Parashat Vayikra

The Truth Of Social Justice

The truth that exists in moments of intimacy and human connection can also infuse our ritual lives.

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One of the frequent comments I hear is that experiences of engaging in social justice are more profound than other aspects of religious life. For those who find a formal synagogue spiritually stultifying, an opportunity to contribute to the work of a soup kitchen or mentoring a child in need may provide an experience of the transcendent.

On the one hand, I applaud the desire to find meaning in endeavors that benefit other people, and recognize these moments as inherently holy. But I am distressed that so many are disenchanted with a system of ritual that is itself abounding in significance and which has been hallowed by centuries of practice. I would like to think that Jewish ritual serves as a potent catalyst for softening one's heart and expanding one's mind, important pre-requisites for any socially conscious person.

soup kitchen volunteerIsaiah's Quandary

This quandary is not new. It is expressed quite eloquently by the prophet Isaiah in the haftarah, the prophetic reading, for Yom Kippur:

" fast in strife and contention, And you strike with a wicked fist!... Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush, And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when Adonai (God) is favorable?"

Isaiah emphasizes what to us might seem obvious: that ritual observances can be

divorced from the ethical treatment of other human beings. The power of his words renders his message an eternal one. Ritual without social justice is simply a lie. Isaiah supplies his own prophetic vision:

No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke, To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin."

For Isaiah, the religious expression desired by God is k'vod ha-bri'yot, respect for other human beings as creatures formed in the image of God. Quite naturally, this principle is fulfilled to its highest degree by providing for the most poor and vulnerable. Such is the true measure of a society that strives to bring holiness into its midst.

Perhaps part of what moves us when we participate in experiences of furthering social justice is the intimate contact with others. We all know that any one of our efforts is but a minute contribution in the larger context of society's ills, but the contact we have with other people seems a world unto itself. We all know that our contributions of presence, of compassion and respect nourish others in equal if not greater measure than the food, clothing, toiletries, or other resources we contribute.

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Rabbi Justin David

Rabbi Justin David is the spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton, MA. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and is a graduate of Oberlin College. He lives in Northampton with his wife, Judith Wolf, and his sons Lior and Ezra.