On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah – Sh'mot: Putting Faith into Action

Happy 2018! In our first episode of the secular new year, Rabbi Rick Jacobs welcomes guest host and friend Reverend Frederick A. Davie, Executive Vice President of Union Theological Seminary. Together, they discuss parashat Sh’mot and our individual capacity to drive change in the world. They wonder: What motivates us to take action – and what are the parameters for change?

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about ten minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs is joined by an old friend, Reverend Frederick Davie, the Executive Vice-President at Union Theological Seminary. In this episode 102, they teach us a bit about Parashat Sh'mot. And they wonder what moves you to make change and what you believe change really is?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week we focus our attention on the first Torah portion of the book of Exodus, known in Hebrew as Sh'mot, the book of names, tells the story of peoples' oppression in Egypt, and their deliverance as well. I'm so honored today to have the Reverend Fred Davie with me, and Fred is the Executive Vice-President of Union Theological Seminary here in New York, and one of my teachers, and a man who back in the 1980s, was a community organizer for an amazing organization called the Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives, building affordable housing, building bonds cross lines of race, class, and religion, all across the core of Brooklyn. And what a blessing to have you with me today.

[Rev. Fred:] Thank You it's a blessing to be here. So thank you.

[Rabbi Rick:] You're welcome. So can we talk a little Bible talk here? So we got this amazing moment when God calls to Moses. And I know you had a call, because you're also a leader of faith. One of the things about Moses is he's one of these guys who cannot see injustice, and just go about his business. He's literally called from whatever he's doing he sees -- and there's that classic example where there's an Egyptian taskmaster beating on one of his brothers -- it doesn't even identify someone -- and he intervenes. Can I just ask you as a person who answered the call, do you have a moment in your biography when you just could not see an injustice without answering? I know that's part of who you are as a faith leader.

[Rev. Fred:] It's kind of how I grew up. So if you look at Moses -- at least from my perspective, you know Moses was a man who was deeply in touch with not only his people, but his God. And I grew up in a little town in North Carolina with a family that was not only in touch with themselves as a family and their history, but with their faith and with their God. And at the core of that faith was this whole notion of justice, this notion that we could not be people of faith without that faith actualizing itself in action. And that action in our time in the South was very much about justice. So it's very much rooted in my spiritual DNA. I don't know how to be a person of faith without doing something. Now, it's possible -- but I don't know how to do it. So that doing something for me, as a person of faith, is generally around trying to make life better for people who find themselves on the margins -- which is where my people themselves, which is where Moses' people found themselves as well. And in the South when I was growing up, that really was about fighting powers and principalities, fighting structures, fighting with or trying to reform and transform the political and economic systems of that era. And I grew up in the church on the civil rights meetings in my little Presbyterian church in Belmont, when we had schools integrated, and the town integrated, and we had issues around racial strife -- we would go to church to resolve those issues. It was about what God was saying to us, and how God was speaking to us.

[Rabbi Rick:] So if you hear some of that conversation today that we're having about that role of faith in politics, the role of faith within social justice work, where there is a robust debate going on -- certainly within the Jewish community, my guess [also] in the wider community -- some people say "no,no,no, politics is outside [this], what where we're here in the purity of our faith community." And for us, I've got to say, you know you read Amos, Isaiah, Micah. You can't actually follow these prophetic teachings if you're not going to put yourself into the justice work, and you're not going to work on behalf of the most marginalized in a society. So for us, trying to figure that out is big. And you're also every day trying to help raise up a new generation of religious leaders at Union Theological.

[Rev. Fred:] We are indeed. So we want our students steeped in that tradition. They come oriented in that fashion before they come through the doors, generally. We now these days get a number of students who come -- significant numbers of students who come who've had no exposure to the Bible or Scripture at all. But they know that they need, if they're going to fight for justice, that they need something more. And so we open up for them the spirit and the power of these ancient texts so that they too can be rooted in that tradition of faith giving voice to justice or justice giving voice to faith, and can be empowered by that in their struggle to make this world a much better world.

