Religion & Beliefs

No Need To Reinvent The Wheel….Er, Torah

"I don’t really get into the Tanakh," explains Naomi Rubinstein, a 24 year old American living and volunteering in Israel for the year. "Torah and Jewish texts in general don’t speak to me. My family isn’t religious and neither am … Read More

By / December 11, 2008

"I don’t really get into the Tanakh," explains Naomi Rubinstein, a 24 year old American living and volunteering in Israel for the year. "Torah and Jewish texts in general don’t speak to me. My family isn’t religious and neither am I. I see my Judaism in a different way; for me, being Jewish is about social justice. I want to make the world a better place, and not just for Jews." Naomi’s commitment to social justice is what brought her to Israel for a year, where she is volunteering at an organization that helps African refugees living in Israel, many of whom are poverty-stricken. She got in touch with this organization with some help from her progressive Jewish women’s group back in New York City.

Naomi’s work is important and her contributions are admirable. What she may not realize is that a commitment to social justice–for Jews and gentiles alike–isn’t an idea coming solely from contemporary Jewish organizations that utilize the appeal of community service initiatives to engage young Jews. The idea of helping refugees, or ‘strangers’ in your land, comes straight from the Tanakh:

Leviticus 19:33/34

"And if a stranger resides in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger that resides with you in your land shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…" It’s certainly not a new idea and its roots are in the text, not in progressive Judaism, Jewish renewal, or whatever you want to call the philosophy maintained by groups of Jews who want to do good deeds in the name of their Jewish identities while maintaining a degree of secularism.

Many Jewish organizations–both in the diaspora and in Israel–begin with a single idea stemming from Jewish text. In order to market this idea to less religious Jews, they lose the Torah language and dub it a ‘new’ or ‘different’ way to be Jewish without being religiously observant in the modern world. The result is a misleading commitment to social justice that reinforces the notion that Jewish text is only accessible and relevant to halachically observant Jews–and that community service and global awareness are reserved for less traditional, more contemporary Jews. This is problematic because it reinforces an unnecessary rift between Jews that live different lifestyles, which prevents them from relating to each other. It furthers the lack of understanding between the religious, the secular, and everyone in between, because everyone feels like their values come from a different place and that they are, in fact, irreconcilable. The Orthodox can’t understand the secular lack of reverence for the Torah and for Jewish law, and more secular Jews feel as though Torah and Jewish law are irrelevant to their ‘contemporary’ Jewish values.

Whether your expression of Judaism is in the form of community service initiatives, strict adherence to Jewish law, or both–the truth is that it all comes from the same place. In that case, if you’re looking for meaning and depth as a non-observant Jew, why not pick up the book itself instead of letting Hillel or the Progressive Jewish Alliance water it down for you? You can still eat bacon and intermarry, I promise.