Doing Social Justice

By Yehudah Mirsky
Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Some years ago, when I was helping the daughter of friends prepare for her bat mitzvah, we got to talking about her ‘‘bat mitzvah project.’’ She confided that while her parents wanted her to do something Jewish, she wanted to do something related to social justice.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. 

Her distinction has a history. Rav Kook famously wrote that modernity had undone the connections among the constitutive elements of Jewish identity: peoplehood, universal ethics, and a relationship to the sacred. By the turn of the 20th century, each had become the property of a party: Zionism, liberalism, and Orthodoxy, respectively. Holiness, he wrote, is the connecting thread; our charge is to knit it. Several new books, explicitly and implicitly, take up Rav Kook's mandate.

Their rubric is social justice, the extension of ethical responsibility from private life to social and political arrangements, by now a watchword—some would say buzzword—in American Jewish life. Meanwhile, in Israel, the wave of social protests that swept the country last summer (and reverberate still) has restored the question of social justice to the public agenda.

But is this focus on social justice anything other than window dressing for pre-existing political predilections? Is talk of tikkun olam a wonderful means of raising the Jewish consciousness of alienated youth, or just an edifying way of changing the subject?

Jill Jacobs's Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community provides, as its subtitle promises, thoughtful, useful advice to rabbis, educators, communal professionals, and would-be activists on the nuts and bolts of social justice work in the context of Jewish life. The executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights and a seasoned activist, Jacobs offers wise counsel on a wide range of matters, from keeping volunteers’ passions in line with work that is practically helpful, to making social justice work personally meaningful.  Jacobs’s rabbinic background informs her thinking about how social justice work can be integrated into other dimensions of Jewish life, like prayer, Shabbat observance, and Torah study. In other words, she sees this work as obligatory, thus invigorating both social justice and the mitzvot. 

Jacobs further urges that we recognize the inevitably political nature of our choices, even as Jewish tradition, not easily definable as “Left” or “Right,” admits of a variety of views on most everything.

If we define politics as engagement with the world . . . then Jewish practice must be political. But political does not mean partisan . . . In many cases a thoughtful analysis of Jewish perspectives on a particular issue will produce a position more in line with one party or another. It is crucial, though, to maintain a focus on the issues, rather than try to make the case that Judaism demands loyalty to a single party.

Taken together, these two ideas—that Jewish social justice work is properly seen as of a piece with more obviously “religious” commitments, and that Jewish commitments do not automatically slot along political pigeonholes—seem the necessary prerequisites for social justice becoming an integral and abiding feature of Jewish life. Jacobs is clearly passionate in her commitments, even if she regularly writes in the determinedly inoffensive prose style of most organized Jewish life.

Readers looking for a more rousing, if relatively diffuse, read will turn to Shmuly Yanklowitz's Jewish Ethics & Social Justice. An Orthodox rabbi, Yanklowitz is the co-founder of Uri L'Tzedek ("Waken to Justice"). Modeled on the slightly older Israeli organization B'Maaglei Tzedek ("Pathways of Justice"), Uri L'Tzedek educates the Orthodox community about social justice, and has been active in the consumer boycotts of the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse.  Its flagship project is "tav ha-yosher," an "ethical seal" that certifies respect for workers' rights in kosher establishments.

Yanklowitz's volume is a collection of columns, and thus a tour d’horizon of issues and injustices: Third World poverty, factory farming, prison reform, over-consumption, labor exploitation, Orthodox white-collar crime, on and on. These dismal topis notwithstanding, the book is relentlessly uplifting.  A born optimist, for every problem Yanklowitz addresses there is a solution (usually drawn from the progressive tool box).  But he complements Yes-We-Can proposals for large-scale interventions with a bracing emphasis on personal responsibility, down to consideration of unseen figures like hotel staff. The familiar, defining Jewish anxieties of continuity and survival are conspicuously—indeed, refreshingly—absent. 

Yanklowitz has read widely and cites obsessively; his formulations are powerful, if at times over-simplified, and one can’t help but envy his sincere conviction that Orthodox Judaism is indeed compatible with progressive politics and universal ethics.

