“A person’s a person: Supporting all, no matter how small.”

One state, two state(s), red state, blue state.
March 8, 2016

The essay below was inspired by a discussion that occurred at a Haskalah Salon in a West Hollywood home.  Haskalah is an association of young professionals and alumni who support Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.

One state, two state(s), red state, blue state.  

2015 was a challenging year for Reform Jews.  In congregations across America we wrestled with global issues such as the Iran Deal and Israeli elections and more local ones such as Black Lives Matter and “the Donald”.  And by the end of the year, not everyone was left whole. 

Though perceived as a liberal bloc, Reform Jews in fact run the gamut.  As a result, rabbis self-censored, congregations grew divided, and individual congregants left their synagogues over disagreements with their clergy – over what they said, or perhaps, what they chose not to say.  No doubt 2016 will bring more challenges, from the predictable — Election 2016 — to the unforeseen. 

Therefore, are there any issues we can address in the congregational setting?  And if so, how can we acknowledge the diversity of opinion among Reform Jews, while at the same time maintaining tenets central to the Movement?

Returning to some words that Dr. Seuss actually wrote – in Horton Hears a Who! –  the author offers some guidance.  The elephant Horton in the parable discovers the microscopic community of Whosville and responds to the Mayor’s plea to protect them from harm.  To the chagrin of Horton, the other animals who are unable to see this tiny population ridicule the elephant and instead inflict more harm on the Whos.  Not until a small shirker belts out a loud “Yopp!” do the other animals become convinced of the Whos’ existence and vow to help Horton protect this community.

At its conclusion, all finally believe: “A person's a person, no matter how small.”  Sound familiar? 

In some ways, it invokes Torah (Gen 1:26), as God said, “Let us make a human in our image, after our likeness.”  From B’Tzelem Elohim ((בצלם אלוהים – that humans are in God’s image – emanates the concepts of equality and universal human rights.  After all, all persons no matter how small are in God’s image. 

B’Tzelem Elohim is central to the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, adopted at the 1999 Pittsburgh Convention, Central Conference of American Rabbis.  From this concept it was declared: 

We are obligated to pursue (tzedek), justice and righteousness, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth's biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage. In so doing, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.

This statement goes beyond words, compelling us to pursue social action.  And it follows a notable track record that includes contributions from American Jews of many shades and stripes.  American Jews helped found and fund some of the most important civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  And it wasn’t just organization and dollars, nor was it limited to our lay leaders such as co-founder of the NAACP, Dr. Henry Moscovitz.  There also were Rabbis involved.   

In 1964, in response to a letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that was read at a meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Atlantic City, Reform Rabbis – including Rabbi Richard Levy of HUC-JIR and Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein – descended on St. Augustine, Florida, where they were abused by local police and jailed overnight.  One year later, in one of the most famous images from the decade, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arms with Dr. Martin Luther King in his March on Selma. 

The idea of B’Tzelem Elohim need not be limited to one movement or one era. 

We may not see the evidence of institutional racism, but Black Americans surely experience it in inner cities where they suffer from brutal police tactics and in prisons where they endure long sentences, often resulting from discriminatory drug sentencing laws.  But ask any African American about “driving while black” and they will recount tale after tale of being pulled over for no real infraction.  Institutional racism has been made real to all of us as we watch young African Americans murdered by police in multiple cities across the U.S.

We may not personally hire the undocumented workers who tend our lawns, clean our stores, and pick our fruit, but they perform work that American citizens are unwilling to do. Yet the undocumented immigrants face threats of deportation and frightening new rhetoric from today’s politicians. We see fear-mongering rather than policy to help ease the situation and bring immigrants toward a pathway to citizenship and legal status.   

And we may not personally know transgender Americans that were born with gender dysphoria, but transmen and women regularly confront on-going bullying, hatred and misunderstanding.  The transgender community has disproportionate rates of suicide and lack dignity in public places and protection from discrimination.

These are just a few of the issues that we should address as Reform Jews, even if it makes some of us congregants uncomfortable.  When we are uncomfortable or out of stasis we can seek to correct, repair and heal.  And as religious leaders, we must look inward and acknowledge the diversity of opinion in our congregations and create space for dialogue.  By recognizing and showing consideration to all our members, we are in a way paying respects to B’Tzelem Elohim.  

It won’t be easy this balancing act; between looking inward and outward, between taking a position and recognizing the opposition, and between speaking and taking action.  But we must never lose sight: if we all are in God’s image and if we embrace concept of Tikkun Olam (תיקון עולם) – repairing the world – we also must consider and protect those who are not like us, those like the Whos, whom we do not know or, perhaps, may not even see.  

Matthew Louchheim is the founding co-Chair of Haskalah, the young associates of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood's Reform Synagogue, and the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. 

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