Episode 66: Rabbi Andrea Weiss

Rabbi Andrea Weiss coordinated a big project: A letter every day for the first 100 days of Trump's presidency from a different religious scholar each day. She published all the letters in a book called American Values, Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters. 

In this episode, she and George talk about how and why she thought of this project and what exactly is in all of those letters. Listen here, read the transcript below, or click here for the full video version.

George Mason: 00:00 Imagine you are a religious scholar right after the election of Donald Trump and the new administration, how would you participate in democracy? What would you want to say to our new government? Well, Andrea Weiss helped to put together a book called American Values, Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters. She'll be on Good God talking about that. Stay tuned.

George Mason: 00:32 Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm George Mason, your host and I'm delighted to welcome to the program today, Andrea Weiss, Rabbi Andrew Weiss, who is also the provost and professor of Hebrew Bible at the Hebrew Union College and Jewish Institute and Religion in New York City. Welcome. We're so glad to have you. Now really what I would like to do is show everyone and tell those who are listening about this book that you have produced as the co editor. It's called American Values, Religious Voices: 100 Days, 100 Letters. And it's been quite a wonderful project that I think has capacity to be enriching to people in congregations and in book clubs and in all sorts of ways across the nation. Way past the first hundred days, but when we talk about a hundred days and a hundred letters, tell everybody about the background of how this came to be, Andrea.

Andrea Weiss: 01:40 Thank you for inviting me to share this project. So this is a project that came about... The idea first started percolating in the first days following the 2016 presidential election. And I thought about a couple of forces that went into lead to this idea. So one is my own observation during the campaign that it felt like a lot of the core American values that I had always taken for granted. Religious liberty, justice, equality, truth, kindness and decency were called into question. And the foundations, the ideological foundations of our country no longer seemed as secure as I've sensed, as I had always felt they weren't, it occurred to me that a lot of those core values are connected to our different religious traditions and embedded in our rooted, in our different religious scriptures. And in my work at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, I'm a professor of Bible.

Andrea Weiss: 02:36 And the days following the election, actually the Thursday after the election, so two days after the election, I was scheduled to teach a class. I team teach a class called teaching Bible to adults. And my lesson for that day was on the biblical concept of an eye for an eye tooth for a tooth. And it felt like really the wrong lesson and the wrong spirit for that day. And so my co-teacher, Rabbi Lisa Grant and I decided that we would scrap the lesson plan and instead share with our students, these are students who are studying to become reform rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators. And we would just share with them the religious texts that we turning to on that day, given everything that had unfolded that week after the election. And I, at the end of the class, I said to my students, this is why, what they're doing matters and why the hard work that they're putting in studying the Bible is important so that they can access the wisdom and the riches of our Jewish tradition for themselves.

Andrea Weiss: 03:32 And for those they serve, particularly at a time when people are seeking wisdom and guidance and hope from our religious traditions. And those ideas kind of coalesced. And while walking my dog one day and the days following the election, I thought, what if we could get a hundred scholars of religion from all across the country, all different religions? And if each could write one letter that we could send to Washington for the first 100 days of the Trump administration that would articulate some of our core American values and the way that they're connected to our different religious traditions. So I had that idea and I walked down the street to my neighbor, Mark Smith, who's a Bible scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary. And I knocked on his door and I shared with him the idea and Mark Smith said to me, I think it's a good idea and I'll help you.

Andrea Weiss: 04:19 So with that support and encouragement, the Sunday after the election, I was at the Hebrew Union College in New York where we had a symposium and I made my way to our president, Rabbi Aaron Panken, a blessed memory. And I shared with him my idea and he said, let me think about it. And he came back the next day. I asked him if he would provide financial backing and I wasn't sure what it would cost. Actually. I had no clue, but I figured we would need a student intern. Someone would help me send the letters. I probably needed a website. So I needed some kind of money and I asked him if he would support it. And for Rabbi Panken, big hallmark of his presidency was the idea of thought leadership. The idea that as scholars of religion, we have something to say. Those of us who are studying these ancient texts, they actually have something to speak to that way to speak to our contemporary issues.

Andrea Weiss: 05:09 So he thought about it and the next day he said, I'll come back and support it. So I had the encouragement. I had the financial backing. And I then reached out to my friend Lisa Weinberger, who is a graphic designer. She runs a graphic design and branding firm called Masters Group Design of Philadelphia. And I sent her a long email explaining the idea and I didn't have any idea, clue what I was asking of her. I wasn't even on social media at the time. I thought we would need a website. I wasn't sure what else. And I asked for her help and sent her a long email the next day. She wrote me back and she said, I'm in.

George Mason: 05:44 Wow. And so we end up with this beautiful book and she has illustrated it and it is beautifully done in the colors of red, white, and blue. I think we should, you know, easily see that as a kind of a patriotic gift that comes from the religious community. But it's probably important to let people know that while it originated within your tradition and reflections about what Judaism has to offer in this, the people who wrote this of the 100, it's quite a diverse group actually.

Andrea Weiss: 06:21 Absolutely. So another piece of the putting together of the project was less than two weeks after the election. I was in San Antonio, Texas for The Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion. And I went with a notebook and I just started pitching my ideas to anyone because I'm a Hebrew Bible scholar in a Jewish seminary. I have a pretty limited network. And I just started reaching out to people, asking them, what do they think of the idea? Would they be interested in writing it? Do they, who else would they know who might want to be involved in the project? And I came back and then I got an advisory committee together and we started sending out invitations. And that's how we were able to get a very broad collection of letter writers. And it took us, we started sending the letters out in early December and we had til January 20th, which was day one of the campaigns. So we had about 50 days to get a hundred letter writers and it took a full 50 days and about 180 invitations. And finally we got a hundred letters.

George Mason: 07:25 And of course, a hundred days is a sort of typical first hundred days of an administration. So it makes sense that you were trying to help establish something in the mindset of our new government, right? That these are the ways that we should be thinking about how to connect the role of government and what is the DNA of this country with respect to values and our religious contribution to them. So, each of these letters doesn't focus just on a particular thing. They were pretty much given, each person was given the ability to write what he or she wanted to, is that correct?

Andrea Weiss: 08:09 Well, let me, I'll tell you exactly what we asked of people. We said, when I, in the invitation that we sent to the potential writers we wrote, we asked what issues animate you at this particular moment in our nation's history? What passages from your religious tradition have you been thinking about in the wake of the election? How does your religious heritage speak to those, to the matters that concern you most? What message rooted in the texts you teach and study would you most like to deliver to our national leaders and to a wider interfaith audience? So we asked people to think about what was concerning them. You know, what was keeping them up at night and what were their concerns. And when they think about, and when they think about what it is that makes America America, how did those connect to their own religious texts and traditions? So we asked everyone to quote or to use a scriptural text and kind of scripture defined broadly.

George Mason: 09:06 Yes. And in 350 words. Which makes it very manageable too and makes it something that you actually hope that people you send it to, they'll not get discouraged at a long letter. They can read this. And I think we should say first of all, whom did you send it to?

Andrea Weiss: 09:27 So the letters are addressed to, they're all addressed Dear President Trump, Vice President Pence, members of the Trump administration and the 115th Congress.

George Mason: 09:36 So how many people would that be overall?

Andrea Weiss: 09:40 What we ended up doing, we sent it to the White House every morning via email. And also, I purchased a list of all those chiefs of staff and legislative directors of all the members of the 115th congress. So we had an original list of 1023 people. That they would all get at 5:00 AM an emaiwith that day's letter.

George Mason: 09:59 Wonderful. And so I've read quite a number of them. And these are not people who are, well, they're not people who are getting up and preaching from pulpits every Sunday. These are PhDs and academic leaders who don't have the normal pulpit from which they can speak into the world. They normally are working for each other and in the academy. And essentially you gave them a pulpit

Andrea Weiss: 10:32 That's exactly right. And that was sort of my hunch with this project that, biblical scholars are not, or scholars of religion are not generally on the forefront of our public conversation and only a small fraction of them were on Twitter or Facebook. And I really felt, my hunch with the project was that at this moment in our nation's history that scholars had something to say about this and really who knew our sacred texts in a very deep way, and that they could take those texts that they knew so well and with the sense of authority and connect them to the issues of the day. And because, you know, and that was one of the limiting factors that every, all of the authors have a PhD. First of all, on a practical level, just limited the number of people that we were looking at. If we were to include clergy that it would just be such a wide audience.

George Mason: 11:22 Some of us are clergy with PhDs.

