On Monday, May 15, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, joined demonstrators taking part in the nine-day March on Harrisburg. Organized by Michael Pollack, a soon-to-be graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the 100-mile march from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, PA is a grassroots, nonpartisan campaign to heal a “wounded democracy.”
The effort is in support of a series of bills in the Pennsylvania General Assembly aimed at banning unlimited gifts to lawmakers, ending gerrymandering and automatizing voter registration. Rabbi Waxman marched with the group for nearly 10 miles and offered the following remarks about how her faith inspires her to act in the political sphere.
Why are we on this planet?
What are we supposed to do while we are here?
How are we supposed to do whatever it is we are supposed to do?
These are the big questions. Some of us spend much of our time pondering them. Others, not so much. Maybe when something big or hard or tragic happens. Maybe not at all.
There are many different ways to answer these questions. Philosophy. Politics. Religion.
I am here speaking to you today as a rabbi, so obviously I think religion, especially a progressive approach to religion, can help us with at least part of the answers. I think my religion, Judaism, has a lot of compelling practices that point toward answers, at least for me, maybe for you. I especially think Reconstructionist Judaism, with its commitment to democracy and inclusion, is a powerful way of being religious and progressive. But ultimately I think answers come from a universal ground of being that we all share, that are not the province of any particular religion.
I believe we are here:
1. To grow in wisdom
2. To learn how to love each other, even a little, or, if we’re good at it, how to love each other better
3. To make this world a better place
Being religious helps me work toward answers. Judaism is, at its core, a communitarian religion, so in my experience a religious perspective presumes that the answers are more than individual answers. They are moderated and interpreted through community. This is community that is both horizontal—all the people we encounter every day, in real and virtual settings—and vertical—our ancestors—biological and chosen—who came before us, our children—biological and chosen—who will follow. A progressive religious perspective presumes that the community and its answers are constantly evolving—and that these changes can be good, they can be infused with the divine.
But being religious is not enough—even for me, a rabbi. Being religious is not enough, most especially when religion urges me to judge others harshly or retreat into my community and turn my back on others. I am enlarged through my interaction with each and every one of you—in the polite conversation, in the bumping into each other, in the heated argument, in the shared work project. And I know this because I had the great good fortune to be born in the United States of America in the years following WWII, at a moment in time when, as a white person, I could experience an unprecedented degree of freedom. As a Jew, I could celebrate my religion and embrace my ethnicity. As a lesbian, I could come to awareness and come out, I could rise to leadership in the Reconstructionist community and contribute the gifts I have to give. And from this experience of expansiveness, I understand that it is my obligation to widen this public space for other people who don’t have the privilege I have. So even though I come to my full humanity as a religious person, I understand that I must act as a human being in the political sphere.
I am nourished by my religion—and I hope you find rich sustenance somewhere—and I join with you today in politics. I am so proud of all of you and so excited to be with you. You are acting out mutual responsibility. You are working to bring to life the society and the government you want to see. Every morning in the Jewish liturgy, we offer up a prayer of thankfulness for the goodness of creation that unfolds again each day. At a moment defined by contraction, you are creating. Today, I offer a prayer of thankfulness for you. Blessed are you, Source of the Universe, who in goodness renews in us the belief in the possibility of transformative community and transformative action.
Jewish history and Jewish practice are deeply aware of paradox. At our happiest times, we remember our pain and the pain of others. Under the wedding huppah, we break a glass to remind us that there are parts of the world that are still shattered. Each year at Passover, when we celebrate our liberation from slavery in Egypt, we spill out ten drops of wine from the full cups, one for every plague that the Egyptians suffered on our path toward freedom. And, at our saddest times, we are also commanded to continue to celebrate. Even mourners observe the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays in their richness, in their festivities. As we experience and study tragedies, both personal and national, we move from sorrow toward celebration. Judaism teaches the crucial lesson that joy is necessary to sustain our bodies and our souls, at all times, most especially in times of hardship.
So, in a period full of pain, you are raising your voices in song and shout. In Hebrew, the word for voice—kol—is also the word for vote. Keep raising your voices. Keep marching. Keep demanding accountability and transparency. Keep creating a new world. Keep visioning. Keep organizing. This is so powerful. You are so powerful.
This, it seems, is our life’s work. To make meaning out of paradox. To seek justice. To search for joy in the midst of pain. To build connection. May you be strengthened on your individual and communal journey. May you be strengthened—this day, tomorrow, and in the years ahead.