Second Day Rosh Hashanah 5778
September 22, 2017
When Rabbi asked if I could deliver the sermon today, I felt very honored, very surprised, and very scared. What in the world would I talk about? In the end, I’ve decided to offer up some results of study and life experience on Social Justice as we enter the new year. This is not the first honor the congregation has given me this year. You elected me to the Temple Board as the Director for Social Justice. As with today’s talk, we will see how that goes too…
Let’s begin with a fundamental Social Justice text in the first pages of the Torah. That text describes what happened on the sixth day of Creation (Genesis 1:26-31). First, Adonai creates the beasts of the earth and then we read:
26 And G-d said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth.”
27 And G-d created man in His image; in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them.
28 And G-d blessed them, and G-d said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth. “
29 And G-d said, “Behold, I have given you every seed bearing herb, which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; it will be yours for food.
30 And to all the beasts of the earth and to all the fowl of the heavens, and to everything that moves upon the earth, in which there is a living spirit, every green herb to eat,” and it was so.
31 And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good, and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.
Think of the beauty of being made in the image of G-d— I am made in that image, Rabbi is made in that image, you are made in that image, everybody in this sanctuary is made in G-d’s image… everyone you will ever meet or see or hear about is made in that image. Humanity is not just a creation; humanity is like unto G-d.
There is more in this, though. Adonai, who has dominion over the whole Universe, gives us dominion over the world that was just created. Leaving aside the somewhat questionable job humanity has done with that dominion, , we are not created as objects or as servants but to be a ruler like G-d himself. Mind you, this is this is all of humanity in the image of G-d and as ruler… there is no mediation… no king… no demigod… that intervenes. This was revolutionary thinking in the Bronze Age; it, frankly, is pretty revolutionary thinking in this Atomic Age and Computer Age .
Also revolutionary for its time (and still fundamental to us) is the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19. That code begins,
1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
2 Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your G-d, am holy.
Adonai has Moses tell the people that they can be holy, all of them, each and every one of them. We are in the image of G-d, can rule like unto G-d, and can be Holy. The value of this creation, humanity, is very high indeed. The Code continues:
9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not fully reap the corner of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.
10 And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you collect the [fallen] individual grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord, your G-d.
13 You shall not oppress your fellow. You shall not rob. The hired worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning.
14 You shall not curse a deaf person. You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person, and you shall fear your G-d. I am the Lord.
15 You shall commit no injustice in judgment; you shall not favor a poor person or respect a great man; you shall judge your fellow with righteousness.
All of this speaks to Social Justice as a Jewish Value, as the word of G-d. These are our Commandments, what we are to do.. We are to care for the poor & hungry. We are to care for the stranger, the immigrant. We are not to steal. We are to care for those working for us. We are to protect the disabled..
We have so many words to study: the Torah, the Talmud, all the commentators. Even though we are called the people of the book, Judaism is not a religion of words alone. It is a faith based in deeds. It is not just enough to believe. But how do we, as individuals and as a community, make these words into deeds?
My life as a social justice activist began as a young teen in the mid and late 70s, I was motivated by what I saw as some horrible things.
Watching tv as a young working class child in Northern Kentucky, I was horrified by the way the TV news seemed to make the war dead and injured look like sports scores. Additionally, I began to believe that the US was on the wrong side in places like Nicaragua before the Sandinista revolution and in El Salvador. I became very active in the anti-war movement. I did not see the support of death squads as worth my or other young kids’ lives.
Reproductive rights became very important to me partially because I wanted to make sure that my sisters had access to abortion if they wanted one. Every person has a right to control their own body, and it was important to protect that right. Protecting that right meant escorting women into clinics as Right-to-Lifers and Operation Rescue members tried to blockade the clinics. It meant hanging out at night at clinics that had received credible bomb threats; we were at the doors, in the alleys, and in the buildings to stop any would-be bombers. Keeping these clinics open and operating meant that the women who went there could make their own choices about their bodies.
The economic crisis of 2008, as markets crashed, businesses failed, and factories closed around the country, was extremely bad. 2008, as bad as it was, was the third or fourth wave of economic collapse in large areas of the country. I would argue that for many throughout the US and the world, this crisis has been going on since the early 1970s. Following the Arab oil embargo, a large swath of this country lost jobs and became a rustbelt. As a result of this economic collapse, I eventually came to LA in 1984 on board a Trailways bus. Many others left as I did, but, for those who chose or had to stay (like my sisters and brothers), they faced an ever-deepening spiral, economically and socially.
As many of you know I work for a Labor Union representing workers throughout LA county. These include oil workers and carwash workers. My work includes making sure that people receive the wages and benefits that have been agreed to, helping workers not be mistreated at work, and helping immigrant workers enjoy the rights they have by living in this country. Occasionally, I hear that Unions used to be really important, but that they are not needed anymore. Given that wage theft is such a wide-spread crime in the US, this work remains important. In fact, this work is more than that; it is about making sure people are treated fairly and decently at the place they spend at least 40 hours per week. It is making sure everyone is respected as and treated as a human being.
I have not listed these for consideration as activities for others or for the congregation, but I do want to make sure that Social Justice be seen in a very wide view.
The Torah says “Justice, Justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), but what happens when justice is not pursued, when economic and social conditions are not addressed or not seen as being addressed? Germany is a case in point — the inability to address an economic crisis, to solve rampant inflation led to a circumstance where a scapegoating racist murderous regime came to power. The Nazis took advantage of this situation and appealed to the worst in people; millions died in the Holocaust and war ravaged Europe as a result. We are now seeing a resurgence of white supremacist ideology in the US, now calling itself White Nationalism. The economic crisis of 2008 is partially to blame; unresolved economic woes cause people to find someone or something to blame. These are the times we live in.
I don’t expect anyone in this room to agree with me on particular parts of my activism for social justice; what I am asking is that people go back and re-read Parshah Kedoshim and think about how to make these commandments real as an individual, as a congregation, and as a society. Our beliefs are a part of our identity; without deeds, though, that identity is merely a self-description. As we face the coming year, let’s face the challenge of working to make Social Justice a reality.