Reintegrating Judaism

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

By Jill Jacobs

In a 1970 manifesto, Jews for Urban Justice declared, “The Jewish people is not political, or religious, or cultural, or economic, or familial. It is political-religious-cultural-economic- familial. What characterized its peoplehood best, at its best moments, was the principle of halakhah: the Way, the Path; a wholeness and fusion of body, mind, and spirit; of action and ideology; of person and community.” The group went on to lament that the American Jewish community, over the past fifty years, has experienced an “oppression so subtle and so debilitating that it has felt to many Jews like victory,” namely, the splitting of these essential components of Jewish peoplehood from one another.[1]

The growth of the Jewish social justice sector over the past two decades represents an attempt to remedy this unnatural split, which remains present in much of Jewish communal life.

Jews have long defied categorization. Famously, the conditions of emancipation under Napoleon required the Jewish community to revoke any claim to national identity. Yet, in the late nineteenth century, even European Jews who converted to Christianity discovered that the rise in racialized anti-Semitism precluded their best efforts to blend in. And despite rhetoric about America’s “Judeo-Christian tradition,” neither Judaism as a whole, nor Judaism in the United States, has ever primarily been defined in terms of faith, as Christianity is. Rather, the tongue-in-cheek term “Member of the Tribe” may be most apt, as a description of a people with religious traditions, sacred books, shared history and language, ethnic and cultural traditions.

Yet, too often, the multiple parts of Jewish identity have existed in different realms: religion happens in synagogue on Saturday, and social justice takes place on Sunday at protests or at the food bank. A widespread perception holds that being a “religious” Jew means keeping kosher and observing Shabbat, but not necessarily paying workers a living wage or supporting health care for all people.

As a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late nineties and early 2000s, I started researching and writing about halakha on issues such as labor, housing, and criminal justice. I quickly found myself deep in the writings of Jewish thinkers and legal experts, ranging from the ancient rabbis of the Talmud through the authors of modern teshuvot (response), who saw civil law as an integral part of halakha, and the obligation to create a better world as essential to being a Jew. And yet, when I spoke about my commitment to being a Conservative rabbi who worked on social justice, I too often heard, “That’s a Reform thing,” or “Why don’t you go to law school instead.” Secular Jews involved in justice work sometimes expressed surprise or suspicion that a religious Jew would engage in progressive politics.

Thankfully, I rarely hear these reactions today. The move toward what I have termed “integrated Judaism,”[2] includes a significantly greater involvement of traditionally observant Jews in justice work, increased interest in halakha on issues of civil law, the use of Jewish ritual within social justice organizations and activities, and concerted efforts to bring engagement with the world into synagogue life.

At the same time, there is a backlash that threatens this integration, and that also threatens to split the Jewish community as a whole. From the right and center right, this backlash most often takes two forms: 1) The assertion that “politics” do not belong in the synagogue, and 2) the defining of “Jewish interests” narrowly as the physical self- preservation of Jews. From the far left, the backlash most often involves the invalidation within certain progressive spaces of Jews who consider themselves Zionist/pro-Israel, and a lack of expressed concern for the physical well-being of Jews in Israel. Each of these positions leads to the fissure in Jewish identity of which Jews for Urban Justice warned.

Torah and politics

As the head of an organization that mobilizes rabbis and cantors, I hear often from clergy whose congregants complain that “politics has no place on the bima.” This position restricts the role of a rabbi to talking about ritual matters. But neither the Torah nor the millennia of commentary that followed restrict themselves to ritual. Rather, the Torah – and the whole of Jewish law – attempt to create a sacred community that insists on the dignity and equality of every single person. Insofar as “political” relates to the polis – how people live together – the Torah is inherently political. The moment Noah and his family step off the ark to reestablish human society, God commands them not to murder, and gives further instruction that the rabbis of the Talmud understand as mandating the establishment of a legal system. Immediately following the revelation at Mount Sinai, God specifies a series of laws that primarily relate to ethical and just relations between people – including torts, the treatment of vulnerable populations (widows, orphans and gerim – non-Jewish members of the community), loans, and the care of the poor.

Political does not mean partisan, of course. That is, Jewish law does not mandate whom to support or oppose in an election, but does have a voice in teaching us how to build a more just society. And despite claims that one could cherry pick from Jewish sources to defend any position, the overwhelming force of halakha pushes toward a system that attempts to reduce inequality, ensure that the basic needs of all people are met, and create the most justice for the largest number of people.

The selfpreservation of Jewsand its absence

The second danger – both on the left and the right – stems from the assumption that one must choose between the preservation of Jewish bodies and a commitment to Jewish moral behavior. On the right, this most often entails defending Israeli governmental policy, even when this policy violates the human rights of Palestinians, and even extends to physically threatening or inciting against progressive Jews. On the left, this assumption most often involves disregarding the physical safety of Israeli Jews, sometimes to the point of rationalizing or excusing violence against them.

Both of these positions presume a false distinction between the physical and the moral well-being of the Jewish community. That illusory bifurcation threatens the possibility of a reintegrated approach to Jewish life. If we give up our moral conscience and abstain from engaging real life in the polis, then we allow the ethnic or “familial” part of Jewish identity to crowd out the others. While the physical survival of the Jewish people is obviously necessary, it is insufficient if we abandon our moral core. Yet if we devalue the physical well-being of Jewish bodies, then we trivialize the suffering of individuals and hide from the dangers of violent anti-Semitism (at our peril). Either approach endangers both Jews and Judaism.

The reintegration of Jewish identity and practice – a peoplehood that is “political-religious-cultural-economic-familial – depends on reclaiming our traditional self-understanding as articulated in the Torah and halakha, and refusing to abandon a single aspect of this multi-faceted identity.

[1] “The Oppression and Liberation of the Jewish People in America” (1970) in Jack Nusan Porter and Peter Dreier, ed., Jewish Radicalism: A Selected Anthology (New York: Grove Press, 1973)

[2] Jacobs, Jill, There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition (Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2009) 1-8

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah, which mobilizes 2000 North American rabbis and cantors, together with their communities, to protect and advance human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories.