Jonah Pesner: Judge righteously, speak up, stand with the poor for economic justice


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

“There is one theological conundrum that we can solve easily,” Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner said. “We can connect the theological dots. Our Scripture says to speak up and out against poverty and homelessness and to stand with the poor. Between the two, we insert righteous judgment.” Pesner preached at the 9 a.m. Tuesday, July 13 worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Speak Up, Judge Righteously, and Stand with the Poor: The Spiritual Imperative for Economic Justice.” The Scripture was Proverbs 31:9.

“The reason I became a rabbi was to unshackle the bonds of poverty and homelessness,” he said. Pesner attended high school in the South Bronx and saw the devastation of poverty in the community.

One of Pesner’s heroes is Desmond Mead. Pesner was in Boca Raton, Florida, to meet with several synagogues about justice issues when he got a call from Mead, asking to meet with him on an urgent matter. Pesner gave him a window of time he had free and when Mead walked in, he seemed out of breath. Pesner asked Mead if he had run across town and Mead said, “No, I just drove from Orlando.” That is a three-hour drive.

Mead was leading the campaign to restore voting rights to those who had been incarcerated.

“Jim Crow-era laws were keeping 1.6 million people from voting because they had been incarcerated. There was a ballot initiative to overturn the law,” Pesner said. “Just so you know, Amendment Four did pass in the state election, but the state legislature is still pulling shenanigans to block people’s ability to vote.”

Pesner asked Mead why the initiative was so important to him. Mead said he was a preacher’s kid who served in the armed forces, came out of service with PTSD, self-medicated and became addicted, lost everything and became homeless and wound up in prison. While in prison, he prayed and studied, got a college degree and law degree and represented himself at his appeal and won. He told Pesner he talked to people about voting, and that they said it wasn’t that they did not want to vote, but could not. That right had been taken away from them.

Pesner said, “All of us in the spiritual life are good at feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and providing hospitality. We are less good at the overthrow of systemic failure. There are 11 million children in poverty. They did nothing to deserve that life. We have criminalized poverty and the poor.”

He continued, “Desmond’s story is not unique. We are called to judge righteously, to analyze systems and change them.”

When the first Reform rabbis met in 1885, they formulated a statement about what Judaism stands for. In part they said the spirit of the Torah called them to regulate the relationship between the rich and the poor, and it was their duty to solve “on the basis of justice and righteousness the evils of the present society.”

Pesner reminded the congregation that on Monday he discussed the imperative in Torah to love the stranger. “We are called to love the widow, the orphan and the stranger. What do they have in common with the needy? They are the most vulnerable economically. Their economic protection does not come from a patriarch but from the community, at the center of the community and not the fringe.”

When the Amalekites attacked the people of Israel, they attacked the stragglers. The Jewish commentators said the sin was not on the part of the Amalekites but the Israelites — because the stragglers, the weaker ones, should have been in the center of the group and protected.

“We should open our hands to the needy, but Deuteronomy tells us we will always have needy people. God commands us to be open handed in our own land,” Pesner said.

Deuteronomy also requires workers to be paid a fair wage. 

“The rules about gleaning are clear. Land owners must leave a portion of the harvest for poor people to come and eat. Every seven years the land should rest and all who are hungry take the abundance of the land and all debts will be forgiven. Can you imagine that in the United States?” he asked.

Pesner and others held a vigil at Bank of America and other companies to protest 30% interest on credit cards. They asked the bank to charge just 10%, but the banks said they could not make a profit at that rate.

“Do you really want to make a profit through debt slavery?” the group asked the banks.

In the Jubilee year, which occurs every 50 years, all land reverts to the original owners. “When the Israelites entered the promised land, everyone shared equally and so every 50 years, land was returned to the original family,” Pesner said. “It was a system of fairness and equity. Think what the world might be.”

During Seder, participants raise the matzah up and say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Pesner said: “When we throw open the door for Elijah, what if we saw a real person? Would we mean it when we said, ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat’?”

The story of Ruth, Pesner said, is the story of an interfaith family. When all the men died in Moab, Naomi, the mother, prepared to return to Judah. Ruth told Naomi, “Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people, your God will be my God.”

Naomi sends Ruth out to glean, she is seen by Boaz, and they live happily ever after. “This story paints a fairy-tale picture of the world as it could be,” Pesner said. “More importantly, at the beginning of the genealogy of King David and the sovereign nation were a Moabite and Judahite showing that the widow and orphan could live together in peace.”

Pesner had promised to return to the story of Desmond Mead. He said he asked Mead how he got through the lowest point in his life. Mead told him he had learned a story from Pesner’s tradition. Mead’s father often invited guests to the family Sunday table. One day a rabbi came to visit and told a parable. In Israel there are two seas, one that gives life and the other that hoards life. The Sea of Galilee gives life but the Dead Sea drains life and does not share its abundance. “Go look at your own model of the seas in Palestine Park,” Pesner said. 

“Desmond Mead told me, ‘I want to live by giving life, not hoarding it,’ ” said Pesner. He continued, “Can you imagine a society more like Galilee, unlike the one we live in with suffering?” 

He ended the sermon saying, “Jews at ritual meals often joke that the storyline is, ‘They came to kill us, we prevailed, let’s eat.’ I would rather say, ‘They came to oppress us, we came together in collective liberation, now, all who are hungry — let’s eat.’ ”

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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.