Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Social Justice - One Essential Pillar

Every now and then, I come across someone who claims that Social Action, or Social Justice*, or Tikkun Olam isn't really Jewish. The argument usually goes something like this: these causes that you support (LGBT rights, women's rights, Immigration Reform, etc.) aren't inherently Jewish causes; they're Liberal political issues, and you're just wrapping them in a veneer of Judaism. The argument sometimes goes on to talk about what Judaism really is — probably something about holiness, connecting with God, peoplehood or so on.

*  I haven't heard anyone define these specifically, but it seems that these days people are using "Social Action" to talk about doing good deeds for others (such as working at a soup kitchen), while "Social Justice" is more about political advocacy.

Now, as I know I've said before, I do think that there's a discussion to be had about the fact that the vast, vast majority of causes which are supported by "Social Action Jews" happen to be exactly the same causes which are supported by Liberals. As a Liberal myself, I try to take seriously the question about whether any given cause is really a "Jewish cause," or just one that I happen to support for other reasons. There's never a clear answer, but it's important to keep that conversation going.

But, arguing that any one cause might not be "truly Jewish" is very different from arguing that helping others, in general, isn't very Jewish. But, there are still some people who seem to think that way. For an example of a different sort, there was the intro to a recent article by Yehuda Mirsky:
Some years ago, when I was helping the daughter of friends prepare for her bat mitzvah, we got to talking about her "bat mitzvah project." She confided that while her parents wanted her to do something Jewish, she wanted to do something related to social justice  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
So, some people think that Social Action and Judaism are distinct. On the other hand, I've probably run across more Jews in the Reform/Liberal world who would argue that Judaism is, in the end, only about Social Action — I remember one prominent Social Justice leader in our movement telling my Rabbinical School class precisely that. He claimed that the rest of Judaism, with all of its rituals and texts and such, were the best system ever invented for passing down those important, moral values. But, it was the values of morality and Social Action which mattered; the rest of Judaism was just a device by which to get to them.

I disagree with that, strongly, and Mirsky quotes Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to show why:
Rav Kook famously wrote that modernity had undone the connections among the constitutive elements of Jewish identity: peoplehood, universal ethics, and a relationship to the sacred. By the turn of the 20th century, each had become the property of a party: Zionism, liberalism, and Orthodoxy, respectively. 
I would argue that Kook's distinction is too crude — liberal Judaism, especially in its current form, has not abandoned peoplehood or the sacred. I'm sure that many proponents of Zionism and Orthodoxy would make a similar counterclaim. But, there's still some truth to the statement, for sure. Zionism has always been, primarily, about Jewish peoplehood. Liberal Judaism has long been intensely focused on universal ethics and "do-gooding," and that still holds a place of prominence within our movement, in some ways. And, Orthodoxy has certainly, over the years, often focused largely (and, at its worst, exclusively) on ritual. Again, these have never been close to 100% true, but there's some truth in them. And, Kook's point is that each of these approaches is wrong, in that it's too limited:
Holiness, he wrote, is the connecting thread; our charge is to knit it.
Holiness is not the same as morality. Morality is one component of holiness. You can't be holy without being moral, but being moral, by itself, isn't enough to get you to holiness. In Judaism, at least, holiness is what happens when you combine morality, peoplehood and connection with God. Anyone of those three, by itself, is insufficient, at least according to Judaism.

That, by the way, is what's wrong with the often heard argument, "Why do I have to be Jewish? Can't I just be a good person?" Yes, absolutely — if your goal is to be a good person. But, if your goal is to be a holy person, in the fullest sense, than being good is just one step along the way. One component.

I don't want anyone to miss understand me — I could see this being read as an argument that "holy" is better than "moral." That someone who is holy is, in fact, more moral than someone who is "just moral." That's not what I'm saying, at all. Holiness is a category which combines other categories. If you're only interested in one of those categories, then that's fine — it's all you need to worry about*.

*Although, I may be revealing my Liberal Jewish, or just Liberal, leanings when I admit that, out of the three, "moral" is the only one which I would claim is universally imperative. There's no "requirement" to be holy, if you don't want to. But moral? That's a different matter, I'd say.

That speaker, years ago, got it wrong. Judaism does not exist solely to transmit moral values. There are much more efficient* ways to transmit morality than the laws of kashrut, for example.

* and yummier.

Judaism exists to encourage us to be moral, and then to take a leap onto a different plane. That's what holiness is really about.

1 comment:

Vivian said...

Very enlightening.
Thanks for sharing your point of view with us.