The Peoplehood Papers 21:
Social Justice and Peoplehood

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

By Shlomi Ravid

In recent decades, particularly in North America, pursuing social justice and Tikun Olam has become central to the Jewish conversation. This quiet revolution reflects a transformation of the Jewish collective ethos shifting focus from the wellbeing of the Jewish People to its contribution to society and humanity at large – from particularism to universalism. This collection of essays examines the development of Jewish social justice through the collective prism. When does it go beyond the values held by individuals, and become an expression of a Jewish collective ethos? Is that defined by the constitutive values of Judaism and Jewishness? How can we explain in historical terms the recent growth of the field? How does it connect to today’s Jewish ethos? How much is it a byproduct of a changing ethos, the force behind that change, or both?

While the growing emphasis on social justice in North America is very clear and can be explained as part of a search for a “covenant of destiny,” the story in Israel is different. As a society still driven by a more particularistic “covenant of fate,” and facing existential challenges, the State’s approach to social justice is at times compromised. This creates both internal challenges among Israelis torn between their commitment to social justice and to the State, but also to the global sense of Peoplehood. The tension between particularism and universalism in the Jewish collective ethos threatens Jewish unity and the sense of a shared destiny. Some of the articles in this collection focus on this challenge that is crucial to the future of Jewish Peoplehood.

In trying to better understand the nature of the current Jewish drive for social justice, its meaning, purpose and challenges we divided the articles into three main groups:

  1. Articles that wrestle with the broader question of Peoplehood and social justice.
  2. Articles that focus on specific dimensions or issues of the Jewish social justice field.
  3. Articles that address Israel’s challenges on the social justice front.

Peoplehood and Social Justice

Jill Jacobs proposes an approach to Peoplehood that integrates Jewish commitment to social justice with a responsibility to the survival of the Jewish people. In her words “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.”

Abby Levine writes from the perspective of the Director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable – a network of 57 Jewish organizations engaged in social justice work. Their work in her words, is based on “… a Jewish tradition that says: Remember the stranger. Care for the widow and the orphan. Treat employees fairly. Heal the world. Pursue Justice. A tradition that teaches us not only how people ought to treat each other one-on-one, but also demands that we collectively imagine and work towards a vision of a truly just and fair society for all. We, the field of Jewish social justice, believe in and work for the systematic transformation of our communities, our cities, our states, our country, and the world.”

Mordechai Liebling calls for creating a Jewish Theology of Liberation. “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.” Liebling calls for its collective creation: “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.”

Ruth Messinger lays down the foundations for global Jewish responsibility. She concludes: “We must pursue justice at home, in our own communities, in our own country, in Israel, and throughout the world. Before millions starve in East Africa, land is stolen in Guatemala or new violence erupts in Myanmar, we, as Jews, motivated by text, by tradition, and by history, must heed the call to accept responsibility, to act, and to protest these transgressions. This is how we take up our role, fulfill our obligations and help to heal the world. This is what we do to create a world of greater equity and justice and to encourage others to join with us each day to work for the good of the entire globe.”

Jonathan Schorsch offers a compelling explanation of the role social justice plays in current day Peoplehood. “Jewish Peoplehood … at its most basic it refers to the idea that Jews hold or should hold feelings of shared identity with one another. Without substantive values that make up this shared togetherness, however, it does not have compelling meaning. Social justice, a powerful modern ethical-political concept, offers the idea of Jewish peoplehood just such a compelling set of positive values, often rooted in Torah and rabbinic Judaism, which can bind individuals and communities around something, meaningful and productive.” He then addresses some of its challenges and recommends a holistic approach that integrates Peoplehood with other dimensions of life.

Issues and Challenges

Cherie Brown notes that “there have been many historic moments of cooperation in the U.S. between Jews and groups targeted by racism, particularly people of Black African heritage. Over time, Black Gentiles and Jews have come to recognize that they have many experiences of oppression that link our peoples in a common struggle for social justice… But there have also been too many moments of mistrust and division between Jewish people and Black African heritage people on both personal and political levels.” She shares insight from vast experience of working with young people on the intersection of racism and anti-Semitism, and how to avoid them.

Darren Kleinberg wrestles with the challenge of going beyond the intellectual understanding of the value of social justice to the development of a proactive approach. He finds the answer in spiritual engagement which he proposes to nurture. Or in his own concluding words: “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.”

Nigel Savage writes about Jewish tradition and the crises of environmental sustainability as both a unique challenge and opportunity. His conclusion is:” I hope and pray that, as each year goes by, we learn our tradition more deeply; we deepen our sense of being part of the Jewish people, with unique gifts to share in the world; we address environmental challenges more directly; we see the actual and potential significance of Israel through fresh eyes; and so we thus, in aggregate, add a new chapter to the history of the Jewish people. This is what it is to take Torah from Zion out into the world – making a better world for everyone, and in so doing also strengthening Jewish life and the Jewish people. Kein yehi ratzon.”

Sid Schwarz offers a micro perspective on social activism. The moving story of  his congregation Adat Shalom’s involvement with the NICL school in Haiti, exemplifies a true commitment to social justice and the core belief that even against enormous odds there is always something you can do to improve the world. Schwarz concludes with a warm recommendation to Jewish institutions to build these kinds of hands-on service missions into their year-round programming both as true expressions of Jewish valuesbut also as a means to building a meaningful, empowered and cohesive community.

The Israel Challenges

Yair Assulin opens his article dramatically with the assertion that “in the end, you understand that, more than anything, so much of what happens now in Israel – how we think, speak, love, hate – is a result of the occupation.” And yet towards the end the article takes a twist: “And thus, you suddenly understand that the occupation is not a political issue after all. It is in fact a question of whether you support Israel, that is to say, whether you support a society that asks hard questions, wants to understand, and is committed to moral values. Do you support an ethical Israel that believes that all persons have value, by virtue of their simple humanity? Do you support a society in which the Jewish discourse is not reduced to spiritualist kitsch but is translated into action?” To Assulin it is all about morality which “cannot be contained by fences or walls. Like the wind, it is boundless. And everything is connected.”

Aryeh Cohen defines himself as a Peoplehood “skeptic.” In his view Israel’s seventy-year occupation, treatment of its Palestinian minority and asylum seekers lead to the conclusion that: “the State that claims to be the Jewish State is not interested in a vigorous pursuit of Social Justice.” Adding to that 30% of American Jews that supported Trump and the lack of criticism of the occupation among North America Jews he concludes: “there is no special affinity for Jewish people towards social justice. The Jewish people is like everybody else.”

To Ed Rettig, Aryeh Cohen’s article suffers from unintelligibility. Its “soft moral relativism” that cannot accept the legitimacy of alternative interpretations of social justice, is what makes it unintelligible. For Rettig “the argument that Social Justice is a central pillar of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood stands on a firm basis of intelligibility. In this, it is like talk of God, of the prohibition of theft or sermonizing against adultery. We may disagree on how to develop these pillars of our civilizational thought and how to realize them in practical terms. But how can we avoid these – and other foundational components like them, monotheism, or brit, for example – if we are to speak of contemporary Judaism as anything meaningful?”

Micha Odenheimer shares what he calls “a crisis of faith in Jewish nationalism” he is experiencing, triggered by Israel’s treatment of the African asylum seekers. His conclusion is that “the era of Zionist piety, in which the state itself is seen as not just necessary, but as righteous and good, is over. Instead the state must be seen as an arena – the maina arena – in which the struggle for Jewish ethics, for the soul of the Jewish people, is taking place. And in this struggle, the hard to define, easy to malign concept of Jewish Peoplehood will play a decisive role.” At the end of the day Micha still believes that “the People of Israel, who, if not prophets, are the sons and daughters of prophets” will prevail.

Dana Talmi and Max Klau challenge the assumption that young Jews “… must choose between being progressive and loving Israel.” They propose that “… a service experience in Israel provides a path that transcends this kind of binary, either/ or choice.” Their observation of the the Yahel service program emphasizes that point: “Again, and again, we see our participants emerge from this experience having discovered a way to integrate a foundational commitment to progressive values with an intense, informed, and sophisticated love of Israel and Judaism.”

The articles in this collection are intended to shed some light and inspire conversations on how pursuing social justice figures in the broader context of the current and future Jewish ethos. On one hand it offers the Jewish people a meaningful, significant and inspiring collective mission. On the other it exposes deep internal disagreements on the essence of the Jewish enterprise. This is a crucial conversation to the future of Jewish peoplehood, which we hope this collection of essays will advance.

We would like to thank our friends at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable for their assistance in putting this collection of essays together.

Dr. Shlomi Ravid is Executive Director of The Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and Editor of The Peoplehood Papers.