Two days after the November election, Rabbi Andrea Weiss, who teaches future Jewish professionals at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, was preparing for class. In doing so at such a charged moment, she was struck by how Jews study Jewish texts so “we can access them when we need them the most,” as she put it to me in an interview. After much thought, Weiss shared with her students some of the texts that gave her comfort that day, such as Psalm 126.
Soon, Weiss began to wonder how she could take these texts outside the classroom and into a public sphere still grappling with Trump’s victory. Knowing that “in a lot of ways our texts were influential to the founders of our country,” she decided that as a Bible scholar, she and those like her versed in Scripture were “in a unique position to remind the country what are our core religious values and our core American values.” She thought about how scholars, with many demands on their time, might best articulate their thoughts, and decided that the best way might be to ask a number of them to write one-page letters directed to the President, Vice President, and members of the 45th presidential administration and 115th Congress.
The project that ensued, Values and Voices, quickly grew beyond these modest aspirations. The site is now unveiling 100 letters over the course of the Trump administration’s first 100 days. This unusual undertaking got its start in a Thanksgiving weekend meeting between Weiss, web designer Lisa Weinberger, and Dr. Elsie Stern of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Stern recalled that at first, the vision was a site filled with letters from those who teach the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur’an. But Stern lobbied not to limit their purview to the Abrahamic religious traditions, and rather “to try to represent every religious tradition” in America. With the help of Mark S. Smith of the Princeton Theological Seminary, the team reached out to a diverse array of religious instructors. Today, the photos of the project’s scholars on its home page are illustrative of the outreach’s success: There are Sikhs, Hindus, Native Americans, and Buddhists, as well as many varieties of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Instead of a few letters, the project solicited many dozens. Weiss and her team opted not to exercise heavy-handed editorial control over their content. Thus, lines like “if America is a Christian country, as some think it is” appear on the site, even as they do not represent the views of many others involved. For Weiss, the goal was to “preserve people’s voices.” And as Stern put it, “part of the point of the project is to model the diversity and distinctiveness of religions and to model curiosity about and tolerance for these expressions.”
Aaron Koller, one of the letter writers and an Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, explained his motives like this: “People who study the great texts and traditions of the past have a longer-term perspective that may allow them to channel some of that age-old wisdom and bring it to bear on the issues of the day. Scholars, of religion, in particular, can sift through the texts from long ago to distill some of the core ideas and messages that can transcend their historical contexts and speak with insight to our age and any other age.”
Another of the letter writers, Shalom Holtz of Yeshiva University, said he was pleased when Weiss came up with “this opportunity that would draw on my expertise” in “a professional kind of response” to current events. As Holtz’s work centers on ancient Near Eastern legal systems and their biblical analogs, his letter discusses the “biblical ideals of kingship and the prophetic call of kings to align themselves with these ideals.” Holtz’s missive emphasizes the biblical notion “that the king is not above the law and is expected to write his own copy [of the Torah],” and that “the prophet’s job is to bring the king into line and remind the king of his place in the hierarchy.”
Both Holtz and Weiss are students of Jeffrey Tigay, a professor emeritus of Bible at the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the letter writers himself. “The Bible has always been very influential in America, and it still is, so I’m grateful for this opportunity to share my thoughts about it with today’s leaders in the hope that they will find them worthwhile as they decide how to lead the country in the coming years,” he said.
Other Jewish scholars involved in the project include Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute; Marc Z. Brettler, professor of Jewish Studies at Duke University; Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, professor of Biblical Literature and History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles; Shai Held, President and Dean of the Hadar Institute; Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt; and many, many more.
As of Sunday evening, Values and Voices had 1,000 subscribers. You can read today’s letter (#4), from Dr. Hussein Rashid of Hofstra, here.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.