How Does Judaism Practice Social Justice? – Notes for my comments from an ICGP Interfaith service in Boring Oregon on Sunday Sept 12th

Posted: September 23, 2012 in Because I love Judaism I can never be a pure rationalist
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Steve Bilow’s comments on behalf of the Oregon Area Jewish Committee

Interfaith Council of Greater Portland

How Does Your Faith Practice Social Justice?

An Interfaith Service Hosted By: Hood View Seventh Day Adventist Church

Sunday, September 23, 2012 4:00PM

Many non-Jews think that we Jews get most of our beliefs and practices from the Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament”. The Hebrew Bible does, of course, serve as our most foundational set of doctrine. But it is not the entire story. Even more of our teachings come from the rabbinic discourses in Talmud. It also extends far into the domain of contemporary thought and, most importantly, ACTION. For this reason, I want to talk about several sources, other than the Bible. And, I want to do so from the standpoint of what I believe is our major differentiator.

One thing that differentiates the spirituality of Judaism is that it is a spirituality of action. Other paths promote meditation and contemplation; acceptance of an individual as a messiah; unconditional faith; and many other approaches to the God relationship. But in Judaism, our beliefs center on, not just prayer and devotion, but also on “doing”.

You often hear Jews say that they perform “Tikum Olam” or healing the world. This phrase itself comes, originally, from a medieval Jewish mystical tradition.  But I was asked to speak for 5 minutes, not 5 years, so I won’t dive into that. The bottom line is that, forgetting about mysticism, Judaism as a religion, a practice, and a lifestyle is a path of caring for the Earth and its inhabitants through ACTIVE PARTICIPATION. This is rooted in Torah, of course, in places like Leviticus 19:16 where we are explicitly told:

  •  Thou shalt not stand by idly by the blood of thy neighbor.

It continues throughout the wisdom writings like Isaiah 1:16-17 which says:

  •  Devote yourself to justice;
  • Aid the wronged.
  • Uphold the rights of the orphan;
  • Defend the cause of the widow.

It continues into the Talmud, where Judah HaNasi, discussing the relative priority of action versus even our most holy task – the study of Torah, says in Peshaim 3.7:

  •  Action takes precedence over study.

And it continues into our own age where the great Rabbi Abraham Heschel summarized his experience of walking in Selma Alabama with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King by saying:

  • “It felt as if my feet were doing the praying”

So to answer the question of how Judaism practices social justice is really easy: Judaism IS social justice. Judaism takes the approach that the only way to have a living relationship with the divine is to have an ACTING relationship with the world. Even on our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, coming up in just a few days, we learn that:

For transgressions of one man against another”, even God can’t forgive you unless you have taken the ACTION to ask forgiveness from the one you have harmed.

In other words, God is in partnership with us and God needs us to be engaged.

This is not just for us, today. Much more importantly, it is for the generations to come. So let me close with a quick story from The Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a:

Once, while the sage, Honi, was walking along a road, he saw an old man planting a carob tree.  Honi asked him:  “How many years will it take for this tree to give forth its fruit?”  The man answered that it would require 70 years.  Honi asked:  “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?”  The man answered:  “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me.  So, too, will I plant for my children.

That’s what we do, we respect what came before us and we work to make things better for those who follow. So, to be honest: Judaism and Social Justice? It’s really pretty easy.

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