In this tough week, let's embrace the greatest principles of Torah

I'll be honest: this has felt like a very hard and heavy week so far... and it's only Wednesday! Although I can't say that the news out of the Supreme Court feels like a surprise, I do feel gutted and raw about the pending decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and all that it portends for our American society. And, if that weren't enough, on our Jewish calendar, today was Yom HaZikaron, a national Memorial Day in Israel, a reminder of the high price of Jewish statehood and the ways that the ongoing conflict over land undermines security for all who call the land of Israel/Palestine home.

I'll be honest: this has felt like a very hard and heavy week so far... and it's only Wednesday! Although I can't say that the news out of the Supreme Court feels like a surprise, I do feel gutted and raw about the pending decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and all that it portends for our American society. And, if that weren't enough, on our Jewish calendar, today was Yom HaZikaron, a national Memorial Day in Israel, a reminder of the high price of Jewish statehood and the ways that the ongoing conflict over land undermines security for all who call the land of Israel/Palestine home.

This week's Torah portion, Kedoshim, reminds us that our aspirations to "be holy" play out in countless day-to-day decisions we make and actions we take. The parasha defines holiness through many concrete examples of what not to do (no incest, no idolatry, no defrauding of others) as well as many examples of what to do (e.g. showing reverence for parents, leaving the corners of your fields for the poor and the stranger, judging all people fairly).

But, Parashat Kedoshim is notable not only for its tangible examples, but also for its sweeping statements of principle. In fact, Rabbi Akiva famously calls one line from this parasha -- "v'ahavta l'rei'acha kamocha," "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" -- a "klal gadol ba-torah," "the greatest principle of Torah." This statement of Rabbi Akiva's sparks a debate among rabbis, as it seems to suggest that the way we treat others should stem primarily from our own experience and what we do and do not desire for ourselves (in this, Rabbi Akiva seems to follow in the footsteps of his teacher Hillel, who famously taught a version of the golden rule: "what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor").

In a couple of rabbinic texts -- including the Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4:2-4 and in Bereishit Rabbah 24 -- an argument is preserved between Rabbi Akiva, who holds up this "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" line from Parashat Kedoshim as the highest aspiration of Torah, and ben Azzai, who instead chooses a line from Genesis (5:1), "these are the generations of Adam," as the Torah's "k'lal gadol" ("greatest principle"). In naming the Genesis verse instead, ben Azzai is arguing that the basis for how we treat others ought to stem not from our own personal experience, but rather, from an awareness that all human beings are created in God's likeness, and therefore every person has the same intrinsic dignity and worth.

The truth is, I'm not sure that Rabbi Akiva and ben Azzai's positions are really so at odds with one another. Both of them seem to believe in holding every human being in high esteem, and treating every individual with kindness, dignity and respect. Whether we do this because we are good at extrapolating from our own life experience (per Rabbi Akiva's opinion), or because we can have learned how to cultivate empathy even for those whose life experiences are different from ours (as Ben Azzai prefers) feels almost irrelevant to me. Both statements -- "v'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha" and "zeh sefer toldot adam" -- are foundational principles, and both approaches feel, to me, worthy of being labeled a "k'lal gadol baTorah," a teaching of the highest order. In fact, taking a "both-and" approach and pairing them feels doubly powerful!

The vision that emerges from Rabbi Akiva and ben Azzai's conversation -- for building a holy society in which we demonstrate love for our neighbors and apply the principles of human dignity and equality -- is well aligned with democracy, a system of government that values equally the voices of all voters. It is decidedly not aligned with the Supreme Court's decision that is apparently coming down the pike... one which fundamentally empowers those without uteruses to make decisions about the bodies and choices of those with them, imposes particular Christian beliefs on a multi-faith nation (and specifically infringes on Jewish religious freedom, as our tradition permits and in some cases mandates abortion!), and subjects a majority to the will of a court that represents a minority.

In both the United States and Israel, I dream of seeing true democracy -- and not ethnocracy or facism -- flourish. I dream of freedom and human dignity for all.

If, as we mark Israel's 74th birthday, you're interested in going deeper into what this kind of vision would look like for the State of Israel, I highly recommend that you listen to last week's episode of Chutzpod! -- where hosts Rabbi Shira Stutman and Joshua Malina welcome Israeli and Palestinian guests, Leah Solomon and Layla Alsheikh, to engage in an inclusive and nuanced conversation around Yom Ha-Zikaron and Yom Ha'Atzmaut -- and/or that you take an hour to watch the recording of yesterday's Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony, which was beautifully produced, and managed to be painful and uplifting and hopeful all at once!

Meanwhile, closer to home, here in the United States, things just got real; we can see in sharper relief what battles we will be fighting in the years to come. At Kavana, we have many social justice commitments -- not only to reproductive rights (although certainly these!) and LGBTQ+ rights (which may also be impacted by this court ruling), but also to immigrants' rights, to overcoming the legacy of slavery and systemic racism, to ensuring educational and economic opportunities for all, and more. The "klal gadol" -- foundational principle -- underlying all of these commitments is, in fact, the statements of Rabbi Akiva and ben Azzai taken together... that we must love our neighbors as ourselves AND operate on the basis of recognizing the shared humanity of every individual.

For now, if you're having a hard week too, I invite you to pause and take a deep breath. We will have much work to do, and we need to re-center ourselves on our core values, and take care of ourselves and of each other. Over the coming 6 months -- between now and the midterm election -- Kavana will be making a concentrated effort to do our part in ensuring that all voices are heard in our country and that we can protect our democracy and build a society together in accordance with our highest values. We'll be working together with Vote Forward again (as we did before the last election) to write to voters across the country, and coming together both online and in-person through letter-writing parties to make this a connective and fun experience. If you'd like to be involved in coordinating or hosting such efforts on behalf of the Kavana community, please be in touch.

Wishing us all a week of re-centering towards our most core values and foundational principles,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum