Why is it that, at a typical American Jewish social justice event, no one invokes one of God’s names? When our movement openly accepts the role of the Divine in social change and in moral development, we embrace the most powerful part of our tradition.
There are seven primary inspiring reasons why Jews engaging in social justice should embrace God in activism. When the Jewish social justice movement neglects the Divine, it may be intellectually dishonest since we deny the primary source of our sense of responsibility and we also deprive the social justice movement of the passion it would otherwise inspire.
The mitzvah of Halakhta Bid’rakhav – The Torah tells us that God is merciful, and commands us to emulate God’s ways. The Talmud makes this connection explicit (Sotah 14a). The Rabbis explain that God is ultimately not a vengeful power-hungry dictator but rather a merciful moral healer and this is the path we must follow. We must attend carefully to the means of social change (our character) in addition to the ends (assisting the vulnerable in society). Further, it means that being like God requires action. Our ultimate role model is no less than the Creator of heaven and earth. The bar is set high.
The value of Tzelem Elokim – The Talmud teaches that to save one life is to save a world (Sanhedrin 4:5). This is an essential Jewish message: Humanity is created in God’s image, and is therefore sacred. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook goes so far as to argue that there is no such thing as an atheist, since God is in each one of us, and our souls long for their eternal source (ikvei hatzon, edar ha’yakar). We need not go this far but when we embrace that each human is created in the image of God we have the strongest model for ensuring the absolute unshakeable human dignity to all people.
The virtue of Humility – We must remember that the position of god has already been filled. The realization that in no way can we play the role of God should inspire humility in us. All too often, there can be arrogance in change-makers who see themselves as the heroes rather than as humble servants. The greatest Jewish leader, Moshe, was described as “exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth!” (Numbers 12:3).
A perspective of History – The Torah says “mibeit avadim” (from the house of slaves) describing when God took the Israelites out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 13:3) in order to show that God enters history in order to abolish slavery. God is the master liberator of the oppressed. Over time, God empowers humanity more and more with this role but still enters the global stage at crucial historical turning points.
A notion of Obligation – The responsibility to practice social justice is not optional or reserved for a ceremonial mitzvah day. When we embrace the notion that we are divinely commanded to heal the world each and every day, we raise the bar. Religion serves to remind us that at the end of our lives, we are ultimately held accountable for whether or not we fulfilled and exceeded our obligations. God cares whether or not we have lived up to our end of the partnership. Even further, embracing our obligations and commitments grants us dignity. Heschel explains that our dignity is not only a result of our rights but of our Divine obligations. “Our commitment is to God, and our roots are in the prophetic events of Israel. The dignity of a person stands in proportion to his/her obligations as well as to his/her rights. The dignity of being a Jew is in the sense of commitment, and the meaning of Jewish history revolves around the faithfulness of Israel to the covenant,” (God in search of man, 216).
Walking Together with the Divine – When we are struggling for justice as part of our relationship with God, we do not walk alone. When we look at evil in the face to combat it with love, God stands with us. “As I walk through the valley overshadowed by death, I fear no evil for You are with me,” (Psalms 23). Embracing religion is not comfortable conformity, but rising to a challenge. Embracing God is not believing blindly, but empowering oneself.
God is everywhere. The Me’Or Einayim (Rav Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl) explained that Avraham didn’t depart from God when he left the Divine presence to greet the three wanderers. Rather God is present in the ethical encounter as well because “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). When we realize that the Divine is present in all places and moments, we can only feel compelled to embrace the holiness of each moment and the concomitant ethical demands.
A vision of the Ideal – The notion of progress is rooted in the messianic vision: We hold paradigms of the perfect, like the heavenly realm, and we progress toward those ideal models by bringing them down to earth. There is a Temple located in the heavens that sits directly above the Temple on earth (Genesis Rabbah 69:7). The same God who makes the heavens radiate also illuminates our earthly existence.
For the religious maximalist, there is no room for cynical determinism. Rather we are free and empowered to bring about real progress in the world. The Kabbalists explain that the world is saturated with Divinity that longs to return to its Divine source. This happens through good acts (tikkunim). Messianism, however, embraces not only the end (messianic times) but also the process (repairing the world each moment).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says it well: “In Judaism, faith is not acceptance but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be. Faith lies not in the answer but the question – and the greater the human being, the more intense the question. The Bible is not a metaphysical opium but it’s opposite. Its aim is not to transport the believer to a private heaven. Instead, its impassioned, sustained desire is to bring heaven down to earth. Until we have done this, there is work still to do” (To Heal a Fractured World, 27).
One can obviously be moral and effective in social justice work and not embrace God just as one can be devout religiously and not create any serious social justice impact. However, as a guiding principle, embracing God offers us the potential to raise the bar we set for what we must achieve and for how we must achieve it. God is the most powerful reality ever encountered, and like no other idea, embrace of the Divine can inspire humankind to ideal goodness and transformative justice. Merely embracing our own human authority represents a failure to recognize the power of and truth of our calling, destiny, and command. Embracing the humility to acknowledge a power beyond us demands social protest not Divine submission. Together, as servants, we serve God by healing the world.
Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.
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