Like Jacobs, Yanklowitz is primarily addressing an American audience, and thus doesn’t reflect much on what religious social justice work might mean in a Jewish state. (In fact, Yanklowitz argues in favor of Diaspora Judaism for the platform it affords for dealing with global issues.)

That subject is taken up in a rich collection of studies, B'Tzedek Ehazeh Panekha ("In Justice, I Behold Your Face").  The volume emerges from the foundry of religious Zionism, in the Social Justice Beit Midrash of the Jerusalem-based Beit Morasha.  This orientation is seen, for instance, in Rabbi Yaacov Medan's discussion of tzedakah as a three-tiered mitzvah: national/governmental ("kingly"), societal/communal, and individual.

The conception of hierarchical (and ultimately divine) ‘‘kingship,” as well as its chief applications, shmitah and yovel (sabbatical and jubilee years, respectively), that stamp Medan's discussion, and religious Zionist discourse in general, obviously make it less apposite to American readers. But that national tier has only recently become relevant in Israel itself: As the late Yoske Achituv notes elsewhere in the volume, while religious Zionism and Orthodoxy were actively engaged in social justice issues in the past, they have in recent decades generally kept their distance from social justice work and its inherently universalizing thrust. (One can't help note religious Zionism’s conspicuous absence from last year's protests.) This collection, which mines the halakhic literature to cover topics ranging from welfare reform to the balance between individual and communal rights, may portend a change.

If B'Tzedek Ehazeh Panekha provides a halakhic basis for social justice, Aryeh Cohen’s slim but powerful Justice in the City provides a philosophical one.  A professor at the American Jewish University’s rabbinical school, Cohen draws not only on his scholarship but on his activist background, working with the homeless, juvenile offenders, and non-unionized workers on the streets of Los Angeles.

Cohen looks past “rote and often meaningless” invocations of tikkun olam (the phrase, he notes, is absent from his own book), instead offering careful readings of talmudic and medieval discussions of such matters as the duty to protest mistreatment of animals and the rights of laborers and artisans, distilling from the texts a framework of individual and collective obligation, applicable to both Israel and the Diaspora.  When we talk about social justice, he writes, we are trying to get at that which goes beyond interpersonal ethics to the ethics of life in common, where we engage both friends and strangers.  He argues from talmudic discussions of the city that "a just city should be a community of obligation . . . toward others who are not always in view. These 'others' include workers, the poor, and the homeless.”

His most suggestive chapter discusses the powerful, enigmatic ritual laid out in Deuteronomy 21:1-9, and expounded in the Mishnah (Sotah chapter 9).  A corpse is found beyond the city, in the field. The Bible has the elders declare: "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done." The Mishnah asks whether we suspect the elders of bloodshed, and answers that, rather, their declaration means: “For he did not come to us and we dismissed him. And we did not see him and let him be.” The Talmud elaborates on the elders' profession of innocence: We did not let him leave the city unaccompanied.  Rabbi Meir further states: "We coerce accompaniment, for the reward of accompaniment has no measure."

In Cohen's reading of this episode, this duty of accompaniment applies not (only) to people known to us, but to strangers, “the accompaniment of those for whom the city takes responsibility since there is not necessarily a single person who otherwise would take responsibility.”  The implications are telling: "The boundaries of the city are no longer the geographical boundaries or the cartographical boundaries. They are the boundaries of responsibility."  In a deft exegetical stroke, Cohen turns the rabbis’ idea of ‘‘accompaniment’’ into a metaphor for civic obligation—the space between, on the one hand, the coercive power of the state, and, on the other, the callousness of inconsiderate (and illusory) individualism. In this conception, justice in the city is the accompaniment of strangers.

The Torah mandates no one socio-economic framework; while some are clearly unjust and idolatrous all can at best approximate, and never presume to realize, the Torah's powerful ethical demands. Moreover, the sheer vastness of rabbinic literature and commentary has paradoxically made it harder to feel the simple moral impulse to care for the other lying at its heart. The best of social justice literature, and the activism it reflects, calls to our deepest human selves.  As I hope my bat-mitzvah friend has since learned, it is a Jewish calling and one for Jews to answer.  

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