This is Social Justice

The irresistible urge to work for justice is a hallmark of Jewish engagement with the modern world. Ever since the Haskalah, a.k.a. the ‘Jewish Enlightenment,’ began to pry open the gates of European ghettos in the 18th century, Jewish law … Read More

By / April 23, 2009

The irresistible urge to work for justice is a hallmark of Jewish engagement with the modern world. Ever since the Haskalah, a.k.a. the ‘Jewish Enlightenment,’ began to pry open the gates of European ghettos in the 18th century, Jewish law was pressed into service as an advocate for and witness to change in the “host” societies that had previously quarantined its Jews. Jewish law had, of course, long influenced secular civil law to uplift the poor and the needy, and to safeguard the widow and the orphan; Jews who made their way into positions of influence in the arts, journalism and even government urged societal confrontation with collective prejudices and blindnesses – not always with happy results. The Jewish engagement with Enlightenment values also helped Judaism fracture into denominations, whose principal disagreements consisted of whether and to what extent to absorb and engage with modernity.

These aren’t merely academic considerations. How to engage with modernity without sacrificing one’s Judaism is the mixed blessing of the modern age. To simply brandish a phrase such as tikkun olam without understanding its original and varied meanings, or its adaptability, is to reduce one’s Judaism to a sacred version of SparkNotes; it treats Torah like a Twitter post from God. There are no limits to the wisdom and complexity of Torah. For the Jewish social justice movement and its adherents to significantly heal the world, their work must become infused with a literacy and an impartiality, a perspective and a fluency in Jewish text that they all too frequently lack.

I’m as guilty of this lack of fluency as anyone. Although perhaps a little to the right of your average social justicenik, I am no social-justice slouch. But it wasn’t until I read There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish law & Tradition, Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ new book, that I began to understand the extent to which my work – both paid and volunteer – was the quintessential work of the Jew in the modern world.

Just as the review copy of Rabbi Jacobs’ book arrived in the mail, I was coming face to face with a very knotty Jewish problem in my volunteer work, and wondering where to turn for help. As co-president of the board of the ARK, a Jewish social services agency in Chicago, I was part of a group trying to figure out how to cut the agency’s budget without fatally undermining its ability to serve the Chicago area’s neediest Jews. At a time of increasing need and shrinking funding, how were we to confront budget shortfalls in a way that was consistent with both our mission and Jewish law? Which types of tzedakah, which programs were most critical to the well-being of our clients? Which ones were given highest priority by our Sages? Which ones meant the most to donors and the wider community? And which ones would be fatally compromised by even a small cut in funding?

There Shall Be No Needy addresses these questions and more, in a brave, lucid and learned style. Jacobs asks how American Jews might engage in the effort to work for peace and justice in a fully Jewish context, using both halakhah (Jewish law) and aggadah (Jewish narrative), and she insists that the traditional distinction between the two interferes with the ability to see how Jewish ethical and legal wisdom exists in both genres.

There Shall Be No Needy gets deep into policy, and wades rather fearlessly into statistical arcana, without succumbing to dry wonk-speak or lofty rabbinic sermonizing. It promotes Jewish literacy by envisioning “the emergence of a Judaism that views ritual observance, study, and engagement in the world as an integrated whole.” The result is a work that’s both inspiring and edifying, written by someone with uncommon good sense and a fine education to boot. It arrives at a time when the American Jewish proclivity for civic engagement is confronted with its own funding crises and with intractable and increasingly complex issues, and, as Jacobs unflinchingly points out, a tendency to advocate for change under the banner of Jewish values without a fully realized understanding of what those values are.

This isn’t to saw that There Shall Be No Needy is a flawless book. It indulges the Jewish propensity for cerebration, preferring to address problems through legislation, “debate,” “discussion” of “policy questions,” harnessing the energies of Jewish “community organizers, public policy experts, legislators and government officials.” It would be refreshing, and not at all inconsistent with Jewish law, for Jews committed to social justice to create rather than simply advocate or agitate for change, to do rather than simply discuss. It would also be fitting and proper for the social justice progress to include the wisdom and the work of Jewish developers, builders, craftsmen and tradesmen. They do exist, and they do build, invent, make, repair and fashion the physical as well as the intellectual environment. Their propensity for action can be harnessed to the advocacy, legislative and policy discussions, moving Jewish action from the purely conceptual to the active and constructive realms.

The book suffers, too, from an idealism occasionally so lofty that it strays too far from the factual, or the possible. For example, she views the debate on immigration as beginning with maintaining “the dignity of individuals.” Borders, however, are necessary first and foremost for the maintenance of a nation’s security, and Rabbi Jacobs neglects to address immigration in light of this significant and growing concern. What’s more, my Inner Agnostic cannot help but be irked by Jacobs’ statement that in being a major cause of today’s affordable housing crisis, “the federal government . . . has a responsibility to do teshuvah [repentance].” I must give the rabbi credit: she herself notes that we “do not usually talk about institutions or governments doing teshuvah.” And Rabbi Jacobs’ focus on the housing issue is both pertinent and prescient: this book was written before our sub-prime mortgage meltdown, and if ever there was a government that needed to do teshuvah, it’s ours.

But I’m from Illinois, and I’m just glad if my government abandons the felonious and retreats to the merely Machiavellian. I can see changes in the course of policy, but to call it teshuvah casts the government as one great, big sinner, careening into debt and debauchery: a monolithic apikuris headed for a reckoning; not a Jewish individual or institution, and yet held to Jewish standards.

And although a disciplined and sensitive researcher and writer, Rabbi Jacobs makes the occasional unsupported assertion that casts doubt on entire arguments. To say, for example, that the federal government has ignored the need for affordable housing and made it impossible for private builders to profit from the construction of it, is simply not true. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a policy innovation included in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, has facilitated the construction of approximately 1.5 million units of affordable housing since its inception, putting plenty of developers’ kids through college debt-free. She promotes policies some of whose practical consequences could unleash capitalism’s appetite for self-destruction. She says, for example, that “in accordance with the assumptions of Ramban and Rambam, we can say that the wages set by a community should be sufficient for a person to support himself or herself, and on a single job with a forty-hour work week.”

With all due respect to two of the greatest Jewish sages, their ideas, when applied to free-market capitalism, could heal the world, or they could produce runaway inflation, massive unemployment and outsourcing on an unprecedented scale, depending on how universally and how quickly they were applied. Rabbi Jacobs notes that a number of municipalities have passed living wage ordinances; a quick online search revealed that most studies show that living wage ordinances have had, or would have, a beneficial or, at worst, negligible effect on communities adopting such ordinances. Citing these studies, and proposing practical frameworks and timetables for change, might turn the book into more of a policy brief than a manifesto, but it would also lend more support to the author’s arguments.

There Shall Be No Needy’s greatest contribution is in the author’s reimagining of tikkun olam. In this quintessentially rabbinic feat, the author weaves together four strands of Jewish text — the Aleinu prayer’s call to destroy impurities; the midrashic interpretation of tikkun olam as referring to creation of a sustainable social order; the rabbinic application of tikkun olam to amending laws that could foment chaos; and the kabbalistic belief that individual actions affect the whole world – to arrive at a vision for a just and sustainable social order. In such an order, Jacobs says, an individual’s actions and a government’s constant self-adjustments maintain a course that steer the whole world in a healing direction.

Rabbi Jacobs’ undertaking is a noble and noteworthy one. As someone with semicha from the Jewish Theological Seminary, along with an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics from the same institution and an MS in Urban Affairs from Hunter College, she is uniquely qualified to reinforce the Jewish social justice movement with a Jewish literacy both heartfelt and intellectually grounded. There Shall Be No Needy gently confronts both the lack of Jewish literacy along the battlements of the Jewish social justice movement and the lack of civic engagement, from a Jewish perspective, on the part of many other American Jewish movements and communities. It shows a command of Jewish sources, history and public policy that puts Rabbi Jacobs at the forefront of American Jewish leadership. And it carries the deepest and most textually grounded meanings of tikkun olam to the forefront of American Jewish life.

Realizing that “the rich Jewish tradition of law and narrative must be lived in the world,” Jacobs has made it her mission to understand how the elasticity and interpretability of Jewish text must be applied to pressing and constantly changing issues in contemporary society. It’s a mission that, for Jews, became approachable only relatively recently in our history: Jewish law has historically avoided grappling with civil law because Jews were for millennia separated from often hostile host cultures. Any encounter with civil law was almost sure to be an unhappy one. The most Jewish communities could do, as Rabbi Jacobs points out, was adapt Jewish law to the law of the land, following “the Talmudic principle dina d’malkhuta dina – the law of the land is the law.”

The question that looms behind her book is how one builds and sustains a meaningful and authentic Jewish identity without retreating from modernity. Jacobs’ solution combines increasing Jewish literacy with a tireless effort to heal the dysfunctions and deteriorations in American society and governance. There Shall Be No Needy recognizes a unique, and perhaps fleeting, opportunity: the chance for American Jews to embrace social action as a way to repair the nation’s tattered social fabric while reinvigorating Jewish identity and deepening Jewish knowledge. There’s never been a moment quite like it. Rabbi Jacobs has seized it.

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