Author Archives: Aaron Dorfman

Aaron Dorfman

About Aaron Dorfman

Aaron Dorfman is the Director of Jewish Education at American Jewish World Service. Before joining AJWS, Aaron completed a three-year Wexner Graduate Fellowship with a Masters Degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a year of study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

A Social Action Month: Heshvan

Beware: Don’t believe everything you read. Most quotations and references to named individuals and organizations are fabricated.

As thousands of Buddhist monks continue to take to the streets of Rangoon in protest over ongoing military oppression and human rights violations in Burma, Jews around the world are gearing up to observe Heshvan, the 29 days designated Jewish Social Action Month.

"We certainly hope those monks can hold out until Heshvan starts so we can lend a hand," said J., chair of a major Jewish federation outside Asheville, North Carolina.

Like J., Jews all over America are looking forward to the beginning of Heshvan, when they can leave behind their studied apathy and explode in a burst of social justice activism for nearly 30 full days.

In 2006, Kol Dor, one of the founding sponsors of Social Action month announced that "[t]he first priority is…having Jewish Social Action Month marked on all Jewish calendars." After a year of extensive negotiations and an international call-in campaign to its Kansas City corporate headquarters, Hallmark has agreed to label Heshvan as Jewish Social Action Month on all Jewish calendars. Having checked off that significant achievement, Kol Dor is setting its sights on even greater game this year.

Around the Country

In Los Angeles, rabbis have called on their congregants to store their SUVs on blocks and put their Priuses on the pavement for a month of righteous driving.

In Chicago, synagogues are opening their doors to the homeless and providing free meals and shelter throughout the month. "If only they’d scheduled Jewish Social Action Month for Tevet," said L., the director of a local Jewish social service agency, "October is a reasonably pleasant month here in Chicago, but it gets really cold in December and January. These people are going to be freezing living on the streets then."

Of course, not everyone is thrilled by the Social Action month phenomenon. K., a 12-year-old from Silver Spring, Maryland, whose Bat Mitzvah will take place during Hanukkah, a few short weeks after Jewish Social Action month comes to an end, is particularly upset.

"It’s such a disappointment that her Torah portion came up in Kislev instead of Heshvan," said K.’s mother. "Ten percent of what we’re spending would have meant so much to the poor," she said, referring to the practice of donating 10% of the cost of the celebration of b’nai mitzvah in Heshvan.

Disappointed at being deprived of this opportunity for righteousness by the vagaries of b’nai mitzvah scheduling, K.’s family felt it had no choice but to allocate that $3,500 instead for an Irish step dancing performance at the party.

"If only Jewish Social Action Month lasted all year long, think of what we could accomplish!" K.’s mother said, wistfully.

But Seriously

Okay–enough with the funny business. It’s not so hard to mock something like Jewish Social Action Month. The idea that that we, as Jews, could sequester our pursuit of justice into a 30-day-long spasm of activism and then move on to some other flavor-of-the-month is a bit silly. It would be similarly hard to advance a serious case for designating a tefillah (prayer) month or a Torah week.

Yet there is a function to this foolishness.

As we emerge from a month of High Holiday celebration, we are reminded of Judaism’s revolutionary way of navigating time. On the one hand, we revisit the same holidays every year–we hear the shofar blast, re-confront our limitations and failings through teshuvah (repentance), commemorate the annual harvest season, and rewind the Sefer Torah to begin telling our people’s story again. Through these rituals, we live inside an ever-repeating, cyclical time.

Judaism is not, however, a religion of endless repetition and stasis–we left behind that fatalistic and stagnant notion of time when we rejected Egypt with its infinitely repeating flooding of the Nile and its omnipotent god-king Pharaoh. The fall hagim (holidays) also embody a deep commitment to progress. Rosh Hashanah reminds us not just that the cycle of life repeats, but that time is always moving forward–5768 years and counting since creation. The booths of Sukkot are not only the harvest huts of our farmer forebears; they also represent the dwellings that sheltered our ancestors during their 40-year journey from oppression to liberation, a journey whose work for us remains ongoing.

This juxtaposition of cyclical time and linear, teleological time creates something of a spiral. We perform the same rituals and read the same texts each year. But each year, we bring new ideas and new perspectives to those same texts, and they engage us differently. Each year we are different, hopefully better, people, allowing us to circle back in ways that feel forward-moving, even though we may find ourselves confronting the same challenges. And each year, we can use our revisiting of the messages and values central to these holidays to more tightly integrate their practices, like teshuvah, into our identities year round.

So how can we use Jewish Social Action Month to inspire us and invigorate within us a commitment to social justice that will carry us through the entire year?

Choosing One Thing

While Jewish Social Action Month may be far too limited a charge, taking on all of the injustices in the world is broad to the point of overwhelming. So this year, during Heshvan, choose one thing, one injustice about which you feel passionate, and commit to working that issue for the next 12 months.

And the truth is, it almost doesn’t matter what you choose. If your children are moved by the suffering of animals, make animal rights your family’s year-long project. If you’re outraged by the situation in Darfur, focus on that until next Hesvhan. If the status of immigrants in your community or the national debate on immigration policy speaks to you, dig in on that.

Once you’ve chosen your issue, learn about it. Read blogs and newspapers and sign up for RSS feeds that expand your understanding of the problem. Find organizations whose work on that issue you respect and donate tzedakah to them regularly. If the issue is local, attend community organizing meetings to build support for your position and to build relationships with fellow activists. If the issue is national, find out if there is relevant legislation in Congress and meet with your Senators and Representative to explain your position and ask for their support.

Harry Chapin, the folk singer and hunger activist, once said that "involvement with [justice] issues means you’re involved with the good people… Commitment, in and of itself, irrespective of whether you win or not, is something that truly makes your life worthwhile."

Decide to make a difference on that one thing so that next year during Heshvan, you’ll have tangible results on which to reflect and a reinvigorated sense of the role that justice plays in a meaningful and integral Judaism.

Paraphrasing Maimonides

In Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:1), we learn that we are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the mitzvah of pursuing justice (in the Hebrew, tzedakah, which can also be interpreted as charity or acts of righteousness) than any other positive mitzvah, because the pursuit of justice is the sign of the righteous person, the seed of Abraham our ancestor, as it is said, "For I know him that he will command his children to pursue justice" (Genesis 18:19).

Accordingly, the pursuit of justice is far more than just one of the mitzvot; it is the sine qua non of membership in the Jewish people and the very act that binds us to our founding ancestor Abraham. In pursuing justice during Heshvan, and throughout the year, we reconnect ourselves to the very essence of what makes us Jewish.

Unguarded Roofs

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

Parashat Ki Tetze offers one of the first instances of building code in human history–the precursor to restrictions on asbestos insulation and circuit breaker requirements. At a moment in time when houses had flat roofs, the Torah tells us, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” It’s a simple principle–a flat roof, where family and friends might hang out and barbecue, is an inherently dangerous place. We should anticipate that danger and build a railing so no one falls.

american jewish world serviceThis is an intuitive proposition, but we shouldn’t fail to note one innovative implication. The parapet requirement provides a practical application of the more abstract principle of–“You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16).” Beyond demanding that we not perpetrate sins of commission against one another, the Torah now concretely prohibits a sin of omission. It’s not enough for us simply to refrain from pushing someone off of a roof, we must anticipate and proactively protect against that danger.

Objects of Potential Danger

It’s not an especially radical leap to apply the principle more generally–if we can easily foresee that something we own may cause danger, we should take precautionary action to mitigate the danger. It’s in the spirit of this verse that American law has seen fit to regulate some of the most mundane details of home ownership. Homeowners must clear their sidewalks of ice and snow so postal workers won’t slip and fall. Swimming pool owners are required to cover their pools when they’re not in use to prevent wandering children from falling in and drowning. 

These are sensible precautions and represent a reasonable approach to assigning responsibility and accountability. Maimonides, however, expands the principle dramatically. In his legal commentary on this verse, he writes:

Responding to Genocide

In December 1946, the first session of the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that made genocide a prosecutable crime under international law. Two years later they adopted the Genocide Convention, which offered a precise legal definition of genocide and outlined the mechanisms for punishing its perpetrators.

International Responses to Genocide

These developments grew out of the international community’s collective guilt about the Holocaust and were inspired, particularly, by the efforts of a Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin was interested in establishing genocide codes even before World War II. He had been outraged by the absence of a legal framework under which to prosecute the Turkish perpetrators of the Armenian genocide (1915-1918). After escaping from the Nazis, Lemkin dedicated his life to establishing a legal framework for considering genocide. In fact, he coined the term “genocide” and was pivotal in ensuring the adoption of the Genocide Convention in 1948.auschwitz

Lemkin’s work built on the precedent established at the Nuremberg Tribunal and laid the foundation for the ex post facto prosecution of genocide as a crime against humanity. It was hoped that the criminalization of genocide, and the denial of immunity to government officials, would be a sufficient deterrent. But the Genocide Convention failed to articulate clear criteria for preemptive action to prevent genocide or mechanisms for reactive intervention to respond to ongoing genocide.

It was not until September 2005 that the United Nations took another significant step on this matter. In its comprehensive post-plenary document, the UN adopted language committing each member state to protect its citizens from war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. It further binds the international community to “help protect populations…[by taking] collective action, in a timely and decisive manner…[should] national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from” these atrocities.

