The Bully Pulpit

I recently attended the bat mitzvah of a cousin’s daughter at the synagogue in which I grew up.  My cousin’s daughter did a great job with her Torah portion, but I was particularly struck by the sermon, in which Rabbi Dennis Sasso forcefully and eloquently connected those ancient teachings to America’s contemporary challenges.

I sometimes need to remind myself that for every judgmental scold or religious con-man, there is a religious leader like Rabbi Sasso wrestling with the nature of human community and authentic moral behavior.

He was kind enough to share a copy of his remarks.

 Judaism is not just a set of general principles or lofty ideals. It is the living out of those values in the here and now, in the everyday of human encounter between a person and his/her neighbor, a man and woman, parents and children, elected officials and the people, nation and nation.

And so, in this week’s Torah portion, entitled Mishpatim (“Ordinances”), we have the fleshing out of the Ten Commandments. We find here the beginnings of a constitutional biblical tradition, upon which future post-biblical (rabbinic) legislation will evolve, not just as a faith tradition but as a religion of ethical nationhood.

The Rabbi noted that the book of Exodus contains many laws that mirror those of our civil state, including, most significantly, “laws forbidding the oppression of the powerless, the weak, the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger — the disenfranchised members of society.”

The commandment to “love your neighbor” occurs in Leviticus 19. However, the commandment to “love the stranger,” the foreigner, the immigrant, (a much more difficult task) – occurs here twice and 36 times in the Torah (“Love the stranger…” “for you know the heart of the stranger, as you were strangers in the land of Egypt”).

The heart of the sermon–at least to me–was the explicit application of Jewish teaching to matters pending at the Indiana legislature.

Reading through this week’s portion we can find guidance regarding many bills currently before our State and Federal Legislatures.

There is SB 439 – regarding Hate Crime Laws – likely not to pass in Indiana because of the pressure of conservative forces that feign to promote themselves as religious.      Well, they are quite out of sync with the biblical heritage they purport to uphold – a heritage that teaches – “You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart.”

The growing vitriol expressed in words and acts of anti-Semitism, Islamphobia and other ethnic and gender directed prejudice speak of an epidemic of hate that must be contained. We should be alarmed by what is happening to words in our times – particularly in the political and religious arenas. Language has become shrill, offensive and misleading. Words, angry and hostile weapons.

Then there are legislative initiatives to curtail rights for LGBTQ+ citizens and to impose doctrinal understandings of reproductive health and abortion rights. Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion contains the key passage that defines miscarriage and abortion not as murder, but as a civil matter (Ex. 21:22-24).

Abortion is a painful and serious decision to be made by a woman in consultation with her physician, loved ones and in keeping with her religious values. In the Jewish legal and moral tradition, termination of pregnancy is never defined as homicide, and it is not only permissible, but required to protect the life and health of the mother, in some cases even her mental health. In Jewish law, the fetus is not defined as a “person,” with independent legal and moral status, until the moment of delivery. Judaism does not share the view that human life begins at conception. Throughout pregnancy the fetus is potential life, to be honored and protected, but dependent on and subordinate to the life of the mother.

To impose particular doctrinal restrictions on abortion constitutes not only a violation of privacy and civil rights, but a limitation of religious rights, by imposing beliefs and values that counter the faith traditions of others. And certainly to muddle legislation with unscientific and potentially injurious information is a pious fraud.

Consider the higher health risks for women and infants that proposed legislation – which includes threats to cut funds for Planned Parenthood – would involve. Our state’s infant mortality rate, already among the highest in the country, would rise dramatically.

Ironically, some of the same groups that counter hate crime laws, and advance restrictions on health care and civil rights, piously advocate for prayer in public schools and, paradoxically, promote liberalization of gun laws – guns that can kill in schools, domestic settings and hateful social encounters…

Today, our nation struggles with the issue of immigration, our response and responsibilities to the stranger in our midst. Our deepest Jewish convictions tell us that protecting the humanity of immigrants, who have come to the United States to better lives for themselves and their children, puts our communities on a path towards strengthening families and society and ultimately, the moral values of our nation. By all means, we need to ensure the safety of the homeland, and guard the security of our borders, but not in ways that discriminate, intimidate and create a siege mentality and police state.

Keeping families together, allowing immigrants to fully contribute to our communities, providing relief for millions of aspiring Americans from unnecessary deportation and family separation, these are at the heart of the Jewish legislative and moral traditions. It is also the best of the American tradition which we as Jews have helped to shape and from which we have benefited.

The Rabbi closed with this profound and increasingly relevant quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; … its message becomes meaningless.

Words applicable to both religion and political ideology–and definitely worth pondering.


  1. Thank you, Sheila. The world needs this message, not just today but everyday until we regain our moral compass.

  2. Yes there are indeed men and women of faith speaking truth about love for neighbor, and thank goodness for them. May we follow their lead and courageously live out their teachings. The closing quote about faith being replaced by creed, worship by habit, love by discipline sums up perfectly the muddiness surrounding the populist push in the direction of xenophobia, fear of “the other,” and more guns.

  3. Perhaps the most of us should convert to Judaism and file lawsuits against states that impinge on our religious teachings even as we register as Muslim to protect our friends and neighbors of that faith from having their civil rights trumpled.

  4. Bless you for posting this. This post is so very timely, on target and focused on helping us find out way back to the true values that our country was founded to protect.

