The Religious Pursuit Of Social Justice

Marvin Gross passes along this article from his files dealing with the centrality of social justice in Judaism and in synagogue life…

by Evely Laser Shlensky and Leonard Fein

Judaism offers a path to righteousness: with many signposts along the way, its teachings point toward conduct that will transform the world into a more Godly place. To attempt to shape our ordinary, wondrous, and sometimes degraded world into a place closer to the one we think God has in mind reflects our deepest religious aspirations. This social action guide is intended to assist synagogues and their members in turning aspirations into effective actions to repair the world.

But why the synagogue as a locus for social justice? In a sense, the ladder of Jacob’s dream is an apt metaphor for the synagogue: an interactive vehicle with all sorts of coming and going, connecting heavenly values with earthly needs. In our synagogues, those connections are made through prayer, study, and the pursuit of social justice, each leading to the other and then back again. We know that for Judaism to be whole, to be holy, it requires each of its pillars: Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim. Yet, our lives and our institutions become compartmentalized. After all, we live in a bureaucratized society; we work through committees, we keep hourly calendars, our meetings rely on agendas that frequently are not only itemized but also organized by the minute. This fragmentation has been a particular problem for those of us devoted to the prong of Judaism that emphasizes the work of social justice. Why? Because much of the work of social justice looks like political advocacy, social services, or community organizing.

One might miss the fact that social action is also religious action – an essential prong of Judaism – and that misperception can allow synagogue social activists to be marginalized. With this guide we hope both to address the work of tikkun olam, and to offer ways of integrating that work into the total fabric of synagogue life. We begin the process of integration by turning to teachings of the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler as he reflected on connections between ritual and ethical imperatives of Judaism: ‘Our central mission?’ What is that–tefilah, prayer? But the Talmud declared it forbidden to pray in a room without windows, for when we pray, we are to hear the world’s weeping; when we pray, we are to see the poor huddled at the Temple’s gates. What then is ‘our central mission?’– limud, study? But Rabbi Akiba declared study to be the mission of Judaism only if it leads to action. We are to teach our children Torah, not just to know Torah, nor even to teach Torah, but above all to be Torah.

Even as they energize us, prayer and study sensitize us to our role in the world. As Rabbi David Saperstein said: The core of our insight is that serious Jewish study inevitably leads to the soup kitchen; that serious prayer, among other vital things, is a way of preparing to do battle with injustice; that social justice without being grounded in text, without a sense of God’s presence, is ephemeral and unsustainable…The thread of social justice is so authentically and intricately woven into the many-colored fabric we call Judaism that if you seek to pull that thread out, the entire fabric unravels, that the Judaism that results is distorted, is neutered, is rendered aimless. Jewish history also is our text.

Or consider: “Once there lived a man named Abraham. Now this Abraham, when he learned that God was preparing to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gemorah, this same pious Abraham, chose to intervene. And the words of his intervention thunder through history, shape our collective memory: Will You really sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? Perhaps there are fifty innocent within the city, will You really sweep it away? Will You not bear with the place because of the fifty innocent that are in its midst? Heaven forbid for You to do a thing like this, to deal death to the innocent along with the guilty, that it should come about: like the innocent, like the guilty. Heaven forbid for You! The Judge of all the earth – will He not do what is just?” Genesis 18: 23-25. The first Jew offers us the first example of the first station on the way to justice – the readiness to speak truth to power. At our best, we have been doing that ever since, whether in arenas intellectual or political, by challenging prevailing wisdom, challenging prevailing habits, and calling ourselves and others to account. This is no contemporary fad; it is who we are.

Who, then, are we? We are a people that believes that all human beings are made in the divine image of God, and as such are endowed with infinite value. The rabbis of the Mishnah asked: Why begin the story with one couple, with Adam and Eve? (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) Their answer teaches us: to demonstrate that no one and no people has priority, seniority; we are all descendants of the same ancestors. In the same vein, the rabbis taught: Adam was made from dust gathered from the four corners of the earth. (Yalkut Shimoni 1:13) Hence we advocate for human rights, everywhere; hence we advocate for liberty, and equality, for all humanity. We are a people that believes “The earth is the Eternal’s and the fullness thereof,” (Psalm 24:1) and from that simple sentence we understand that what we “have” is ours in trust, and that we must be faithful stewards of God’s world.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (Conservative) taught: “To be a Jew is not simply to be, but to stand for.”

Rabbi Leo Baeck (Reform) wrote: “We are Jews for the sake of humanity.”

Professor Isadore Twersky (Orthodox) observed: “One cannot claim to be a God intoxicated Jew without a passion for social justice.”

