Dr. Aaron Koller and Dr. Shalom Holtz Contribute to American Values, Religious Voices

Dr. Shalom Holtz, professor of Bible and associate dean for academic affairs at Yeshiva College and Dr. Aaron Koller, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Yeshiva University, contributed letters to American Values, Religious Voices: 100 Days, 100 Letters.

This is a national nonpartisan campaign that brought together scholars from a diverse range of religious traditions to articulate core American values in a series of one-page letters sent to President Joseph Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Members of the 117th Congress for the first 100 days of the new administration.

Dr. Holtz’s letter can be read here, and Dr. Koller’s letter here.

Thanks to the generosity of Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, Ph.D., Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost Associate Professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and one of the the organizers behind American Values, Religious Voices, YU News has also gotten permission to quote the letters verbatim, which we do below.

Both Dr. Holtz and Dr. Koller encourage everyone to visit the website and subscribe to the campaign to receive inspiring letters like this every morning from religious thinkers across the country.


Dr. Shalom Holtz, Letter 34

February 22, 2021

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

The Book of Deuteronomy constitutes its audience as a family of sorts. For example, it commands the return of lost property as follows (22:1–3):

“You must not encounter your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray and ignore them; you must return them to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you, or you do not know him, you shall take it into your house, and let it be with you until your fellow seeks it and you return it to him. You shall do so for his donkey, and for his clothing, and for any lost object of your fellow’s that might go missing from him that you might find. You must not ignore it.”

The English words “your fellow” correspond to the Hebrew word that, alongside its use to mean “another member of the biblical community,” also has the very specific meaning, “your brother.” Occurring five times in the span of three verses, this word emphasizes that responsibility towards others stems from a sense of basic kinship. When all involved parties are family, returning missing things becomes much more than an act of common decency.

“…transform our world from neighborhood into family.”

In a 1954 sermon at Detroit’s Second Baptist Church, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed: “Through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood.” According to Dr. King, technology had bridged the physical distances between people, but people had not found a way to bridge interpersonal distances between themselves.

Although today we might refer to a more inclusive family, rather than only to “brotherhood,” still, more than sixty-five years later, we continue to face the same basic problem. At the very same time that computer programs help us solve pandemic-related problems of connecting over physical distances, ideological differences threaten to tear us apart.

The lost-property legislation in Deuteronomy 22 could have been, in Dr. King’s terms, a “neighborhood” law, one that ensured nothing more than the return of goods to their rightful owners. Clearly, however, its wording indicates that it means to foster a sense of kinship. It calls all of us, and our leaders most of all, to do what Dr. King thought people had failed to do: to transform our world from neighborhood into family.

Sincerely,

Dr. Shalom E. Holtz
Professor of Bible
Yeshiva University


Dr. Aaron Koller, Letter 52

March 12, 2021

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

You have the imperative and daunting task of healing a nation wounded by a pandemic, by tribalism, by a new world order leaving so many of us behind. Our great country is founded on ideals that have been a beacon to the world and a guiding light for our own nation. How can we heal and make sure that light continues to shine brightly?

A rabbinic text about how to respond when encountering a beggar on the street—for many of us, an all-too-common occurrence—offers an answer. Leviticus Rabbah 34:7 teaches that the first thing to do is to listen carefully to what the poor person says. The midrash imagines such an individual crying out: “Look at me! Look at what I was, and look at what I am now.”

“…the act of looking…is central to the practice of charity.”

It is so natural to avert one’s eyes from someone on the subway or sidewalk asking for money. But the act of looking—simply observing that this is a person before me—is central to the practice of charity. Looking at the face of a person in need means grappling with that individual’s personhood. This decenters our sense of the world, which can be disconcerting.

But this looking—this seeing the eyes, this recognition of the humanity of the person in front of us—is also the beginning of all empathy, the beginning of all ethics, the beginning of all understanding.

So this is what we, the nation, ask of you, our leaders: Look at us. See us for who we are, for who we were, and for who we can be. See us as individuals, as a collective, as similar and different. Do not see us as voters, but as people. And think of those millions of faces, those 700 million individual eyes upon you, as you make decisions that will affect us all. Look at us, as we look to you.

Sincerely,

Dr. Aaron Koller
Professor of Near Eastern Studies
Yeshiva University