  5. The Ten Commandments may be Biblical in origin but are simply guidelines for humanistic behavior; encompassing all religious and non-religious beliefs. Laws, such as Hate Crime Laws in addition to the countless laws against inhuman behavior, due to man’s (general usage of the term “man’s”) inherent selfish instincts over which “free will” becomes our guiding instinct and laws become necessary. Here is where Theresa’s “moral compass” becomes evident…or the lack of same becomes evident. But; currently enacted laws are not fairly evidenced or dispensed in our daily lives or in our court systems. The teaching of values and humanistic behavior for our children begins at birth; it continues even into their adulthood…IF we as adults and parents continue to learn and gain wisdom in our own lives.

    Jewish legislation and moral traditions provide all of us with basic humanistic guidelines which span all religious and non-religious traditions, guidelines and laws. It is when we stray from those original Ten Commandments that the need for more and more laws become necessary. I cannot remember where I heard this admonition when “human nature” was used as the excuse for abuse of the rights of others; “Human nature is what we put put on earth to overcome.” And so we must enact Hate Crime Laws to protect even those we do not agree with…or particularly like.

    We must be ever vigilant; we somehow have lost our way and lost our “moral compass” which led us to the Trump administration whose anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim rulings are also anti-Christian contrary to Pastor Pence’s enactment of laws against those he claims are the enemy of the state of Indiana and will enact them at the federal level ASAP. That is their “immoral compass” taking over America and Americans.

    “The Bully Pulpit”

  6. Thank God for both of the Rabbis Sasso. We have to make sure that theirs is not a voice crying in the wilderness.

  7. Thank you so much for this!
    When I was studying at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, I was fortunate to have 2 “Old Testament” Professors who had also studied at Jewish Seminaries. The most profound lesson I learned was that you cannot understand understand the Torah texts without a Jewish understanding of them. I attended Synagogue throughout my 2 years of Old Testament classes and came away with a much better understanding and context.
    I wish all so-called Christians had had my experience.

  8. Your words had me scrambling for my Bible to look up the Exodus 21 scripture. Thank you for that incentive and for sharing Rabbi Sasso’s wise words of counsel. I am fortified by the knowledge I am not alone in honoring mothers as women first, immigrants as neighbors, and minorities as friends.

  9. Those who are different from us in gender, sexual orientation, color, religious conviction (or lack thereof), and indeed anyone may well qualifiy as “strangers in our midst,” but then we must consider that we are strangers in their “midsts” as well where tolerance as well as “do ye unto others” should be our guide in civil society. The rabbi is on to something, and whether it comes from an ancient understanding in Jewish history or latter day humanism, or both, it clearly is in great need for us to adopt today as a rule and guide for our conduct in civil society. We are all “strangers.”

  10. Thank you so much for this. How lucky Indianapolis is to have the Sassos among us as our moral conscience. Would that our legislators espouse the humanity and love that they (the Sassos) display.

  11. What Sheila, Nancy Papas, and others here have said. Garrison Keillor touched on these very themes in his appearance last night at the Orpheum.

  12. This is one of your best. I was lucky and knew several Jewish kids in sixth grade. They even took me to Passover feasts. Imagine having their tradition of being protected by the blood over the door when the angel flew over and spared the houses with blood over the door. The book of Exodus is a grand theme: going from slavery into freedom. They didn’t know how not to be slaves. Sometimes I think people in the USA are unlearning slavery as they find new ways to resist.

  13. I read this w/great conceern as do most thinking Americans. However, how do you take these same arguments and apply them to the “strangers” in Israel? I know Israel’s issues are deep, long standing and extremely complex; however, the similarities to the treatment of the “other” is more than casual. I have no answers, but I do have a problem w/this line of holy reading of the Scriptures when its convenient for “your way of looking at the world.”
    On another note Bannon’s deconstruction of the government seems to be moving right along on schedule—–VEY VERY SCARY!

  14. The problem with Heschel’s world view is that it fails to answer the obvious question of religion Francis Schaeffer pondered: “How Should We Then Live.” There is no continuity in social religiosity and to that extent the religious model Rabbi Yosef Baer Soleveitchik outlined or the moral teaching of a Chacham Ben Zion Uziel offers a far more reasonable approach towards responding to Dr. Schaeffer’s timeless teaching.

  15. Love. Love yourself. Love one another. Love your neighbor. Love the stranger. Love God. Just Love. Seems so simple, so easy, so doable, so good – at least in theory. In practice, it’s something else altogether. Therefore, practice loving. Practice, practice, practice. What’s the old saying, ‘Practice makes perfect!?’ Then practice. And practice some more. Practice until you get it. And practice until you get it right. Practice until it becomes second nature. Then practice until it becomes your way of being. Until it is just pure Love.

    I’m not even close to it being second nature. I use to be closer to it as a child. Then, sadly, I unlearned it as the harsh realities of life taught other lessons. Intellectually, I get it. I believe it. I advocate for it. Now, I have to practice it and a lot more than I ever did as child. But, practice it, I will. Again and again and again. Even if it never becomes second nature again. For I believe and know it’s the only way to live a just, free, and authentic life, not only for myself but for all life – all lives, all living beings, all creation including our living planet.

    Thx for sharing the Rabbi’s message, his insights & wisdom, and yours.

  16. The Rabbi’s words leave me in tears. In a world where religion is marketed as a slur, unless it’s your religion, these words are a quiet pond in a turbulent sea. Thank you, Ms Kennedy, for sharing.

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