MARY LEE TALBOT – STAFF WRITER
“The ancient rabbis were not democratic,” Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner said. “They were hierarchical, and people worked years to become ‘chief rabbi this’ and ‘chief rabbi that.’ And with few exceptions, look them up on Google, they were men.”
He was preaching at the 9 a.m. Thursday, July 15 morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “A Ruler is Not to be Appointed Unless the Community is First Consulted: Our Safety Comes in Our Solidarity, and Our Redemption Will Come Through Our Democracy.”
The text was from the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 55a:
“R. Isaac said: We must not appoint a leader over a Community without first consulting it, as it says: See, the Lord hath called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Do you consider Bezalel suitable? He replied: Sovereign of the Universe, if Thou thinkest him suitable, surely I must also! Said (God) to him: All the same, go and consult them. He went and asked Israel: Do you consider Bezalel suitable? They replied: If the Holy One, blessed be He, and you consider him suitable, surely we must!”
Pesner said, “Rabbi Isaac was taking a radical step. Democracy is a work in progress.” He noted that when the new Amp was being constructed, some people objected, even though the building had been renovated at least six times.
“It might have been easier for God if everyone thought God had made the right choice,” Pesner said. “But God told Moses to consult the people, so that the people would know that Bezalel was the right person to build the tabernacle.”
He said, “American democracy is a work in progress. In the beginning of the country only a white, male elite could vote. Through the evolution brought by blood, sweat and tears, we have broadened the mandate so the entire community must be consulted.”
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism was born during the civil rights movement through the experience and vision of Kivie Kaplan. A man from a poor, immigrant family, Kaplan did well in business and wanted to “pay it forward.” His philanthropy took on a particular form as the result of an experience he and his wife, Emily, had on their honeymoon in Florida. As the Kaplans were touring Florida, they kept seeing signs that said, “No Jews, No Dogs.” Kaplan asked their Black driver if the signs were common. The man replied, “They don’t even bother with us.” The incident impelled Kaplan to join the NAACP and serve as its president from 1966 to 1975.
“He wanted to be the last white, Jewish man to be president of an African American rights organization,” Pesner said. “I serve on the board of the NAACP, and this is the week of its annual convention.”
Kaplan bought a building in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. and donated it to the Reform Judaism movement. It became the hub of the civil rights movement. Rabbi Richard Hirsch was the founding director of the Religious Action Center.
“Dick Hirsch called up Martin Luther King Jr. and said, ‘Martin, you have an office in Washington,’ ” Pesner said.
Pesner quoted King: “King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’ ”
He continued, “The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were written in the conference room. There is a bronze plaque commemorating the RAC’s contribution to those bills.” Pesner noted that Rabbi David Saperstein had led the center for 40 years and under President Barack Obama served as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
Pesner was invited to be part of the official delegation to mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday’’ on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. “I was there because of the role the RAC played in the civil rights movement,” he said.
At the dinner for the event, Pesner was asked to come to the podium. The master of ceremonies called out his name, “Rabbi Pesner, is Rabbi Pesner here?” he said.
Pesner said, “I thought I done something wrong but the master of ceremonies said, ‘Tonight being Shabbat, we want to begin with a blessing.’ ” Pesner called all the Jews in the audience to come forward and they prayed the Sabbath prayer.
“I saw John Lewis, and David Goodman, the older brother of Andrew Goodman, who with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan,” Pesner said. “I was not there alone.”
Jews had just celebrated the festival of Purim, which celebrates the story of Esther standing up to Haman to save the Jewish people.
“We dress in costumes like Halloween,” he said. “I was coming off the stage and a commanding voice said, ‘Rabbi,’ and I said, ‘Yes, Speaker Pelosi?’ She said, ‘My granddaughter dressed as Esther for Purim, do I count?’ I said, ‘Anytime you want to join, we will be happy to have you.’ ”
He continued, “I couldn’t believe, 50 years after the civil rights bill, the speaker wanted to count.”
Pesner noted that 1965 was the first year that Jews were allowed to buy property in Chautauqua. “You may not think that is right, but this inclusion is a work in progress in America. But we have to realize how far we have not yet come.”
There are over 2 million incarcerated people in the United States. A Latino man has a 1 in 5 chance of going to prison; a Black man has a 1 in 3 chance. “This is the new Jim Crow,” Pesner said.
In 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby vs. Holder, “eviscerated the voting rights act,” Pesner said. “There are over 400 bills in 48 states trying to suspend voter rights. Chief Justice Roberts said that things are better now. The Notorious RBG said the logic of the majority was like saying you don’t need an umbrella in the middle of a downpour because you are not getting wet.”
The Rev. William J. Barber, leader of Moral Mondays and co-director of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, invited Pesner to North Carolina, the first state to try to limit voter rights.
Pesner told the people in the churches and synagogues in North Carolina about the role of Reform Jews in the civil rights movement and the story of the voting rights and civil rights bills being written at RAC headquarters.
Barber said, “I would like to offer a Talmudic emendation. Those bills were not written in the conference room. They were written in blood in Selma and transcribed in your office.”
Pesner said, “I thought of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. I think of Jan. 6 and the work we have to do. Senate Bill S1, ‘For the People,’ will not be passed in Washington unless we organize in churches, synagogues, mosques, union halls across the country. We are at a dangerous moment.”
At an event at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, following the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue, at the very end, people rose up and started chanting, “Vote, vote, vote.”
Pesner said, “At the event people asked, ‘Is it too soon?’ We always ask that after a mass shooting, ‘Is it too soon after a trauma to get political?’ These were people who were still mourning their loved ones and they chanted, ‘Vote, vote, vote.’ ”
He ended the sermon saying, “If I have learned anything, it is that our safety comes in solidarity and our redemption will come through democracy.”
The Rev. John Morgan presided. Renee Bergmann Andrews, who hosts the Interfaith Outreach Learners’ Shabbat morning service each year, read from the Babylonian Talmud in Aramaic and in English. The Motet Consort performed “Poco Adagio,” from Hommage a Francis Poulenc by Trygve Madsen. The musicians included Barbara Hois (flute), Rebecca Scarnati (oboe), Debbie Grohman (clarinet) and Joseph Musser (piano). Members of the Motet Choir sang “A Canticle of Peace,” music by Joseph Clockey and words from Isaiah 2:2-4. Joshua Stafford, the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and director of sacred music, played “Andantino,” by Louis Lewandowski, for the postlude. The Robert D. Campbell Memorial Chaplaincy provides support for this week’s services and chaplain.