I think she won't mind me saying this. We have at Union for the next five years. Michelle Alexander, the author of the book "The New Jim Crow." And people have asked Michelle why she chose to come to seminary. And she said she felt like the struggle for justice, a struggle to transform the system of criminal justice in America, requires something more than just politics, something more than just the law, but requires a kind of moral commitment -- a deep moral commitment, that faith in these ancient texts and a relationship with God on the other gives us. And so she came for that reason, students come for that reason. It's our mission, it's our desire, it's our love to equip them with the faith and an understanding of how that faith leads to justice so that they can go out to be leaders in the world.

[Rabbi Rick:] It gives us hope to imagine that leaders are coming soon and in our day. We think about the book of Exodus. It's kind of the ur-text when you talk about not only community organizing, but bringing a faith voice to the big urgent questions of the day. And one of the things I love most is that God hears the moaning and the suffering. It's a theological imperative, it's not, just, you know, a political party's got to figure out x or y. The Creator feels and also can't not bring the Divine presence to to be a force for good in the world. So, you know, the theological dimension to this field is profound. And where do we, as people of faith across faith lines find that sometimes a shared voice? Right? How do we raise a voice with a Christian and Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist in Sikh, and on and on. And can we use a collective faith voice and still be true to our own individual faith forces? How do we sing that louder, with more strength in this moment and in this world?

[Rev. Fred:] Yeah. And we need to, and we have to. So. Every one of these faith groups suffers. What amazes me about the suffering that you see is the way in which most of the people and faith groups when they've suffered don't abandon their faith -- and that would be the perfect time to say -- and many do, "Where is God?" But I think what we recognize is that God is right there, right in the midst of suffering, never letting go, never giving up on this...this experiment, I call it. Constantly calling us forward, even when we think we can't take another step. And when we see the miracles of people across all faiths perform under the most horrific circumstances, it's inspiration for the rest of us, right? So, if we can find like-minded people, and we can -- at Union, we have a great relationship with [the] Jewish Theological Seminary right across the street, have had it for decades. We just started our program on social justice in Islam, and a new degree in that field, a new degree in Buddhism and social engagement. So we're going to try to give expression to that within an institution that has its roots in Christianity, but has room enough in our sort of Christian welt to see God manifesting God's self in a variety of different communities and spaces and places and people and struggles. And we want to join hands and hearts and spirits with people who are committed to making this world just a little bit better than the way we found it.

[Rabbi Rick:] Amen. Well you've got such a kindred spirit not just with me, but with this Reform Jewish movement, that believes, you know, when my predecessor, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath marked those wonderful protests by carrying a giant Torah scroll and, I want to say, "Don't keep your faith in the Sanctuary. Don't let it just be a place sequestered by the comfortable beautiful walls of your praying places. Get it out there into the public square. Bring a voice of truth, a voice of compassionate, a voice of hope, and a voice of justice into the world." That is a faith obligation, and we don't do it alone. When people say, you know, is faith fading, is faith not up to the challenges of today, and what is done in the name of faith sometimes will make all of us not only sick but embarrassed. But I just so applaud and love your faith voice, and the voice now that you're implanting within another generation of faith leaders who imagine a world that we could build together and we will build together. So.

[Rev. Fred:] Well You've been a steady presence and a teacher for me and a great example for me as well. I mean, from those days in Brooklyn when you were at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue and we were holding those meetings and engaging with elected officials around the needs of the communities that surrounded Brooklyn Heights and Fort Greene Clinton Hill, to what you're doing today. When I open up my social media, or look in the newspaper, and my heart goes out and my stomach churns and I said "Oh rabbi, please be careful!" But you're bearing witness. And the people around you are bearing witness. And I think that's just really crucially important for this time. So I'm glad you stay on the frame.

[Rabbi Rick:] So what about this, Fred: let's do more of that work together.

[Rev. Fred:] And We will, we will indeed.

[Rabbi Rick:] Thank you.

[Rev. Fred:] Thank You. Thank you for this opportunity.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you like what you've heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!