Social justice causes are rarely constrained by geographic boundaries. While the pursuit of societal fairness may be surprisingly similar in focus across generations, the geographic limitations of such efforts seem to be diminishing. In the age of the Internet and international travel, social justice has become increasingly globalized. This shift has become noteworthy within the Jewish community and the many social justice causes it espouses.
To take an example that is on many of our minds today, the organization Women of the Wall has taken its cause worldwide. In some ways this may seem ironic. Women of the Wall is a group pursuing equal rights for men and women praying at the Kotel, the sacred Wailing Wall in the heart of Jerusalem — a site that is most specific geographically.
Yet the accessibility of that wall to all who seek to pray impacts not only Jerusalem locals but Jews around the world. In an era of international travel, a Jew in Los Angeles may pray at the Kotel as often as one living in Tiberius.
That a holy site would be overseen by an administrator from one Jewish denomination, advancing his own orientation to prayer, is anathema to the aspirations of our polythetic religious community. It undermines justice not only for Jerusalem residents or Israelis, but Jews worldwide.
Capitalizing on this understanding, Women of the Wall has engaged Jewish communities globally (with a particular emphasis on the United States) in rallies and gatherings, as well as prayer services in support of the ones that the organization facilitates at the start of each month at the Kotel itself.
A most geographically specific cause has taken on global proportions and involved Jews from around the world. It is one that is near to their hearts, even if focused on the policies of a far away place. While significant change has yet to come to the Kotel, it has already come to the way justice is pursued at our tradition’s most holy site.
One need not look far to see similar phenomena burgeoning within the environmental movement, interfaith movement, and other social justice causes. Many of them, by virtue of their areas of focus, have long stretched across geographic boundaries. Yet it is striking to see just how much they can marshal support globally with keen use Internet-based tools. One viral video or spicy article, one Facebook meme or re-tweet by a celebrity, can rapidly raise the profile of an effort or cause.
Evident in the discussion was the extent to which many have come to engage causes that stretch across the world. While youth, as “digital natives,” may be especially adept at harnessing online tools, fewer causes are now seen solely as local.
The panelists, when listing the causes they thought were most pressing today, named women’s rights, the proliferation of unconventional weapons, global warming, and the disparity of wealth. None of these issues can truly be seen as local or even national. While they can be addressed at the local level, they are bound up in far larger international challenges.
The social, spiritual, and textual basis for pursuing justice may remain constant. But the scope and methodology for addressing particular causes have shifted profoundly. Like so many other areas of our lives, social justice has become globalized, bringing to international attention ostensibly local issues and international issues to local communities and social justice leaders.
Justice is transcendent, even as the way we pursue it continues to change.
“Justice Tzedek Sadaqah: Pursuing Social Justice in Multifaith Communities,” the program whose video appears in this article, was brought to you by the Nelson Mandela Center at the Museum for African Art and is in part made possible by a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The event was hosted by leaders of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which also provided the video for this article.