Even in the 21st century, it seems we can still hear the prophetic calls of Jeremiah and Isaiah, of Hillel and Maimonides. We hear their cries for justice echoing these days in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, as we do every day in devastated communities across the nation’s cities. The challenges are great: an economic crisis that persists with as much endurance as our pursuit to counter it; workers’ rights to safety and protection being questioned; foreclosures that board up not only homes but people.
We struggle. The challenges are great, our opponents strong, and those who still believe that justice matters seek a powerful response. The task is not only to help this or that needy individual. We aim to change long-standing systems of oppression, and to strengthen those healthy systems that were accomplished by previous generations. We don’t want to settle for winning this time around. Rather, we want to change the rules of the game. We want justice, not charity. Respect, not mercy.
But is there not a danger that in the focus on systems, structures, and processes we lose sight of the individual? Between the Hollywood glitter and our feeds on Twitter, our Facebook walls and suburban sprawls, one could think that reality is only a TV genre. Our cultural environment has made the other into a spectacle to be gazed at. The face of the other is tagged on our computer screen, without the smell, the sounds, the pain. Indeed, the question circulating among activists since 1902 is – “What is to be done?” Must we work for systemic change, removed from the realities of those suffering, and once in a while engage in “community service” so that our spirit does not become desensitized to the pain we wish to alleviate?
Take the enormous housing crisis as an example, the crisis from which Wall Street has already recovered, leaving communities broken, families displaced, and hard-working people hopeless, or homeless, or both. What is to be done? Must we act in two separate tracks, one track in each we address faceless policies and nameless ordinances, and another track in which we serve the homeless in a soup kitchen so that we don’t “lose touch” with those in need? Hardly. The Jewish experience instructs us otherwise.
To answer the prophetic call for justice that continuously haunts Jews of all eras is first to look into the face of the other. To see in that face a demand for respect, a call to dialogue, and an invitation to collaboration. Ever since God asked Adam – “Ayeka?” (“Where are you?”) – we are continuously summoned to respond. People are not photos in a Facebook profile; they cannot be placed in a statistical survey. To do justice is not to talk about people, but to talk to them. It is not to work for people, but to work with them.
To say that there is something transcendent in each of us – in the teacher in Wisconsin, in the family foreclosed upon in Chicago’s southwest side, in you – need not be a declaration of religious faith. It is a recognition of the other in her highest form of humanity. It is to acknowledge that we do not need evidence in order to be certain that in the direct encounter with another human being we encounter a moral demand that cannot be shaken off. When a person on the street says – “can you help me today?” – we are already summoned. The face of the other obligates us. What is this obligation? As my parents always told me, quite simply, it is the obligation to be a mensch. And to be a human being is to respond to other human beings, to engage, to collaborate, and, together, to bring about a better world. This is not done by choosing between systemic change and a truly human interaction. Rather, it is done precisely by bridging that divide through partnership with those most affected, by empowering those most vulnerable to lead us toward a more just society. Indeed, amid the chants and speeches inspiring Wisconsin workers, we clearly hear the words of our sages: “Beware of the poor, for from them shall come forth Torah.”