Profiles in Faith: Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein
Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein is one of the leading lights of Reform Judaism — the largest denomination of Jews in the America, representing 33 percent of American Jews. He served for 40 years as Director of the movement’s renowned Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism, which is based in Washington, D.C., and advocates for a host of issues, including opposition to anti-Semitism and support of civil liberties and criminal justice reform. A lifelong activist, Rabbi Saperstein remains the RAC’s Director Emeritus.
Named by Newsweek magazine as one of America’s 50 most influential rabbis, and by The Washington Post as the “quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill,” Saperstein is as widely known as he is highly respected. He served as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom during the Obama administration from 2014 to 2017 the first rabbi to hold the position.
Besides grappling with the challenges to international religious freedom and discrimination worldwide, Rabbi Saperstein visited 32 nations as U.S. envoy for religious freedom.He interacted with ministries of religion, justice and foreign affairs in those countries, forging strong ties with religious leaders and institutions. He also developed ways to further interfaith dialogue as a means to broaden mutual understanding among diverse cultures.
Rabbi Saperstein was the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan, independent federal government watchdog where he was a member from 1999 to 2001. He played a crucial role in the faith-based movement’s support of the passage of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which, besides condemning religious freedom violations, assists foreign governments in the promotion of fundamental religious freedom rights.
An attorney, Saperstein taught First Amendment Church-State law and comparative Jewish and American law at Georgetown University Law Center for more than 30 years. He has led a range of national religious coalitions, including the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty. He has also served on a variety of national boards, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), People for the American Way, and the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
In His Own Words
“Eternal God, you ennoble our lives by empowering us to do your work here on earth in creating a world of justice and peace for all. We pray for America, that it may ever be an or l’goyim, a light unto the nations, a beacon of freedom, human rights and economic opportunity. The protector of this precious earth, which you have entrusted to our care, may your name be invoked only to inspire and unify our nation but never to divide it.
“We ask your blessing on all the leaders of our nation, that they may lead wisely and with civility and work together for the common good, and we ask especially that you be with that mighty guardian of the contemporary American conscience, Edward Kennedy. We ask that you send your blessing on Joseph Biden and now, on this historic day, upon Barack Obama, as candidate for the highest political office in our nation. Guide him that he may ever be a champion for justice.
“These things we ask of you, Eternal God, in the sunshine of renewed dreams, committed that the torch of hope shall pass from hand to hand, from heart to heart, until the radiance of peace and righteousness for all God’s children shines to the ends of the earth. Amen.” – Rabbi David Saperstein in his August 28, 2008, invocation at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
“Our traditions demand better. Our nation seeks better. God’s children deserve better. This Congress can do better … We pray and advocate that they will do better -for all Americans and for our nation’s future.”— Rabbi David Saperstein in a December 15, 2009, statement in support of universal health care.
“These attacks against choice and against women’s health, against doctors’ judgment to care for their patients, represent one of the too many modern plagues we face today, so many of which will be made worse by the proposed House budget.”— Rabbi Saperstein statement on April 8, 2011, in Washington, D.C., on Stand Up for Women’s Health Advocacy Day.
“Countries across the globe … see clearly the basic constitutional, institutional constraints against violations of religious freedom in the United States, and I think see clearly and believe deeply in America’s promise to be a model about treating all people equally without regard to religion … That is clear and that is not tarnished by the statements here, No matter who is elected, the institutions and the United States’ constitutional constraints will ensure that we continue along the line we have for the last 200 years.” — Rabbi Saperstein in an August 9, 2016, article in Reuters.
“This HRW [Human Rights Watch] report underscores, once again, the growing repression of the #Uighur community. On #YomHaShoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day], we keenly remember the terrible suffering inflicted on people because of their identity, when good people stand idly by.” — Rabbi Saperstein in a May 2, 2019, Twitter message.
“If people can make religious claims in their businesses not to serve gay marriages, they can do so against intermarriages, against Jewish or Hindu or Catholic marriages.” — Rabbi Saperstein in a May 8, 2019 Twitter message.
“Clergy are often trusted voices, and houses of worship are trusted sites. … when clergy speak out and reassure people and put [vaccines] in the values of public health and preventive medicine, those messages resonated with people.” — Rabbi Saperstein in an August 10, 2021 article on Web MD.
The Stories Others Tell
Saperstein learned from political masters. … [His] energy is almost legendary—no one around him worked longer hours, no one darted in and out of more meetings. Once he’d taken on an assignment, he’d always guide it safely home to completion.” — Former CBS correspondent Bob Faw in his 1986 book Thunder in America: The Improbable Presidential Campaign of Jesse Jackson
“One thing is for sure: Rabbi Saperstein is joining an important effort at a very important time. I want to emphasize this effort is not about naming countries to lists in order to make us feel somehow that we have spoken the truth. I want our [countries of particular concern] designations to be grounded in plans, action, that help to change the reality on the ground and actually help people.” — Secretary of State John Kerry July 2014 as Rabbi Saperstein was being considered for U.S Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
“We are truly excited about Rabbi Saperstein’s leadership this year for the World Union. It is vital to us, during this transition year, that there be strong leadership at the helm, someone of prominence and achievement, who understands the needs of our movement and members in North America, Israel and around the world. We are honored that Rabbi Saperstein accepted our invitation to serve in this post.” — September 12, 2019, statement by Carole Sterling, Chair of the Board of the Jerusalem-based World Union for Progressive Judaism, an international network of the Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist movements within Judaism.
