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Without Social Justice, There is no Torah
Leonard Fein. To those who argue that our top priority should be Jewish continuity or that Jews are too small a group to make a difference in healing the world, the author responds, "What would Judaism be without a fundamental commitment to defending the poor and the helpless?" Fall 1996.
Jewish tradition is not a tradition of texts alone.
It is also the lived tradition of a people,
the story of what a people has, through the millennia, made of its texts.

Without Social Justice, There Is No Torah

by Leonard Fein

The argument is sometimes advanced that social action is separable from the core of Jewish life. We hear questions such as, "shouldn't our top priority be Jewish continuity?" or "what's Jewish about social action anyway?" or "what difference can so meager a people make in healing the world?" One response to these challenges is to ask, "what would Judaism be without a fundamental commitment to defending the poor and the helpless?"

The current obsession with Jewish continuity too often assumes that if only we broadcast our message more effectively, the alienated and the indifferent will come home again. The danger of that assumption is that we spend so much energy on the method of our communication that we end up neglecting the needed repairs of the home to which we're urging our errant children to return. The best advertisement for Judaism is the way of life of the community that asserts it. Or, as Jonathan Woocher has recently put it, "For [Jewish] education to be maximally effective, there must be a living Jewish community in which what is being taught is already visible and valued."

So long as the problem of continuity is defined as caused exclusively by an identity-deficit "out there" rather than as also caused by a content-deficit "in here," the efforts to solve the problem will prove inadequate -- and often tasteless.

Moreover, it's a mistake to suggest that we have to choose between our interests and our values. Surely we have a powerful interest in a mended world, and that means in a world more just. We have an interest in being -- and also in being seen as -- a community that stands for something beyond its own survival. We are, after all, a people with a dream, with a purpose, a people that understands that this world isn't working the way it was meant to, and that we are implicated in its repair. Otherwise, we're a bore. On the Role of Jewish Texts

A living Judaism -- or, as Mordecai Kaplan called it, "an evolving religious civilization"-doesn't ask, "How shall we relate the doctrines of our faith or, for that matter, the story of our people to the pursuit of social justice?" Such a living Judaism is -- among other things -- a pursuit of social justice.

It will be said that the idea of justice is not unique to the Jews; happily, that is so. Others, in large numbers and in small, each with his or her own language of reminder and of devotion, also seek to mend. Were that not so, the prognosis would be grim indeed, for we are few in number, and though we are neither free to desist from the task nor obliged to complete it, it is comforting to acknowledge that we have allies in its accomplishment.

And where is it written that our ideas must be unique in order to be compelling?

That said, let's look at this question of texts, of authenticity.

These days, in a laudable effort to tie our concern for social justice more closely to Jewish tradition, there's a renewed emphasis on searching out those statements in our classic texts that "prove the authenticity of that concern." Typically, the focus of the search is exclusively (or nearly so) on religious injunctions. Such injunctions (e.g., to leave the corners of our fields to be gleaned by the poor, to break the fetters of wickedness) are not without merit; indeed, for some who hear them, they may be commanding. But even if we set aside the difficulty that there are, in many cases, equal and opposite injunctions, the focus on religious texts needlessly constricts the search. For the Jewish tradition is not, after all, a tradition of texts alone. It is also the lived tradition of a people, the story of what a people has, through the millennia, made of its texts.

If and as one seeks to locate oneself in a tradition, if one seeks "roots," then the folkways and the debates and the stories and songs of those who came before become, if not a template for our efforts, then at least a set of signposts along the way. That is why, for example, Irving Howe could write, in World of Our Fathers, "We cannot be our fathers, we cannot live like our mothers, but we may look at their experience for images of rectitude and purities of devotion."

The Torah is a text of surpassing importance. From its assertions we derive moral and ethical instruction -- but not only from its assertions, for the Torah is also a chronicle, and the stories it retells and the ways in which we who have studied it have chosen to interpret those stories, on paper and in life, are also a text. One can conceive of all of Jewish history as an ongoing commentary on the original text. Why, then, study the text but neglect the commentary?

Now, if we study the specific commentary called "American Judaism," a Judaism that has, like all others, been shaped by its specific environment, we will learn that here, more so than in most of the places of our sojourning, the pursuit of social justice has been understood as very near the heart of the matter. Study after study finds that Jews regard their commitment to social justice as even more essential an aspect of their Jewish expression than prayer, mastery of Hebrew, or regular synagogue attendance. That is the specific tradition to which American Jews are heir.

The current emphasis on prayer and the study of classical sacred texts is to be applauded, but not as a substitute for vigorous social action. There's a fundamental dishonesty in imposing a separation between the faith and the people, as if the faith, this faith, rooted as it is from its inception in the saga of a tribe-become-a-people, is conceivable as a disembodied doctrine. Judaism without the Jews? That makes no sense at all-and the reason it makes no sense is precisely that Judaism asks to be interpreted, invites interpretive commentary, and not just by scholars but by those who seek to live within its orbit. On the Capacity for Empathy

Of course we should focus first on the quality of our internal communal life, and our communal devotion to tikkun olam is one measure of that quality. It's also true that it will not do to preach the importance of a world made whole from a broken platform. The pronouncements of concern for the world by a community that does not demonstrate concern for its own members will ring hollow. Hence there is no possibility of a serious and sustained effort at social justice save as the Jewish community incorporates the humane values it espouses into its own precincts. We are entitled to assume, at least on moral grounds (the empirical data are wanting), a relationship between a community's practice of bikkur cholim and its commitment to universal health care. We are, more generally, entitled to assume a relationship between the experience of nurturance and the capacity for empathy; and a capacity for empathy, along with a capacity for outrage, are likely the principal ingredients that dispose one to a sustained commitment to social action. On Judaic Competence

The purpose of Jewish education is to increase Judaic competence. Such competence cannot be defined exclusively in terms of mastery of texts or of rituals. Judaism is not only our birthright; it is our conviction, and competence at the expression of that conviction is therefore an essential aim of Jewish education. "Doing Jewish" is not merely a breezy phrase; it is a pedagogic strategy.

So is the internalization, the personalization, of the Jewish story, a story that links yesterday to tomorrow and then draws appropriate conclusions regarding our behavior today.

I say "the Jewish story" as if we all agree on which of the very many stories we tell is the "master" story. We do not. Until quite recently, for example, the story that enthralled most of us was "from ashes to rebirth," a story that now seems to have served its purpose. The master story for our time has as its theme: The world is not working the way it was meant to, and you and I are implicated in its repair.

Like any theme, tikkun olam may beget (and has) endless variations and improvisations. Those variations and improvisations are the elements of a curriculum in Jewish history, literature, liturgy, and yes, texts.

The crucial point is that unless the Jewish story points toward the future, it has no future.

Now, if our story is not only learned but lived, then the culture that embraces it is also a curriculum. Through its diverse elements, the young are inducted and the old are reminded, all are trained and sometimes inspired. In short, Jewish education happens not only in the classroom but also through engagement with a community and its culture.

While we ought not to exaggerate what Jews alone can accomplish, five things should be added:

  • We are not alone.
  • Even if we cannot ourselves, or in combination with willing others, "solve" the American crisis, we can through our efforts ease the pain of real people, offering them a touch of dignity where now they have none.
  • Whatever our contribution to the public weal, our efforts will enhance our own sense of self, help build inspired communities, and thereby contribute to Jewish continuity.
  • While it is true that there are limits to what we can accomplish on behalf of others, on behalf of social justice, we ought to be careful not to exaggerate those limits. The history of social justice in America would be a very different history, a much skimpier history, had Jews not been part of it. Our effort now is to protect, defend, and extend our tradition of involvement.
  • Ours is not, in any case, to complete the work; neither are we free to desist from it.

      Leonard Fein, founder of both Moment magazine and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, joined the UAHC in July as director of the Commission on Social Action.


      Union for Reform Judaism.