Here are some examples of topics I can speak about at your synagogue, JCC, or event:

Human Rights in the Torah: Many Torah teachings, such as caring for the less fortunate and loving our neighbor as ourselves, seem like solid foundations for human rights. But the Torah also condones slavery, endorses war crimes and ethnic cleansing in the conquest of Cana’an, and severely limits sexual freedom and religious liberty. Throughout the ages our Rabbis have struggled to interpret the Torah to reduce these moral conflicts. Do they succeed? What are the limits of rabbinic interpretation, and what we do when the Torah seems incompatible with human rights.

Slavery, Ancient and Modern: The Haggadah says that if God had not redeemed our ancestors from Egypt we would still be Pharaoh’s slaves. In fact, the International Labor Organization reports that as of 2016 about 40 million people around the world were still enslaved. But what does this modern slavery look like? We’ll examine how is slavery defined by both our Rabbis and in current law to see how slavery continues, how it hides in plain sight, and how our purchasing decisions can help fight it.

Refugees: Jacob and sons went to Egypt fleeing famine in Cana’an. Was Jacob an economic migrant, who Pharaoh could turn away, or a refugee to whom Pharoah was obligated to grant asylum? Why is this distinction so crucial, and how do we apply it to people trying today to cross the United States’ Southern border?

War Crimes: It’s a crime to deliberately target enemy civilians in war. But some parts of the Passover story, such as the ten plagues which indiscriminately affect Egypt’s entire population, seem to describe just that. We’ll examine the plagues, the justifications the Rabbis give for them, and how they might be viewed in light of the Geneva Conventions and current law. We’ll ask if we allow what seems to be a war crime in one instance, can it then be forbidden in any others?

Prison Labor: The Haggadah says that if the wicked child had been in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed. This implies that hard labor is suitable as punishment for the wicked. While it makes sense that prisoners shouldn’t be allowed to loaf about idly all day while the state feeds them and puts a roof over their heads, when there’s profit to be made off prison labor it creates an incentive to lock more people up. Prisoners are also particularly vulnerable to abuse. We’ll learn about the history of prison labor in the United States, how today prisoners do everything from fight forest fires to agriculture and manufacturing, and how profit from prison labor helps explain why the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world.

Reparations: The Torah states that when a slave is set free he must not be sent away empty-handed, and human rights law says that victims are entitled to compensation for their abuse. But does accepting reparation somehow lessen the guilt of those who committed the crimes? In this talk we will discuss that dilemma, using holocaust reparations as an example. We will also examine the current argument over slavery reparations in the United States. When are reparations morally required, and when do reparations create more problems than the solve?

Human Rights Haggadah Blog