Social Justice at Bet Ha’am by Rabbi Jared Saks

December 22, 2015

10 Tevet 5776




In recent weeks, there has been dialogue within our congregation about our involvement in social justice causes. Our religious school students have had monthly tikkun olam programs, their parents have sought a deeper involvement in the issues of our day, and our congregation has lent its voice to some of the toughest issues of our time. With all of this, I felt it was important for you to hear from me, your rabbi, about why social justice and social action are key components of Jewish life at Congregation Bet Ha’am. Our movement has a long history of involvement in difficult social justice issues. As a rabbi and as a new parent, my deepest hope is that we play a role in leaving the world better for the next generation than it was handed to us by the generations that preceded us. My deepest concern is that we would silence our communal voice because an issue seems too political to tackle.


In the 1960s, the Reform Movement, in many ways, was outspoken on some of the most challenging and divisive issues of the day. Rabbi Alfred Landsberg, under whom I served as a youth advisor in New Jersey, was part of a network of local clergy, including the local Catholic priest, who knew where to refer women who needed safe abortions before they could be attained legally. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, our movement’s political arm, drafted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its board room with leaders of the Reform Movement and leaders of the NAACP. In 1965, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (now the Women of Reform Judaism) spoke out against the harassment of homosexuals, the only national Jewish organization to do so, and spoke in favor of decriminalizing sodomy between consenting adults. It is important that we be leaders, not followers on the issues of our day, just as our ancestors were for the issues of their day. The difficult issues of our time, no matter how political they become, from my rabbinic standpoint are religious issues.

I cannot imagine a full Reform Jewish life without social justice and social action. I include both of these terms because they imply different work and at some point in my rabbinic journey, a lay leader in the Boston area taught me about how important both are. He spoke of the two feet of Tikkun Olam (Repairing our World), the foot of tzedakah and the foot of tzedek. They are related words with similar meaning, yet intrinsically different. Deuteronomy 16:20 teaches, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof; Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Why is the word tzedek repeated when one utterance would have sufficed? The Rabbis teaches us that there are no extra words in the Torah, that every word is there for a reason, so there’s a reason that this word tzedek is repeated. One interpretation is that one utterance implies tzedakah and the other tzedek.


Now, what’s the difference between these two? At its core, both words come from the root tzadi-dalet-qof, which  means  ‘righteousness.’  Tzedakah is a righteous act.   We often erroneously translate this term as


charity, but unlike the Latin caritas, which is an act of kindness, tzedakah is a mitzvah; it is a commandment. At its most basic, tzedakah is gifts of money for the poor. Tzedakah is derived from the Biblical commandment of pe’ah, the obligation to leave the corners of the field for the poor. In the Mishnah, the rabbis teach that one who does not leave the corners of the field for the poor or the forgotten gleanings (leket) is actually robbing from the poor, so unlike charity, which is an optional act of kindness, tzedakah is required of us and if we do not participate, our tradition deems it as theft. This is based in the notion that everything we own actually belongs to God and that God designates a portion of what we have for the poor, so our not providing it to those in need is not only stealing from the poor, but also stealing from God. We see tzedakah today in canned food drives, in clothing drives, in collections of soccer equipment and swimming equipment and toiletries for people near and far. But a canned food drive or a winter coat drive will provide a meal for one person or a coat for one person right now, but it cannot solve why there are people who go hungry or cold each night. This is where tzedek comes in.


Tzedek is righteousness and in the model of the two feet of tikkun olam, it is the pursuit of those goals that will end the need for tzedakah. As we do the acts of tzedakah when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide for those in need, we have to also ask why people go hungry, why people are cold, why people are in need, and work to solve those problems so that the work of tzedakah becomes obsolete. In a recent meeting with Sunday school parents, I told the story of a village beside a river where the villagers witnessed people floating down river yelling for help and the villagers knew that there was a waterfall downstream. Quickly, they mobilized and created intricate systems of ropes and pulleys and lifesavers to get these people out of the river. In the midst of their work, one villager left the group and as he was leaving, his fellow citizens asked why he was abandoning them. He told them he wasn’t abandoning them; he was going upstream to figure out why people were falling in the river and how to prevent it. We can’t just hand out food and clothing. We have to ask why people need it.


This is where all tikkun olam, in my opinion, becomes political. Once we begin to ask why people go hungry, why people are cold, why people of a certain skin color or sexual orientation or religious background or socio-economic standing are treated differently than other members of society or why they have fewer or different opportunities than other citizens, and we seek to change those inequalities, we have to influence the political system that allows those inequalities to exist and sometimes to flourish. We can’t solve hunger by handing out boxes of macaroni and cheese. We have to also talk about General Assistance, why healthy food options are so much more expensive than junk food, and we have to influence our society, through the political sphere, to make those changes. If we really want to end injustice in our world, then we have to be willing not only to stand on the foot of tzedakah, the righteous acts of kindness, but also use the foot of tzedek, the righteous work that ends those evils in society, and make strides towards repairing our world. And while some causes are less controversial than others, all then become political. How do we decide whose political concerns are more important than someone else’s?


