Chazak Chazak V’nitchazek: WRJ and Social Justice
By Rabbi David Saperstein
In the opening verses of Jeremiah, Chapter 1, (the haftarah reading traditionally used when this week’s Parshat Mattot is read on its own), we read: “…Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). The rabbis asked why do we speak about just the nations if Jeremiah, like almost all the prophets, spoke primarily to the children of Israel? The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot (Page 258,Commentary on Jeremiah 1:5) cites David Kimhi (also known as the “RaDak,” a 12th century biblical commentator from Provence) and Rashi, who suggest that this is to remind us that we have a core religious and moral obligation to bring a prophetic witness to both the Jewish people and to the broader world.
Or in modern terminology, we are a people with both a particularist and universalist message of righteousness and justice.
From its inception, Reform Judaism sought to capture this merged universal and particular mission. And no arm of our Movement has more vividly exemplified that two-pronged role of what it means to be a light to and of the nations than Women of Reform Judaism.
For the past 100 years, Women of Reform Judaism has led our Movement’s pursuit of justice with vision, foresight and strength. WRJ’s policy priorities – from statements by some of its earliest leaders calling for women rabbis to the 1936 resolution decrying child labor, from the 1985 resolution on ending Apartheid to the 2001 resolution on Economic Justice and scores of others throughout the decades until today – have echoed and inspired those of our larger Movement, and of the broader social justice community. Indeed, many of the policy positions later adopted by the URJ and the CCAR were preceded by similar resolutions passed by the WRJ board or sisterhoods. And today, whether it is partnering with Women of the Wall to fight for equality at the Kotel, raising awareness about crucial women’s health issues or leading social action programming within congregations, WRJ sisterhoods and members are at the forefront of the key social justice battles as they have been for the last 100 years.
Indeed, just as WRJ touches each part of our Union family at home, its support for our Reform Movement in Israel and around the world is likewise superb. Through the YES Fund, WRJ continues to strengthen our Israeli HUC students and NETZER progressive youth around the world, imbuing the next generation with the values that are at its core. WRJ’s support is a tangible expression of the responsibility we have to each other and the commitment to our broader society that is at the root of what it means to be a Jew. Its “critical issues” network and other advocacy efforts have served as a model of advocacy support for the RAC, and countless others, over its storied tenure.
This week we read the instructions regarding vows and oaths, specifically depicting the legal scenarios surrounding obligations made by women. As our new The Torah: A Women’s Commentary points out, the list of regulations that apply to vows made by women indicate not just the binding nature of these laws but, perhaps more importantly, that women were permitted to make vows and obligations; women were holistically integrated into the religious and legal lives of their families and communities.
Today, a renewed commitment toward full equality and participation of women in American and Canadian society and in Jewish life remains a hallmark of WRJ’s work. Thirty-three Americans are murdered with firearms every day. Women continue to face pay discrimination in the workplace, earning an average of only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. One in four American women is the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner. 16.7 million children in America live in households where they do not have a steady supply of nutritious food. And though the past century has seen enormous strides for women’s role in the public sphere, only 21 heads of state around the world are women. At home, 18% percent of members of the U.S. Congress are women – the highest in history, but still startlingly disproportionate to the 51% of the population that women constitute.
In all of these issues and countless more, WRJ continues to be actively involved and engaged. Whether calling for swift consideration of judicial nominees, advocating for reproductive rights in states where those rights are threatened, meeting with members of Congress to advance the Violence Against Women Act, or honoring social justice work in congregations through the Or Ami awards, Women of Reform Judaism has embodied our divine command to “pursue justice.”
This parashah brings us to the end of the book of Numbers. In Jewish tradition, each time we finish reading a book of the Torah, we rise as a community and declare chazak chazak v’nitchazek, “Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened.” This seems to suggest that our personal strengths are inextricably bound with those of the community: as we individually strengthen ourselves, the collective is subsequently fortified. The command may be in the singular, but the result is in the plural. The mantra of chazak chazak v’nitchazek has inspired us as a Jewish people throughout our history and has also guided us as a Reform Movement. Nowhere is this model of strength and support more evident than in the historic relationship between the RAC and WRJ.
Yet WRJ also knows – and has modeled for the rest of us – that strength does not grow in a vacuum. Rather, it must be intentionally nurtured and cultivated. That is why WRJ has admirably focused on the Movement’s next generation through important support for HUC students, the Campaign for Youth Engagement and the RAC’s own Eisendrath Legislative Assistant program. Our Legislative Assistant working on issues of particular importance to women has historically had a collaborative and productive relationship with WRJ advocacy staff – strengthened this year through WRJ support of an LA focused primarily on women’s rights issues. It will be a true blessing for our Movement and for social justice causes globally as this partnership grows over the coming years.
Jewish tradition is not particularly gratuitous with its syntax. It is therefore always notable when a word or phrase is stated twice – such repetition, we postulate, must have an intentional meaning. In the case of chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek, perhaps we are supposed to glean that not all strengths are the same. In fact, it is only when we combine his strength and her strength, my strength and your strength, that we can achieve the symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship in which we can all develop and grow. WRJ’s profound historic partnership with the RAC has exemplified this notion. We have been greatly strengthened by our relationship and look forward to growing and flourishing over the next 100 years.
Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.