Tag Archives: social justice

Are Synagogues Outsourcing Tikkun Olam?

512px-March_on_Washington_editThese are exciting times for Jewish social justice.  This past week, an interfaith group of ministers, led in part by the Jewish group Bend The Arc, staged a dramatic die-in at a Capitol Hill cafeteria as part of the #BlackLivesMatter effort.  American Jewish World Service has become a leading global advocate for combating gender-based violence, promoting LGBT rights, and empowering girls to end child marriage. Tru’ah coordinated an active rabbinic presence in Ferguson and is a leader in combating modern slavery and human trafficking.  Hazon has galvanized the Jewish community around issues of local farming, health, and environmental sustainability. Uri L’Tzedek, has brought social justice education and advocacy to the Orthodox community.  I could go on and on.

But beneath this profligacy of Jewish social justice activism lies what is, to me, an unsettling reality: “tikkun olam,” literally “repair of the world” or, more contextually, “social justice,” is losing resonance at the congregational level.  Fewer and fewer synagogues are willing to embrace advocacy as part of their spiritual mission. To put it more dramatically, if the 1963 March On Washington was held today, how many synagogues would participate? Would yours?

This notion of waning congregational interest in tikkun olam work might seem shocking to some. After all, “tikkun olam” has become such a ubiquitous phrase that even President Obama has used it in outreach to the Jewish community; most shuls have social justice or tikkun olam committees; and we continue to teach students in our religious schools about pursuing justice.

But in my efforts first as rabbi of a synagogue and, later, facilitating the outreach efforts of numerous synagogues across a suburban Federation region, I have witnessed an alarming decline in synagogue tikkun olam participation. There is a growing chasm between what I will term “social action” and “social justice.” By social action I mean direct service such as canned food drives, clothing drives, or volunteering at elderly homes or homeless shelters. Social justice, in contrast, refers to advocacy directed towards changing systemic injustices in our society, whether legally or culturally. The Civil Rights movement, and more recently the effort to sanction same-sex marriage, are examples of social justice.

Our synagogues, often through tikkun olam committees, do a tremendous job providing donations and services and should be applauded for doing so. The amount of goods contributed from community gardens, or the number of collective hours spent tutoring disadvantaged inner city school children, represent shining examples of the altruism and beneficence of our shuls.  But these same synagogues, especially in suburban or exurban areas of the country, are becoming increasingly skittish about getting involved in social justice advocacy.

A case in point: I recently received a phone call from the leader of a social justice committee at a nearby shul. She wanted her synagogue to support a campaign calling for municipalities to use their collective purchasing power to get gun manufacturers to start producing safer, smarter guns.  She (and I) thought this would be a no-brainer. After all, saving a life (pikuah nefesh) is one of the highest values in Jewish law, trumping even Shabbat. Conversely, in the Talmud, the rabbis reject the use of weaponry on Shabbat, even for mere ornamentation (BT Shabbat 63). Her committee’s response?No way—this was far too political an issue for them.

So why are shuls largely pulling back from social justice advocacy? After all, the Civil Rights movement, and more recently the Save Darfur campaign, show that synagogues and their rabbis have been active in social justice efforts in the recent past, taking prominent, visible roles. So why not now?

I think there are at least three reasons for the decline.  First, the emergence of effective and specific Jewish social justice organizations, such as those discussed above, has enabled the Jewish community to outsource our concern for the welfare of those beyond our neighborhoods.  Worried about women in Africa? Send an online donation to AJWS. Want to take a stand against human trafficking? Click on a Tru’ah online petition. We don’t need our synagogues to get involved in these efforts because we now have alternate points of engagement.

Second, we should acknowledge that Jews in many places have grown wealthier in recent generations. This means that membership–and especially boards–of synagogues have grown slightly more conservative. For example, I had a congregant complain that I sermon I wrote was too liberal when I was merely addressing the mitzvah of pe’ah! How much latitude can a rabbi have to engage her community in social justice if major donors are opposed to doing so?

Third, in this hyper-politicized culture in which we live, some rabbis avoid addressing social justice topics from the pulpit because their congregants want a sanctuary—quite literally—from politics.  Shul-goers want a respite from the cacophony of cable news and talk radio. So rabbis steer clear of political issues and instead focus on more spiritual messages.

I firmly believe, however, that more synagogues should adopt a commitment to addressing social justice as a complement to their social action work. From a practical standpoint, many synagogues are hemorrhaging membership, especially disaffected teenagers and young adults. Yet the millennial generation highly values social justice commitment. Looking at an innovative synagogue like IKAR, which has integrated social justice into its mission, shows how effective tikkun olam advocacy can be for stimulating new membership in our houses of worship.

