Intersectional Justice and Intersectional Peoplehood: A Shmita Vision for Jewish Identity Education

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Robin Moss

What might sustainability have to do with Jewish peoplehood? As well as the obvious answer – namely that sustainability is a necessarily collective endeavor (at least if it is to move beyond the ineffectual or the tokenistic) – I wish to propose a deeper answer. It seems to me that peoplehood, like sustainability, has to be intersectional, and I believe that the values of shmita might help us to understand this better.

In the Book of Leviticus[1], in the midst of a host of other commandments about how people should treat one another, we read that every seven years, there will be a year of shmita (release), today usually called a sabbatical year. It is described as a “Shabbat for the land” and is linked to yet another cycle of seven, the 49th (or 50th) year, the yovel (Jubilee).

Further elaborations in Deuteronomy give us three clear actions to be undertaken during shnat shmita (the shmita year):

  1. Letting the land [of Israel] lie fallow
  2. Release of slaves
  3. Erasure of debts

(Shnat yovel [the jubilee year] is even more radical, involving the transfer back to its original owner of all land and perhaps of all property. The rabbis managed to find a way to circumvent yovel, perhaps terrified of its revolutionary potential…)

What a fascinating trio of actions! I want to highlight two important aspects of them. Firstly, they map neatly onto three core conceptions of justice. The fallow land is related to environmental justice, the idea that we must think of our impact on the world around us as well as on other people. The release of slaves is a form of social justice, because power relations between people can cause potential injustice. The erasure of debts is part of economic justice, the imperative for us to ensure that money and commerce aids, rather than hampers, fairness in society. Shnat shmita, at least in its biblical understanding, forces us to see that justice has (at least) three sides to it.

Secondly, the genius of the shmita vision is that it says that only when all three of these actions are carried out – only at the intersection of these three kinds of justice – can there be a real, holy sense that we are living out our Jewish values. Releasing slaves is important, but ignores the oppressive nature of debt. Giving land the time to recover from human agriculture is virtuous, but only if one also confronts the effects of an unjust social order as well. Even focusing on two of the three is not enough: without a way to free people of debt periodically, people will continue to be enslaved (literally or figuratively) by those who have accumulated money and property (often, those with land – hence the need to let that land lie fallow). If we give the land a rest and erase debts, but ignore the plight of slaves, we seem to offer no hope to the socially disempowered that after the shmita year, it will not just be “business as usual.” And finally, as crucial as attending to the needs of people and the economy are, if we ignore the land (more generally, the environment), we will quickly find its degradation will cause humans a multitude of problems.

This shmita intersectionality is all the more remarkable for anticipating, by thousands of years, contemporary understandings of sustainable development. Consider the following graphic from Wikipedia (picked because it is free to share, in keeping with the values of shmita):


This is from the article on sustainability, and reflects the post-Brundtland Report consensus that sustainable development occurs at the intersection of social justice, environmental protection and a fair economic system. Perhaps Brundtland should have just read her Bible!

The insight offered by shmita into the true nature of sustainability can be mapped onto work in the area of Jewish peoplehood. There are a number of possible trios that could take the place of social, environmental and economic. I am thinking about:

  1. Personal, communal, national – much work in Jewish peoplehood programming focuses on getting Jews to consider their own Jewish identity, how that identity interacts with their community and then, on the largest scale, how it is part of a national Jewish collective identity. This was certainly the way that my Zionist youth movement educated me when I was growing up.
  2. People, land, state – many programs, particularly those that take Jews to Israel itself, try to build a sense of the Jewish collective, of the Jewish connection to place (to the Land of Israel specifically, though sometimes also the particular Jewish histories of other places) and to the actual political entity that is the State of Israel. My experience is that Birthright is premised on this model of education.
  3. Past, present, future – conceptually, other programs try to build an individual’s connection to the Jewish past, and then show them the reality of the Jewish present before inviting them to be part of a Jewish future. This is perhaps the framing of March of the Living, for example.

And there is likely many other possible schema.

It should be immediately obvious what the intersectionality insight enables us to understand in these cases. A true appreciation for Jewish peoplehood requires one to engage, in each of the above triplets, with all three simultaneously in order to truly grasp the power of the peoplehood proposition. To take the example of the first: a Jewish identity that is solely inward-looking is narcissism; a Jewish identity that finds its expression exclusively within a particular Jewish community is self-limiting; and a Jewish identity that is only collective will never have the resilience to thrive through periods when individual convictions clash with the needs or actions of the nation. And even any pair will not be enough. Surely one of the lasting legacies of the Zionist revolution is that few modern Jews could imagine Judaism without a national identity. Similarly, those who associate with their community and the nation, but neglect to reflect upon what this means to them as individuals, will often find them in a values dilemma very quickly, and disengage. Finally, while I suppose you could conceive of the Jew with an individual and a national identity, but who felt part of no community, it would seem strange and isolating. Judaism is so intrinsically tied to notions of association with others – with family, minyan, chevruta, kehilla (community) etc.

The very best programming, then, must be intersectional. It must recognize that all three peoplehood elements are important and needs to work (by providing resources, content, texts, reflective spaces, experiences and conversations) to nurture all three at once. And I think there is one final point. Far too much programming in the area of peoplehood is siloed. For example, there is an entire ecosystem of young adult Jewish identity trips to Israel – Birthright being the most prominent example. But if we recognize that young adults are part of multiple social realities – family, university, locality, peer group, synagogue etc – why are there not (anywhere near as many) family educational trips to Israel? To take another example, when we teach young people Hebrew in the Diaspora, it is seen as a different “subject” (at least in most day schools and synagogues) to Jewish studies. Why are we separating linguistic identity from religious or ethnic Jewish identity? Only through intersectional programming – that is holistic, intentional and experiential – will we be able to inculcate a lived and living sense of Jewish peoplehood into the lives of Jews around the world.

So next time we are planning a program – a class, a trip, a seminar, or a curricula – perhaps we can think about within which trio of conceptual frameworks our Jewish peoplehood paradigm works. And then, just as the vision of intersectionality provided by shmita can illuminate a richer sense of sustainability, so too might it help us to conceive of an aspirational and inspirational educational vision for peoplehood.

[1] Shmita is first mentioned in Exodus 23, expanded upon in Leviticus 25 and further elaborated in Deuteronomy 15 and 31

Robin Moss works as the Israel Engagement Educator for UJIA, based in London. In this capacity, he supports youth movements, schools, chederim, student groups and other educators to translate their vision of Israel into engaging, compelling and outstanding programming. He is also a trustee of Liberal Judaism.