Passover has always been my favorite holiday. I love the foods, seeing my family and my friends who are normally far away, and I love the incredible power of the holiday itself - a message that speaks to people of many faiths, throughout the world, inspiring them with an idea that after thousands of years, remains a powerful and inspirational idea: liberation is possible.
And yet this year, I have to admit: I’m tired. I don’t just mean that the cooking and cleaning balanced with a daily job and family life have worn me out, although there’s some of that. It’s that all my life I have been farbrent (on fire, in yiddish, as my father always says) for the very things that I believe Pesach represents: speaking truth to power, that the status quo is neither natural nor inevitable, that God and community working together can change the course of history and dig a new course for the imagination, leading to new ways of doing, and to new ways of thinking, that freedom is not simply an absence of fetters, but a responsibility and an obligation towards the Good.
But last year, although I still put an orange on my seder plate, I called a moratorium on other items: no tomatoes, no olive oil, no olives, no coffee beans or chocolate. This year: no seder inserts. Any extras came exclusively from the talmud or from a more-or-less traditional commentary (we happen to like the meandering stories of the Ben Ish Chai). I felt just completely worn out by the vast number of projects, problems, issues, wars, oppressions to which I’ve devoted time and energy – and which somehow this year, feel as though they’re never going to go away. And no amount of scrubbing has rid me of that chametz – the chametz of – is it despair? Perhaps not so grand as that: let’s just call it – a fading of energy.
And so yesterday, after we returned to chol hamoed – the intermediate days of the holiday, when we’re permitted to use electronics and the like, thus drawing me back to the sucking hole of the internet – one might think that Facebook would only make it worse. And it kind of did, until I saw a post of the marriage equality image with matzah as the symbol. Well, to be truthful, the first time I saw it, I thought it clever, and then ignored it a dozen or fifty times. Until I saw a response to a snarky post pointing out that the SCOTUS was unlikely to take the many facebook posts into consideration in their decision on marriage equality.
The poster said that he was annoyed by the snark. Of course he knew that one’s Facebook icon wouldn’t change a Supreme Court ruling. But simply seeing all those avatars changed into equality symbols of a dozen different kinds, seeing people whom he had never expected to be supporting marriage equality, seeing the sheer numbers of people – reminded him that he was not alone. That that was the value of those images. And more importantly that even though it’s true that SCOTUS doesn’t vote based on facebook images, society changes when the individuals that make it up change, and that that happens one person at a time, but also in waves, as each one sees another, and realizes that the status quo isn’t right, and that even if I myself, can’t change it all, I can be one drop in the sea, and eventually every tear that falls can make an ocean, when they are counted together.
I know that. I do. And, so, okay, I’m still tired. But the message of Pesach isn’t that I’m supposed to be farbrent about everything. It is that I have my part to play in creating that ocean. I don’t have to be even an entire wave – I can have faith that there are others out there, working hard on these problems along with me, and that together, with God’s help, they will be overcome. Maybe not today, or even this week. Maybe it will be 430 years, although I hope it will be someday, soon, speedily in our day.
I am not really the kind of person who recommends books. I periodically review them, but that’s different. They get on the queue, I read them, I eventually get around to writing them up (Sorry, Aryeh, it did take a while this time), but I don’t usually go around suggesting books to friends. But this book is different.
So, let me begin by saying that I have recommended this book to just about anyone who might have the slightest reason at all to read it. First, I recommended it to all my colleagues at Occupy Faith DC, because, while few of them are Jewish, this book is an incredible map to creating justice in the kinds of urban settings that Occupy has dwelt in. Then, I recommended it to several people who work in specific social justice fields – not necessarily economic justice, although that too, but across the spectrum.
This book is different than any of the -now an entire genre- books of Jewish social justice. I have to admit – I’ve pretty much stopped reading them. I read a few at the beginning. I read one for review purposes not too long ago. I can get through most of them, and for people who like reading that sort of thing, that’s just the sort of thing they’ll like, and I recommend it. There are lots of good reasons for Jews to read these books, sometimes because it will pull them in to understand their Judaism better. More rarely, because I think it will make Jews who are already well-embedded in Judaism be better at thinking about justice. But few books in this genre are worth reading by people because they lay out a game plan for genuine social change that Jews can be part of, and even fewer would I suggest that non-Jews read.
But this book is different.
Rabbi Aryeh Cohen’s book, Justice in the City, (you can also read his blog, by the same name, here) is a beautifully (i.e. clearly) written (and since I assume it will someday be available on ebook, do get it hard copy, the book has a nice feel and layout, too), compelling, easy-to-read discussion of how rabbinic texts, primarily the Babylonian Talmud, lay out a vision of justice. Rabbi Cohen himself states his aim as slightly lower – what a just city should be- but in reading the book, there is merit in thinking of it as a broader picture than that. In fact my only minor quibble with the book is that it uses endnotes rather than footnotes (although they’re located after each chapter, but I still think endnotes are an abomination).
When I first picked up the book, I was a little concerned because Cohen lays out his project as as a dialogue between the Talmud and the modern, French (in my opinion pseudo-) philosopher Levinas. But I needn’t have worried; in fact, he uses Levinas almost as a foil, to craft questions shaped by Levinas’ methods to be more pointed, and the answers clearer.
Without giving anything away, the first half of the book (roughly) is dedicated to overall themes laid out by the rabbis ( he characterizes them as “Be like God and not like Pharaoh;” “the obligation of dissent;” and “the boundaries of responsibility”). The second half of the book lays out specific cases: homelessness, labor, restorative versus punitive justice. It is very clear how these can be applied to contemporary life, and this is what makes the book so valuable, not just to Jews, but to any people of faith seeking to create a better world. Continue reading
At this time of Occupy Wall Street and its various offshoots, the question of social justice is certainly prominent. In this week’s Torah portion, God chooses Abraham precisely because his commitment to teaching social justice or righteousness and justice to his descendants.
The question can then be raised what exactly is the ‘social justice’ that Abraham practiced and which his descendants are to emulate. A midrash gives us one somewhat startling and playful response:
“For I have known him, to the end that hey may command his children and his household after him that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19).
“R. Aha said in R. Alexandri’s name: This righteousness (zedakah) refers to his welcoming of guests. R. ‘Azariah said in R. Judah’s name: First righteousness (zedakah) and then justice (mishpat): how is this to be understood? Abraham used to receive wayfarers. After they had eaten and drunk he would say to them, ‘Now recite Grace.’ ‘What shall we say?” they asked. ‘Blessed be the God of the Universe of whose bounty we have partaken,’ Abraham replied. If one consented to recite grace, he would [be allowed to] eat, drink, and depart. But if one refused, Abraham would demand, ‘Pay me what you owe me.’ ‘Why, what do I owe you?’ the guest would reply. ‘One xestes’ of wine costs ten follera, a pound of meat costs ten follera; a round of bread costs ten follera. Who will give you wine in the wilderness; who will give you meat in the wilderness; who will give you bread in the wilderness? ‘ Seeing himself thus driven into a corner, the guest would say, ‘ Blessed be the God of the Universe of whose bounty we have eaten.’ Hence righteousness is written first and then justice.”
Although initially responding to a linguistic concern of the use of both righteousness and justice, the portrayal of Abraham here can raise some eyebrows. If his guests fail to bless, Abraham would turn around and charge them as customers!
The midrash places Abraham’s commitment to righteousness in the center of his tent. Abraham is the paradigm of the one who welcomes guests and this is directly related to his understanding of God. Ethics and theology here are inseparable. Abraham’s recognition of God, his awareness he does not really own what he possesses and must be shared with others emerges out of this recognition of God as ultimate Master of the cosmos.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick extends this idea one step further. Welcoming guests goes beyond merely being civil and polite. Indeed we have probably all experienced guests who challenged our patience and graciousness and gave us pause as to why we had welcomed them into our home in the first place! However, it is precisely in being patient with those who are difficult is how we can emulate God who in the Torah’s eyes is also patient with us and our shortcomings.
However, in this midrash, Abraham requires his guests, after experiencing his generosity, to bless and thank God. While this may seem as an inappropriate imposition to our eyes, one Hasidic commentator has an interesting observation.
Abraham only asked his guests to bless after they ate and not before partaking of the food. They first experienced his generosity, and had allowed Abraham to fulfill a commandment as it were, of welcoming guests. While Abraham provided them material benefit, their receiving of it gave theological/spiritual meaning to Abraham. It was not their eating that allowed them to bless God, but rather their graciousness in receiving Abraham’s hospitality. Their receiving was a transformative act that opened them up to new spiritual possibilities. Lacking that graciousness, and the ability to receive Abraham’s hospitality, they would see Abraham simply as an innkeeper where they would have to pay for what they ate.
To be a proper guest is then being able to receive the gifts of others. To be a guest in the world in the model of Abraham is to share what we have received with our fellow guests of the world. The Abraham vision of social justice that emerges from this Midrash is one rooted in a theology that we are not the ultimate masters of our tents. We are all guests. We must both give and receive with graciousness and blessing. If we lose sight of being guests, we must still give, but it loses spiritual/theological meaning and only becomes another bill to be paid.