and respect a particular ruling in its own context while positing that in my own context, it would play out differently. Healthy mahloket (dispute) focuses on these actual differences of viewpoint.

Third, Torah must also be alive and growing. An early, medieval midrash captures what Rabbinic law is supposed to be in a parable offered by Elijah the Prophet to a “heretic” who embraced the written Torah, as a static, Divine text, but rejected Rabbinic, oral teachings. Elijah responded: “It’s like a king of flesh and blood, who had two subjects whom he loved completely. He gave each of them a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax. What did the intelligent one do? They wove the flax into a cloth and made flour from the wheat, sifted it, ground it, kneaded it, and baked it and arranged it on the table, spread the cloth upon it, and left it until the king returned. The foolish one did not do anything. After some days, the king came into his house and said to them: ‘My children, bring me what I gave you.’ One brought out the table set with the bread and the cloth spread upon it, and the other brought the wheat in a basket and the bundle of flax with it. Oh, what an embarrassment! Oh, what a disgrace! Which do you think was most beloved? The one who brought the table with the bread upon it!…(Similarly) when God gave the Torah to Israel, God gave it as wheat from which to make flour and flax from which to make clothing” (Midrash Eliyahu Zuta, Chapter 2). There are wrong ways to bake bread and there is bad bread, as much as there can be unsubstantiated legal interpretation and disgusting legislation. But there are many kinds of equally authentic, delicious bread, reflecting the personality, culture, climate, geography, and many other influences on the baker. Good baking requires attention, hard work, and investment. It also suggests adding ingredients for delicious flavoring and even adding essential, external ingredients, just as water must be added to flour to turn it into bread. Most boldly, preparing flour for baking involves sifting, removing pebbles and toxins which the discerning eye knows to be extraneous to the flour. (I thank Rabbi Jason Rubenstein for this observation.) When is Halakha stupid and embarrassing? When I don’t knead, sift, and bake it, with the naturally occurring yeast in my environment.

Fourth, Jewish law must be inspiring and wise. It must be freedom. A midrash which we discussed earlier this year, on Parashat Ki Tissa, teaches an important lesson about the nature of Torah via a wordplay on the Torah’s mention that the first tablets of the Ten Commandments were “God’s work…engraved upon the tablets (haruth al ha-luhot)” (Sh’mot/Exodus 32:16). Though commentators note that this word “haruth — חָרוּת” is synonymous with the more common word, “harut — חרוט”, it is an unusual, even unique spelling of the word. This anomaly leads the Rabbis to interpret the “misspelling” as a play on words, imbuing the verse with a double entendre: “Do not read, ‘haruth – חרות – engraved’, but ‘heiruth – חירות – freedom’” (Midrash VaYikra Rabbah 18:3). The Divine laws were physically carved into stone and they are engraved for us eternally as freedom. Three rabbis offer up different suggestions as to the nature of that freedom – freedom from mortality, freedom from political subjugation, or freedom from suffering — but they agree that mitzvot are freedom — not the false freedom which Toni Morrison exposes as mere “license” or personal choice (end of The Bluest Eye), but a communal, deep freedom from oppression. Leftists and organizers understand this very well. It’s the liberals who cherish everyone being able to do what they want. Leftists understand that that just means that people who have hoarded or been unjustly given excessive power will do what they want at the expense of people with less power, for whom freedom of choice will be a perverse, gaslighting, joke ideology. Freedom is law. Freedom is commandedness.

In light of the notion of freedom through law, the Rambam adds a sharp framing to his codification of the laws of pikuah nefesh, that saving a life overrides almost any other commandment, even a capital crime like Shabbat violation. First, the Rambam cites the law and its Scriptural hook, quoting the Talmud on Yoma 85b: “It is forbidden for one to hesitate to violate Shabbat for a sick person in danger, as is said, “‘that a person should do [the mitzvot] and live by them’ (VaYikra/Leviticus 18:5) – not that one should die by them.” The Rambam uncharacteristically goes off script, though, adding a comment beyond what the Talmud says there: “Here, you have learned that the Torah’s statutes are not revenge on the world, but mercy, lovingkindness, and peace on the world” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat 2:3). It follows, then, that if the mitzvot are achieving violence more than mercy, lovingkindness and peace, we are probably misunderstanding either what the mitzvah is (what it means, how it applies, and how to perform it), or we are misunderstanding the evaluation of mercy, lovingkindness, and peace.

Morality refers to our Divine responsibility as human beings. Halakhah refers to our Divine responsibility as Jews. These may not be totally co-extensive, but it’s impossible for them to be in conflict, unless we posit a cruel and capricious God. That means that if we perceive morality and Halakhah to be in conflict, we are misunderstanding one or the other, or both. Perhaps our perception of morality unfairly ignored a negative consequence out of the frame of our focus. Perhaps the proper ruling of Halakhah is counter to what we thought it to be: when you instinctively dismiss or reject a mitzvah, you might actually be sitting on a brilliant and necessary interpretive innovation as the application of that law in your circumstance. If the laws are to be our “wisdom and insight before the nations”, they must apply and extend morality, not compromise it, God forbid (literally). If the laws are to be accessible, morally compelling, and inspiring, that means that every law has purpose. As the Rambam writes in his philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed: “Each one of the 613 mitzvot is either to instill true ideas or to remove bad ideas, or to give straight order, or to remove corruption, or to become accustomed in good character traits, or to warn off from bad character traits. Everything stems from three things – ideas, character traits, and collective behavior” (Book III:31). Rav Kook (1865-1935, Latvia, Palestine) famously asserts that real fear of Heaven always improves upon general morality and cannot undermine it: “It is forbidden for fear of Heaven to compress natural human morality, for then it is no longer pure fear of Heaven. A sign of pure fear of Heaven is when natural morality, which is rooted in the upright nature of man, is continuously uplifted by it [i.e., by the Torah] to levels higher than it had reached without it” (Orot HaKodesh 3:11). Mitzvot, properly understood, advance civilization. This is what impresses the nations.

Finally, the law is our greatest language of spirituality. The nations, witnessing many approaches to spirituality, are most moved by the spirituality of commandedness, communal wisdom, accountability, responsibility: “‘For what great nation is there whose god is close to it, as is YHWH our God in our every calling out to Him?! And what great nation has laws and statutes as just as this entire Torah, which I put before you today!?’” The advent of Judaism as we know it, Rabbinic Judaism, coincides with God’s ceasing to speak to us through prophets. The Talmud (Bava Batra 12a) asserts that this reflects not a lesser, but greater, spiritual state: A Hakham (wise person), who has to use reason to figure out the Divine will, is preferable to a Navi (a prophet). Elsewhere, the Talmud (Gittin 56b) teaches that God’s silence is an expression of God’s greatness. These surprising sentiments are explained by the Jewish, French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas:  “Spirituality is offered up not through a tangible substance, but through absence. God is real and concrete not through incarnation but through Law, and His greatness is not inspired by His sacred mystery. His greatness does not provoke fear and trembling, but fills us with high thoughts. To hide one’s face so as to demand the superhuman of man, to create a man who can approach God and speak to Him without always being in His debt—that is a truly divine mark of greatness!” (from his essay “Loving the Torah More than God”, in the book Difficult Freedom). God’s silence is the greatest expression of love: God raised us, and showed us abundant love in giving us the commandments, through which we can achieve a life of justice and love, without having to return to the womb every step of the way. Such is a true life of mitzvot.

The most profound Jewish spirituality is a leftist spirituality: the spirituality of grounded, applied wisdom through law, the spirituality of endless responsibility and accountability, a true living Torah. Halakha awaits the Jewish left to speak it into its true being.

Shabbat Shalom.

Placement Perspectives: Service Corps Member Turned Supervisor

Diana and her daughter.

Diana Levy Moldovan has been involved with Avodah in multiple capacities, with involvement spanning more than a decade. In 2007, she became the first Service Corps Member to be placed at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice (SLJ) — and she’s worked there ever since.

“My Avodah experience was awesome. I had just graduated college and I knew I wanted to be in education — I just needed to figure out how to do that in a sustainable way,” says Diana. “Being matched with SLJ was really amazing for me personally and professionally. It allowed me to get my master’s and stay in education long-term. I’m now going into my 15th year as an educator in New York City.”

The skills Diana gained during her service year prepared her to be a leader within her community and to be able to manage Service Corps Members of her own. 

“They have great, fresh ideas and are driven to do well. I’ve had a lot of Corps Members over the years and most of the time they stay with us if we have a position available. Many have stayed with us two or three years after Avodah.”

Diana said that the quality and caliber of Avodah’s Corps Members sets them apart from other young professionals entering the field and leads to a significant impact on SLJ’s students. 

“The mission alignment with Avodah is super important and helpful. Everyone we ever interview, they want to learn and to serve others. They want to share their passions. All of that is super important. It’s also helpful that Avodah vets people — we know that they go through a process to be selected for this program. Because they are opting into this program, I know they’re seeing it as more than just a job — this a career, a calling.”

In their roles, Corps Members spend time getting to know students and helping them find programs that fit their interests. The goal is to find high quality opportunities for the youth at the lowest possible cost. This not only supports the students in their daily lives, but also prepares them for the college application process. 

Diana recalls one Corps Member who had a lasting impact, even after their time with SLJ. She had gone on to earn a master’s degree and work for another, similar organization. She served as an advisor to a former SLJ student. “The student reached out to me and said, ‘This person is now my advisor and she has single-handedly gotten me through this year of college.’ That’s the impact. She learned the trade while in Avodah, and it was a huge stepping stone. She then went on and made a transformative impact for someone else.”

Diana personally attests, “Avodah absolutely helps young professionals get a foot in the door for long-term careers. Many Corps Members stay in the field they served in, whether they choose to stay with their placement organization or move on to somewhere else. It’s also a great stepping stone for pursuing graduate programs and advanced degrees. It’s either a turning point that shows them what path they want to take or sets them up really well for their next step.”

There are limited spots remaining for the 2021-2022 Service Corps year in our program cities. Interested applicants can apply at

Civility, Assuming Good Will, and the Threats of Powerful Saboteurs: D’var Torah for Parashat Devarim & Tisha B’Av

This week we begin the book of Devarim, Moshe’s great, booklong speech to prepare the people for liberated, responsible, landed civic life after his imminent death. At the beginning, he recalls desert history (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:6-13):

“YHWH our God spoke to us at Horev, saying, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain.  Turn and make your journey: go to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the ‘Aravah, the hill country, the Lowlands, the Negev, the seacoast, the land of the Cana‘anites, and the Lebanon, as far as the Great River, the river Euphrates. See, I place the land before you.  Go and take possession of the land that YHWH swore to your ancestors, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya‘akov, to give to them and to their seed after them.’ I spoke to you at that time, saying, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. YHWH your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky. (May YHWH, the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as promised to you.) How can I bear by myself the trouble of you, and the burden, and the strife!? Pick from each of your tribes people who are wise, discerning, and knowledgeable, and I will appoint them as your heads…’”

There is considerable debate among the commentators regarding when in the desert narrative this appointment of judges and leaders took place, as it recalls, in different ways, both Sh’mot/Exodus 18:13-27 and Bemidbar/Numbers 11, especially verses 11-17 and 24-30. Be that as it may, how do we understand Moshe’s tone in our parashah? On the face of it, he is retelling the history innocuously: when God commanded them to leave the mountain and prepare to conquer the Land of Israel, Moshe pointed out that he did not have the strength to lead single-handedly through an undertaking of this magnitude, especially since, thank God, the people has become so numerous. Therefore, he inaugurated a more elaborate governmental system that was instructed to judge with full integrity.  It is in this innocuous, generous, descriptive light that the Ramban (1194-1270, Girona, Spain) understands that “trouble—טָרְחֲכֶם” refers to the overwhelming task of teaching Torah to so many people, “burden—מַשַּׂאֲכֶם” refers to praying on their behalf, by way of which he took upon himself the awesome burden of their needs and misdoings, and “strife—רִיבְכֶם” refers, simply, to their legal disputes (comment to Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:12). All three of these elements are natural aspects of civic life that imply nothing improper about the Israelites: decent citizens need educators, spiritual advocates, and judges, but naturally, when the population grows, one person can’t handle it all for everyone.

However, the language suggests a negative tone, implying that maybe Moshe rejected the people because he was fed up with them. All three of these words can mean what the Ramban says, but they more naturally cast aspersions on their object. More significantly, “How can I bear…” sounds like a leader at the end of his rope, lashing out at his intolerable subordinates.  This word, “How?!/אֵיכָה”, is known to us from the beginning of the megillah we read on Tisha B’Av (Eikha/Lamentations 1:1):  “אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד הָעִיר רַבָּתִי עָם הָיְתָה כְּאַלְמָנָה”— “How can it be that it sits all alone?! This city that was full of people has become like a widow!” This word reverberates through Megillat Eikha, also appearing in 2:1, 4:1, and 4:2.  Similarly, in the haftara assigned to this week’s parasha, the prophet Isaiah exclaims, “אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט צֶדֶק יָלִין בָּהּ וְעַתָּה מְרַצְּחִים”—“How can it be that the faithful city has become a harlot; it was full of law, and righteousness lodged there, but now they are murderers!” (Isaiah 1:21).  It is a word that suggests disgusted shock at some proposition or situation.  For further examples, see Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:30, as well as Judges 20:3, which describes the brutal rape and murder of the Concubine of Giv‘a, which scandalized the entire people: “How could such an evil thing have happened?!” The Rabbis arranged the calendar such that we always read Parashat Devarim the shabbat before Tisha B’Av, when we mourn our personal and collective displacement and God’s terrible abandonment of the Jewish people. This arrangement suggests that the Sages wanted us to hear the word “אֵיכָה” in our parasha in Eikha’s tone of revulsion. If so, then we read those three words—trouble, burden, and strife—as a violent indictment of our behavior as a people. What did Israel do that was so bad? How did we manifest trouble, burden, and strife before Moshe?

Rashi (1040-1105, Troyes, France) cites a midrash in the Sifrei (c. 200 CE, Land of Israel) that offers a Rabbinic understanding of the cause of Moshe’s rejection of the people. (I thank Rabbi Saul Berman, who brought this midrash to my attention years ago.) The midrash explains as follows:  Moshe lashes out at “טָרְחֲכֶם—The trouble of you” because they were “torhanim—troublemakers”. A person on the losing end of a legal dispute would endlessly prolong the legal procedure, digging up more witnesses and finding any opening by which the conflict would be litigiously maintained. “מַשַּׂאֲכֶם—your burden” is because they clung to Moshe like sheets. If he left his house unusually early in the morning, they would spread rumors that he had been humiliated at home, ie, he had family problems. If he left home a little late, they would scare people by spreading gossip that he must have stayed late scheming against them.  They were privacy-invading rabble-rousers. They tried to destabilize legitimate authority through scaremongering, wild, unfounded gossip, and the malicious attempt to discredit honorable human beings. “רִיבְכֶם—your strife”, which the Ramban noted is a normal word for legal disputes, has a sinister connotation according to the Sifrei. They were nitpickers, always trying to cheat the system, get an unfair bargain, and perhaps murmuring legal jargon along the way (Midrash Sifrei Devarim #12). This midrash points toward one of Avodah’s central community norms, “Assume good will”. It is a premonition to the assault and exile of the Jewish people and destruction of our home that the Jewish people assumed hostility, tried to take advantage of each other, and escalated conflict.

The components of this midrash recall the most common reading of the story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza, the most famous of the many Rabbinic explanations of why Jerusalem was destroyed (Gittin 55b-56a). What is the point of that story according to the most common retelling? That entrenched jealousies and pettiness tore Jewish society to shreds, while the unwillingness of those in power to intervene condemned this hemorrhage to be irreparable. The story is famous but bears repeating in full:

“There was a certain man whose friend was Kamtza and whose enemy was bar Kamtza. He once made a feast and said to his servant: Go bring me Kamtza. He went and brought him bar Kamtza. [The host] came and found [bar Kamtza] sitting there. He said to him: That guy is my enemy!. What do you want here? Get up and leave. [Bar Kamtza] said to him: Since I have already come, let me stay and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. [The host] said to him: No. [Bar Kamtza] said to him: I will pay for half of the feast. [The host] said to him: No. [Bar Kamtza]said to him: I will pay for the entire feast. [The host] said to him: No, took him by his hand, stood him up, and escorted him out.

[Bar Kamtza] said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest, learn from it that they were content. I will go and inform against them to the king. He went and said to the emperor: The Jews have rebelled against you. [The emperor] said to him: Says who? [Bar Kamtza] said to him: send them an offering [to be brought in honor of the government], and see whether they sacrifice it.

[The emperor] went and sent with him a three-year-old calf. While [bar Kamtza] was coming [with the calf to the Temple], he made a blemish on it….The Sages thought to sacrifice it anyway, for the sake of peace with the government. Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas said to them: But then, people will say that blemished animals may be sacrificed on the altar. The Sages instead thought to kill [bar Kamtza] so that he would not go and snitch. Rabbi Zekharya said to them: [If you kill him] people will say that one who makes a blemish on sacrificial animals is to be killed. [So the Rabbis did nothing, bar Kamtza slandered, and the Romans had a fraudulent basis for attack.]”

The Talmud introduces this story by quoting Rabbi Yohanan teaching that “Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza” and it’s tempting to interpret this to focus on the beginning of the story and the cruelty of the host who wouldn’t let the mistake go and tolerate the presence of his enemy. This reading passively assumes that their hostility was petty. However, in the continuation of the story, we find that bar Kamtza is a violent, vindictive rat who favors an oppressive occupying regime over his own people and tries to frame the Jewish people and condemn them to destruction. Let’s say the host and his guests were Black Panthers and bar Kamtza was a cop or friend of cops. Would it be wrong for the host to kick him out and refuse to be bribed to let him stay? If a party of any of our movement organizations was crashed by a supporter of the Capitol insurrection, would we be required to assume good will and preserve that person’s honor and enable them to hear our intimate movement conversation? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that that reading is supported by the text itself, which concludes with another statement of the same Rabbi Yohanan: “The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.” The real problem was that when movement leaders were trying to be pragmatic to de-escalate a crisis and preserve public safety, recognizing that standard rules might not be the most instructive in this crisis, one leader became let his cowardice immobilize himself, and “yeah, but” the movement out of bold action. Offer the invalid sacrifice. Maybe even eliminate the fascist informer in our midst. We’ll deal with fallout from that later; this is a time of crisis. (I thank Dr. Ethan Schwartz and Rina Sadun for their comments in a Facebook thread this week for stimulating my thinking on this story.)

Rabbi Jill Jacobs noted on Facebook a few years ago that since this Talmudic story is written hundreds of years after the events, and the Rabbinic movement didn’t even exactly exist as such at the time of the destruction of the Temple, we should read this story as later Rabbinic reflection on themselves: “We’re so accustomed to saying ‘if I had been alive at such and such a time, I would have been a Freedom Rider, resisted the Nazis, fought slavery, invited Bar Kamtza to dinner. It’s kind of an amazing act of self-reflection and self-admonition to say, ‘Actually, if I had been there, I wouldn’t have done anything.’ Now, perhaps the rabbis are trying to explain why they didn’t manage to save the Temple. And no question, there are hero rabbis as the story progresses. But in this moment, the rabbis don’t try to set themselves up as heroes, but rather acknowledge both the importance of bystanders, and the fact that most of us do not and wouldn’t have been that bystander who takes the risk of objecting.” That is what we mourn and grieve on Tisha B’Av.

Context is everything. The midrash on Moshe’s exasperated comment in our parasha is not teaching us to trust our political leaders no matter what, to put aside differences no matter how important they are, God forbid. The midrash is really talking about people like bar Kamtza, rich people with access to power who dig in on their pride to the point of exploiting, exhausting, or destroying the body politic. Who are the litigants who can afford to continually drum up frivolous lawsuits? Who has access to the means of spreading dangerous and frivolous rumors, of confusing fake news with genuine investigative reporting about our leaders? Who is able to cheat the system, hijacking legal jargon to whitewash it? Rich people with access to power. When the rest of us fecklessly enable their destructive grifting, sabotage, and ego trips, we wear down responsible leaders like Moshe. We also enable our own destruction and exile. Let us not be like feckless Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas, who can’t distinguish between “normal” and “crisis” nor, God forbid, like the narcissistic saboteur bar Kamtza. Let’s not create the conditions in which Moshe gets so exasperated as to reasonably lash out at us in disgust.

Shabbat shalom and have a meaningful fast and journey through grief on Tisha B’Av.

Connecting with Divinity: Q&A with Service Corps Member Francesca Rubinson

In honor of Avodah’s 2020-2021 Jewish Service Corps graduation, we’re highlighting some of our outgoing Corps Members. We spoke with Francesca Rubinson, a member of our D.C. cohort about her next steps after Avodah. 

Where were you placed for your service year with Avodah? 

I work as a legal assistant at CASA, an immigrant justice and immigration legal services organization that serves Maryland, DC, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. In the legal department, I help immigrant youth renew their DACA status or now apply for DACA for the first time. I’ve learned a lot about immigration law as I prepare legal paperwork, and meet with clients either in person or via Zoom to confirm what kinds of protections they may be eligible for.

What do you enjoy the most about your placement?

I enjoy the opportunities to make a human connection with my clients. I came to Avodah having grown up in Washington Heights, a heavily Latinx neighborhood in New York City. I had a lot of friends and community members who were affected by immigration policy in different ways. 

I try to make a connection between myself and my clients. During the half-hour long immigration screenings I have to ask some pretty personal questions. I try to approach each meeting with gentleness, and a sense of humor if possible. Those are great moments to have, to not only be asking questions rapid fire.

Most of my clients came to the U.S. very young. I get to hear about what’s going on in their lives, with their families, workplaces, and communities. I talk to a lot of youth who are putting themselves through higher education and often working to support their parents and siblings. I really admire my clients’ resilience, I enjoy hearing their stories and forming connections. Even though DACA only provides temporary protections, I get to see its ripple effect on many people’s lives. 

Francesca making pierogi for her bayit.

Has this experience shifted a change in mindset for you?

I think this experience has gotten me more interested in the connection between Jewish-American history and modern immigration law and practice. In February, I was one of the people in the bayit who worked on the immigration issue salon, a Corps Member-led program about what we’re doing in our placements. 

When my group was coming up with what to share with our other housemates, I created a presentation on Jewish immigration history — ‘How did we end up in this place?’ It felt really interesting to do some of that historical research, and see the ways Jewish immigrants and refugees have faced quotas, long wait times, and discrimination. The parallels to today are obvious once you start to scratch the surface.

What’s next for you after Avodah?

I’ll be going to Harvard Divinity School, pursuing a three-year Masters of Divinity degree that combines the study of religion with skills in pastoral counseling and chaplaincy. Being in Avodah helped me figure out whether or not I wanted to be ordained as a rabbi — I figured out that I liked the combination of academic study of religion with spiritual grounding. This training will allow me to be prepared for various roles, like working within a nonprofit or a university. 

I want to combine working in faith communities with social justice work. Part of why I am interested in this particular program is the ability to try out different field placements. One of the field placements integrated into the program is the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic. I will be serving in a more social worker type of role – instead of only being a legal assistant – which gets me excited about the human connection aspect of immigration law. 

What advice would you give to the incoming Corps Members?

The work that Corps Members do in Avodah is really hard. A lot of us were helping people who were struggling with so many types of burdens, especially grief and isolation during the pandemic. We needed to support and lean on each other — the communal living aspect made our work so much richer and sustainable. Having the Avodah community to nurture yourself is a great resource while working for social change. 

“Then You Shall Be Clean Before God and Before Israel”: Public Service, Privilege, and the Place of Popular Opinion in Moral Judgment — D’var Torah, Parashat Mattot-Mas’ei

How do we know whether we are doing the right thing? Should we care what other people think of us as long as we’re doing what we understand to be moral and just? This week we read two Torah portions, Mattot and Mas‘ei, to close out the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. One statement of Moshe in Mattot seems to conflate Divine and popular approval; we will explore that statement and its interpretation in order to reach a deeper understanding of the place and time for adjusting our behavior to satisfy public opinion.

In Mattot, just as the people are finally ready to turn toward entering the Land, after forty years of wandering, the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of the tribe of Menasheh ask Moshe for permission to settle where they were, on the eastern side of the Jordan river, on the lands newly conquered in the Amorite war: they had abundant cattle and those lands had excellent pasture (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:1). Moshe has a conniption: to his ears, this is a repeat of the fiasco of the scouts, 39 years years earlier, who aggressively denied that the Israelites could inhabit the Land and created a panic among the people. To Moshe, the request smacks of elitist privilege, which will sow resentment among the masses: “‘Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? Why would you turn the hearts of the Israelites away from crossing into the land that YHWH has given them?’” (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:6-8). The tribes manage to calm Moshe down when they acknowledge and assuage his fears, promising that they will share the risks with everyone else, going to war with them as shock troops, only settling in their eastern lands afterward. Moshe’s language in agreeing to these terms raises questions about the place of popular opinion in the discernment of the moral: “‘If you do this…and afterward you return, then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel; and this land shall be your holding under YHWH” (vv. 20-22). Our question is this: from the perspective of religious law, why does it matter and in what way does it matter that these tribes be “clean” or blameless in the eyes of their fellow Israelites? If they are blameless in God’s eyes, if they have met divine standards for just behavior, why does it matter what other people think?

There is an early, Rabbinic discussion about how to discern God’s will and follow it in ambiguous situations not governed by a clear commandment. In a passage we discussed last winter, three days after the Israelites crossed the sea to freedom, God showed them how to purify bitter water and gave them their first commandment of the free times: “If you listen, really listen, to the voice of YHWH your God, doing what is upright in [God’s] eyes, giving ear to [God’s] commandments and keeping all [God’s] statutes, then every illness that I put upon the Egyptians I will not put upon you, for I, YHWH, am your healer” (Sh’mot/Exodus 15:22-26). Early 2nd Century sages probed the meaning of “doing what is upright” in God’s eyes, above and beyond observing the commandments (Midrash Mekhilta of R. Yishma‘el, BeShallah: VaYissa‘ 1)

“‘…Doing what is upright in [God’s] eyes’: These are the acclaimed stories, which are comprehended by the ears of every person….the words of Rabbi Yehoshua‘.

Rabbi El‘azar of Modi‘in says: ‘…Doing what is upright in [God’s] eyes’ — this is business transactions, to teach that anyone who carries out business transactions faithfully, such that people are comfortable with them, is exalted as though they fulfilled the whole Torah.”

According to both rabbis, God’s will is discerned, in general, through popular, human consensus, either via the religious stories that resonate most broadly or via having a sterling professional reputation as a trustworthy person.

The notion that God’s will is discernible through human popularity finds even more explicit expression in one, classic, interpretation to the part of the Priestly Blessing asking that God shine the light of God’s face upon you “and show you grace” — “וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ” (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:25). One anonymous, Rabbinic voice understands God showing grace to mean that God “will give you grace in the eyes of other people” (Midrash Sifrei Bemidbar 41), adducing support from Genesis/Bereishit 39:21, where God shows Yosef favor by making his slaver like him, as well as Esther 2:15, Daniel 1:9, and, finally, Proverbs 3:4: “[Let kindness and honesty not leave you; bind them on your throat, write them on the tablet of your mind], And you will find grace and good consideration in the eyes of God and people”. According to this midrash, when we act responsibly, God will make others respect us and that is how we will know that God is pleased with us. This sensibility likely animates Rabbi Shim‘on’s famous teaching in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 4:13): “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name supersedes them all.” One may achieve religious distinction through learning, public, spiritual service, or government, but being well respected is, in this view, the superior indication of Divine grace and approbation.

How does this play out practically? What choices might be changed by taking this standard into account? Early Rabbinic sources heap praises on two priestly households who avoided any private use of goods similar to those of their specialty in Temple service. The House of Garmu were experts in making the Showbread and they are praised for never having bread from fine flour in their household, never feeding it to their children, “so that no one may ever say that they were fed with Showbread” (Tosefta Kippurim 2:5). It’s obvious to Biblical and Rabbinic law — no matter how widely violated in our world — that neither priest nor civilian may derive personal benefit from actual Temple goods: this is called “Me‘ila” and the Torah requires restitution with a financial penalty if one does this accidentally (Leviticus/VaYikra 5:14-16); it is strictly prohibited all the more so to derive such personal benefit intentionally, though there is some dispute as to just how severely this crime is punished (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 83a). In our case, though, the Garmu priests, of course, didn’t use fine flour actually belonging to the Temple. What they’re praised for is that they never used fine flour at all, even fine flour totally permitted to them. They denied themselves a basic, high-quality material good to prevent the public from casting a frivolous aspersion it would have no grounds to cast in the first place. The sacred bread artisans ate only cheap bread in their personal lives. Similarly, the House of Abtinus were experts in preparing the incense offering and they are singled out for praise because their entire clan completely abstained from wearing any perfume, “in order that no one ever say that they were perfumed from the pounded incense” (Tosefta Kippurim 2:6). In both cases, the Rabbis say that these praiseworthy abstentions from totally permitted goods are fulfillment of Moshe’s words to the 2 ½ tribes in our parasha: “then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel” (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:22). When you’re in a position of leadership, the charge to keep a blameless reputation goes so far as refraining from privileges about which an ungenerous, tale bearing public might raise groundless suspicions.

This sensibility goes beyond post facto praise for meticulously scrupulous behavior to actual, legal regulations. The Rabbis ruled that a tax collector who finds a coin on the ground in public is prohibited from picking it up, even though you and I may do so if there is no accompanying marker through which we could hope to track down the person who dropped it. Not only that, but if someone who lawfully owes the tax collector money from personal business wants to pay them back, the tax collector is prohibited from accepting it while on the job. The law grounds these restrictions in the verse from our parasha: ““then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel” (Tosefta, Pe’ah 4:15). If you collect public money, you may never be seen putting money into your own pockets, even if the money is totally separate and legal. It’s inviting distrust of the tax collection apparatus.

Similarly, various regulations accompanied the public servants tasked with allocating and spending money from the Temple coffers on Temple goods: “When one entered to do the appropriation of the Chamber, they would search him at the entrance and the exit and they would converse with him from the time he entered until the time he exited, to full that which is said (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:22), ‘then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel,” and it says (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:18, “And you shall do the upright and the good in the eyes of YHWH” (Tosefta, Shekalim 2:2). Because this public servant was searched thoroughly on the way in and out, no one can say that they pocketed any money for personal use from public funds. Because they were talking continuously, no one can suspect that they hid a piece of gold in their mouth. When the public sees this person shopping in the future, they can comfortably trust that this person did not get any kickbacks, any unfair leg up on the rest of them. A parallel text replaces the potentially humiliating and body-violating frisk with a standard dress code for this job (Mishna, Shekalim 3:2): “The one who made the appropriation may not enter the chamber wearing either a bordered cloak or shoes or sandals or tefillin or an amulet, lest if he became poor, people might say that he became poor because of a sin committed in the chamber, or if he became rich, people might say that he became rich from the appropriation in the chamber. For a person must be free of blame before people just as one must be free of blame before The Omnipresent, as it is said: ‘then you shall be clean [before YHWH and before Israel]’ (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:22), and it says: ‘And find favor and good consideration in the eyes of God and people’ (Proverbs 3:4).” 

Regulations to prevent criminal appropriation of public goods are not sufficient; regulations are imposed even to prevent any appearance of impropriety, to prevent people from jumping to incorrect conclusions. Why do the Rabbis praise public servants for abstaining from perfectly legal pleasures and impose restrictions on other public servants from otherwise perfectly legal, personal behavior? Why should honest people have to restrict their behavior because of mean-spirited, busybody gossips? After all, one of the earliest Rabbinic teachings, by Yehoshu‘a ben Perahia, is that we all “should judge every person as innocent” (Mishna, Pirkei Avot 1:6). The Torah itself commands that we “do not walk about tale bearing” or gossiping (Leviticus/VaYikra 19:16). If members of the public fabricate a suspicion that you have supplemented your income with tzedakah funds or Temple funds, why is that your problem? Aren’t they the sinner and shouldn’t they stand responsible? 

All of the teachings we have surveyed, elevating Moshe’s words in our parasha that we should strive to be blameless in the eyes not only of God but of fellow people, are directed toward public figures who are tasked with representing the public. That showbread and those incense offerings are on all of our behalf. It’s public tzedakah money and public tax dollars collected in the Temple coffers. A public servant entrusted with those public goods already derives special social benefit and power, a degree of celebrity, by having this distinguished position. No matter what police advocates will tell you, Jewish law recognizes that power accrued through public trust inevitably and maybe even rightfully comes with a measure of distrust and requires heightened public oversight and scrutiny. As a public figure, you can’t say that what you do is none of anyone’s business. It literally is their business. We have a responsibility to view people generously, but we also have a responsibility to maintain righteous and fair public institutions. When we’ve entrusted public officials with special access and power, those access and power bring invitations to corruption with them. We know that and we are implicated when they succumb while representing us. The value of judging others favorably still must take power dynamics into consideration. 

I’ll close with one last Rabbinic teaching that doesn’t quote our verse, but extends the sensibility beyond political power to the power attained through wealth. The Sages teach that if you make matzah into fancy, artisanal shapes and eat it on seder night, you have fulfilled your obligation. Nevertheless, you are not allowed to make matzah that way in the first place. A fabulously wealthy benefactor and student of the Rabbis named Baitos ben Zonin asked his teachers why not and they explained that you have to make matzah very quickly to prevent leavening and it’s just a bad idea to allow fancy shapes, because some people will take their time perfecting it and it will, God forbid, ferment and turn to hametz in the meantime. Baitos said, what if I use a mold, a stencil, which will take no time? The Sages answered that while this theoretically would address the problem, it’s still prohibited across the board, because “People would say that all shaped matzah has been prohibited, but Baitos’s shaped matzah has been permitted” (Talmud Bavli, Pesahim 37a). In theory, Baitos’s solution is available to everyone, but in practice, who has the money for fancy, niche artisanal tools? A rich person like Baitos. A just law cannot tolerate carve-outs that have the effect of enabling special rules and privileges for rich people. The resentful public will think that the access to the Rabbis Baitos had because he was rich enabled him to get Rabbinic laws waived. And in a way, they would be right. That can’t be tolerated. That is a recipe for eroding public trust. 

The upshot we learn from Moshe’s exhortation to the 2 ½ tribes is that in order for the Torah to be applied equally, as one Torah, one law, it sometimes has to be applied unequally: those with social power, through public office or wealth, will default to extra power and status, the “crown” of royalty, the crown of priesthood, the crown of wealth, even the crown of scholarship, so they must engage in extra restrictions to keep them in public check. The crown of a good name is greater than them all and reflects Divine grace because that good name is achieved through demonstrating that one’s public service is not a tool for amassing power and privilege, but is actually public service. 

Shabbat shalom.

Thank you to Akiva Mattenson for learning and thinking through these sources with me.