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The Law Is Not In Heaven

There is a story in the Mishnah – the earliest work of Rabbinic literature and legal rulings, and a much-venerated text in the Jewish tradition – about collective decision-making, and what it really means in practice. In the story – the Sanhedrin, the council of legal authorities – were debating a small point of law and one of them, Rabbi Eliezer, found himself at odds with the others. Outvoted by his fellow sages, Eliezer declared, “If it is as I say, let this carob tree prove it.” The tree immediately uprooted itself, flying through the air and out of the garden where it had been planted. But the other teachers were not impressed; “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they replied.

Rabbi Eliezer continued, “If it is as I say, let this stream of water prove it,” and the stream began to flow backwards. His fellow rabbis remained adamant: no proof could be brought from a stream, either.

“If it is as I say, let the walls of this meetinghouse prove it,” he declared, and the building around them began to quake. Another sage leapt up to rebuke the walls, saying, “When scholars engage in legal dispute, what is your relevance?” The trembling stopped, but the argument continued.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer proclaimed, “If it is as I say, let it be proved from Heaven.” And there came a great voice from on high crying out, “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer? All matters the law are just as he says!” But Rabbi Joshua responded, “The law is not in Heaven.” The responsibility of that legal ruling fell to the judges in that room, and to no one and nothing else. Not even the voice of the Holy One had standing to contradict the determination of the court.

In any democratic process, there often comes the temptation to appeal to some higher authority: the wish that one’s preferred position would just automatically win the day, without any of the messy work of having to frame arguments and convince opponents. But any honestly democratic decision must be made by the whole of the group itself, and not by any outside figure or force. In our congregation, we decide the most important matters together, by meeting and discussing and voting as one body. This month, following the service on Sunday, January 22nd, we will hold a special meeting to do just this. We’ll be considering whether or not our congregation should place a “Black Lives Matter” banner on the front of our building. Much more information on this can be found in this is issue, and more will follow, with a town hall meeting to give an initial hearing to this idea on January 8th (again, after the service).

Making this decision together will require us to talk and to listen, to study and to consider, to debate and reflect together. Many, if not all, of us already have strong convictions on this subject. What I hope we can keep clearly before us is that our process of choosing together, and the terms by which we form our community, means that this decision is fully ours to make. That’s a weighty responsibility. It asks us to bring our best selves to the work of it, and to extend to each other a maximum of patience and understanding. At the same time, this is a question that cuts incredibly deep for some of us – literally, because of both the language involved and the crisis at play in our larger world, this is framed as a debate over whether certain human lives matter or not.

The General Assembly of our Association of Congregations – the body of representatives from throughout our movement which meets each June to deliberate and vote on matters of importance to all of us – issued a statement calling on Unitarian Universalists to support the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015. That statement can be found here. In your research on this issue, I encourage you to read it, with the understanding that its language should rightly be afforded moral weight, but that the decision itself remains entirely up to us to make, together. I look forward to sharing in this important process with each of you.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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