The Sacred Calling: Pursuing Justice for All

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman

Today is the anniversary of the proclamation of freedom for black slaves in Texas in 1865, celebrated as “Juneteenth.” At tonight’s service, we will have the opportunity for reflection related to this day. Juneteenth was not historically widely observed throughout the US, but this year, this, too, has changed as our society reckons with injustice in new and profound ways. For more information about how the Jewish world has embraced commemoration of Juneteenth this year, see this article.

Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof…” “Justice, justice shall you pursue…” (Deuteronomy 16:18) So many of the sacred obligations of Jewish tradition call us to manifest justice in this world. Never in my lifetime have there been so many urgent calls to action for justice crying out to us with such urgency all at once. As we continue to manage life amidst a global pandemic, so many injustices have been, to quote Torah again, “Crying out to us from the ground.” In the story of the first murder in human history, when Cain kills his brother Abel, God is outraged, and we can almost imagine an anthropomorphic God weeping, saying “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10) We can take “ground” to be a metaphor for all that we had not been paying any or sufficient attention to, that has now been “unearthed” in these past few months: The many examples of societal, systemic injustices that we can no longer cover over and ignore, whether it is the inequalities of our healthcare system in the US or the countless examples of racial injustices, this unfolding moment has called us to communal reckoning. The month of June is also LGBTQ Pride Month, a time when we have been called to education and action in the service of LGBTQ rights as well. Whether we are talking about fighting inequality on the basis of racial, gender, sexual, or religious identity, it is always rooted in the core value we learn from the Book of Genesis, the very first book of the Torah: B’tzelem Elohim. Every human being is created in the divine image, each one as infinitely precious as the next, worthy of our attention, our compassion, and of action in pursuit of justice.

When the murder of George Floyd became the tipping point for a new awakening to racially-motivated police brutality and racial injustices throughout our society, many of the thousands who marched and protested said things like “I can’t believe it is over 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement and we still have to stand up for civil rights in this country.” “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said (paraphrasing a sermon by an Abolitionist minister in 1853)1; so much has evolved in the last 5 decades, and not always in one direction. There have been periods of time when those who are not black, or who are not gay, or who are not part of any particular minority group in the U.S., could be relatively “asleep” to the systemic injustices going on, to use the metaphor of “the ground” – right beneath our feet. And in these past few months, the blood of our siblings in our human family, each one of infinite worth, created in the divine image, has cried out to us – with increasing urgency. When we feel tempted to give up our pursuit of justice, especially when we don’t feel directly affected by it, that is precisely when we need to push ourselves, because when it comes to pursuing justice, there is always further to go. Jewish tradition calls us to push forward in the face of overwhelm at the enormity of the work. As Pirke Avot, the ancient collection of wisdom dating to the 2nd century, teaches: “It is not upon you to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:21)

One area of a great deal of growth has been the call to care for those who do not conform to our assumptions about gender, whether because they are trans, or gender-nonbinary. One relatively new practice, which may seem like a small thing but is actually a profound act of pursuing justice, is to refrain from making assumptions about the gender identity of others. Many of our societal assumptions about gender have been proven narrow (we now know that gender is a spectrum rather than a binary). For that reason, many organizations and institutions have moved toward asking people to identify for others what pronouns they prefer. You may have noticed them on name tags, email signatures, and the like. As the only national Jewish LGBTQ organization, Keshet, teaches us: “On the most basic level, using people’s correct pronouns is about kavod (respect). In the same way we ask people’s names so we can refer to them correctly, using people’s pronouns is about honoring them as a person. As Jews, we are tasked with loving our neighbors and strangers, as we were once strangers in Egypt. In a work or learning environment, people can’t be productive and fully present if they feel ignored, invisible, and disrespected. Sharing, asking, and using correct pronouns helps maintain shalom bayit (peace in the home) by contributing to an environment where everyone can be comfortable and safe.”

(What’s in a Pronoun?: Resources and Activities on Third-Person, Gender-Neutral Pronouns)

During this LGBTQ Pride month, we wanted to highlight this practice for our membership. At TOS, because we support acts of justice whether in the form of mass actions or small changes like letting go of gender assumptions, we too will move toward using our pronouns in our staff email signatures and whenever it will help all individuals in our community feel included. A primary Jewish value is always to hold a curious and open mind and heart, and to be learning and growing until our dying breath. If indicating pronouns is new and feels challenging for you, I encourage you to read this piece to better understand this part of pursuing justice. It makes a big difference to those in our communities who do not identify with gender in the way we may assume they do based on their appearance, and we all can learn from examining our biases and perspectives. Let us all push ourselves to learn and to grow, not to run from discomfort, and always to pursue justice.

May we support one another in this holy and unending task of pursuing justice for all people, finding strength in the diversity of our community and in the wisdom of our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman

1 The Truth About the ‘Arc of the Moral Universe’