Using Text to Transform Our Work

By Tyler Dratch and Shira M. Zemel

Last winter in Reform congregations across the country, groups came together to discuss the movement’s resolutions about reparations for the descendent of slaves and the opioid crisis, among others, using not only academic articles and media reports, but also Jewish texts. At L’Taken, Reform Judaism’s social justice seminar, 2,000 teens use texts from across generations to paint a vision for a more equitable and compassionate economic system. In congregations’ social justice committees, texts engender conversations about issues of deep concern, turning that passion into meaningful organizing practices. Justice in the Reform Movement has been jumping right off our bookshelves and onto the streets.

In partnership with Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) has been able to build on its long tradition of grounding transformative social justice activism in our rich textual tradition. We have had the opportunity to provide text resources to our movement and to think deeply about the way Jewish text should inform justice work. For a movement that has always delved deeply into the Jewish literary tradition, we look to Jewish texts in an expansive way that helps us organize communities, inspire action, and spark our moral imagination.

Engaging with a 3,000-year-old tradition is not always easy. Here are some of the things we have learned:

  1. Texts open conversations: Jewish texts are not meant to be the final word on a political opinion or policy proposal. Rather, the texts challenge us to justify our perspective by confronting our underlying values. In a time when much of the political discourse centers around which candidates are most “electable” or which policy can override a senate filibuster, Jewish texts allow us to ask more spiritually nourishing questions: How should power be distributed equitably? What does it look like, sound like, and feel like when the most vulnerable among us are cared for? In studying Jewish texts, we broaden our viewpoints and strengthen our understanding.
  1. Jewish texts are about the real world: The authors of our texts were interpreting the Torah as a means to understand their world. We’ve witnessed young students realize how an ancient text can be brought directly into conversation with our world today. We teach students about the Citizens United v. FCC decision and then they read Genesis 16, which warns of the ability for money to corrupt power. When looking at Exodus 22, which discusses what to do when someone enters your home at night, our students began a conversation about police violence and the Botham Jean murder, that had occurred not long before the conference. We read these texts with the hope that they might touch our hearts and give us a lens through which to understand our world.
  1. Everyone has something to offer: One does not need to be a rabbi to examine texts and tap into their deep meanings. The individuals who wrote the texts were grappling with the same moral questions with which we all continue to struggle. We each can ask ourselves what emotions and reactions the text brings up for us. The text becomes a mirror, reflecting back our deepest truths more clearly.
  1. We glean meaning from texts that seem foreign: When studying the Jewish tradition about gun violence prevention, we were drawn to a Talmudic discussion about carrying weapons on Shabbat. Most Reform Jews do not restrict what they carry on Shabbat, and at first we worried that this text might not resonate with our communities. Instead, we see that when people read texts like this they are still able to enter the world of this practice. There is no such thing as Reform Torah or Orthodox Torah; it is one Torah with seventy faces; endless interpretations each time we turn it.
  1. We can be angry at our texts: Jewish texts were written over many centuries by individuals from different cultures. Therefore, at times, we feel frustrated and alienated from texts that promote sexism, racism, or other forms of oppression. When we allow ourselves space to feel and express these frustrations while keeping in mind the historical and cultural contexts of the texts, we create space to glean new meaning from them. Cultivating a combination of love and righteous anger shows that the authors of the text are part of Jewish family, and that we should hold them to a high standard.
  1. Texts bring us together: As the world responds to new trends and the influx of new technology, we have found that studying Jewish texts together remains a contemplative practice that brings people in proximity to each other, connecting about our greatest hopes and fears. Organizers ask the question: “What keeps you up at night?” Jews gather around texts to ask the same question, finding ways to support each other. The RAC’s Commission on Social Action recently gathered to study a sugya from the Talmud discussing the importance of building safety nets that will protect vulnerable people, as smaller fish need protection from larger fish (BT, Avodah Zara 4a.) Gathering around texts will continue to bring us together and inspire collective action.
  1. Jewish texts root us and give us strength: Two thousand high school students come to Washington, D.C. each year for L’Taken to engage like modern day prophets, carrying their tradition with them into the halls of Congress, raising their moral voices. Through text study these students feel rooted and connected to their Jewish story: to know that they bring with them Abraham the idol smasher, Shifrah and Puah who defied Pharoah’s decree and Hillel who articulated all of Torah in the statement, “What is hateful to you do not do to others.” Our Jewish wisdom brings us strength, knowing that for thousands of years our people have been thinking about a just society.

Throughout the RAC’s history, we have learned that drawing from texts allows us to speak powerfully with the weight of our tradition’s unique language. Today, we look around us and see racial and economic injustices magnified due to the COVID-19 pandemic and communities across the world peacefully protesting to affirm the humanity of black lives. We know we will continue to look to our textual tradition to guide our path forward. We hope all, in our movement and beyond, find ways for the beit midrash to inspire the pursuit of justice.

Tyler Dratch was the 2019-2020 Torah, Text, and Tradition Coordinator at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, MA.

Shira M. Zemel is the Director of Youth Leadership Development at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a longtime member of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.