Additionally, to be intellectually honest, those who care about social action should also care about social justice.  If we care about gathering food for food pantries, shouldn’t we likewise advocate to adopt policies expanding access to food stamps and other forms of food aid? If we gather clothes or volunteer at homeless shelters, shouldn’t we also seek to address systemic causes of poverty, such as by raising the minimum wage so that those who work full time don’t live below the poverty line, as they currently do? Social action is wonderful and I applaud all those who give of their time and resources to help others. But drawing an arbitrary line between direct service and policy is simply minimizing our impact on issues that clearly matter to us.

Finally, our prophetic heritage should compel us to pursue social justice from our congregational platforms.  There is a reason we read the Haftarah in addition to the Torah every Shabbat. Judaism mandates conscientiousness both about our internal ritual lives and the values we express publicly. This spirit of societal rebuke and a refusal to accept the status quo is inherent to our tradition. It began with Abraham standing up to God; continued with Moses standing up to Pharaoh, and later extended to a host of prophets standing up to wayward Israelite kings.  This spirit became enshrined in Jewish law, such as the following passage from the Talmud: “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.”  (BT Gittin 61a) In short, if we want to be a light unto nations, let’s start acting like it!

Our synagogues, and especially the rabbis who lead them, continue to do tremendous work striving to enrich the spiritual lives of those in our communities. They also do a fantastic job sharing their communal resources through social action efforts. But I yearn for the day that our synagogues will see themselves, too, as vehicles for societal transformation. Perhaps then we will truly make inroads in the arduous, daunting, yet inescapable task of repairing our broken world.

Posted on January 27, 2015

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“Never Again”…Again and Again and Again

Long ago, legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan sang in his gravelly tones,  that “the times, they are a-changing.” He was a truth teller in a time of historic social justice activism.

Those of us who remember the 60s and 70s recall the courage of Vietnam protesters, civil rights marchers and women pursuing equal rights in society and under the law. They stood and strong and took great personal risks to advance their just causes. Values, ethics and laws were challenged—and changed. These efforts were not without cost: The Kent State Massacre. The Watts Riots. Lynchings. Beatings. Imprisonments. It seemed as if our nation was on fire as the passion and effort lurched our society into a new evolution. Not that the work was completed, but, strides were made.

And then, many, or most, of the activists got married, had kids and that, for the most part, was that, as Dylan’s message was lost in the 5-CD player shuffle. But in truth, the times never stop changing, nor do we, in our priorities, morals, social values, and willingness (and sometimes lack thereof) to accept challenges—and to raise them.

Last week, we watched in awe as some 3.7 million  citizens and world leaders converged throughout France to raise what I took to be a cry akin to “Never Again”—though it remains unclear what the next steps in this multi-national outcry against terror may be.

The news now reports details about the long and twisted web that directly links the Paris attacks to ISIS, painting an unnerving picture of the months and years to come. At the same time, the actual terror of the attacks—the human fear and anger and frustration—have oozed from news sites’ front and home pages and have settled into a somewhat safer space in our lives.

In our own lives, perhaps. But not so much for the people of Paris, or Boston, or the Iraqi Christians fleeing from the same terrorists. Or the people of Belgium whose have learned that their police force had been targeted. Or maybe the Ohio neighbors of Christopher Cornell, the seemingly average boy-next-door, who is in custody for allegedly planning to bomb the U.S. Capitol building and gun down fleeing legislators in the name of ISIS. And not so much for the families of all who have been murdered in these horrendous attacks all over the world, nor all who came within a hairs’-breadth from becoming victims.

In our lives, for the most part, we have known people who were directly affected by the injustices against which the throngs rallied. Now, we are being called to respond to a global crisis and ensure basic physical security and basic human rights for all who seek peace.

Of course, this nightmare hits us very close to home as we read of the proliferation of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel commentaries in France and many other many nations after last weeks’ attacks (links: 1, 2, 3, 4). So when we hold the cry “never again” as a sacred commitment to our people, we must extend our commitment to our entire human family, because none of us will ever be safe until all of us are safe.

If 50 years ago it felt as if our nation was on fire, today it can seem as if the whole world is aflame. The people who are now on the front lines fighting this world scourge are our brothers and sisters every bit as much as the twelve million individuals who were murdered by the Nazis. They face torture and execution as their communities are destroyed. They are victims not just of terror, but of hatred parading as righteousness—even as the ISIS equivalent of “Heil Hitler” is ringing throughout the Islamic extremist world. It is again time for action and passion. A time to raise challenges—and meet them. As we learn in Pirke Avot, (Ethics of our Sages) we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.

