Pesach, Judaism, and Social Justice

Posted Fri, 04/08/2022 - 15:32 by Robert

In the run-up to Pesach (Passover), a religiously-committed, politically-engaged Jew’s mind inevitably turns to thoughts of social justice. This year in particular, we are troubled by issues of human rights, refugees, poverty, war and peace. As Michael Walzer explains in his seminal book Exodus and Revolution, Jews and Christians of diverse political and religious stripes – Puritans, Marxists, enslaved people, civil rights activists, Zionists – have all been inspired by the Pesach story in their struggles for freedom. But if this core biblical narrative has motivated so many different approaches to liberation, what’s distinctive about a Jewish approach to social justice?

Immersing myself in books and articles on Judaism and justice and interviewing many Jewish social activists has led me to understand that there are indeed some uniquely Jewish approaches. Mirroring the tradition to drink four cups of wine at the Passover Seder, I want to focus on four ingredients of a distinctively Jewish model of social justice.

They are:

  • Awareness of the complexity of the relationship between Judaism and justice;

  • Embracing pluralism and complexity;

  • Ambivalence around Jewish identity, privilege and oppression;

  • Learning and text study as the core of justice practice.

The complex relationship between Judaism and justice

Some writers understand social justice to be a core, authentic message of Judaism. In his book The Way Into Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World Rabbi Elliot Dorff comprehensively catalogues a variety of ways in which faith in God provides Jews with reasons to care for others. For example, God is the creator and owner of the world; all property is therefore on loan and refusing to use it to help others means denying God’s sovereignty – essentially a form of idolatry. God commands us to care for others, both in our actions and our intentions, and sanctions this with rewards and punishments. Human beings’ creation in the divine image means we should treat each other as being of worth and recognise God’s love for us. Finally, Jews’ obligation to ethical behaviour is based on more than obedience, contract, covenant or community; it derives from the Torah’s aspiration to holiness and imitatio Dei – emulating the moral attributes of God.

This framing of moral obligation in theological terms is given a vivid, political complexion in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s analysis of racism. In his book The Insecurity of Freedom Heschel writes that in contrast to religion, a unifying, universal force that sees humanity as the child of God, racism means dismembering the flesh of living humanity and attempting to honour the father by torturing his child. Racism is a spiritual disease, the profanation of God’s name, a form of blasphemy, satanism and unmitigated evil. In contrast, Jews are called to act like the prophets – interfering, speaking out, not minding their own business, showing zero tolerance of wrongs done to others, feeling them as if done to ourselves. For Heschel Judaism is inherently anti-racist. There is clearly no distinction for him between religious and social or political issues.

On reflection, however, it’s clear that deriving a social justice message from a religious tradition is no simple matter. All major world religions have been enlisted in the fight for freedom and equality, but have also at times been co-opted by reactionary, oppressive ideologies. Jewish thinkers are aware of this complexity. Michael Walzer, for example, reflects that the Exodus story has been used to buttress political ideologies that directly contradict each other. Moses putting the people to the sword after the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32) has been used as a justification for purges and revolutionary violence by groups as diverse as Calvinists and Leninists. A social-democratic reading of the story, in contrast, portrays Moses as a dialogical leader who educates and debates with the people, gradually leading them to redemption during their forty years of wandering in the desert.

It’s clear that Jewish approaches to social justice have emerged in dialogue with the different political ideologies Jews have been drawn to in the modern period. As a result we now have readings of Judaism that are socialist and capitalist, liberal and conservative, nationalist and universalist, feminist and patriarchal, and more. It’s clear that deriving a social justice message from Judaism is a matter of complex interpretation.

Pluralism and complexity

Perhaps for this reason, contemporary Jewish social justice writing tends towards a pluralistic conception of Judaism and of social justice. This taps into a core rabbinic value: mahloket le-shem shamayim – ‘debates for the sake of heaven’ – the idea that difference, debate and respecting opinions you disagree with are an important way of seeking truth and determining correct religious and moral practice. Let’s look at a few examples of how a commitment to pluralism connects with social justice in the minds of Jewish activists and educators.

Sally (all names of interviewees are pseudonyms) is an informal educator working within a pluralistic Jewish school. Pluralism, she says,

is so embedded in everything that we do…. [E]verything that we teach and the way that we frame everything, in what we do in school and how we run.... You know so how do we run tefilah [prayer services] on Rosh Hodesh [the new month]; they get to choose a service. They get to choose from explanatory, spiritual, Reform, Masorti, Orthodox, Chabad [a Hasidic group] come in. So when Rosh Hodesh happens, when prayer happens in the school, it happens across the board. You know when we have services on Shabbat they get to choose what service they go to. And then we push them a little bit harder, when they are in Israel [on a school trip] we say ‘try the other service’. [...] And actually to see us disagreeing, like hear us disagreeing on stuff, but know that we can still co-exist. Like hear the voices and know that you can co-exist.

Sally sees engagement with diverse views and positions as a moral imperative and a vital part of the individual’s Jewish experience. Given Sally’s sense that large sections of the Jewish community are currently rather insular, closed-minded and intolerant, her vision implies the need for radical communal change. Pluralism in this understanding is an integral feature of a just community.

For some activists, rather than being an aim in itself, pluralism is a means to the end of social justice. For example, Tamar works for a progressive, pro-Israel, pro-peace organisation that runs educational seminars for teenagers in Israel. These workshops focus on helping learners replace what Tamar sees as their incomplete or biased perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with more complete ones. For example, she reflects on the reaction of two teenagers to a day-trip organised by her organisation which took place in the context of a month-long Israel tour:

There were a couple of kids who took real exception to the content of the programme, and in the end the guide said to them ‘did you go to Tzfat [Safed]?’ Yeah, yeah, we learned about the kabbalists, we learned about the sixteenth century, we learned about the Inquisition. He said ‘did you talk about the Palestinian population though, that existed before 1948?’ Blank faces. ‘Did you talk about the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president came from Tzfat?’ Blank faces. ‘Did you talk about the fact that he went on television a few months ago to say ‘I know I can’t return to this place as anything other than a tourist even though it was my family home?’ Blank faces. He turned round to the kids and said, ‘look I’m not going to pretend that what I am trying to teach you does not come from a specific perspective, that it has its own biases and its own subjectivity in it but what I am trying to explain to you is that everything else you have done on this tour has brought bias in another direction. I’m just asking you to expand your possibilities.’ What he was saying is it’s not that what you learned in Tzfat is not true, all of it is true, but there is more to that story than the bit you learned.

Tamar’s assumption is that pluralism – understanding complexity and multiple narratives – will lead people to take up more progressive political positions.

Shalom, an Orthodox rabbi who is involved with interfaith and social justice education, articulates a similar view as follows:

If you look at a page of Talmud, you have all the different voices all adding to this conversation…. I loved the idea that you had to listen to the other side before you make your mind up, and there’s more than one voice happening, and one side never has the answers…. And sometimes I think … a lot of social action isn’t about I think, boys and girls in the classroom, recycle! Or take care of the poor! It’s listening to the poor. What do they need? This whole notion of micro-financing. You don’t have to tell them what to do. Just give them the means to do it. They’ll tell you what to do.

Jewish identity – privileged or oppressed?

Shalom assumes that delving into Talmudic texts that are characterised by open debate and the preservation of minority opinions helps sensitise readers to the needs of the marginalised Other. By implication, these readers enjoy privilege and power and are in a position to use it to help the poor and oppressed. Indeed, many of the activists I interviewed assume that the role of Jews is to act as social justice agents or activists, motivated by altruism to help others. However, this assumption is deeply flawed. It ignores the vulnerability, marginalisation and forms of discrimination which are faced by the Jewish minority even in western democracies. Moreover, it does not take into account the complex ways in which Jewish people self-identify and the implications of this ambivalence for the Jewish social justice enterprise.

For example, Calley, a community organiser working with Jewish communities within a broad-based, multi-faith alliance, argues that the largely middle-class Jewish community no longer has much interest in the disadvantaged people it interacts – or fails to interact – with: ‘What has it become that it took so long to get even one synagogue to go Living Wage? We never think of buying ham in our synagogues to save money and yet we’ve come to a place where we weren’t paying our cleaning workers, our security guards a living wage’.

However Calley also discerns a great deal of nuance and ambivalence around the perceived self-interest of what she terms as the largely white, middle-class Jewish community. She is clear that ‘people are broader than their own class interest’ and in some instances are able to develop solidarity with disadvantaged groups as the result of their ‘ability to make human to human relationships’. Moreover, for Calley, Jewish narratives have a unique role to play:

Sometimes I meet lovely, middle-class people whose opening biographies begin with – and mine’s similar – ‘my family came as refugees’. And this is part of what being Jewish means to them, but they’re trapped in this weird space where part of them really identifies with this ‘I’m part of the poor and dispossessed’ narrative, and part of them is living in this six bedroom house in Hampstead and is struggling to reconcile that. But I think that is also part of what it means to be the Jewish experience….

At Pesach, Jews are commanded to see themselves as freed slaves, escaping from Egypt. This self-image retains its power and its potential to motivate social action in a far deeper way than simple altruism. Jodie, whose organisation runs volunteer programmes for Jewish young people in developing countries, tells a story that illustrates this point:

So I am in Ghana in a rural setting and I am having lunch. Lunch takes about three hours to prepare, you are just basically sitting there waiting for it because it is on a wood burning fire. It is a very rural setting. There are lots of children milling around because it is sports day. There is a big competition, they are coming and going from school. So, we are just watching that with a guy called Karamu. We are working with schools because we are doing this big project on education in Northern Ghana.

Lunch comes. It is once again a fried fish, deep fried, with fried rice and salad. I am not allowed to eat the salad because it might have been washed in regular water and I might get cholera from it. So, I don’t eat the salad, I eat the rice, I’ve had enough of the fish. I am ultimately, a middle class, middle-aged Jewish woman from London. I have had enough of the fish after two weeks. So I leave half of it and Karamu looks at me and gives me a bit of a nudge. I understand at that moment, that it is unacceptable that I don’t finish my food in the context in which we are in.

He sort of motions, looking at the kids. So I pick at my plate and get eye contact with a kid who is walking past and sort of look sideways and sort of with my eyes, um do you want this. He comes over and sits down, nobody says a thing, on the floor next to me, he takes my knife and fork, he takes the plate, he has a little box with a couple of mismatched crocs in it. He sits down and finishes everything on my plate, he puts the plate back on the table and off he goes. So I am sitting there very close to tears and I am transported to the fact that my parents, my father’s parents were in Belsen and his parents died of hunger. They died of starvation in Belsen.

A couple of months later I am in front of [my rabbi, in synagogue], it’s Yom Kippur. […] He’s talking about Isaiah and ‘don’t give me your sack cloth, you need to feed the poor’. Oof my God, everything suddenly all makes sense, wow, the Holocaust happened to us and we died but we survived and what is our purpose in the world? I have fed the poor literally in such a real way, it’s heart breaking, and there is still poverty, and all that stuff made sense.

Torah study and social justice

Jodie’s story reveals a complex attitude to Jewish identity, privilege, oppression and the responsibility to act. It also illustrates the power of the relationship between Jewish history, texts and values – in this case the connection between African poverty, the Holocaust, Yom Kippur and Isaiah. Many Jewish social justice educators make use of similar connections. But how does text study – and Jewish education more broadly – interrelate with the goal of inspiring social activists?

Orthodox rabbi Shalom provides an example. He relates that when working with secular or progressive Jewish students, he builds on their existing commitments to social justice to show them the value of Jewish tradition which, unbeknownst to them, also contains these principles:

What’s my aim by going in there? I would like to say that they’re hearing something unique about a Torah perspective on responsibility. It’s not just why Fairtrade is good but why as Jews they should take Fairtrade seriously. So they’re proud about their Judaism, they’re now ingrained with something about their Judaism. I’m proud to be a Jew because it says something meaningful about eating Fairtrade chocolate…. So for that one it was all about just using a couple of quotes from Isaiah, you know, just in case you though Judaism was all about ritual, small ritual acts, prophetic voices say feed the poor and clothe the naked man kind of thing, and that’s a really important piece, and yet you probably don’t know about this so let’s have an educational session about Isaiah.

Conversely, when teaching in an Orthodox framework where students have a prior commitment to traditional Jewish law and practice, Shalom leverages this in order to convince them that it is important, for example, to recycle.

You can do a whole class on bal tashhit [the commandment ‘do not destroy’], from the Torah to the Gemorah [Talmud], the Shutim [Responsa literature], and just begin to explore what the rabbis had to say about this important issue, about not wasting. And then you hold a plastic bottle at the end and you say ‘what shall we do with this, le-fi halakhah [according to Jewish law]?’ And hopefully that whole sense has led them on this journey where they’re caring about a plastic bottle that would have not been an issue now becoming a Torah issue. It can’t go in the rubbish because bal tashhit would say not to.

Depending on his audience, Shalom leverages Jewish learning to inspire social action, or utilising social justice commitments to engage people more deeply with Judaism.

Many of the activists I interviewed expressed discomfort with the idea of using social action to engage people with Judaism or using Jewish learning to motivate social action. They were concerned that it’s wrong to approach these core beliefs in a utilitarian, instrumentalising way. This discomfort partly emerges from the understanding that deriving a modern social justice agenda from Judaism is always an act of interpretation. Is this kind of politically-progressive Judaism stretching the tradition too far? Are we ‘reading in’ our own values in an inappropriate way?

This question reveals the importance of identifying the specifically Jewish characteristics of any approach to social justice. It is true that Jewish tradition contains many – often contradictory – views. By interpreting Judaism through the undeniably Jewish lenses of complexity, pluralism, serious text study and a deep appreciation of the unique nature of Jewish identity, we can be sure that what emerges will be an authentically Jewish approach to social justice.

Dr Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism and the author of Judaism, Education and Social Justice: Towards a Jewish Critical Pedagogy (Bloomsbury, forthcoming).