This article originally appeared in Jewish
Ideas Daily and is reprinted with their permission.
Some years ago, when I was helping the daughter of friends prepare for her bat
mitzva, we got to talking about her “bat mitzva 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.
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
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 (repairing the world) 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.
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
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
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
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 cofounder of Uri L’Tzedek (“Waken to
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
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 topics 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.
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
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 tzedaka as a three-tiered mitzva: national/governmental (“kingly”),
societal/communal, and individual.
The conception of hierarchical (and
ultimately divine) “kingship,” as well as its chief applications, shmita 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 halachic 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 halachic 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
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.”
suggestive chapter discusses the powerful, enigmatic ritual laid out in
Deuteronomy 21:1-9, and expounded in the Mishna (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.”
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.”
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.
Torah mandates no one socioeconomic 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 batmitzva friend has since learned, it is a Jewish calling
and one for Jews to answer.