Social Justice Judaism?

Allen: Before we start, I want to take a moment to acknowledge two encouraging signs of progress from the institutions mentioned in our last post. This week, the USCJ, JTS, and the RA issued a joint statement against the appointment of Steve Bannon, and Chancellor Eisen published a strongly worded criticism of Trump’s rhetoric in the Huffington Post. Our communities deserve credit for taking a stand on a clear-cut moral issue.  I sincerely hope that they’ll continue to speak out against any insult to basic human decency exhibited by this administration, even in cases when Jews ourselves aren’t the target. Time will tell; judging from Jeff Sessions’ recent elevation to attorney general, there will be plenty of opportunities for religious organizations of integrity, Conservative or otherwise, to step up to the plate before this ball game’s over.

Without moving away from Trump entirely, Aron, I want to hear your thoughts on some of the questions we raised in our first post in the wake of the election. What’s the relationship between your brand of Judaism and social justice? There’s really two ends of the spectrum. On one hand, you can side with Michael Lerner (only the latest in a school of thought dating back to Hermann Cohen) in claiming that the sole justification for Jewish practice is its ethical impulse. In this view, Judaism is valuable insofar as it directs us to behave morally towards our family, community, and society. But if that’s the case, why not just discard the Judaism and keep the ethics? How can you justify studying the halachah of kashrut in the Beit Midrash rather than raising your voice against oppression in the streets? Why not train organizers and policymakers instead of rabbis?

On the other hand, you can argue that Judaism can’t be reduced to pure ethics. As Danny Gordis said somewhere, it doesn’t matter whether he’s tanning themselves in the Bahamas when Shabbat happens to fall. He still needs to find a place to light candles and break bread — not because Shabbat is moral, but simply because it’s “non-negotiable.” That kind of non-moral devotion presents its own dangers, however. See Exhibit A: this week’s Torah portion, when Abraham declares his moral principles for the sake of a “non-negotiable” divine command (sacrificing Isaac). Or Exhibit B: last week’s election, when a small but significant minority of Jewish voters declared themselves willing to sacrifice their moral principles for the sake of a non-negotiable commitment to a narrowly defined conception of what it means to be “pro-Israel”.  (L‘havdil.)

Where do you fall on this? How should serious liberal Judaism embody social justice over the next four years?

Aron: I’m 100% convinced that your personal disappointment with Arnie Eisen was what got JTS on board.

Allen: Take heed, literal-minded readers — Aron’s being sarcastic.

Aron: Thanks for clarifying. Anyway, yes — the Conservative movement deserves some props for taking a stand that other institutions have yet to take.

I think you’re oversimplifying Lerner’s position, but I see what you’re saying. The debate you discussed came to a head a few weeks ago when Aaron Star, a rabbi in Michigan, published a d’var Torah he’d delivered called Time to say Kaddish for ‘tikkun olam.’  In brief, Starr argued that tikkun olam – translated today as “social justice,” though it has a more complex origin – “is destroying the Jewish community” because it makes us put other communities and values above Jews and Judaism. “The Jewish people,” he writes, “must care for Judaism and for our fellow Jews first.” Aside from the fact that his argument is self-defeating – there is no better way to turn young Jews off from Judaism than by emphasizing Judaism’s tribalism – what was frustrating for me was that his thesis was so over-the-top that it obscured the hint of truth in what he said. He may be right in saying that a Judaism expressed solely through social justice doesn’t have much of a future, but he’s wrong to argue that the solution is to deemphasize social justice.

It seems to me that many of us focus exclusively on tikkun olam because we’re not given access to a Judaism that meaningfully addresses other aspects of our lives. Imagine a Jewish community in which young Jews in Hebrew school were given Jewish texts about how to deal with suffering, grapple with humans’ place in the world and wrestle with love and courage, rather than being presented with trenchant Zionism, simplified retellings of stories in the Torah, reductive statements about God, and vague ethnocentrism. I want to invert Starr’s argument. The fact that so many Jews choose to express social justice through Judaism, when there are plenty of ways to do social justice without it, suggests that those Jews care deeply about Judaism and are looking to make it meaningful. We need rabbis who respect them and are up to the task.

Allen: Thanks for passing this article along, even though it raised my blood pressure. It’s hard to know what to make of Rabbi Starr’s apocalyptic claim that tikkun olam spells “the downfall of American Jewry”, since he doesn’t provide a shred of statistical evidence to back up his view. His only example is a letter from young Jews declaring their support of Black Lives Matter and criticizing the institutions that ignore their concerns. For those of you who missed it, Rabbi Starr is referring to the Movement for Black Lives, an affiliate of the BLM protests, which released a platform accusing Israel of “genocide” We should respond loudly and clearly to any such anti-Semitic statements, no matter what their source. But surely our response cannot consist in abandoning the cause of human dignity for people of color. Rabbi Starr says he supports that cause. He writes: “We must assist the poor of the entire world; we must respond to the evil that is racism.”  In fact, if he understands mitzvot as commands, then all the more so should he devote himself to the obligatory work of social change. (See Kiddushin 31a: “Greater is he who is commanded and acts than he who is not commanded and acts.”)

Honestly, though, I’m now skeptical when Jewish leaders evoke our hackneyed mantra “justice, justice you shall pursue.” I’ve grown used to watching liberal organizations mobilize while many of our institutions reluctantly muster tepid, vague endorsements. Our Rabbinical Assembly has been debating kitniyot while Rome burns. I find it hard to believe that all Jewish anti-BLM critics stood proudly on the anti-police brutality picket lines until the moment they saw this anti-Israel platform. It seems more likely that many of them are disavowing a movement they never had much to do with in the first place.

Digression aside: I’m interested in hearing more about the vision of Jewish community you describe above. What you’re describing is a Judaism that wrestles with the deepest personal questions of human nature: suffering, love, purpose. I’m with you so far, and I’ll eventually have more to say on the topic. (In the meantime, check out my professor Alan Mittleman for an example of a philosophical effort to put Jewish text in dialogue with our daily lived experience.) To play devil’s advocate, though, isn’t it possible to engage with Judaism’s insights into human nature without spending literally hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each year to comply with holiday and dietary restrictions? Couldn’t that energy be better spent on concrete involvement in social change — particularly in a post-Trump America? Why not foster Jewish ethical literacy without obsessing over Jewish ritual?

Aron: I’m not sure that counts as playing devil’s advocate, since I didn’t argue for spending that money and time on rituals. That’s not to say that I don’t find ritual meaningful, but rather to say that fostering a culture of Jewish ritual observance doesn’t interest me as much as promoting Jewish literacy. By Jewish literacy, I mean familiarity with text and tradition; I would rather have a hundred Jews discuss the Mishnah without adhering to Jewish law than have a hundred ritually observant Jews who don’t discuss anything. (Both situations only seem to occur in Conservative communities.) In any event, yes, it’s certainly possible to engage with Judaism’s insights into human nature without making a ritual effort; that’s Martin Buber’s schtick. Franz Rosenzweig, who held many of the same beliefs about Judaism but, unlike Buber, was strictly observant, was never able to offer a cogent argument for his ritual practice that was in line with his philosophy.

You also say, “Couldn’t that energy [spent on ritual] be better spent on concrete involvement in social change?” Sure. So could the energy spent towards going to the movies, doing laundry, and cooking dinner. At least as regards ritual, we can say that it offers us some sort of meaning and community; that may not be a sufficient reason to do it, but it’s a sufficient reason for it not to be the first thing we cut in our crusade to turn all of our time towards defeating Trump.

A thought for us to end on: in the last three paragraphs, we’ve operated under the assumption that we can fully separate Judaism’s insights about human life and ethical commandments from its rituals. Surely, there are some rituals we could dispense with without losing too much (shatnez, as always, comes to mind). But, as regards some of our more profound rituals, I wonder if we’re deluding ourselves by thinking that we can absorb what Judaism has to offer simply by being textually literate and being ethical. Isn’t the insight that Judaism offers into grief only accessible through sitting shiva? Isn’t Judaism’s understanding of the world as a place that can be sanctified inextricably linked to observing Shabbat? Granted, I’ve never sat shiva and I no longer observe Shabbat, but I suppose it’s something we’ll have to explore in more depth in the coming weeks. A thrilling cliffhanger for our fifteen email subscribers!


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