Nous sommes Juifs. We are Jews. It is our duty to act, and teach our children not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors both next door and half a world away. We need to learn and educate and inspire others. We need to give generously to help victims of terror wherever they are in the world. And we must make our voices heard here at home by our legislators so that they will know that we are not willing to not stand idly by. Not now, not ever.

Posted on January 16, 2015

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On Pesach, you are not alone.

wavesPassover 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.

Posted on March 28, 2013

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International Women’s Day: Torah from the Margins

zetkin_luxemburg1910

Clara Zetkin (l), Rosa Luxemburg (r)

Torah teaches that ancient Israelite women refused to donate their jewelry to build the Golden Calf. Instead they donated their mirrors to build the mishkan (tabernacle). Through this story, Torah celebrates values of conscience over money, and community over self. Torah teaches that these “women’s values” ought to be human values.

Friday was the 102nd International Women’s Day. This special day was first proposed in 1910 by Clara Zetkin, leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany. Zetkin believed that women’s issues were relevant to all human beings, and should be part of socialist discourse.

Karl Marx believed that work is fundamental to human nature. The way a group manages work and money can determine the entire structure of their society. Society is complex, and every economic form will have tensions. A capitalist society generates tensions between bourgeois capitalists, who own the means of production, and workers, who don’t own the results of their labor. Eventually, Marx wrote, these tensions would become so extreme that the workers would rise up in revolution against the capitalists. After the revolution, all real property would be communally owned.

With property abolished, institutions that support the transmission of property would vanish. Marriage, a legal structure for binding families, currently exists only for the sake of inheritance. Come the revolution, heterosexual love relationships would not be tainted by economics. Both women and men would freely choose their partners, staying together only as long as is convenient. Real emotions would replace legal fictions.

Serial monogamy without any strings attached may have sounded great to Mr. Marx and Mr. Engels, but to early socialist women it sounded like the Deadbeat Dad social theory. In their revolutionary fervor, male thinkers had forgotten that heterosexual relationships produce children who should not be abandoned. Their heady theory of freedom for adults left children of all genders unprotected.

Clara Zetkin’s analysis of gender inequality in marriage focused on equal wages for working women. Zetkin saw the family as a mini-society, shaped by the same dynamics as the larger capitalist society. Husbands make more money, so they are the bosses of the family. Women become the family’s private servants. Capitalists benefit from this wage inequality, because it keeps all wages down. If a man asks for fair wages, he can be told, “Look, I could hire a woman for half your pay. Be glad for what you have.” But after the revolution, women would earn equal pay for equal work, and “both spouses would face each other as equals.”

Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish Jew who became a German citizen, was Clara Zetkin’s close friend and fellow activist. Luxemburg also challenged mainstream Marxist leaders. Lenin, for example, thought all workers should focus on one unified movement for armed revolution. Luxemburg thought this misrepresented the interests of workers. Workers are not a unified class. Workers include women, men, professionals, laborers, urbanites, farmers, Jews, Catholics, Russians, Germans and more. No single theory of revolution could fit everyone.

Luxemburg and Zetkin held nonviolent theories of socialist revolution. Zetkin advocated for mass workers’ strikes, accepting armed struggle only as a last resort. Luxemburg understood revolution culturally, as simultaneous grassroots movements by workers all over Europe. Both women broke from the Socialist Democratic Party to oppose World War I. Zetkin said that only arms manufacturers would benefit from the war and that the expanded army would eventually be used against workers. Luxemburg said that colonial expansionism would lead to torture and oppression. Both these predictions for Germany’s future came true in their lifetimes. Luxemburg died in 1919 when government troops were deployed against political demonstrators. Zetkin, one year before her death in 1933, opened the Reichstag’s parliamentary session with a speech denouncing Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

One of my facebook friends wrote: “In my opinion, celebrating days like International Women’s Day serve to perpetuate our ‘otherness’ as women and continue to relegate us to the margins.”

Some of our mutual friends responded, “That may be easy to say in North America, where women have equal legal rights. But in many countries around the world, women are regarded as a marginal kind of human being in terrible, hurtful ways.”

I imagine that Zetkin might also say, “We must speak from the margins. How else will those blinded by habitual mainstream thinking learn to see themselves?” And that Luxemburg might say, “The world is a kaleidoscope of overlapping lives and perceptions. Everyone is at the margin of something. Bring forward your unique wisdom and co-create the world.”

And if I may speak on behalf of Torah, I imagine she might say, “It’s no accident that women brought mirrors to the mishkan, so the community could see how it looked from its margins.”

Cross-posted to onsophiastreet.com, with an additional paragraph about Luxemburg’s cat.

Posted on March 10, 2013

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Justice in the City – A how-to?

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

Posted on August 1, 2012

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A Guest in our own Tent

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.

Posted on November 9, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy