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The Legacy of Lesley Sue Goldstein  #778

05/12/2023 05:12:00 AM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai
You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all of its inhabitants.” 
(Leviticus 25:10)
The legacy of Lesley Sue Goldstein

In 1963, at 17, a singer named Lesley Sue Goldstein recorded a song, which in many ways came to define the feminist movement.

The song was written by John Madara and David White, who searched unsuccessfully for someone to perform it until it caught Goldstein’s attention.

In 2015, “You Don’t Own Me,” was one of 24 songs inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame.

Goldstein, who you may know as Lesley Gore, wrote in her biography.

"My take on the song was: I'm 17, what a wonderful thing, to stand up on a stage and shake your finger at people and sing you don't own me.”

But there was more to the story.

Not only was Lesley Gore a teenager from New Jersey, she was of course Jewish, and a member of the as-yet-unnamed LGBTQ community.

As she belted out “You Don’t Own Me,” which became her second largest selling hit, she captured the spirit that eventually defined the 1960s: That every person—no matter their gender, religion, orientation or background – deserves the right, under God’s heaven, to meet their full potential.

In Gore's 2015 obituary, The New York Times referred to "You Don't Own Me" as "indelibly defiant.” And I would argue, incredibly Jewish.

Indeed, Leslie Gore, best known for her angst-filled teenage hits “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry” was standing upon a principle as old as the Torah itself: That no person or group should ever stand in the way, or perpetually control the fate or freedom of others.

This week, the Torah talks about the forgiveness of family debt.

In ancient times, families would often be required to work off money owed by providing labor to their creditor. Often, they would be forced to sign over ownership and the proceeds of their land in order to satisfy these debts.

Ancient Israel did not have to look far to embrace that concept.

In many countries, a class system became integral to daily life. Frequently, those of means lived in castles, while others worked their lands, often accepting their perpetual fate as poor laborers.

But Judaism adopted a different idea.

While the Torah notes that there will always be the rich and poor within any society, it maintains that no class of people, no one family, no economical grouping should remain perpetually in debt to another.

And that is why, after 49 years, the Torah proclaimed a “Jubilee Year.”

 On the 50th year, if a family’s debt was not paid, it was to be forgiven, and the land returned to its original owner.

There was great pomp attached to this. On Yom Kippur the shofar was sounded, and as the Torah commands, “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all of its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 25:10.)

So why was this such a big deal? Our commentators weigh in.

Notes the Etz Chaim Biblical Commentary: “In an agrarian society, a farmer who sold all the land to pay debts had no prospect of ever being anything other than a servant. Nor would a servant’s sons ever rise above that level.”

As viewers of Downton Abby can attest, in many countries, that class division became permanently baked into daily life. But not within Judaism.

The great Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught that the purpose of the Jubilee Year was more spiritual, than economic, as it sought to restore the dignity—and therefore the unity—of all Jewish people.

Merle Travis highlighted in his 1946 song “Sixteen Tons” that coal mine workers were often charged so much for their supplies, that “they owed their soul to the company store.”

It is why, perhaps, Jewish society—observing this trend thousands of years ago—devised a method where families and individuals could be guaranteed a new start, thus restoring their self-respect and motivation to meet their potential—economically and spiritually.

Later, during the 1960s, the idea of personal independence and dignity evolved even further, building upon the idea that no one person or group deserves the right to hold back or oppress women, minorities and those within LGBTQ community—among others.

Rather, Judaism believes in the inherent dignity of all human beings. As Psalm 150 so beautifully states, “Kol haneshamah tehallel Yah!” All that has breath shall praise God

In Biblical Hebrew, the word neshama means “breath” as in the “breath of life.”

As sure as every human being is blessed with the ability to breathe, so should humanity provide everyone with the capacity to succeed. And sometimes that requires a second chance.

That is one of the key messages of this week’s Torah portion, which legislates the return of land seized to pay off debts to its original owner.

As the Etz Chaim Biblical Commentary notes, once every 50 years, it was important to put aside economic competition and elevate the potential of every human being.

Lesley Gore’s anthem on the surface was about a boy trying to control her, but in its way, it sounded that shofar exactly 60 years ago as she declared, “I don't tell you what to say. Oh, don't tell you what to do. So just let me be myself. That's all I ask of you.”

One of the song’s writers, John Madara, later reflected that the message of “You Don’t Own Me” is ultimately about empathy.

"Listen to what people have to say; be kind and loving to the people you come into contact with," he said. “Treat people fairly."

Words of inspiration sung by a 17-year-old Jewish girl from New Jersey.

Words of wisdom for the Jewish people, and humanity for all time.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784