Two Branches, Two Invocations

This morning I had a double honor of attending and participating in two civic ceremonies: the swearing-in of our new Washington State Supreme Court Justices and the opening session of the Washington State Legislature.

In the morning, I was invited to share words at the Court, after three Justices, fresh off of their re-election, were sworn in. After remarks from Governor Inslee, each Justice was introduced, was administered the oath, and–after taking their seat on the bench–shared their own thoughts. I closed with the benediction.

At noon, both houses of the Legislature convened for the opening of the new legislative session. I was invited to share the opening prayer in the Senate.

It was an honor to attend both. Not only because I think that the spiritual and moral voice should have a seat at the table of our civic institutions, but also that honoring those institutions and their rituals and cycles of time is so important to the fabric of our democracy and society. When those are dishonored and break down, then we are in trouble.

Here are the words I shared at both events:


At the Washington State Supreme Court

On this day when across this campus our Legislature convenes for the first time this year, we honor and bless this Court, a reminder that while we as citizens empower our legislature to make laws, we also empower our Court to uphold our deepest values.

We are blessed that our system of government allows for the separation of powers, provides for the orderly execution of justice and establishes a dynamic system of legal interpretation.

In our Scriptures we read this verse: “In righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15). What does it mean, then, to judge in righteousness?

The Jewish interpretive tradition understands this in a very specific way. In the Talmud, the great work of Jewish law, lore, and ethics, the ancient rabbis teach, “the court must ensure that there will not be a situation where one litigant is sitting and one litigant is standing, or a situation where one litigant says everything that they need to say and one litigant is told to curtail their statement.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 30a)

In other words, the pursuit of justice must itself be just. Those who come before this and any Court must be received in fairness, treated as equals, and given the same opportunities. May these justices, both returning and recently renewed, honor the inherent dignity and divinity of all who have business before this Court and all of the citizens of this great State they serve.

To you, our Justices, we seek blessing.

May you be deliberate in your process,

independent in your position,

open in your thinking,

mindful of your duties,

and both confident and humble in your decisions.


May you be blessed with wisdom and compassion, discernment and curiosity.

May we all be uplifted by your commitment to service and to the law.

May you judge in righteousness.

And let us say, Amen.


At the Washington State Senate

Earlier this morning, I had the distinct pleasure of offering blessings across the way at the Temple of Justice, as we honored the returning and renewed members of the Washington State Supreme Court, the interpreter of the laws. And now I stand before you, our representatives and legislators, who craft the law, the foundation of our society. You, our Senators who take our values, our ideals, and craft them into policy. To this body and all assembled within, as you begin again this most important work, we ask for blessing.

In the Jewish liturgical tradition, we read a section of our Torah, our Scripture, in order each week on the Sabbath. This week we read from the Book of Exodus in which the Israelites are led out of Egyptian bondage by Moses to the shores of the Red Sea. And at a time when it seemed all hope was lost, Moses raised up his staff and the sea split, “the waters,” as the text describes, “formed a wall on the right and on the left.”

If only the way forward was that easy to discern.

We no longer have a Moses to guide us. But the task ahead is the same.

You, our legislators—with your own staffs—are entrusted by us the citizens of this State, to create a path forward. Rather than walls of water, may you hold back scorn and stubbornness, pettiness and negativity.

May you, our Senators, find meaning in your work. May you face the challenge ahead to build a better society and State for all of its citizens with wisdom and courage, compassion and humility, discernment and curiosity.

As you work together, may you be firm in your convictions yet modest in your opinions.

May you treat each other with the respect befitting a fellow Senator and dignity befitting another human created in the image of God.

May you recognize compromise as a sign of strength, not weakness.

May you remember that in this chamber the words majority and minority refer only to a number of seats, not who has a greater claim to truth, commitment, empathy or justice.

And most of all may you be blessed with peace, a session of peace as you create peace for this great State and all who dwell within it.

And let us say, Amen.



Why We Should Separate Civil and Religious Marriage. And Why We Shouldn’t.

It is my turn again at the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning. Here are some reflections on last week’s Supreme Court decision on marriage.

Why We Should Separate Civil and Religious Marriage. And Why We Shouldn’t.

Why Today’s Supreme Court Ruling is a Victory for Judaism (For Reasons Not Having to do With Health Care.)

