Judaism and the Death Penalty – “UNESCO Chair’s Prisons, Compassion, and Peace Initiative”

UNESCO CHAIR’s Prisons, Compassion, and Peace Initiative – University of Oregon – Eugene, Oregon

Lecture Series

Jan 31, 2013

Rabbi Maurice Harris – Judaism and the Death Penalty

I’ve been asked to give a talk this afternoon on Judaism and the death penalty, and it’s an honor to be here. Judaism is a religion that is over 3,000 years old, and it is built upon a foundation of literally thousands and thousands of pages of sacred texts developed over many centuries. So when someone asks me, as one solitary rabbi trained in one of the liberal denominations of Judaism, to give a succinct presentation on how Judaism views the death penalty (or any other issue), the first challenge I have to face is that the tradition I am representing to you today is one whose sacred literature is voluminous, non-systemmatic, and sometimes interpreted quite differently by the different contemporary denominations of Judaism (actually, we use the term movements instead of denominations).

Furthermore, much of Jewish sacred literature – especially the Talmud and the Medieval commentaries – is organized around vigorous debates over ethical, moral, spiritual, and legal questions. Much of this literature is presented as a series of sacred arguments, often involving half a dozen or more different rabbinic opinions on a single question. The Talmud in particular tends to present these debates in such a way that, usually, there’s an opinion that is ultimately acknowledged as the majority viewpoint, but even so the Talmud takes care to preserve all of the minority viewpoints. Dissenting views are included in the sacred literature itself. (Now you see why there really are so many Jewish lawyers.)   Continue reading “Judaism and the Death Penalty – “UNESCO Chair’s Prisons, Compassion, and Peace Initiative””

D’var Torah: Shelach Lecha (2011)

D’var Torah – Shelach Lecha 5771

Presented by Rabbi Maurice Harris at Temple Beth Israel in 2011

This Shabbat we read from the parashah called Shelach Lecha, in the book of Numbers. A little over a year has passed since the Hebrews have escaped Egypt, and they’ve arrived close to the border of the Promised Land.  God commands Moses to select a team of 12 leaders – one from each of the tribes – and assign them the mission of scouting out the Promised Land. They are to take a full tour of the land, and then return and make a report to Moses and the Israelites.  

After 40 days surveying and investigating the land and its inhabitants, the team returns to the Israelite encampment in the wilderness of Paran.  They’ve carried back samples of the land’s incredible produce, including figs, pomegranates, and a cluster of grapes so large it had to be attached to a large pole and carried by two men.  

The Israelites convene to hear the scouts give their report. That’s when things turn disastrous, especially for Moses and his hope to lead these former slaves into the land God had promised to them going all the way back to Abraham.

The majority of the scouts offer a terribly demoralizing report.  They start out on a positive note, describing the natural bounty of the land, but then they anxiously exclaim that the nations that live there are far too mighty and muscular to confront.  There is no hope, they announce, in making an attempt to enter the land. It’s a suicide mission. Continue reading “D’var Torah: Shelach Lecha (2011)”

D’var Torah – Tazria (2011)

D’var Torah – Tazria / Shabbat ha-Chodesh

Given by Rabbi Maurice Harris at Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, Oregon) on April 1, 2011

Our Torah portion this week begins with the words eeshah kee taz-reeyah v’yaldah zachar…, which means, “In the case of a woman who has conceived seed and given birth to a male…”  The passage then goes on to describe the process this new mom will go through in terms of ritual purification following the act of giving birth.  After describing the procedure following the birth of a baby boy, it outlines the process after the birth of a girl. Regarding natural human experiences involving blood, bodily fluids, life or death, in the eyes of Leviticus people who have these experiences shifted from being ritually pure to impure, and then would follow specific rituals to re-purify.  

Our text says that after the birth of the baby, the mom becomes tamay, ritually impure, for a set number of days, and then it describes the ritual purification process she will go through to return to a state of taharah, ritual purity.  To reestablish her state of purity she goes to the central sanctuary and brings an offering.  As is often the case with these kinds of passages in the Torah, there is an economic sliding scale put into the law to make sure that poverty doesn’t prevent a new mom from being able to participate.

Continue reading “D’var Torah – Tazria (2011)”

A Rabbi’s Apology


September 1, 2011

Dear Members of the Board of Directors:

It has come to my attention that I may have made a few small errors in judgment during this, my first year as your rabbi. I would like to acknowledge that if I could do certain things over again, I would have made slightly different choices so as to avoid the occasional “ruffled feather” that I only now realize my style may have engendered in certain instances.

To begin with, if I had it to do over again, I would not have thrown the cheesecake at Mrs. Blumenstein during the All-Night Shavuot Study Session last summer. I didn’t believe her horror was genuine at the moment she pleaded with me not to throw the cake, and I thought a little surprise slapstick humor would help break up the mental heavy lifting of the long hours of late night study. I realize now that I read the social cues incorrectly. I am sorry.

