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Day 4: Is Social Justice the Soul of Judaism?

From: Daniel ‘Mobius’ Sieradski To: Steven I. Weiss Subject: Liar, Liar, Soul on Fire Steven, My statement that Jews didn’t invent morality was a segue into a point regarding the difference between Jewish morality and that of non-Jewish nations. Jewish … Read More

By / January 18, 2007

From: Daniel ‘Mobius’ Sieradski To: Steven I. Weiss Subject: Liar, Liar, Soul on Fire

Steven,

My statement that Jews didn’t invent morality was a segue into a point regarding the difference between Jewish morality and that of non-Jewish nations. Jewish morality is a democratic conversation, while morality was often defined autocratically elsewhere in the Near East. This was my point.

You say Judaism has never "produced a society that looks a whole lot like what social justice types call for." If you revisit the Prophets you'll see that the just society Judaism envisions has never been achieved anywhere at all.

In any case, your interpretation of Chanukah perverts the context in which the Maccabean revolt took place. Jewish opposition to Hellenization was not a rejection of art, science, athletics or philosophy. We had all these things before the Greeks arrived in Israel, and we were willing to assimilate the best of the things they did have to offer. Yes, the haredim of the day rejected some elements of Greek life, such as the depravity of bathhouse culture. But the Maccabees revolted against Antiochus’ attempt to introduce idolatry into the Temple, not against Hellenist Westernization itself.

I am quite familiar with Maimonides’ position towards women, and I find it appalling. However, I cited Nachmanides, no
t Maimonides. And I reiterate my point that we must consider the time and place in which his views were formulated. Women were not considered equals in American society until the 1920s, when they gained the right to vote. They are still mistreated, earning smaller salaries than their male counterparts—just one example of the injustice they endure.

Maimonides was writing over 700 years earlier, when attitudes towards women were infinitely worse. This doesn’t justify his position, but it does place it in context.

Thank G-d, times have changed and continue to change, and Judaism provides a framework which allows higher moral standards to evolve and be adopted within our community. The Maggid Mishneh says,

It would not have been proper [for the Torah] to command [all the] details [of its application]. For the Torah’s commands apply at all times, in every period, and under all circumstances, whereas man’s characteristics and behavior vary, depending upon the time and the individual. The Rabbis [therefore] set down some relevant details subsumed under these principles, some of which they made absolute law, and others [only] ante facto, through chassidut.

In other words, Torah law is only partially set in stone, and is equipped to change with the times.

Paradoxically, Jewish particularism can be part of the effort to love all people, to love all creation. For example, Rav Kook (who was an advocate of vegetarianism and animal rights) may have been a Jewish particularist, but he was also a universalist.

In his famous commentary on The Song of Songs, Kook writes of four songs: The song of the soul, the
song of the nation, the song of humanity, and the song of the universe. He says that in order to sing the song of the universe, one must begin by singing the song of the soul, and then move outwards. In other words, one must work on himself before he can hope to help others. One must work within one’s own community, his nation, before he can address all humanity. And finally, one must connect truly with humanity in order to connect with the universe.

Yes, Kook starts with the holiness of the Jew. But I believe he does this in order to differentiate between righteous and non-righteous behavior, rather than to make an essentialist statement about non-Jews. And remember that Kook lived through a time of extreme persecution of Jews throughout Europe; that he used the non-Jewish world as an example of unholy behavior is entirely understandable—again, when considered in context.

While it may be true that I come to Judaism with my own ideological baggage, I find it horribly insulting when you say that I’m trying to squeeze Judaism into my own political agenda. Judaism has radically altered my politics. And I believe that the fire Hashem has put within me will grow stronger as I increase my knowledge of the full body of Jewish sources. Perhaps I will find out that I am horribly wrong. But thus far I have encountered more affirmation than disillusionment, and the fire grows.

The fire is fed by the themes I see present throughout Torah, themes that resonate with me and spark within me a passion for Judaism. Here is a list of visionary Jewish theological concepts that point me toward a better and more just world:

  • b’tselem elokim (the inherent equality of every human as being made in the image of G-d)
  • v’ahavta l’rekha kamokha (to love your fellow as yourself)
  • teshuva (the ability for every man to redeem himself from his misdeeds)
  • tzedakah and peah (charity)
  • shemita (the sabbatical year, which includes the liberation of slaves)
  • amnesty for fugitive slaves
  • bikur cholim (caring for the sick)
  • lifnei eiver (not exploiting the ignorance of others)
  • tokhakha (rebuke of one’s fellow)
  • various Prophetic statements urging justice and care for the sick and needy (like Isaiah’s statement that "Zion will be redeemed in justice and through tzedakah")
  • Baba Kama and Sifra Acharei Mot’s statements that a righteous gentile is "like a high priest"
  • the near-impossibility of applying the death penalty
  • democracy in government and the establishment of courts of justice
  • Abraham’s iconoclasm
  • Moses’ murder of an Egyptian slavemaster
  • The Nazir’s vegetarianism and total opposition to warfare

When taken all together, these examples and others add up to much more than "isolated instances where a social justice agenda may find a perch." They amount to a Jewish tradition of social justice.

And still this tradition calls on us not to become self-satisfied when we abide by its tenets. Eliyyahu Rabbah says there are "men who have come to possess knowledge of Torah and Mishnah but are marred by filthy ways." Simply observing Jewish law does not necessarily make you a righteous person. We can be disgusting people "with the permission of Torah." But we should strive for better, for we are obligated to be "right and good in the sight of the Eternal."

As for the rest of your remarks, if you agree with Jewish advocacy of gay marriage, and you believe this to be a halakhically acceptable position, then what are we arguing about? I would never suggest that Judaism wholly endorses secular liberal values, and as a person with more interest in Jewish values than secular values, I thank G-d it doesn’t. But I nonetheless believe there are many cases where Judaism does, in fact, support liberal values, and others where—though the water is murkier—it can be interpreted or adjusted to do so.

I furthermore believe that such a practice is permissible, though it must be done in an honest and sincere way. One must question the purity of their own motives, and should not tailor Judaism to suit a political agenda. They should, however, tailor it to suit the voice of G-d calling from within.

So I continue to argue that social justice is a core principle of Judaism, though not its heart. The heart of Judaism is nothing more than the oneness of G-d. Social justice is merely an emanation of this principle. Loving your fellow is loving G-d, and you love your fellow by caring for him and defending him—by pursuing social justice on his behalf.

If that’s intellectually dishonest, I’ll happily bare your scarlet letter ‘L’ for liar. My interest is in doing what is right and good in His eyes. Not yours.

Dan

Friday: It's Time to Jettison Judaism

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