I’ve been asked the following question far too many times in my rabbinate “Rabbi, why do we need to do social justice?…and, is it really a Jewish thing anyway?” As I stood on the grounds of the “lynching memorial” in Montgomery, Alabama, a member of the Pittsburgh JCRC cohort on a social justice mission to the South organized and run by the JCPA, I found myself wishing I could bring this experience to all of my congregants. Standing in the gaze of the penetrating sunlight, staring at metal monolith after monolith, I read the names of the African-Americans who were murdered for simply existing. Over 4000 names are inscribed on these markers, along with a wall of running water that symbolizes the countless lynched whose names we will never be known. “Yes,” I wanted to scream in this moment, “social justice is a Jewish thing.”
Enter the prophet Amos. Dr. Adrienne Leveen, my Tanakh professor at HUC-JIR, taught me that all Jew should know and study Amos. Amos, the first of our social justice prophets, declared to the people of Israel that it is our duty, our obligation, to work for the cause of social justice. It is our duty, our obligation, to give voice and power to the voiceless and powerless.
The words of Amos stirred in the back of my mind as I walked through this memorial, and then again at the Legacy Museum (both parts of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative). I found myself immersed, stirred and disturbed in exhibit after exhibit that depicted the horrendous reality of the slave trade. The museum detailed how racism and slavery were never truly banished from our country and instead, morphed into our present-day system of mass incarceration. In large, bold, and penetrating letters, the museum displayed the 13th Amendment, which states that slavery cannot exist in the U.S. except as a form of punishment. Despite what we are taught in school, slavery has never truly been excised from our land. With nearly 2+ million Americans incarcerated, representing 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, but with America only holding 7% of the world’s population, something is wrong.
As I walked along the Edmond Pettus Bridge, the bridge crossed by Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel, and countless individuals on a march for the basic and supposed guaranteed right to vote, I could not help but be overwhelmed. Nearly fifty years later, the fight is still going on, as the right to vote is far from guaranteed in our country. We Americans know all too well the terrors that come without representation, without a voice.
Standing, at the end of it all, in the park across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black girls were murdered, Bishop Calvin Woods, an activist, leader and teacher from that era taught us. He declared in his booming and soul-shaking voice “Dr. King fought against injustice, not against people.” This is the response to those who would tell us no, that social justice is too political. How can we Jews say no to fighting injustice, when we have been commanded to do so for thousands of years?
So yes, social justice IS a Jewish thing. Social justice demands of us, commands us, to honor the promise of redemption from Egypt and to bring about the world that Deuteronomy calls for us to create. A world without hunger, without poverty, without injustice. Justice, justice we are commanded to pursue. One day, when our children ask us how we responded to the call, we will say in one loud and earth-shaking voice “we heard the call, we never stopped praying with our feet, and said yes, social justice IS a Jewish issue.”