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On Shavuot, Diverse Voices in One Community

On Shavuot, Diverse Voices in One Community

Group of people each holding an oversized puzzle piece of a different color

One hallmark of Reform Judaism is our commitment to speak out and advocate on critical issues of social justice. People often wonder how the Reform Jewish community makes decisions regarding public policy, while still honoring the considerable diversity of views among our membership. The Festival of Shavuot provides an ideal Jewish textual grounding for celebrating our diversity, and lifting up various and dissenting voices, even as we apply the enduring values of our sacred texts to the modern day.

On Shavuot, we celebrate our ancestors receiving the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. However, the covenant of the Torah was not only for those present at Sinai. It was for all Jews – and all people – around the world and throughout the generations.

When God spoke, all people, in all the languages of the day, could understand. In the Midrash, Rabbi Johanan says, “It was one voice that divided itself into seven voices, and these into 70 languages.” We learn further that when God spoke it “was with the power of all voices” to speak to each person according to their powers of comprehension (Midrash Rabbah: Exodus, Chapter 28).

We see from this beginning, from the entrance into the covenant at Sinai, that each voice counts, and the experience, culture, and heritage – the language and framework that each person brings to the study of Torah – is valuable to our Reform Movement.

On Shavuot, the Jewish people receive the Torah anew each year. Tradition calls for us to engage in all-night study. We cannot be closed off from the opportunity to learn from others. This is our opportunity not only to delve deeply into the text, but also to join in chavruta (study in partnership with another), to debate and test our assumptions. We do not shrink from the tension of disagreement but take seriously the alternate views of our peers who seek to learn from the Torah and bring its commandments to life.

In the Talmud Eruvin 13b, we read of a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. A heavenly voice mediated the dispute, saying: “[The utterances of] both are the words of the living God, but the halachah (judgment) is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.” Beit Hillel is singled out as worthy especially because they studied the opinions of Beit Shammai, and respected them, even as they completely disagreed. In the Reform Movement, when we consider “These and these are the words of the Living God,” we mean it. We are called to hear views that we do not agree with and grapple with them with both vigor and respect.

For more than 3,000 years, Jews have thrived in such debate. But we’ve never been frozen by it. We don’t expect or seek uniformity. In fact, Reform Judaism would not be the vibrant entity that it is if we all thought the same way, voted the same way, or agreed on the same answers to the challenges facing our world. We cherish the variety of views present in the Reform Jewish community. However, we do not allow disagreement to inhibit our pursuit of justice.

Although we recognize that in a large, pluralistic community such as ours, no one position will reflect the views of everyone, as the prophets taught us and as the Torah makes plain again and again, we must apply the ethical insights of our tradition to the real problems facing our society. It is precisely for this reason that Reform congregations and their members are included in the rigorous, open, consultative processes in place for taking positions on the issues in the world today. Such processes ensure not only that our public policy positions are solidly grounded in Jewish text and tradition, but also that they are made by representative governing bodies within our movement.

We are stronger because of the rich array of experiences, views, and beliefs our movement’s 1.5 million members bring to their congregations and to our community across North America. Although the Reform community’s positions are not binding in any way upon congregations or individuals, all of whom are free to hold and express their own personal views, and we never claim to speak for every one of those 1.5 million individuals, the positions we take reflect the consensus views of the Reform Jewish Movement. We are proud that we have lifted our voice for more than a century, speaking truth to power, with the goal of building a world in which all people experience compassion, justice, and wholeness.

We don’t mistake a community driven to action with a community defined by uniformity. We will never disregard members of the Reform community who disagree with the direction of our public policy positions. And yet, inspired by our traditions and our text, we hear an unequivocal call to stand with the most vulnerable members of society and forcefully defend our values.

The Reform Movement recently launched the Urgency of Now initiative. We are inviting congregations to sign the Brit Olam and are starting this initiative with three campaigns that are rooted in Jewish text and tradition, and supported by URJ resolutions: to protect the rights of transgender students, to defend the rights of immigrants at risk of deportation, and to reform the criminal justice system and end mass incarceration. We endeavor to create campaigns that are locally-focused and congregation-led. To learn more, please register for our informational webinar on June 6, 2017 at 1 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

To learn more about the URJ Biennial resolutions under consideration this year, and how the resolutions process works, please register for the first 2017 Biennial resolutions web meeting on June 14, 2017 at 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner represents the Reform Movement to Congress and the administration as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He also serves as the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America, he has been an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
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