Jonah Pesner: Conspire, breathe together; to resist evil, bring hope


Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, delivers his sermon “Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with Your God: Scripture is a Call to Action” Sunday, July 11, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“Modim anachnu lach,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner. “I woke up this morning, and the breath returned, and the congregation returned.”

Pesner preached at the 9 a.m. Monday, July 12 morning worship service. His sermon title was “And God Dealt Well with the Midwives: Confronting Racism, Antisemitism, and Bigotry in all Forms.” The Scripture reading was Exodus 1:15-20.

Pesner called the first hymn in the service, “In Praise of Hebrew Midwives,” a midrash on the Scripture. 

The hymn writer, Edith Sinclair, wrote that the women “used both fact and fiction, / and found a cunning way / to counter male dominion, / and give God’s will full sway.” In the closing verse she wrote, “Revere defiant women / who seek to bring to birth / new life from wombs of promise / to live God’s will on earth.”

“ ‘Conspiracy’ is a good word and we need to reclaim it,” Pesner said. “To conspire is to breathe together. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, breathed together. They conspired with Miriam, Moses’ sister, Jochebed, Moses’ mother and Bat Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s daughter, to bring resistance and hope.”

Pharaoh demanded that the midwives destroy life in contrast to their call to give life.

“It is not like these were the most powerful women in Egypt,” Pesner said. “They were low-wage health workers and they were women. But when Pharaoh asked why they had not carried out his order to kill all male Jewish children, they came up with a lie.”

Shiprhah and Puah told Pharaoh that the Hebrew women gave birth so fast, they could not get there in time. “Either Pharaoh was a big idiot or the midwives were smart and powerful,” Pesner said. 

There were two midwives to provide solidarity. “If there had been a Midwives’ Workers Union, they would have walked out on Pharaoh. But they teamed up with Miriam and Jochebed to save the baby who would save his people,” Pesner said.

Rashi, the great rabbinical commentator, did not think that the midwives were Hebrews, but they served Hebrew women. 

“If they had been Hebrews serving Hebrews, that would have been good,” Pesner said. “But Rashi said because the women were most likely Egyptians serving Hebrew women, this becomes a radical story of love and empathy.”

Bat Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s daughter, became the linchpin. Her example calls us to rise up against racism and bigotry and reclaim radical love, Pesner told the congregation.

“The Exodus story is the master story of the Jewish people; it is recounted every year at Passover,” Pesner said. Passover is the central Jewish ritual event and takes place in people’s homes.

Recalling the events of the Exodus “reminds each of us that we were slaves and were freed, therefore you shall love the stranger, because you were a stranger,” Pesner said. He noted that the admonition to love the stranger is given 36 times in Torah, but that the admonition to love your neighbor was only given once. 

Pesner said Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, believes that mass incarceration is because of the loss of proximity to others.

“There are 2.1 million people incarcerated at any one time in this country,” Pesner said. “This is the most number incarcerated per capita in the world and just plain the most number. As a white man, I have a 1 in 17 chance of going to jail; as a Black man I would have a 1 in 3 chance. Because of the lack of proximity, it is hard to know one another and hard to love one another.” 

As Pesner said the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and others, he noted that Black Lives Matter was the largest social movement in United States history. 

“Black Lives Matter is a conspiracy of radical love and empathy to combat bigotry,” he said. “How can we dismantle systemic racism if we can’t see others with radical love and empathy?”

On a shabbat morning in 2018, in Pittsburgh, a white terrorist entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and killed 11 people and wounded seven. Pesner drove to Pittsburgh to be with the Jewish community as it mourned.

An interfaith vigil was held at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, which was packed. Jumbotrons were outside. 

“Jews were in the minority in this interfaith, multiracial gathering,” he said.

The representative of the Muslim community told the gathering they would stand guard when Jews held services if that was needed. They had raised money to help pay for the funerals and to provide medical care for the wounded.

“The synagogue and mosque march together when Jews or Muslims are attacked,” Pesner said, despite disagreements over Israeli-Palestinian relations. 

A Black pastor told those gathered for the vigil that the shooting happened “out of hate for Jews, full stop. When Jews are attacked, we are all attacked.”

The pastor reminded those gathered that the shooter at the Kroger supermarket only went there because the church he targeted was locked. The church was locked because of the shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina. 

The Tree of Life synagogue was also a target because of its support for HIAS, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, that helped migrants to be safe and free, the Black pastor said. 

“Say the names of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile,” Pesner said. “Say the names of Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, Jochebed, Bat Pharaoh. Resistance to evil is always possible.” 

The Rt. Rev V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor at Chautauqua, presided. The Rev. John Morgan, senior pastor of Williamsburg Presbyterian Church and author of this week’s liturgies, read the Scripture. Joshua Stafford, who holds the Jared Jacobsen Organist Chair and is director of sacred music at Chautauqua, played “Andante maestoso,” by Joseph Sulzer, for the prelude. Members of the Motet Choir sang “Verleih Uns Frieden,” words by Martin Luther and music by Felix Mendelssohn. The postlude was “Andante con moto,” by Louis Lewandowski. The Robert D. Campbell Memorial Chaplaincy provides support for this week’s services and chaplain. 

“Sing Praise for Hebrew Midwives” by Edith Sinclair, set to Nyland, was the first hymn:

“Sing praise for Hebrew midwives” / for by them God was served./ They brought to birth God’s people. / A remnant was preserved. / They used both fact and fiction, / and found a cunning way / to counter male dominion, / and give God’s will full sway.

Praise, too, the loving mother who saved her son from death. / She placed him in the water. With trembling, fearful breath. / Then entered Pharaoh’s daughter, / who found the hidden one. / Defying her own father,/ she took him for her son.

Sing praise for this son, Moses, / who by the midwives’ act, / was saved to lead God’s people, / and given faith he lacked. / Revere defiant women / who seek to bring to birth / new life from wombs of promise / to live God’s will on earth.”

The closing hymn was “Dare to Think Though Bigots Frown,” music from the Erfurt Enchiridion and words by Charles H. Gabriel:

“Dare to think, though bigots frown;/ Dare in words your thoughts express; / Dare to rise though oft cast down;/ Dare the wronged and scorned to bless. 

Dare forsake what you deem wrong; / Dare to walk in wisdom’s way; / Dare to give where gifts belong; / Dare God’s precepts to obey.

Do what conscience says is right, / Do what reason says is best, / Do with all your mind and heart, / Do your duty and be blest.”

Tags : antisemitismbigotryExodus 1:15-20Jonah Pesnermidwivesmorning worshipRabbi Jonah Pesnerresist evil

The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.