Andrea Weiss: 11:24 And a lot of people in the book too. Myself included. So that's helped us kind of figure out who we were going to turn to to look for wisdom.

George Mason: 11:35 Good. Now, we are in a moment though, and since November of 2016 when there's a lot of conversation about the cultural polarization that happens around kind of the populous movement that's happening on the one hand and they're feeling that somehow they have been dismissed by the educated elites of society. So here we have a book that is from the educated elites. And is appealing to those who are elected officials. And yet the tone and spirit of it is attempting, it seems to me as I read it, to actually try to take account of the fact that we are one people as a nation and are not supposed to be creating these divisions. So while the critique is made of the educated elites not accounting for the populous movement, these letters actually try to include them, I think, in listening to them as well.

Andrea Weiss: 12:45 Well, I'd say that, well first of all we asked our authors to make their letters accessible, and that was one of my jobs as editors to make sure that, some of them were more heavily edited in that regard than others. But that, and that was, you know, you mentioned the 350 word count, which was both to make it accessible and readable, but also to make it a doable ask on the part of the authors as well. The other reason that 350 word limit was important was because I physically printed out two copies of every letter, one to the address directly to President Trump and one to Vice President Pence. So it literally had to fit on a page. On a website, you could go as long as you wanted. But, and for the book too, they had to fit on a page.

Andrea Weiss: 13:25 Because we wanted it to be sort of a really concise, powerful message that was important to us. But I think because the letters are on core values or on religious texts and that way they, it's not an academic treatise. These are really talking about the issues that I think a wide swath of people really care about justice, how we treat other people. It was just some of the many values, inclusivity, pluralism, et cetera. So they're speaking about shared, what's our common good. Hope, love,

George Mason: 14:00 Right. Things that you would think would be non objectionable, right? You know, when you read these, you wouldn't have a sense that, oh, this is a partisan sort of letter. It's driving toward what we have in common as much as possible. And obviously not everyone will agree with everything, but it seems that regardless of where the person came from and their religious tradition or their political philosophy, there is an attempt to deepen the connection to the American values that we share. Right. So when we come back from the break, I'd like for us to share one of these letters and talk a little more about some of the most common themes that come out of them. So thanks for being with us on Good God. We'll be back in just a moment.

George Mason: 14:54 Thank you for continuing to tune in to good God. These conversations are part of a larger program that is called Faith Commons, the umbrella organization you might say of good God. Good God is the first project of faith Commons, which is a nonprofit organization that is intended to do public theology. You might say, it's multifaith, not just Christian Jewish, Muslim, other faiths, but all of them becoming involved in the question of how do we promote the common good together. There are so many areas of need and concern in our community and Faith Commons is trying to help bridge the gaps between religions and peoples in our community so that we can have a more just and peaceful society. Thanks for continuing to support us. We're back with Andrea Weiss who has co edited this beautiful volume of 100 Days, 100 Letters that is called American Values, Religious Voices. And Andrea, we were talking about these letters and the very first one is by you. And I think it would help those who are listening and watching to get a taste of all of that just to hear your letter read.

Andrea Weiss: 16:16 Why I'd be delighted to read it. And this will also, this letter which we intentionally put first, also lays the ideological foundation behind the project. So Dear President Trump, Vice President Pence, members of the Trump administration and the 115th Congress at this time of transition in our nation's history, the words of the Bible call to us with clarity and urgency, reminding us of the core values that have formed the foundation of American society in the past and should guide us now as we begin a new administration. In the book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, Daniel l Dreisbach documents the Bible's profound influence on American politics and culture. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, records show that figures like George Washington, Thomas Payne, and John Adams invoked the words of the prophet Micah. God has told you what is good and what God requires of you only to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Andrea Weiss: 17:17 And that's from Micah 6:8. E xplaining the popularity of this frequently quoted verse, Dreisbach writes, "A commonplace belief among the founding generation was that both individual and collective righteousness were prerequisites for divine favor and vital to the success of the American political experiment. They believed that a self-governing people must have an internal moral compass that would encourage individual citizens and the broader society to behave in a controlled, disciplined manner." That's the end of the quote. The message of Micah 6:8 echoes throughout the Hebrew Bible teaching us of what it means to do justice and love mercy. The book of Exodus commands you shall not wrong or oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. That's from exodus 21:20-21. Again and again, the Bible insists that we safeguard the most vulnerable individuals in our midst and treat them with dignity and empathy. The prophets voice this expectation loud and clear, as when Isaiah instructs, "Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Devote yourself to justice, aid the wrong, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow." That's from Isaiah 1:16-17. Still today in the early 21st century, these ancient biblical teachings about justice and mercy should dictate how we act and determine the policies we enact together. Let us work to preserve and make manifest the values upon which our democracy was founded.

George Mason: 18:57 Well, there were a lot of themes in that that are relevant now even especially two years after the fact aren't there, especially this language about doing justice and loving mercy, the welcoming of the stranger as we continue to wrestle with our southern border. And different understandings of how we ought to be addressing that. And also voicing what we think about the people who are coming and how we behave as a welcoming nation or not. As a matter of fact, so you've sent all of these letters, how do you feel about their effect?

Andrea Weiss: 19:47 Well, in terms of, again, I can respond in two ways. So the question that people always want to ask about the project is did anyone in Washington respond? And for the, we sent a hundred letters to over a thousand people every day at 5:00 AM every morning. And I heard from one person in Washington,

George Mason: 20:05 One person responded?

Andrea Weiss: 20:06 Yeah, the chief of staff of Republican Congressman Randy Hultgren who engaged me a few times in her response to the letters. And in the end, and it was a great dialogue in effect, and with the letter writer who she had questioned and raised some issues with one of the letters. And so I sent her comments to the letter writer. He responded and he said, if only we could have this kind of dialogue, if this was the norm, you know that kind of back and forth, explain what you mean? And at the end she said, keep the letters coming. They give us a sense of the country that we want to live in and help us sort of give this sense of what our country is really all about. So it was a case of quality, not quantity.

George Mason: 20:50 Well, okay, let's just stop right there at this point. And, maybe we could practice a little religious lament, huh? That we have a government that is supposed to represent us and invite our civic participation. And when we do, we hear nothing in response from them. I mean, especially this enormous goodwill effort of trying to communicate, things that effectively are prayerful homages, and yet crickets. I mean, yeah, just no response. And, you know, to be fair, one letter from a Republican chief of staff doesn't make it partisan in any sense. I mean, no Democrats responded. And of all the other Republicans who at that time dominated Congress, no response, nothing from the White House. My goodness. Frustrating, huh?

Andrea Weiss: 21:54 It was. But on the other hand, we were, my design partner, Lisa Weinberg and myself, we were really heartened by the tremendous amount of feedback that we were getting from the readers. So we knew that thousands of people, both we had subscribers over 2000 people subscribed to the campaign. We knew that through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, we had tremendous number of followers and people were reading the letters, and people were writing to us to share with us what the letters meant as those 100 days unfolded.

George Mason: 22:23 So really, I think that's an important thing to add to this, that they weren't merely directed toward the people that you were hoping would read them to whom they were addressed. They were also being overheard. They were being read by people who cared about this exercise in democracy. This exercise in religious free speech. That really, what you're saying is that the byproduct of this effort was to reinforce what kind of country we want to be, what values we want to hold up highest, that sort of thing. Right?

Andrea Weiss: 23:01 Yes. And that, and we were very clear from the beginning that we always had an explicit and implicit audience so that we knew that, you know, the letters were all addressed to our leaders in Washington. But really where we thought the letters could have a bigger impact was on people around, not only around the country because we know from the analytics on the website and the feedback we got, they were being read around the world. By people who were really, people described that reading the letters like an anchor or a lifeline, that it was a prayer for people. A lot of people read them first thing in the morning. It's a morning meditation. It just grounded people in that really just kind of dizzying first 100 days. And it was very reaffirming for people. A number of readers told me that it made them feel like they were not. Yes. So a sense and this sense of comradery, especially in an election that revealed in the sense how siloed we are all, that the letters allowed us to connect with people from who are very different from us. But to see the commonality that we had shared, shared values, shared teachings, and that was very reaffirming for people.

George Mason: 24:08 Okay. So when we think about the American experiment, the nation that we are, one of the things that we used to learn about us, right, is that we were really a unique offering to the world, that we formed a nation on different bases from other nations. We didn't have a blood and soil sort of approach to things. We didn't have a sense that you were part of this nation because you were part of a particular ethnic identity. So as an alternative to that, we had to find some way to ground what would be our nation. And some of those values we drew upon were explicitly religious values. Others were enlightenment values of human rights and those sorts of things that we believe were universal human values, which my argument would be they got from religion anyway.

George Mason: 25:11 But nonetheless, the idea is, we founded a country on common values. And it's interesting that in reading this, the most often cited verse of scripture from the Hebrew Bible and Christian scripture as well and even Muslims cited also is this notion of being created in the image and likeness of God and that everyone has human dignity. Right? So what are some of the other values that when you, when you talk about the hierarchy of values that we say are American that make us who we are when you counted them up and when you did the work on that, tell us how it came out? What were they?

Andrea Weiss: 25:55 So we, the book includes a beautiful two page spread color spread where we highlight the 20 values that really rose to the surface. And the theme that comes up most frequently in letters is justice. And as was highlighted in my letter, we say that's just, that is because it's both such a core biblical value. If you think about so many biblical texts, let justice roll up like water, righteousness, like a mighty stream. I guess, that is such a key biblical theme. And it's also a key American theme, Justice and Liberty for all. So a lot of people quote that. So that's a good case where there's a real intersection between a theme that's prominent in the Bible and prominent from our founding. Documents up until the present day. The second most common theme was the treatment of the stranger,and the insistence that we not mistreat the stranger.

Andrea Weiss: 26:49 And again, that is one of the most commonly cited biblical commandments. That's after, along with being created in God's image. That's the Hebrew Bible texts or that kind of cluster of texts that command us not to treat the stranger. In fact, even go farther to say we must love the stranger. So, and I think as I've thought about that, that those texts, I mean partly were commanded because in a sense, it goes against our very nature, right? We have to be told again and again to care for those who are most vulnerable. So that's a case where authors are highlighting a key theme in the Bible, but it's also very tied into the events going around in the world around us today in terms of immigration, and other religions. How welcome are we going to be welcoming? Are we going to be as a nation? How are we going to treat the stranger, the refugee? So that's why that theme is the number two, readers will be heartened to know that other themes that are most common are compassion, freedom, treating the vulnerable and also love. So those are some of some of the top values.

George Mason: 27:57 And I would say too, there is a sort of presupposition of pluralism involved in this, not just in the choice of people who wrote in this volume. But when we talk about pluralism, I love Eboo Patel's line about this, that pluralism is not an American birthright, but it is an American responsibility, right? Right. So, what we know is, yes, we were, we were founded as a nation by those who came, who were generally of one Christian tradition, right? Protestant, Christian tradition. And so if you want to go back and say, okay, fine, you know, we're a Christian nation, in some sense at the beginning of course that was colonial America. That wasn't constitutional America. Nonetheless, we'd been an immigrant nation all along and welcomed everyone. And what's happened is that welcome of the stranger and everyone, we decided deliberately that we would respect and treat equally all religious traditions in America. That's an astonishing thing that we're not tolerant of religious difference, but we have full religious liberty. And so pluralism is something that we hold as a value, but it's contested these days, isn't it? Why do you think it's so contested?

Andrea Weiss: 29:30 Well, I think he gives a lot to issues of immigration and who are we allowing in? There's a great letter by Judith Klasko who talks about some of the same biblical verses we've talked about about treatment of stranger. And she makes the argument that if, except for native Americans, all Americans at some point, right, we're immigrants. And so she raises a question, what if we take our own personal experiences, whether it's our immediate experience of having been strangers to this strange land or as part of our family history, and we need to recognize that and that should influence the policies that we enact, how we treat the stranger. We need to recognize that we too, at one point, were strangers. We're a week away from the holiday Passover where we say, Aviva deem high. He knew we were slaves in land of Egypt. It's that the whole idea of the Passover seders too is to make that mythic history part of our own. In a way that will influence how we act in the world day in and day out. That is to say constantly, you know, every year it has to be as we reread the biblical texts as well because that refrain, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Every year we repeat that many, many times as a way to remind ourselves yes, that this is part of our history and that then puts an obligation on us on how we treat the stranger today.

George Mason: 30:44 Well, this may not be a Hagada of a Passover, but it is nonetheless a kind of text that does just that very thing, reminding us of who we are and calling on us to live into that. Thank you so much for sharing this with us and for this conversation on Good God, Andrea.

Speaker 4: 31:06 Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White, guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason, is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2019 by Faith Commons.

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