To complicate that which seems simple and to simplify that which seems complicated

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
January 23, 2012
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When I was the director of Santa Monica College Hillel, my husband, Ami, and I (both rabbis: he, Conservative, and I, Reform) co-led a popular lunch-and-learn we called “Ask the Rabbis Adler”.

The program was an opportunity for the students to ask us anything: no holds barred.  Aside from the expected questions about our differing religious practices and beliefs about subjects ranging from pre-marital sex to Israeli politics, I was pleased to be asked by a particularly precocious 2nd year student whether Ami’s and my differing religious denominations also meant we had different opinions with respect to political party affiliations and voting practices in civic elections.

My husband and I looked at each other and smiled.

“Not at all,” I replied, fairly certain I was speaking for us both.  Ami nodded vigorously.  I continued, increasingly emphatic, “our strong religious beliefs about the centrality of tzedakah, the importance of justice, the sanctity of human life, make both of us extremely progressive in our domestic political convictions. It’s because we believe that every person is created in the image of God, and that God wants a just society, wherein the helpless are helped and the powerless are empowered, that we agree that all people deserve access to affordable health care; that GLBT people and their partners deserve the same rights as heterosexual people, including the right to marry; we agree that every woman has the right to choose what’s right for her body and her family.  But most of all, we agree that whatever our personal (or even religious) convictions about things like capital punishment or abortion may be, our supposedly secular government should not be allowed to dictate- or prosecute- others’ civil liberties.”

The students, many of whom came from politically conservative, traditionally religious Persian families, seemed surprised and looked to Ami for confirmation.

“It’s true,” he said.
There was silence in the room as they shifted their gazes from their plates of kosher pizza to us, and then to each other.  Undoubtedly this was a new (and potentially unwelcome) perspective for many of the young people who’d been taught at home as well as at their orthodox Jewish schools and synagogues that many of the things I’d just said amounted to heresy.

I’d spent the greater part of my tenure as the rabbi there dodging conversations about politics, as I had thought my role was to teach Torah, not politics.  But in that moment I realized that it’s often the rabbi’s job to complicate that which at first seems simple and to simplify that which seems complicated.

I maintain that there is an important role for us- personally, as rabbis; but in general, for all of us as Jews- in a country starkly divided by harsh socio-economic realities.  The inheritance of our teachers who marched alongside the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., elected Harvey Milk into public office, and fought for women’s rights, is calling out to us, their descendents, to continue to defend the rights of those who lack the political, educational or financial clout to do so for themselves.   Anything else is shirking our responsibility to the modern day widow and orphan in our midst.  To advocate for a conservative domestic agenda in the face of sweeping injustice in our cities is to push aside our mandate to remember that once, we were slaves in Egypt; that we were strangers in a strange land; and that the God who freed us is the One who cares for the welfare of every being made in the divine image and expects us to do the same.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

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