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Letter 60 | American Values Religious Voices

Letter 60

DAY 60

Rebecca Epstein-Levi

Mellon Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies
Vanderbilt University
March 20, 2021

Dear President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the Members of the 117th Congress,

I voted for you because I knew countless lives depended on it.

Two months into your administration, I am angry.

As an ethicist, there are several things I want to tell you. I want to tell you to give everyone substantial and ongoing COVID relief without means-testing, to do more, faster, to expand high-quality healthcare to more people, and to prioritize vaccine distribution for the Black, brown, indigenous, undocumented, and disabled people who have suffered disproportionately during this pandemic.

I want to tell you not to back down on raising the federal minimum wage or on student debt relief, to fight harder to end deportations, to act decisively to close detention facilities. I want to tell you to withhold the power and resources of the state from policing and incarceration, and to use those to give everyone the resources they need to thrive.

“You must reject the temptation to make idols of unity, compromise, and, above all, the political status quo.”

Yet, though I write here as a Jewish ethicist, I cannot name any specific text or ritual that unambiguously instructs the federal government, for example, to simply give people money, although I believe, as a Jew and as a Jewish ethicist, that the federal government is morally obligated to do just that.

I can, however, say my tradition abhors idolatry above nearly all else. Indeed, Babylonian Talmud Yoma 82a tells us that the prohibition against idol worship is one of only three commandments which one may not break to save a life. Why? If we understand idolatry as valuing anything above the image of God, and if we understand human lives as being in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), then to place anything, however lofty or well-intentioned, ahead of those lives is to commit idolatry.

So what I have said amounts to this: You must reject the temptation to make idols of unity, compromise, and, above all, the political status quo. There must be no unity or compromise with white supremacists, fascists, or their legislative allies and enablers. Nor must you place “normalcy” ahead of giving people what they need to survive, let alone flourish.

You must, rather, remember that the image of God lies not in “unity” or “civility” or “normalcy,” but in the countless lives that depend on you.

Sincerely,

Rebecca Epstein-Levi

Dr. Rebecca Epstein-Levi
Mellon Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies
Vanderbilt University

the author

Rebecca Epstein-Levi is the Mellon Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Vanderbilt University. She’s an expert on Jewish sexual ethics, and is working on a book project on sex, risk, and rabbinic text. She has written for Bitch Media, The Revealer, Disability Acts, Alma, Religion Dispatches, Feminist Studies in Religion, and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s newsletter Gleanings.