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Community Blog Singing in the Dark: Leviticus and the Call for Social Justice

By Rabbi Daniel Klein ‘10

Daniel Klein“There’s a part of the singer going way back in American history that is of course the canary in the coalmine. When it gets dark, you’re supposed to be singing. It’s dark right now.”

Bruce Springsteen made this statement in 2007, but it is no less relevant today. Current events have brought to the fore and emphasized a dramatic sense of uncertainty, frustration and longing that exists in our society. In fact, Springsteen made news recently as he waded into one of those tumultuous social and political issues. He and his E Street Band canceled a concert scheduled for this past Sunday in North Carolina to protest that state’s deplorable HB2 law that discriminates again LGBT people.

The separation from and longing for a better way of being is almost palpable today. We see its positive and productive manifestation in social movements for change, directing our attention to neglected injustices and critical problems: persistent structural and cultural racial, sexual and gender violence; climate change; and economic inequality, to name but a few. We hear the distorting power of this separation and longing in the anguished howls of frustration, anger, fear and hatred at Donald Trump’s political rallies and in the despicable actions of and support for extremist movements.

This longing, and the hope for reconciliation, is the story of the Book of Leviticus, which the Jewish people are in the midst reading now in our annual cycle of reading the Torah. In the ongoing, mercurial human-Divine attempts to be in intimate relationship depicted in the Torah, the Book of Leviticus comes along to offer a path forward.

“God’s glory filled the Tabernacle” we are told when the Tabernacle is completed at the end of the Book of Exodus, but “Moses could not come in” (Exodus 40:34-35). There was no room, whether physically, ethically or spiritually, for Moshe to be with God.

But the Book of Leviticus opens with those amazing, elusive and longed for words, “Vayikra el Moshe – God calls to Moshe.” Rashi says that God’s call is “an expression of love.” God is inviting Moshe into the sacred space and into sacred, intimate relationship. The remainder of the book is then an elaboration of this invitation and a Biblical attempt to articulate the process by which we overcome our isolation and separation from God. Leviticus is both physically and spiritually the center of the Torah.

The longing that Leviticus and the Torah seek to address is so clearly, today, our longing as well.

A critical question is how religion will help us respond. Religion, as we know well, can be and is used to bolster both of these trends. Judaism, along with our fellow faith traditions, has plenty of texts and traditions that can be marshalled to inspire movements for positive, compassionate, humanizing social change and to inflame parochial, sectarian approaches to our world that breed more fear and hatred.

At the Rabbinical School and Hebrew College in general, we have thrown our lot in with the voices of understanding – the approach that recognizes that while we may hold deep convictions, even beliefs we think are True, we are humble enough to know that there are many paths to God and the sacred life. Our religious approach is rooted in that strain of Jewish tradition that recognizes God’s emergence in the world is not singular and uniform but plural and varied. It is an approach that hears and affirms the mythic heavenly voice described in the Talmud that declares both Hillel and Shamai, the classic disputants from early rabbinic times, to be speaking “the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b). It is a religious approach rooted in humility that flowers into curiosity and interlocution with our fellow seekers.

And it is an approach that demands action to respond to and transform a world in need of healing.

For this reason, we are launching a new concentration this fall within the Rabbinical School for people who want to make social justice leadership central to their spiritual leadership. It prepares rabbinical students and participating local clergy to bring Jewish wisdom to bear on the most pressing issues of our time and develop the capacity to effect change through communal action. You can read more about it here.

It may well be dark right now, as Springsteen says. There is also much light and hope. We need more artists who are the “canaries in the coalmine.” And we need more rabbis and spiritual leaders who lift up the messages of compassion and understanding within our faith traditions and skillfully bring us together to help transform the world into a kinder, more just place.

Rabbi Daniel Klein is director of admissions at the Rabbinical School and director of student life at Hebrew College. Read more about the Rabbinical School’s new Certificate in Spirituality and Social Justice Leadership, which is open to Hebrew college rabbinical school students, alumni, area clergy, people who are involved in social justice work and/or are involved in social action at their synagogues. Community members may enroll in an individual course or continue with all four courses in the program to earn a certificate.

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