By Jonathan Schorsch
Rebbe Simha Bunim of Przyscha said to his hasidim: “He among you who is concerned with nothing but love is a philanderer; he who is nothing but devout is a thief; he who is nothing but clever is an unbeliever. Only he who has all these gifts together can serve God as he should” (quoted in Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, 2:250; a slightly different version appears in Michael Rosen, The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim, 184-85).
Jewish peoplehood, a secular version of a notion with ancient and theological roots, means various things to various people. 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.
Calls to social justice are not as straightforward as they may seem, however. A tension seems to characterize social justice language among Jews today. It often invokes biblical or rabbinic concepts as sources or inspirations, while simultaneously seeking to transcend what is perceived to be their obsolete or repugnant setting. For instance, the biblical call to defend the powerless is extracted from the system that believes this is commanded by God, the notion of cyclical debt cancellation and rest for the land is extracted from a system that sees this as a practice for Israelites/Jews and their particular country.
Some understandings of social justice even seem to stand at odds with particularistic, collective identity itself. Nonetheless, social justice offers a vital, essential complement to the non-political components of personal and collective life that have traditionally bound Jews, such as community, spirituality, ritual, customs and something beyond anthropocentrism.
Social justice as an organizing principle has proven to be particularly attractive to Jewish leaders, foundations and administrators who seek to provide coherence and inspiration to Jewish communities and individual Jews buffeted by the changes brought on by modernity. For many Jews, religion and ethnic customs have lost much of their power. In the face of assimilation, acculturation and disaffection, it is not clear that Jewish culture, secular Judaism or “Jewishness” connect Jews with one another and with their Jewishness or Judaism effectively or long-term. At the same time, Zionism has become for many a narrow Israel-first creed and a bastion of nationalism, if not supremacism. One of the responses to Emancipation as a religious-ethnic minority was the adoption of universalist causes. Thus, Jews were often heavily represented in the wider, secular, often universalist campaigns that came to be understood as comprising what is now called social justice (bundism, feminism, anti-racism, etc.).
Social justice in the Jewish world mirrors the way it has developed historically in the larger world. It has channeled people’s dissatisfaction with the often-narrow worldview of Judaism, served as a secular substitute for religious drives toward righteousness, yet also provided avenues for living out the idealist, radical and even utopian (messianic) vision of Torah in its widest sense. In many ways social justice has made Judaism relevant and inspiring again. Its ability to galvanize individuals and groups toward caring and engagement cannot be overstated.
Two troubling aspects of social justice can interfere with a healthy sense of peoplehood, however. Social justice is usually understood to be universalist, egalitarian, secular and rationalist. This sometimes means that social justice advocates ignore, dismiss or attack Jews who value God, tradition, specific forms of communal structure, concentric identity that moves from Jewishness outward, for example. This seems self-defeating.
Another disturbing and disappointing aspect of the current decline of the Left – in general, but no less true among Jews or in Israel – is its inability to connect to the population at large, perhaps even a disinterest in doing so, the result of a persistent Avant Garde mentality, i.e., we elite few know what’s best for everyone. For social justice to work effectively, alliances must be forged that include those who aren’t atheist, queer or anti-capitalist.
Still another limitation of social justice as a collective glue needs to be mentioned. In its modern, political, mostly secular form, social justice shares in the rationalist, materialist, instrumentalist worldview of Western modernity. This is the worldview (especially if we include Communism) that has produced the worst genocides the world has ever known, dehumanizes people in routine and daily ways, their work and lives, and is the primary culprit behind the destruction of the planetary environment. At its most extreme, social justice language whittles down the human being to a one-dimensionality that seems to leave no room for spirit, ritual, transcendence, traditional customs, the more-than-human. Judaism without humanitarian politics may be often ungodly, but politics alone even humanitarian politics, seems differently disabling.
If peoplehood is empty, if not dangerous, without the moderating values of self-critique, openness and compassion, social justice as a substitute for Judaism excises much that is not only valuable, but perhaps essential. Neither social justice, traditional religion nor peoplehood alone forges a whole person who thinks holistically, who can bring into dialogue the multiple strands of ourselves, community heritages and political and scientific advances, who understands humanity to be a part of the more-than-human world, who understands that collective evolution/revolution and inner, personal evolution/revolution only lead us somewhere better when accompanying one another. The dire crises we face today include rising authoritarianism, the intentional erosion of human rights (which we might name the forgetting of the concept of tzelem elohim), terrible and unjust economic inequality and global environmental collapse (a case of ignoring the widest interpretation of tzelem elohim). Only collectives that nurture people who do not compartmentalize the different sides of their world and their own selves will be producing the kinds of individuals who will more likely produce healthy, beneficent and sustainable societies. In accord with the surprising and radical teaching of Reb Simha Bunim with which I began, we need individuals and peoples who have a mature identity, who understand their own internal plurality as the most potent source of understanding, strength and energy.
Jonathan Schorsch serves as Professor of Jewish Religious and Intellectual History at the Universität Potsdam (Germany) and is founder and Director of the Jewish Activism Summer School.