A Phenomenology of Social Justice

Baylands Nature Reserve

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

By Darren Kleinberg

Since the cradle of civilization, human history has demonstrated that ideas alone will not bring justice to our planet. After all, everything we need to know about how we should treat ourselves, relate to others, and steward the earth, has already been said and recorded, and yet today we count 65 million refugees among our brothers and sisters, to cite but one terrible example of our failure to pursue universal justice.

More than understanding, we need to find ways to feel the urgent necessity for justice. To illustrate this point, I will attempt to outline just such an approach and make the case that it should be adopted throughout the Jewish community.

My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, teaches that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim – in the Image of God. Drawing on classical Jewish sources, Greenberg claims that to be created in the image of God is to be endowed with three fundamental dignities: Uniqueness, Infinite Value, and Equality.

I have understood and affirmed this teaching since my very first exposure to it, many years ago. And yet, my own understanding of this idea has not led me to enact any great contributions on behalf of social justice. While I have been deeply saddened and angered by the injustices in the world, I have also been mostly passive in my (non-)response.

Then something changed. My relationship to Greenberg’s three fundamental dignities was transformed from a merely intellectual understanding into an embodied experience that brought with it new insight. What follows is my attempt to describe that experience and to outline what I am calling a phenomenology of social justice.

By phenomenology, I am referring to the effort to translate something of the inner experience to those on the outside. In truth, no words can fully capture the felt sense of insight, but such is the challenge of this approach.

And so …

Recently, while sitting meditatively on a bench in the Baylands Nature Reserve, I was taken by the uniqueness of each blade of Pampas grass, each American Avocet and Great Blue Heron, each cloud formation, and, of course, each human being along the trail.

More than just an understanding that they were each unique, I felt their uniqueness. I experienced a present awareness of this defining quality of the natural world of which we are all part.

I recall thinking that, when Ralph Waldo Emerson asked the question, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe…?” (Emerson, Nature) it must have been in the wake of just such an awareness of the uniqueness of the natural world.

At that moment, a broader meaning of Rabbi Greenberg’s three fundamental dignities and their relationship to one another was revealed. I intuited that the three fundamental dignities applied not only to human beings, but to all of nature, both as a whole, and with respect to each of its constituent parts (macro, micro, atomic, sub-atomic, etc.).

This pervasive sense of the uniqueness of nature led me to two considerations: The first being that, while we can compare one element of the natural world with another – for example, one could ask whether one animal moves more quickly or slowly than another – such comparisons only serve to feed the human fascination with taxonomies. More importantly, they do not impute value; rather, it comes from the individual making the comparison, informed by their own conditioned sense of what is ‘better’ and what is ‘worse.’ Put simply, there is no hierarchy of value between unique things.

Secondly, because each unique aspect of the natural universe is, by definition, the only instantiation of its kind, it can never be replaced. This quality of uniqueness assigns infinite value to all of nature. Once we realize that all of nature is infinitely valuable, it then follows that each aspect is also therefore equally as valuable as the other.

Put simply, the three fundamental dignities should be formulated thus: Because of uniqueness, therefore infinite value, thus equality.

In this realization one is confronted with a defining question: How should we behave in relation to the natural universe, the constituent parts of which are all infinitely valuable? Any answer must begin with a commitment to living our lives in a manner that honors the uniqueness of all of nature which, of course, includes our fellow human beings. Herein lies the beginnings of a phenomenology of social justice.

There was something about the way I learned this truth on that day at the Baylands that was different. It changed my understanding, and it also changed me. Pursuing justice is no longer just an abstract idea, it is now an experience that demands action.

It is my belief that, if each human being were to have a similar experience, they too would be transformed and together we could establish a redeemed world defined by justice.

So, how do we get there?

The good news is that there have been a number of developments in the American Jewish community over the course of the past half century that suggest an increasing interest in, and exposure to, approaches that emphasize spiritual transformation alongside intellectual edification. The Havurah and Renewal movements placed spiritually transformative experiences at the center of their work many decades ago. In addition, Jewish meditation has begun to make its way into schools, synagogues, and JCCs, and there are leadership development programs for Jewish professionals that do the same. There are also many, many books to read and lectures to attend or stream to help the seeker along the path. But there is much more yet to do.

For example, during my eight wonderful years studying in yeshivot in Israel and the United States, I recall very few opportunities to learn about the inner life and methods for cultivating spiritual practice. Institutions such as these need to introduce more opportunities for their talmidim and talmidot to deepen their spiritual lives. As mentioned above, there has been movement in Jewish day schools, but this work needs to become a much higher priority as they prepare the most engaged participants and future leaders in Jewish life. Foundations and Federations should allocate significant resources to supporting this work; including prioritizing spiritual development for their own board members, employees, and donors. And the list goes on.

To conclude: if the Jewish community is going play an increasingly meaningful role in bringing justice to the world, it is time to develop programs and methodologies that will help those who participate in Jewish life to cultivate transformative spiritual experiences that will leave them with no choice but to act. Otherwise, we will continue to understand the need for justice, but fail to feel it and thus act upon it. May it be our will …

Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, Ph.D., was ordained in 2005 and completed his doctorate in 2014. He currently serves as Head of School at Kehillah Jewish High School, in Palo Alto, CA. He is the author of Hybrid Judaism: Irving Greenberg, Encounter, and the Changing Nature of American Jewish Identity (Academic Studies Press, 2016).