Four times in Reform Jewish history in America, our rabbis have issued a platform on where we stand and each time, they have indicated the centrality of tikkun olam in Reform Jewish theology. In the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, they evaluated the laws of Torah and saw many of them as antiquated and for a different place and time, but they wrote, “today we accept as binding only its moral laws,” teaching in particular that, “In full accordance with the spirit of 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.” In the 1937 Columbus Platform, our rabbis wrote, “Seeking God means to strive after holiness, righteousness and goodness. The love of God is incomplete without the love of one’s fellowmen,” and went on to say, “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.”


In the most recent platform in 1999, A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, our movement, with this time not only input from our rabbis, but from our laity, as well, 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 doing so, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.”


Social justice is a mandate of Reform Judaism, but not only that. It is a mandate of all Judaism. In the Jerusalem Talmud, we learn that we are to collect tzedakah for the Jewish poor and non-Jewish poor alike, mipnay darkei shalom, for the sake of peace. Our pursuit of justice in the non-Jewish realm is one of the ways that we can create peace in the world according to our tradition. I was studying with one of our Bat Mitzvah students recently and we were learning about her Haftarah reading, which comes from the prophet Isaiah. The commentary book introduces her passage this way:  “Scholars consider Isaiah the most ‘political’ of the prophets. Even though he was a member of the aristocracy, Isaiah spoke against the selfish greed of the rich and the corruption of the judges and leaders of his time.” Isaiah taught about the coming of the messianic age, which is traditionally heralded by the coming of a Messiah, an anointed one, but Reform Judaism believes that it will be an age that will arise because of the work that we will do to perfect the world. We draw this vision from the words of the prophets, including Isaiah, but also Micah, Jeremiah, and others.


Our commitment, as the Jewish people and as the Reform Movement, comes from a deep seeded religious commitment to what it means to be in a covenantal relationship with God and our sacred obligation to bring about the messianic age. As long as we live in an imperfect world, the messianic age cannot come and as long as we refrain from the work of tikkun olam, we are delaying its arrival.


Commitment to tikkun olam is not without controversy, but that cannot force us to the sidelines, preventing us from doing this sacred work of our movement and our tradition. On the question of issues that are political, as I already mentioned, it seems hard to find an issue that isn’t political when we actually get down to brass tacks about solving it. We might be able to argue that a food drive isn’t political, but we ought to be doing the work of ending hunger through policy change and that is political. We might be able to make a case that supporting Preble Street or handing out coats for the homeless isn’t political, but we ought to be working to build affordable housing, and that work is political. In the past in this congregation, members have expressed concern that our position on marriage equality was a political one, that that issue was not a civil rights issue. Do we remain silent on such issues because some among us see them as political? Should we remain silent on issues facing transgender Americans because there are those in our country who believe it is a political issue? In Jewish law, access to abortion is a religious issue. In American law, it is a political issue. Do we let our religious values fall away in the face of the politicization of our religious issues? What about Israel? Just about any support or criticism of Israel would be deemed by some as political. Are we to remain silent on Israel?


Our congregational mission statement says that we are a Reform Jewish congregation that fosters a love of worship and learning. Are we not to live up to the Reform Jewish tenet of tikkun olam because the work is challenging and sometimes divisive or are we to recognize that our tradition has never been without tension and division, but that has never been a reason not to live Jewish values.


In his book To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, writes:


Judaism is a complex and subtle faith, yet it has rarely lost touch with its simple ethical imperatives. We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor are not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard. ‘Someone else’s physical needs are my spiritual obligation’, a Jewish mystic taught. The truths of religion are exalted, but its duties are close at hand. We know God less by contemplation than by emulation. The choice is not between ‘faith’ and ‘deeds’, for it is by our deeds that we express our faith and make it real in the life of others and the world.


Jewish ethics is refreshingly down-to-earth. If someone is in need, give. If someone is lonely, invite them home. If someone you know has recently been bereaved, visit them and give them comfort. If you know of someone who has lost their job, do all you can to help them find another. The sages called this ‘imitating God’. They went further: giving hospitality to a stranger, they said, is ‘even greater than receiving the divine presence’. That is religion at its most humanizing and humane.


Our hands are God’s hands. Our voice is God’s voice. If we remain inactive, if we remain silent, then God becomes absent. It is our religious obligation to repair our broken world.






Rabbi Jared H. Saks

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