Judaism and Justice

The Jewish passion to repair the world.

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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.]

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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.