Additionally, if I could turn back the clock to six months ago, I would not have insisted that the synagogue host an open-mike limerick contest on St. Patrick’s Day in conjunction with the Irish tavern across the street from our shul, as a gesture of cross-cultural neighborliness. I did not foresee that the combination of too much beer and the foul possibilities of the limerick as a genre would result in what some older members of our congregation ended up describing in histrionic terms as a “desecration of our sanctuary.” I also did not realize that the delicious Irish deli tray our guests provided would include items whose kashrut status was questionable. I would like to point out, however, that our building manager ultimately acknowledged that I was right when I stated that the carpet on the bimah was stain-proofed and that everything, including the vomit, would come out with a little steam cleaning, which I paid for from my discretionary funds.

I regret that I thought Deliverance would be a good movie to show our Talmud Torah students in celebration of Passover.

I see now that my attempt at humor just before the Cantor chanted “ha-melech” last Rosh Hashanah, in which I tried to pun on the English slang notion of the Divine “throne” being like a toilet, was ill-timed.  Despite my intent, the joke failed to soften the somber atmosphere of the High Holy Days and draw us closer together through its informality.  I do dispute, however, Mr. Finkelstein’s angry letter to the Board in which he stated that many congregants reacted with shock when I made the joke.  I prefer to understand their reaction as one of awe, and after all Rosh Hashanah is part of the Days of Awe. Perhaps Mr. Finkelstein and I can meet each other halfway, and agree that the congregants who were offended reacted with shock and awe.  I would hasten to remind the Board that the theme of the High Holy Days is forgiveness. Continue reading “A Rabbi’s Apology”

One of my Leviticus / LGBT jawns

First, for those unfamiliar with Philly slang, this.

Okay. This is me archiving this piece that Keshet and My Jewish Learning ran a few years ago, being re-shared now in case it’s useful to someone.

“Among LGBT Jews & their allies, Leviticus is a dirty word”

Among LGBT Jews and their allies, Leviticus is a dirty word. And not just because of its two famous homophobic verses. There are many challenging issues with Leviticus. For instance, while we support gender equality, Leviticus establishes an all-male system of ritual leadership. While we affirm the equal worth of people with physical disabilities, Leviticus excludes them from the priesthood. And of course, while we celebrate the blessing and beauty in loving same-sex relationships, Leviticus prescribes the death penalty for gay men who have intercourse.

So how do we work with a sacred text that is at odds with some of our deepest values–values that other parts of Torah affirm (like every person being created in God’s image)? For me, it starts with an approach to sacred texts that views them as human-created documents. Consistent with my Reconstructionist philosophy, I view the Torah as a record of our Israelite ancestors’ best efforts to describe their experiences of God and Truth.

Continue reading “One of my Leviticus / LGBT jawns”

“These aren’t people. These are animals.”

Legally here or not, immigrants are human.

Even gang members who do horrible things are human.

War criminals are human.

Terrorists are human.

Presidents who start wars on false intel, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, are human.

Jews are human.

Muslims are human.

Christians, Buddhists, atheists, Druze, Baha’is, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and people of every faith and no faith are human.

Black people are human.

White people are human.

Con artists are human.

Narcissists with power are human.

Lawyers who funnel hush money to porn stars are human.

Porn stars are human.

ICE agents are human.

Cops are human.

People I see on TV and can’t stand are human.

People who rant and make statements referring to others as animals are human, and so are the people who object to those statements.

To be human is to be made in the Divine image.

This is essential.

This is the Torah on one foot.

This is the Noble Qur’an, the Gospels, and the entire wisdom of the 12 steps all in one.

Rabbi Akiva would say: “Beloved is humanity for we were made in the image of God. And doubly beloved are we for God made it known to us that we are made in God’s image, as it states (Genesis 9:6): ‘In God’s image God created humankind.’”  – Mishnah Avot 3:14



“They call me Mr. Tibbs!” & “E.T. phone home”

I’ve added some new movies, great lines, and discussions to this piece in the past couple months.

The Accidental Rabbi

Screenshot 2017-09-23 at 9.44.27 PM In 2005, the American Film Institute celebrated 100 years of movies, and released its top 100 movie quotes of all time – the result of 1500 experts’ opinions.

What do the famous movie lines “They call me Mister Tibbs!” (Sidney Poitier as Detective Virgil Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night, 1967) and “E.T. phone home” (Pat Welsh doing the voice of E.T., 1982) have in common?

Before someone breaks the internet arguing that the actual line uttered by E.T. was “home phone” and not “phone home,” I really don’t care, the little girl in the movie also says “phone home” in that order right after the Muppet-alien says “home … phone”, so the line in that word order exists in the movie, and this post isn’t about that.

in_the_heat_of_the_night_still_embed.jpg Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in the 1967 drama, In the Heat of the Night

What the two lines have…

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