Judaism and Justice

The Jewish passion to repair the world.

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Excerpted with permission from Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World (Jewish Lights, 2006).

The Jewish people's narrative has several possible starting points. While Abraham is the first Jew for bringing the idea of monotheism into the world, it is the Exodus story that represents the beginning of Jewish national consciousness. A group of slaves that might not have had much in the way of ethnic homogeneity shared a common predicament (slavery) and a common oppressor (the Egyptians). What shapes the national consciousness of the people that the Bible calls "the children of Israel" (b'nai yisrael) is the pairing of that enslavement experience with the Israelites' escape to freedom. Their consciousness was forged not only by an experience of common suffering, but, more importantly, by a shared experience of redemption…

From Political to Moral Consciousness

With the Exodus story, all the elements of political consciousness were now in place: a common history (Egyptian slavery), a founding myth (being redeemed from the Egyptians by a God more powerful than any other), and a leader (Moses). The Exodus dimension of Jewish existence would continue to be central to the Jewish people throughout their long history. For a time, it would play itself out in the form of political sovereignty, as it did with the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judea. In the twentieth century, the Exodus dimension would manifest again with the creation of the modern state of Israel.

gavel for justiceBut the Exodus consciousness described here transcended conventional political arrangements. The Jewish people manifested this consciousness during their wandering in the desert, in their early settlement in the land of Israel arranged by tribal affiliation, and during the two millennia that Jews existed in the Diaspora. Exodus consciousness caused Jews to identify with each other regardless of the fact that they might be living thousands of miles apart, under different political regimes, speaking different languages, and developing variations on Judaism that often synthesized elements of traditional Jewish practice with the specific gentile culture in which they lived.

This consciousness also meant that Jews took care of one another, not only when they lived in close proximity, but even when they became aware of Jews in distress in other locales. During the time that Jews lacked political sovereignty, they became a community of shared historical memory and shared destiny. They believed that the fate of the Jewish people, regardless of temporal domicile, was linked. This is what explains the success of the Zionist movement, the historically unprecedented resurrection of national identity and political sovereignty after 2,000 years of dispersion. The Exodus consciousness of the Jewish people was the glue that held the Jewish people together. It was the secret to Jewish survival.

For the children of Israel, however, there was a dimension of national identity that transcended political consciousness--an encounter with sacred purpose that would create a direct connection between the slaves who experienced the Exodus from Egypt and the vision that drove the patriarch, Abraham….

Abraham and "The Call"

…The Torah tells us that Abraham truly became the father of the Jewish people when he heeded God's call to adopt a sacred purpose, spreading righteousness and justice in the world (Gen. 18:19). The Jewish people would not be merely a people apart, a separate ethnic and political unit. Instead, they would be a people bound to a higher calling. According to God's covenant with Abraham, every Jew is called upon not simply to believe in the values of righteousness and justice, but to act on them: motivated by moral responsibility, to advocate--as Abraham did--on behalf of the vulnerable of all nations.

Abraham lived in Canaan as "a stranger and a sojourner" (Gen. 23:4), but his sense of separateness and apartness did not prevent him from heeding a universalistic moral call--behaving with altruistic compassion toward the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

This sense of a higher calling--an altruistic urge to bring righteousness and justice into the world--is the Jewish legacy from Abraham. It is what I call the "Sinai impulse."…

Reconciling Exodus and Sinai

...[There is a] millennial tension in Judaism between Exodus and Sinai impulses. Every faith community is committed to the survival and perpetuation of its own. Judaism is not immune to these tendencies. Judaism has often fallen prey to the tendency, affecting all groups, to see itself in parochial terms, to believe that the interests of the group supersede all else. This is especially true in times of crisis. In modern times, this defensiveness extends to times when Israel is at risk, either from war, terrorism, or worldwide campaigns to discredit Zionism and the right of Jews to collective existence in its ancestral homeland.

Still, the Jewish tradition's universal teachings about responsibility toward all human beings and to the entire world continue to bring us back to the needed equilibrium between self-interest--the Exodus impulse--and the interests of humanity--the Sinai impulse. Even when, or perhaps especially when, the Jewish world tends toward the parochial, there are voices in our midst that call us back to our prophetic legacy to be agents for the repair of the entire world.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a prominent Orthodox opinion leader, spoke to the tension between Exodus and Sinai in the consciousness of the Jewish people in another way:

"In order to explain the difference between the people of fate and the nation of destiny, it is worth taking note of the antithesis between camp (mahaneh) and congregation (edah). The camp is created as a result of the desire for self-defense and is nurtured by a sense of fear; the congregation is created as a result of the longing for the realization of an exalted ethical idea and is nurtured by the sentiment of love.[Joseph Soloveitchik, Fate and Destiny: From the Holocaust to the State of Israel (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992), 57–60.]

The Jewish community cannot realize its fullest potential to become a people of the covenant, committed to the ethical principles of righteousness and justice, if it remains in its tribal camp, paralyzed by fear and consumed by its perceived need to defend itself from every threat, real and imagined. It is true that without the proper communal mechanisms and political advocacy to properly defend the Jewish people at risk, no Jew would have the luxury to pursue the more lofty, Sinai agenda. At the same time, unless the Jewish community begins to give higher priority to an agenda of righteousness and justice--the agenda that started with the first Jew, Abraham--it will have confused the means and the ends.

That prophetic legacy is why the Jewish people were put on this earth.

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Rabbi Sidney Schwarz

Sidney Schwarz is the president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values and is also the author of Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue.