A Call for Creating a Jewish Theology of Liberation

Screenshot: Rav Kook Torah

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 21“Social Justice and Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Mordechai Liebling

A Jewish theology of liberation will tell a new story of how the world is fully interconnected, where the primary energy of evolution is cooperation and not survival of the fittest, and how the entire world is imbued with dignity and purpose. This story will be in harmony with the scientific explanation of the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang, the Torah’s wisdom that justice is caring for the Earth and each other, and, our own need to live a life of meaning and purpose. The stories we tell, the narratives we create, govern our lives and can create societies of wholeness, of liberation.

The great lie of western civilization is separation and the myth of the individual. There has never been a society of one; we are social animals. Modernity created the myth of the individual to break away from the claustrophobia of closed hierarchical oppressive societies. It succeeded and we are now paying a great price for it having gone to the extreme. Rampant individualism leads to alienation, unhappiness and a sense of meaninglessness that gives rise to societies where masses of people are addicted to materialism and to numbing out through various modalities. It can lead to a desperate desire for belonging that manifests in extreme nationalism and a susceptibility to authoritarian leaders. Our separation from the Earth, our treatment of it as a mere storehouse of resources, has led to the escalating disruption and destruction of global warming. We must create a new balance of the individual and the communal, of humans and the ecological system of which we are an element. We need a story of connection.

What follows are some ideas about theology that are intended to begin conversations. One step out of the age of the individual is to recognize that a theology needs to be collectively produced. The ideas that follow are the product of interactions I have had with teachers, colleagues and students; and of course, are a product of my own life experience. I hope that the remarks below spark discussions and encourage groups of activists to gather and discover how their beliefs and actions inform each other. The goal is for activists to see how developing a theology can inform their activism and better integrate their hearts and minds.

Jewish thinkers have long observed that in the Torah there is the God of Creation – Elohim, or “God as Being,” working through the laws of nature; and the God of History- YHVH, “God as Becoming” manifested as the power of being able to transform society from what is to what ought to be, the possibility of justice. We have learned since that nature functions through constant evolution and that for the struggle for justice to succeed it needs to be worldwide and in many forms. The spiritual understanding that bridges the two names of God is that Being and Becoming are inter-dependent, not dichotomies. We are part of an evolving System of Life. God is the name we give to the energy that makes it a cohesive system, God is the connective tissue of the universe. The awareness that recognizes the complete interdependence and connectivity of all that is, can be called God consciousness. This is a non-theistic understanding of God. This is not God the Creator nor the God who intervenes in history, this is God understood as the name for the Oneness of existence. Love and, hence meaning, arises from the awareness of the complete interconnection of a living, evolving system. Our desire to bring about justice is rooted in this consciousness of our connection to others-love.

Liberation theology aims to transform the historical conditions of poverty, marginalization, injustice and violence present in the world by creating a space for the creative articulation of peace, dignity, inclusion, justice and solidarity. It has a powerful legacy of teaching that oppressed people need to act on their own behalf, that having agency is an essential part of the move out of oppression.

A key tenet of Latin American Liberation Theology is praxis. Praxis is a process that can be understood as the commitment to end oppression, which is translated into action and then reflected upon through the lens of Spirit on the action taken, finally the understanding of Spirit is reflected on through the lens of commitment and action. A theology develops over time; theology understood as how an awareness of Spirit informs our strategy and actions. It is calling for action to precede understanding, an idea embedded in Jewish myth. In Exodus 24:7 the Jews standing at Mount Sinai signal their acceptance of the Torah with the words “na’aseh v’nishma”- “We will do and we will hear/understand.” Action precedes understanding, the collective does what is right and then through reflection on the action develops an understanding of God.

A brief illustration of praxis: A group decides to have a demonstration in front of City Hall to protest police violence, after the action the group might reflect on the following:

  • Were the people most affected by police violence in the forefront of the action
  • Did we accomplish our goals
  • As a group did we treat each other with love
  • In our speech and actions did we dehumanize police or city officials
  • Did what we say reflect a systemic analysis of the issues that recognizes interdependence
  • What are Jewish texts that may help us reflect on this
  • How did each of us experience our relationship to Spirit during the action.
  • How does this affect our theology?

A Jewish theology of liberation will, also, need to reflect on the various roles that Jews play in social structures; both how Jews collude and benefit from oppression and how Jews are targeted and oppressed. It must include acting to end the Jewish role in oppressing the Palestinian people and working for the ongoing safety of the Jewish people. For Jews living in North America and Europe it means understanding the effects of living in cultures of Christian hegemony.

A collectively developed Jewish theology of liberation will nourish our bodies, hearts, minds and spirit, strengthening and guiding us in creating a socially just, environmentally sustainable and spiritually fulfilling human presence on the Earth.

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling is the Director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. In recognition that social identity affects one’s views: He is a white cis gendered heterosexual, married male, whose parents were Holocaust survivors who became refugees in the United States where he was born.