Social Justice in Judaism

Today I have been asked to speak about a religious call to Justice, as the text we just heard illustrates, we are commanded not to enact Justice, or practice Justice, but to pursue it – in Hebrew the word is literally to chase it down, actively run after Justice, always try to get closer to perfect justice.

My message is simple.  As nice as it is to get inside the house, to be a religious person also means you have to get yourself outside of the house, to see those most in need, and actively seek out justice in every part of our world.

Yours in a congregation already deeply involved in the communal work of Justice, globally and locally.

In Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Alaska and Haiti, the Congo and Cuba and South Africa you are making a difference that means our world leans closer towards justice.

You are already serving the Indy community, through your church’s commitment to Habitat for Humanity, Neighbor to Neighbor, and other programs, in Family Promise –IHN which brings our two congregations together in partnership.

Today I want to share a word about where all of this important work comes from for us as religious people, and a word about a way in which our congregation is transforming that work today.

This week in Jewish congregations all around the world, we start the annual cycle of readings from Torah, the five books of Moses from the Beginning.

The first human beings, Adam and Eve dwell peacefully in the Garden of Eden, blissfully unaware of the human potential for violence, hatred, or oppression.

But we know that the idealism of the Garden of Eden cannot last.  And after having eaten from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Even understand, for the first time, the possibility of doing  wrong (Gen 3). Kicked out of paradise, human beings encounter a world in which brothers kill brothers (Gen 4:1-16), a flood almost destroys humanity (Gen 6-8), and people prioritize building a tower over developing a human community (Gen 11:1-9).

The stories which follow are fundamentally designed to promote the idea of a civil society, which cares for all its members, especially those disempowered, disenfranchised, those without a voice.

Three powerful examples:

  • Abraham pleads with God to save the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, by arguing even on behalf of strangers against a perceived injustice.
  • Joseph establishes a system for storing and rationing food so that all the peoples of Egypt and surrounding lands will have enough to survive a coming famine.  His political power is leveraged to protect all members of his society.
  • And of course, the Israelites experience of slavery in Egypt teaches the pain of oppression, and the people are warned to ‘remember the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.’

As the text of the Old Testament continues, a system of protecting all members of society is fleshed out in surprising detail.  The commandment in some form, to remember the stranger is repeated 36 times in Torah, more than just about any other religious obligation. A communal pot is established, so that the needy will always be taken care of. We invite all who are hungry to come and eat; we care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  This is where our mandate comes from.

Here is the best example of biblical thought when it comes to protecting and serving the needs of others:

Moses describes what the people’s obligation to the needy look like in Deuteronomy chapter 15:

There shall be no needy among you – for God will surely bless you… if you diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and observe and do the commandment that I command you this day… You shall lend to many nations, but you shall never borrow (try telling that to Congress when they try to raise the debt ceiling again!).  [The text continues] If there is among you a needy person, one of your brethren… do not harden your heart, nor shut your hand, but you shall open your hand to him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need… Be careful lest there is a hateful thing in your heart… and you look cruelly on your brother, the poor person, and do not give him.  Rather you shall surely give him, and you shall not fear giving him, for on account of this, God will bless you…for the poor will never cease from the land.  For this reason, God commands you saying, ‘You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to the poor and needy in your land.’ (Deut 15:4-11)

The poor are given dignity, the needy are shown mercy, and our own sense of who counts as our brother, or sister, is expanded.

But notice the way in which this text is at the same time optimistic and realistic.  “There shall be no needy among you,” Moses says.  That is a wonderful goal.  But yet a few verses later we read, “the poor will never cease from the land.” That sounds more realistic.  How are both of these predictions true?  How can we hear the promise that there will be no needy, and in the same breath hear that there will always be poor among us?  And yet we know both are true.  We believe that one day we will solve the twin problems of hunger and homelessness.  And even when we do, we know that others will need our help.  We know we have real capacity to meet the needs of everyone right now, right here.  And we know we will never fully solve the problem, even if all our resources are put to the best possibly use.  There will always be a need for us to engage in the work of Justice.

In the Jewish community we talk a great deal these days about affecting a paradigm shift in the way we look at Justice.  We feel a need to do more than volunteer a few hours, or even to continue our financial support of important programs here and abroad.  The challenge we have placed in front of ourselves is this: can we make this justice work part of the DNA of our congregation?  Can we start to understand the ways in which our commitment to justice work transforms not only those we help, but actually transforms us as well?  Can we strengthen our religious life through the hands-on work of creating systemic change in Indianapolis and in our world?

We know that our most effective projects cannot be top down.  When our leadership has a great idea, it will never get off the ground without a swelling of support from volunteers, staff members and congregants.  In the advocacy world, this is known as grassroots organizing.  Here is how we have begun applying those same principles to our religious, spiritual social justice work.

Right after I moved to Indianapolis, I met the Director of a new organization, recently moved here herself – IndyCAN, the Congregational Action Network.  30 – 40 churches leveraging our numbers to create a network of caring congregations. Many in the Jewish community were, to be honest, wary of this new way of thinking about social justice, who thought this new model might challenge traditional social justice committees.

So what is it that is so different?  Our work began with one-on-ones – “what keeps you up at night?” we set a goal of reaching 100 congregants in the first year, and another 100 the second.

Our challenge was that folks wanted to talk about religion and the synagogue, rather than our efforts to help our neighbors, and at first I was frustrated – there is a whole world out there and all we could think about, at the beginning, was how to better serve our own needs.

But then we realized this was the most natural response.  We live our lives thinking that to be a religious person means coming to services, attending classes, educating ourselves and our children, showing up for holidays, building beautiful houses of worship.  We have grown up with a very inward sense of religiosity.  In Exodus (25:8) we read: Let them build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” At IHC that is exactly what we have done, and you have as well, this is a magnificent structure, and your new Welcoming Center is sure to be a beautiful addition not only to your church, but to our Meridian Street corridor of faith!

It is much easier to enter the House, when the House is beautiful, inviting, welcoming!

To begin to think outside of the house you have built here takes a real change in perspective.  What does it mean to be “religious?” What is the primary reason we gather together into congregations and denominations?  Yes it is a search for God, and yes we seek spiritual growth, renewal, inspiration.  But both our traditions teach that the real work (and you have a much better word for it than Jews do) is the Mission.  And the Mission starts with getting outside of the House.

Last month the Reform Jewish denomination, as a group, partnered with the NAACP to create a march to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Selma march, and to reflect on the continuing work of the Civil Rights movement.  200 rabbis joined in the march from Selma all the way to Washington DC, taking turns carrying a Torah scroll for a single day, partnering with black leaders from all over America.

Reading the articles and essays that followed I was reminded of a quote by the famous Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside MLK fifty years ago.  When interviewed about his experience, he offered that he felt as if his legs were praying.  This is what it means to get outside of the House.  What I hear in Rabbi Heschel words, is the idea that when we take a stand for a cause we believe in, we fulfill our religious obligations in the most meaningful way.  Far more than simply writing a check, participating in the process of real change, changes us as well.

At IHC we have broken down our Social Justice committee, which has hosted fundraisers and programs, and have started to build a grassroots organizing platform, which has already begun to transform the lives of congregants as well as those lives we touch through our efforts.

In truth we did not realize how transformative the experience would be.  Congregants who had been disconnected from synagogue life felt reinvigorated and re-engaged when we called to ask them to sit down for a one-on-one or group meeting.  One on ones led to several group actions, and we connected with a vast network of religious people who share our passion for specific issues – reducing violence in our city, committing to mass transportation, rethinking the new criminal justice system being developed downtown.  And through the experience of learning about these issues, our Northside, middle and upper-middle class families met Hoosiers from all walks of life, black and Hispanic church members from every other side of Indy, with whom we never would have connected otherwise.

We know the work will never be finished, and yet Rabbi Tarfon wrote, “the work is great and the Master is impatient.”

We also know the potential for this work to strengthen our own community and our world is great.  Rabbi Hillel wrote:  If I am not for myself, who will be for me, if I am only for myself what am I?  And if not now, when?”

We know our moral imperative is to do something more than write a check (although writing checks is not a bad start.)  In Deuteronomy (6:18) we read – “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord.”  According to mystical Jewish traditions that developed in the sixteenth century, the world itself is imperfect and unfinished.  Our task is to help complete the work of creation, literally to repair or fix the world through our acts of compassion and pursuit of justice.  The Hebrew phrase is “Tikkun Olam – the repair of the world’ and the mystics understood that every physical action in the world had spiritual effects as well.  To do what is right and good, that is the path toward completion, wholeness, Godliness, as we become partners in the repair, and fulfillment of Creation.

I look forward to seeing both our communities grow in strength, empathy, passion and compassion through the work of listening, engaging from one House to another, and walking with one another on the path towards Justice.