Learning & Doing

Judaism values both study and action. The Talmud teaches that the study of Torah is greater than all other commandments (Shabbat 127a), and yet the rabbinic tradition is obsessed with the minute details of ritual and ethical behavior. As a passage in Pirke Avot teaches, "It is not the study that is essential, but rather the action (1:17)." This latter source suggests that the rabbis understood that while study and action are both fundamental components of the religious life, they are also in tension with one another. So which is more important, study or action? How do we balance these two priorities?

A Talmudic Debate

In a frequently cited passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 40b), Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon debate this very question:

"Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nithza’s house, in Lod, when this question was posed to them: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action."

Rabbi Akiva’s opinion is sensible. Both study and action are essential, and thus we should prioritize the one that facilitates the other. Action may occur in the absence of study, but, according to Akiva, study itself will prompt and inspire action. Yet this solution is curious, as well. If action is the ultimate goal, why not bypass study altogether?

The answer is that study not only leads us to action, it leads us through action. Study offers us guidelines for what kind of action to take. In the realm of social justice, our learning outlines the nature of our obligations. For example, the Torah defines our duty to pay workers fairly and promptly. The principle of pikuah nefesh–the prioritization of saving human life–is articulated in the Talmud. And Maimonides codifies for us how much charity we should give and to whom we should give it.

Indeed, though Rabbi Akiva’s principle seems to imply that study could lead to action, there are many rabbinic sources that seem to accept Akiva’s principle yet suggest that study must lead to action. According to the rabbinic sage Rava, "The purpose of learning is repentance and good deeds (Berakhot 17a)." In another source, another sage, Rav Huna, articulates this sentiment even stronger: "He who occupies himself only with studying Torah acts as if he has no God (Avoda Zarah 17b)."

The Source of Responsibility

Of course, learning Torah only facilitates action if we’ve learned where our acts are needed. Interestingly, the relatively obscure laws of met mitzvah ("a person one is obligated to bury") give us insight into this type of learning.

A met mitzvah is a murder victim found in the wilderness. The Torah stipulates that the elders of the town closest to the corpse must take responsibility for it. They must bury it, sacrifice a heifer, and then make this unusual declaration: "’Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.’ (Deuteronomy 21:8)"

Why do the elders have to explicitly state that they did not perpetrate the crime? Would we really have suspected them? The mishnah in Sotah (9:6) explains:

"The elders of that town washed their hands in water at the place where the neck of the heifer was broken, and they said, ‘Our hands have not shed this blood neither have our eyes seen it.’ But could it be that the elders of a Court were shedders of blood? [They meant], ‘He came not into our hands that we should have dismissed him without sustenance, and we did not see him and leave him without escort!’"

According to the mishnah, the elders’ statement is an acceptance of broad responsibility. Because they didn’t see the man, they didn’t provide him with food or security. But if they had seen him and had failed to provide him with those things, they would have been culpable for his fate, even though they didn’t act directly against him. Knowledge of an injustice or an imminent danger creates responsibility and an obligation to act.

Case Study

Parallel events in the last two decades provide us with a case study to explore this phenomenon. The tsunami of December 2004 killed some 225,000 people and elicited the greatest outpouring of humanitarian aid in human history. We embraced our obligation to help and responded with extraordinary generosity.

But before the tsunami of 2004, there was another tsunami, in April of 1991, in Bangladesh. This disaster killed nearly 140,000 people. Few people remember it and there was little in the way of international response. Why the difference?

In 1991, we knew of our obligation to help alleviate suffering as well as we knew it in 2004. The difference was that we saw the tsunami of 2004. It struck vacation destinations filled with tourists toting video-cameras. We watched the tsunami on television. We were able to witness and "learn" the event in a palpable, visceral way. And because we saw it, like the elders in Deuteronomy, we accepted responsibility for the well-being of the victims.

In stark contrast, the tsunami in Bangladesh received limited coverage in the media. It was like the met mitzvah–something we didn’t see and, therefore, something we could reasonably claim to ignore.

Conclusion

The lesson seems to be that in order for us to realize Akiva’s proposition, that study leads to action, we need to not only accept the responsibility to act, but also expose ourselves to the circumstances in which action is necessary.

But here, too, there is a fine balance. The world is filled with suffering and injustice and immersing ourselves in it too deeply can be paralyzing. It can lead to what the essayist Annie Dillard calls "compassion fatigue"–being overwhelmed by the magnitude of a problem and thus stricken with an inability to act.

Our tradition anticipates and addresses this challenge, as well. In Pirke Avot, we read, "You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." Or as Ruth Messinger, the President of American Jewish World Service says, "The numbers are overwhelming, but we cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed."

Jewish tradition values study and action and hallows the connection between the two. Studying our traditional texts gives us a framework for understanding our obligations in the world. Studying our world makes those obligations urgent and immediate. Paraphrasing Akiva, study is greater because it leads to action, but only if it leads to action.