Social Justice and Reform Judaism

by Rabbi Jared H. Saks

In November 1885, a group of Reform rabbis held a gathering in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that birthed a document that would come to be known as the Pittsburgh Platform. This platform was the first of four platforms of the Reform Movement, each of which made a declaration about our religious observance as Reform Jews and what it meant to live a Jewish life as a Reform Jew. Each platform aims to encapsulate Reform Jewish life in its day and to create a vision of our tradition for the future. The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform and the subsequent platforms, drafted in 1937, 1976, and 1999, can be read in their entirety here. By reading each of these documents, we can begin to see the arc of Reform Jewish theology and practice over the course of our movement’s history in the United States. I would encourage you to peruse each of document, but right now, I want to highlight one of the central tenets of our tradition and its prominence in each of these platforms.

In 1885, the founders of American Reform Judaism wrote, “In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.” Half a century later, in 1937, their successors wrote, “Judaism seeks the attainment of a just society by the application of its teachings to the economic order, to industry and commerce, and to national and international affairs. It aims at the elimination of man-made misery and suffering, of poverty and degradation, of tyranny and slavery, of social inequality and prejudice, of ill-will and strife. It advocates the promotion of harmonious relations between warring classes on the basis of equity and justice, and the creation of conditions under which human personality may flourish.”

While some of the language in these documents is either too formal or too archaic for our age, the message is timeless. Reform Judaism stands for the establishment of a more just society and views that work as a religious obligation. When the founders of Reform Judaism distanced themselves from the traditional rituals of Judaism, such as keeping kashrut, wearing tallitot and kippot, and observing other ritual obligations, they reemphasized our religious moral obligation to be God’s presence in the world and to make the world a more just place.

These values were reiterated in the subsequent platforms as well. In the 1976 Centenary Perspective, our rabbis reemphasized the role that action and deed play in living a Jewish life, especially as “the means by which we strive to achieve universal justice and peace.” When the secular millennium was drawing to a close, our leaders made this responsibility even more clear when they wrote, “We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of God’s creation. Partners with God in tikkun olam, repairing the world, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age. We seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, freedom, and justice to our world. We are obligated to pursue tzedek, justice and righteousness, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage. In so doing, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.”

Reform Judaism’s theology rests on the prophetic messages of the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah. Each of them though addressed Jewish leadership and a Jewish populace in their messages, calling the people to build a more just society. In his Mandate for Social Justice, Rabbi David Saperstein, former director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism writes, “As Jews, we have an historic mandate to be advocates for social justice. It is almost as though this mandate is part of the Jewish genetic makeup. But how does our tradition suggest we apply our Jewish values to the non-Jewish world around us?” Rabbi Saperstein then turns to classical texts of our tradition, which guide us in our obligation not only to make our own community more just, but the world around us in which we live as well. The Jerusalem Talmud teaches us that in a place where Jews and non-Jews live together, Jews have an obligation to support both the Jewish and the non-Jewish poor, because this promotes peace, and the pursuit of peace is one of our obligations.

This embodiment of Jewish values, engaging in justice work, is one of the first ways that I learned to live and love Judaism. I grew up in a congregation with a rabbi some of you know, Rabbi Joel Soffin, who made social action a cornerstone of my congregation’s Jewish practice. But even before that, I think, justice work was written in my DNA. I grew up hearing stories of my great-great-grandmother who used to place bags of groceries on her back stoop so that those in need in her neighborhood could come and take without embarrassment. And I learned a bit of the story of Rabbi Joachim Prinz who, through his tenure at Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, New Jersey, became my mother’s family’s rabbi, officiating at the weddings of my grandparents, my great aunt and great uncle, my aunt and uncle, my parents, and probably more family members.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz was born in 1902 in the tiny village of Burkhardsdorf, Upper Silesia, in Germany. His family was the only Jewish family in a village of 900 people. He was part of an assimilated German Jewish family with roots in Germany for centuries. After his mother died following the birth of his sister, Joachim Prinz’s relationship with his father became more challenging. His rebellion was to pursue a PhD in philosophy and then go on to receive rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminar in Breslau. When he was twenty-four years old, he was invited to become the rabbi of the Freidenstempel (the Peace Synagogue) in Berlin. By 1933, Rabbi Prinz was one of the most renowned rabbis in Berlin, if not in all of Germany. He addressed the dangers of Nazism. Having grown up in rural Germany, he understood that Hitler was not a passing fad, but the result of anti-Semitism that was “an ingrained fact of life across much of the country.”[1] Early in Hitler’s rise to power, Prinz urged fellow Jews to flee the country. He, however, remained, until in 1937, for reasons he would never know, his life was spared, and he was expelled from Germany. He and his family emigrated to the United States, sponsored by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. After two years of speaking engagements, Rabbi Prinz accepted a position at Temple B’nai Abraham then in Newark, New Jersey, where he served as rabbi until 1977.

One of the most recorded moments of his rabbinate was his participation in the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, where he spoke just before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his I Have a Dream speech. Prinz remarked:

As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea.

“As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience — one of the spirit and one of our history.

“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.

“From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say:

Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe. Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation.

“It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

It is because of these values, the ones espoused by our movement’s founders one-and-a-third centuries ago, the ones reiterated by our movement throughout its history, and the ones embodied in the actions of Reform Jews both lay and professional, that I am proud to be a Reform Jew. Jewish holidays and ritual are the means by which I remind myself of the sacred obligation that I have to repair the world. At the High Holy Days, I reflect on my failures of justice. At Tu BiSh’vat, I plant seeds that renew my drive to repair the world. At Purim and Passover, I remember the oppressors we’ve overcome, confident that we can do it again. And at Shavuot, I recommit myself to the message of Torah and to being God’s agent in the world.

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn in as the next president and vice president of the United States. That day will be for me not just an important moment in American history, but a pivotal moment in American Jewish life. We’ve had to overcome a lot over these past four years and regardless of whom you supported, we can all recognize that there’s a lot of work to be done to repair our nation and the world. Inauguration day will be for me not only a moment to welcome in, God willing, a new era of justice, righteousness, and compassion, but a religious moment that reminds me of my sacred obligation to repair the world.


[1] http://www.joachimprinz.com/biography.htm

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

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