A Life in Brief
Rabbi Saperstein was born August 6, 1947, in New York City. His father, Harold Irving, was a rabbi who served as North American Chair of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), an umbrella organization of the Reform, Progressive, Liberal and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism. Irving traveled to some 80 countries for his work at the WUPJ, often accompanied by his wife, Marcia Belle Saperstein.
That family background ensured that Rabbi Saperstein was exposed to the liberal and progressive ideology of the WUPJ from an early age. His brother, Marc Saperstein, an eminent professor and author of Jewish history, served as the principal of the WUPJ’s partner institution, Leo Baeck College, in London.
Rabbi Saperstein, an activist, succeeded Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, who led the Washington, D.C.-based political lobbying arm of the North American Reform movement. On August 28, 2008, he delivered the invocation at the Democratic National Convention closing session.
In 1999, Rabbi Saperstein was elected as the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan federal government watchdog. On July 28, 2014, President Obama nominated Rabbi Saperstein to be the first non-Christian to become U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
Achievements We’ll Remember
1974: Rabbi Saperstein becomes director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, based in Washington, D.C.
1987: Rabbi Saperstein joins the Board of Directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
1990: Rabbi Saperstein joins the Board of Directors of People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy organization.
1999-2000: Rabbi Saperstein serves as the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
2007: Newsweek magazine names Rabbi Saperstein one of the top 50 rabbis in the United States.
2009: President Barack Obama appoints Rabbi Saperstein as a member of the first White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
2011-2014: As a member of the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy working group, Rabbi Saperstein serves on the Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society group of the State Department.
2012: Rabbi Saperstein co-authors Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time.
July 28, 2014: Rabbi Saperstein is appointed U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom during the Obama administration. He is the first non-Christian to hold the job.
2019-2020: Rabbi Saperstein serves as President of the Jerusalem-based World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international arm of Reform Judaism as well as a worldwide network of the Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist movements within Judaism, which is said to serve 1.2 million members in 1,250 congregations in over 50 countries. The organization claims to represent the largest body of Jews worldwide “who seek a traditional yet contemporary expression of their Jewish spiritual, cultural and religious identity.”
Rabbi Saperstein’s Religion
Judaism, the first and oldest of the three great monotheistic faiths, is the religion and way of life of the Jewish people.
The most important Jewish religious text is the Bible itself (what some Christians call the “Old Testament”), consisting of the books of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.
Following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 CE, Jewish religious scholars in the Land of Israel compiled the six volumes of the Mishnah in order to record and preserve the canon of Jewish religious legislation, laws and customs. During the next five centuries, this was supplemented by the Gemara, recorded commentaries, discussions, and debates contributed by rabbinical scholars in the Land and in Babylon. Together these two texts comprise the Talmud which remains a living source of religious study, thought and commentary.
According to the Talmud, “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh beZeh” — All Jews are responsible for one another.
The most important teaching and tenet of Judaism is that there is one God, incorporeal and eternal, who wants all people to do what is just and merciful. All people are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Judaism is not a missionary religion. The community does accept converts, but this is at the decision of competent Jewish religious authorities. It is not simply a matter of personal self-identification.
The house of worship is a synagogue where service can be led by any knowledgeable member of the congregation. In most synagogues this function is performed by a cantor or by a rabbi, an ordained religious teacher, who has studied in a yeshiva, a Jewish religious seminary.
Jewish boys are circumcised — considered a physical sign of the Covenant between God and the Jewish people.
When a Jewish girl is 12, and a Jewish boy is 13, they come of age in terms of their religious duties and responsibilities.
Traditional Jews observe the dietary laws derived from the Book of Leviticus.
Some 35 percent of Jews identify as Reform. The movement emphasizes the primacy of the Jewish ethical tradition over the obligations of Jewish law.
Conservative Judaism sees Jewish law as obligatory, though in practice there is an enormous range of observance among Conservative Jews. The movement has historically represented a midpoint on the spectrum of observance between Orthodox and Reform, adopting certain innovations like driving to synagogue (but nowhere else) on the Sabbath but maintaining tradition on other matters, like keeping kosher (observing the dietary laws) and not marrying outside the faith.
More Profiles in Faith:
Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein (September 5, 2021)
Neville Callam, Baptist World Alliance (August 23, 2021)
Patriarch Bartholomew Bridges East-West Christian Divide (August 12, 2021)
Wilton Cardinal Gregory: First African American Cardinal (July 21, 2021)
Hindu Guru Mata Amritanandamayi (July 8, 2021)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (July 1, 2021)
Pope Francis (June 23, 2021)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (June 16, 2021)
Episcopal Bishop Michael B. Curry (June 9, 2021)
Thich Nhat Hanh, Father of Engaged Buddhism (June 2, 2021)
Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Huseinni Al-Sistani (May 26, 2021)
Justin Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury (May 19, 2021)