Today the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare,” will not be gutted of one of its key provisions: that federal subsidies to pay for health insurance would be available to qualified applicants who sign up through a health care exchange. The question hinged on whether or not those who purchased health insurance through the federal exchange rather than a state exchange would continue to be eligible.

I admit I was nervous leading up to this ruling. Back when I was on my high school debate team, a topic one year was health care, and we had to argue—both pro and con—universal health care. It was then that I really started to learn more about the health care system in our country, an issue that has stuck with me ever since. And since I have had to utilize health care and health insurance several times for fairly serious issues, it has made me even more aware of the need for access and insurance.

And while it may not be perfect, as a means for a large number of people to gain access to health care and health insurance I was a supporter of the ACA. (And I am currently a customer.) I was nervous about the fact that we may backtrack, and that people would lose their newly won benefits.

Here in Washington, of course, those who receive subsidies would have been safe. Our state is one of the minority (!) of states that set up its own exchange, and the ruling would not have impacted citizens of Washington in the same way it would have those in other states.

That discrepancy in the states is what the argument hinged on, and why, as a rabbi, I am very pleased with the outcome. Not because of the merits of the law—I only have a layperson’s opinions about that—but because of the merit of the decision. The opinion of the court, written by Chief Justice Roberts, is a victory for Obamacare, yes, but it is also a victory for the Jewish textual interpretive tradition.

The case hinged on 4 words: that subsidies apply to those who purchase health insurance through an exchange “established by the State.” The question before the court is, does this apply to only those who bought their health insurance through a state exchange, or does it apply to both those who bought their health insurance through a state exchange and those who bought their health insurance through the federal exchange.

When the law was written and passed, the assumption would be that all 50 states would establish health care exchanges to serve as the statewide marketplace for health insurance. Many states—ostensibly for political reasons—refused to set up exchanges. It then fell to the federal government to establish an exchange to serve those who live in states without exchanges.

But the language of “the state” remained, and the plaintiffs of the suit argued that we need to take the law at its plain meaning: since it mentions “the state” it must refer to ONLY an exchange set up by a state, and not the federal government. The government argued that we need to take the law at its intended meaning: that “the state” is not a technical term to refer only to one of the 50 states, but it refers to the government in general.

Now all of this could have been avoided with better editing and tracking as the bill went through its various permutations. But it was passed as it was written, and that is over which the Justices were arguing.

And so this is a victory for the Jewish textual interpretive tradition because the Justices chose an interpretive reading,

The former Temple Beth Hatfiloh building (now K Records) with the Washington health care exchange in the background.
The former Temple Beth Hatfiloh building (now K Records) with the Washington health care exchange in the background.

looking at intent and spirit, rather than a strict literal reading, looking at paper and letter. For this is I believe how we are meant to approach our sacred texts—not strictly to the letter, but with an eye towards meaning-making and spirit.

Law—whether civil in this case or spiritual in Judaism—is meant to uplift the individual and community to a higher level. This sometimes requires a look at context and intent. This is especially true as we seek to interpret our Jewish sacred texts. Some of the laws and practices of the Torah are foreign to us in their literalness or practice (in this week’s portion Hukkat, for example, ritual impurity from a dead body). But the spirit of the laws and the intentions behind them (coping with and confronting death) are very present and important. The letter pushes us away but the spirit draws us close. We seek to understand the spirit of the text in order to make it meaningful.

Additionally, interpreting Scripture through the narrow lens of literalness oftentimes leads to destructive ends. We see this in the rise of fundamentalism around the world in which a strict reading of text leads to fear and hatred of the other, the desire to control and an inability to be open and pluralistic. In the oft-quoted words of Chief Justice Roberts from today’s opinion: “A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.” While admittedly far from religious fundamentalism, Roberts hints that a strict reading of text would not only be against the intent of the law, but have harmful ends.

In the end, Roberts and the Majority chose people over text. The Minority, in arguing for a strict reading, chose text over people. And that is a lesson for us as well. Scripture is important. Text is important. For Judaism, Torah and text is the root of our tradition. But we must approach it as a living text, meant to help not to harm, meant to expand not to limit. Torah’s words are meant to inhabit our souls, not simply be parsed on the scroll.