A contemporary Jewish political sensibility derives from several key principles. While there are many different formulations, the following was written by Michael Gottsegen, a Senior Research Fellow at CLAL:

First in priority is the principle of the respect that is due the human being who is created b’tzelem elohim, in the divine image, and, as such, is of inestimable worth. From this also follow the ancillary principles of justice and equity. In the political realm, this first principle gives us the criteria of procedural and substantive due process. Thus, of any proposed policy, it can be asked whether it is compatible with the equal dignity of all who stand to be affected by it. Second in priority is the principle of the respect that is due to the entire nonhuman realm or creation because it is ma’aseh b’reishit, or “the work of the beginning”(the work of God) and as such possesses intrinsic dignity. From this principle, a Jewish ecological sensibility arises. In the political realm, this principle leads us to ask whether a given policy does gratuitous damage to that part of nature which would be drafted into service on behalf of human ends. Third in priority is the principle of brit, or of covenant, which signifies the covenantal basis of human society and the norms of covenantal mutuality and covenantal reciprocity which should inform social and political life…The practical political upshot of this principle asks of any policy proposal whether it is compatible with the principle of social solidarity and oriented toward the common good. Fourth in priority is the principle of rachamim, or mercy, which lays upon the individual and society the obligation to care for the weak and vulnerable. In the political realm, this principle leads to the following question of any policy proposal: Does it trample upon, or does it uphold, the weak and vulnerable? Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma – A Journal of Jewish Responsibility ( November 24, 1995 76:502

So, then, we set out to place our religious principles in the service of society, as is our sacred obligation. There could be no more fitting locus for the pursuit of justice, mercy, and peace than the synagogue.

We are a people that believes that history moves from slavery towards freedom, that there is a goal to human affairs, and that the good life is a life lived in furtherance of that goal. The goal? To help complete the work of creation; to mend the world; to hasten the advent of a Messianic age.


Our synagogues are houses of study, of prayer, and of assembly. We establish synagogues not as oases, but as sites for Jewish activity, places where we gather to learn, to express our religious aspirations, to perpetuate Judaism, and to be in community with other Jews. The fully realized Jewish life that synagogues seek to foster requires opportunities for congregants to study, to pray, and to pursue social justice. One can, of course, do these things outside the walls of the synagogue. But it is in the synagogue, where 2000 years of Jewish history have been linked with the present and future; where the sense of Jewish “community” has been and continues to be forged; where study, prayer, and social action take on a special kavanah, expressing the community’s holy intention.

These days, synagogues plainly have a preeminent role with regard to the Jewish future. Jewish parents, young adults, and children look to the synagogue for guidance and for inspiration; they perceive the synagogue as the central institution of Jewish life. It is especially important as a place – and as a community – that provides a living expression of Judaism’s most critical values. If the synagogue neglects the pursuit of justice as a compelling priority for the activities it sponsors and encourages, Jews will conclude that the pursuit of justice is a peripheral rather than a central commitment of our people. If the Judaism our synagogues offer does not speak to the moral dilemmas of our people’s lives or the great moral issues of the world in which they dwell, then it will fail to capture the loyalty and imagination of significant numbers of Jews, especially over time.

And yet, from time to time, we are challenged to explain ourselves, to justify the synagogue as a locus for the work of social justice. Synagogue social activists may be asked: “What does social action have to do with the synagogue?” Many people who engage in social action through their synagogues have had to deal with versions of this question. While the question may express the questioner’s objection to the action that is being contemplated or undertaken, it may also reflect the poorly understood linkage between justice and Judaism. Whatever prompts the question, it deserves a serious response. Following the lead of Leviticus 19, which presents both ritual and ethical acts as necessary to the formation of a holy community, a number of contemporary thinkers have sought to integrate Jewish religious life and the social justice pursuit it requires. Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin explained the linkage in spiritual terms:

Spirituality is about social action. In Judaism there is no dichotomy between the inner and the outer, between action and contemplation. Homelessness, the plight of children, and the loss of compassion and values in our society are spiritual issues. We connect spirituality with social action when ‘God’ becomes more than a cheerleader on the sidelines of our ethical striving. When we legitimately use ‘God’ in a sentence that describes our action, then social action becomes a spiritual path. I am working in this soup kitchen because feeding the hungry is a mitzvah ordained by God. I am involved in a Black-Jewish dialogue because God created one person at the dawn of creation, and therefore all people are endowed with immeasurable dignity. I am working against violence and pornography in the media because those things violate the image of God. Reform Judaism, Fall 1995

From: Lirdof Tzedek: A Guide to Synagogue Social Action, by Evely Laser Shlensky and Leonard Fein

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

A Website.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: