And this organization is making waves. Slowly, some rabbis are starting to acknowledge and try to deal with these issues. But why so few, and where were their voices beforehand, and where are their colleagues’ voices now, both here in
In Reform synagogues throughout
I don't pretend to have answers to why the religious community has separated itself from issues relating to civil rights and social justice. In the current socio-political environment these values have become associated with the secular left. But it is unclear why that has happened. Assaf Banner, the director of Bema'aglai Tzedek, said that when he and his friends started talking the social justice lingo, people were surprised: “We didn't fit the stereotype of the secular Tel Aviv Ashkenazi with round wire glasses…."
When I discussed these issues with a colleague of mine, an intelligent young woman who grew up in the Reform movement in upstate New York, but is now a newly married, religious, head-covering Jerusalemite, she theorized that “halakhic imperatives emanating from the rabbinic tradition stipulate various laws aimed at preserving Am Yisrael, using the strategy of social isolation: inflexible kashrut laws, prohibitions against consuming alcohol in ‘mixed company’, etc. This isolationist approach has given way to the development of an Orthodoxy that is self-absorbed, ethnocentric, and the sociological backdrop to the stunted growth of social justice initiatives in the Orthodox community.” This seems to me a very important insight into our present situation, coming from someone who once sat on the other side of aisle, as it were. And it echoes certain thoughtful academic voices as well. As Menachem Lorberbaum, Chair of Hebrew Culture Studies at
Can it be that the Orthodox establishment is more worried about punctilious and zealous application of halakha, and keeping Jews separate from the rest of the world, than about enacting the elemental responsibility to uphold the dignity and basic rights of the disadvantaged and the weak? Why do the two have to be mutually exclusive?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that the Orthodox religious community shows no concern for others. On the contrary, the commitment of Orthodox Jews to Hesed and Tzedakah is on whole exemplary. The ultra-Orthodox community takes care of its own, in a well-organized fashion, somewhat reminiscent of the institutionalized welfare-community infrastructure outlined in chapter one of the Talmudic Tractate Baba Batra. However, it seems that although the Orthodox community certainly practices Tzedakah with a laudable passion, the institutionalized and almost bureaucratic welfare state described in the Talmud has not been adopted.
There is a difference between Tzedakah and Tzedek. This distinction becomes critical in the context of the Jewish State. Tzedakah helps to ease an immediate urgent situation in a specific case, but does nothing to solve the deep-rooted social ailments which are the root of the problem.
Rambam's Tzedakah ladder is well-known. The highest degree of charity, the 8th level, requires strengthening the hand of one’s poor Jewish brother and giving him a gift or [an interest-free] loan, or even entering into a business partnership with him. In other words, we must help a poor person to get on his feet, so that he can break his dependency and progress on his own. In the context of the Jewish State, perhaps there is a level that is even higher – a 9th level which requires an institutionalized effort to eradicate poverty, to budget sufficiently to help the weakest citizens adequately, to enforce minimum wages and affordable health-care.
In the summer of 2003, when a series of budget cuts in
At the recent opening of a new Center for the Study of Philanthropy at
Bema'aglai Tzedek is running numerous programs to try to wake up the religious Jewish community to the need for strong Jewish advocacy, Tzedek (and not just Tzedakah). Together with Bet Morasha they run a Bet Midrash Program that brings Rabbis and religious leaders together to study texts and develop Jewish responsa to social issues. Rabbi Benny Lau, nephew of the former
Among its many interesting activities, Bema'aglei Tzedek's most innovative move thus far has been the creation of the "social seal" (Tav Hevrati). This plays on the authority and status of the required Kashrut certificate. Businesses (mainly restaurants), have to live up to certain standards of employment rights, disabled access, minimum wage, in order to receive the "social seal," which they are then entitled to display in their window. The "social seal" in
It seems so obvious. I recently came across an article written by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein in 1971, titled "Kosher Lettuce." The reference was to the boycotts on agricultural products that were being harvested by underpaid and abused migrant workers. Given the human rights violations of these workers, he argued that the lettuce was not kosher. Kashrut here has a moral basis. To drive the point home, Rabbi Lookstein cited a moving Hassidic story: “It is told of the great Hassidic sage and saint, Rabbi Simha Bunim, that he once visited a matzah factory and saw the workers there being exploited. ‘God,’ he exclaimed, ‘the gentiles falsely accuse us in a vicious libel of using the blood of gentiles in our matzah. That is false. But we do spill Jewish blood into our matzah--the blood of the exploited workers.’ He thereupon issued a most unusual ruling. He declared the matzah produced under exploitative conditions as being ‘forbidden food,’ i.e. non-kosher.”
In order for social justice to return (and I say return, because I do think it was there in the early stages of the Jewish community, and certainly present in the times of Hillel), there has to be a combination of bottom-up and top-down efforts. The grassroots efforts to establish a society on the great pillar of social justice are many and impressive, but the religious leadership has to get on board, relentlessly teaching their constituents about the importance of social justice as it affects society at large.