Day 6: Is Social Justice the Soul of Judaism?

From: Daniel ‘Mobius’ Sieradski To: Steven I. Weiss Subject: You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing Dear Steven, You state that equating liberal politics with "social justice" is "fundamentally insulting" to the Right. I can't … Read More

By / January 22, 2007

From: Daniel ‘Mobius’ Sieradski To: Steven I. Weiss Subject: You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing

Dear Steven,

You state that equating liberal politics with "social justice" is "fundamentally insulting" to the Right. I can't fathom how the policies that have come to be associated with the Right (denying a woman's right to chose, opposing equality for homosexuals, demanding stricter immigration regulations, dismissing legitimate environmental concerns as quackery, bankrupting public education, disemboweling the welfare system, etc.) are, in your mind, consistent with what we as a society regard as "social justice."

That said, I would never go so far as to claim that the Democratic Party champions social justice. The Democrats are just as vile, in my opinion, as the Republicans. Do not forget that I am an anarchist, not a party hack. I hold no favor nor bear any allegiance to states, politicians, nor parties. My only allegiance is to my comrades in arms. In that, I would further hesitate to equate terms like "Left" and "liberal" with "social justice," for while those movements do aspire more towards a vision of social justice than does the GOP, they are just as capable of injustice and wrongdoing as any other entity comprised of human beings. One need only look to any Communist regime to find evidence for this conclusion.

Nonetheless, it is disingenuous to claim that I am fudging sources in order to accommodate my worldview. I look into the Torah and see the whole world—that by which I am inspired, and that by which I am repulsed. I agree that Torah does not assert anything akin to the ideologies of any modern political party. There are, however, themes that reverberate throughout Torah and Jewish cultural heritage that clearly comprise a social justice tradition.

Certainly there are things in the Torah that are inconsistent with today's standards of social justice. Yet I don't believe we would ever have arrived at today's standards had we not had a Torah and a tradition of social justice that opened the door to our current standards by encouraging Jewish people to pursue the path of social justice in their own communities, and to spread it outwards among the gentile nations in which they dwelled. Again, as I state in my first letter, the Torah sets only the bare minimum of what is expected from us. That we rise above and beyond the letter of the law is not an act of self-aggrandizement, but the further p
ursuit of our obligations.

I agree with you that "[getting] sidetracked interpreting Leviticus" can prevent progress. But so long as we live in a world dominated by people with deep religious convictions, that discussion is unavoidable. You cannot make progress on these issues without satisfying the concerns of the religiously devout, nor can you sidestep their concerns without subverting the democratic process.

As for your question as to when you're permitted to stop supporting a policy that's well-defined on biblical terms, I believe you're failing to factor in the overriding value that Torah places on human life (pikuach nefesh) and human dignity (kavod habriyot) above all other laws. When Torah laws no longer function to serve the interests of the people—when they endanger lives or devalue human worth—then they are destined for the chopping block.

With regards to R' Steven Wise, though I am not familiar with his stance towards eugenics (a popular science among many forward thinking individuals of his day) I believe you completely mischaracterize the man's efforts with regards to the Shoah (which Edwin Black details quite extensively in his work The Transfer Agreement). Wise maneuvered to secure safe passage for German Jewish refugees to the United States. In that, he was discouraged by European Zionists who scared him into believing that his actions on behalf of Germany Jewry further endangered their lives.

Even if the story was as you tell it and Wise was "far from alone on the left," you fail to account for the dominant segment of the Jewish Left that had no qualms denouncing Zionism. The Lower East Side (and Eastern Europe for that matter) was dominated by Bundists, not Zionists. And just as the Jewish people are not a single-minded entity, neither is the Jewish Left. Indeed, I would argue that the Jewish Left's factious nature is its greatest shortcoming.

It is imbecilic to claim, as you do, that liberal Jews are fair-weather fans whose allegiances shift with the tides of popular politics. The Jewish community was overwhelmingly against the war in Iraq and the Jewish Left has been far ahead of the rest of the world in opposing the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Only after 9/11 did the rest of the world wake up to what a rather sizable portion of the Jewish community had been saying for years.

Your position that there is no consistent thread within liberal Jewish circles on issues such as immigration, the death penalty, interventionist warfare, or welfare, leads me to suspect that we live in completely different countries and perhaps on different planets. Since the 1920s, with few exceptions (such as the neoconservatives—who are a relatively new phenomenon) the Jewish community has favored open immigration, opposed the death penalty and interventionist warfare, and supported welfare.

Mind you, it was Jews who were on the shit end of McCarthy's stick—the same Jewish Socialists and Communists who built the American labor movement. (As if the Rosenberg case and the purging of Hollywood was anything other than a rebuke of liberal Jewish political power!)

Jews also took a leading role in the civil rights movement, marching in Selma with Martin Luther King. Jews were at the forefront of the radical movements of the 60s and 70s—hippies, yippies and freaks, SDS chairmen and members of the Weather Underground. Did the Nixon tapes escape you? Jews were heavily represented among the foremost feminists, sociologists, artists, musicians, writers, critics of American imperialism, and even economists. Hell, even those bastards at Commentary were one-time radicals. All of these individuals and movements have expressed the Jewish social justice tradition in their own way.

No, certainly, as you say, "there isn't a one-to-one relationship" between tzedakah and the federal income tax. But that does not negate our commitment to charity. Clearly, the rules of engagement will evolve over time. But the underlying principle—the mitzvah of tzedakah—has found and will continue to find new means of expressing itself in every paradigm in which the Jewish people find themselves. That is the power and the beauty of Torah. That is what makes it a living document for all the ages. Its relevancy never ceases. Its insights never fall out of fashion. It is the DNA of the world, no matter how many deaths and rebirths it goes through. Its principles will forever find new forms in which to manifest.

Your call for theological humility is a call for cultural homogenization, just as when Communists sought to invalidate religious, ethnic, and cultural identity. You want me to take G-d and Torah out of my decision-making process because you have a different interpretation of the source material than I. I would never ask a devout religious right-winger to stop believing in G-d or Torah. I would rather debate their theology than tell them to abandon theology altogether. I would rather engage in big, messy, heated arguments and tumultuous bad politics than be deprived of the source from which I derive my passion and inspiration.

It's not G-d's role to tell you for whom to pull the lever in 2008. You know as well as I do that it doesn't work like that. The purpose of Torah is to give you a framework in which to learn to love your fellow as yourself, in which to become a conscious, conscientious, and compassionate individual. Once you are on that path, who you vote for should be obvious.

As the Chafetz Chaim
wrote in his sefer "Loving Kindness":

Every creature in Creation is sustained by Hashem’s giving hand; there is a form of nourishment and shelter provided for everything from the amoeba to the elephant. Therefore, the most effective way for a person to emulate Hashem is for him to give to and care for others. The more he expresses his desire to do kindness, the more precisely he reflects the image of Hashem.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch echoed this sentiment, writing:

If nothing else, the very nature of [man's] heart must teach him that he is required above everything else to feel himself the brother of all beings, and to recognize the claim of all beings to his love and beneficence (Horeb 17:125).

Do not suppress this compassion, this sympathy especially with the sufferings of your fellow man. It is the warning voice of duty, which points out to you your brother in every sufferer, and your own sufferings in his, and awakens the love which tells you that you belong to him and his sufferings with all the powers that you have. Do not suppress it! […] See in it the admonition of G-d that you are to have no joy so long as a brother suffers by your side (Horeb 17:126)."

Thus, when we strive to emulate G-d, we seek to do kindness to our fellow and to ease his suffering. This is the ultimate aspiration of the Jew, and the underlying intention of Judaism. For when we attain this consciousness, as the Rambam wrote in Hilchot Melachim, "there will be neither famine nor war, neither envy nor competition, for good things will flow in abundance and all the delights will be as freely available as dust…'For the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the ocean bed.'" We call that geulah—the final redemption.

Social justice is most certainly the soul of Judaism. It may not be the definition of social justice that prevails today, nor is it necessarily the doctrine of liberalism or Leftism. But to deny that it is anything but central and fundamental to Judaism is to completely misread and invalidate the value of the Jewish tradition.


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