Social justice and orthodoxy

In this time of heightened political polarization, American denominational Judaism is more frequently dividing by political party affiliations and agendas. As a consequence, one common mistaken impression is that Orthodox Judaism does not value or promote social justice.  This perception stems in part because increasingly Orthodox Jews have (for various reasons) favored political beliefs and parties that de-emphasize social justice. But, for those raised, educated, guided or influenced by the teachings and ideals of Modern Orthodoxy as written about and preached by its most leading thinker, Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”), social justice must remain integral to our Abrahamic covenantal community hesed responsibilities.

The Rav’s writings and teachings, many of which originate as speeches, lectures and shiurim to his community members and students, emphasize hesed as an ethic defining Jewish identity.

For example, on November 15, 1971, the Rav delivered a speech about “the credo which guides Maimonides School” (the Jewish day school he founded) and, by extension, all Orthodox Jewish day schools. He concluded with the following statement:

“And last but not least, we believe the Jew cannot live alone, that he belongs to a covenantal community established by Abraham. The password of the Jew is Chesed – kindness, compassion – to his fellow Jews and to his fellow man. He shares in the travail of man in general and of his people. The Jew is a responsible being, he is responsible for society. Abraham’s prayer to God was related to total strangers – the people of Sodom. The Jew must share in the destiny of his people and be concerned with the destiny of mankind.” (Legacy: Rabbi Dr. Soloveitchik and Maimonides School p.3)

This emphasis on hesed responsibilities as the cardinal ethic in Judaism, the Rav explained in Talmudic discourses and philosophic lectures alike, is demanded of all in Judaism and is especially to be modeled by Jewish leadership.   Indeed, in Halakhic Man, the Rav identified social justice as the fundamental role of a Rabbi. He wrote:

“Halakhic Man cannot be cowed by anyone. . . . He takes up his stand in the midst of the concrete world, his feet firmly planted on the ground of reality, and he looks about and sees, listens and hears, and publicly protests against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan. The rich are deemed naught in his view. He is the father of orphans. The judge of widows. . . . Neither ritual decisions, nor political leadership constitute the main task of Halakhic Man. Far from it. The actualization of the ideals of justice and righteousness is the pillar of fire which halakhic man follows, when he as a Rabbi and teacher in Israel, serves his community.” (Halakhic Man p. 91).

Repeatedly, the Rav fashioned these social justice concerns as leading a life committed to hesed, which he identified as a fundamental ethic and not simply performing acts of kindness. “[H]esed means more than a passing sentiment, a superficial feeling; hesed demands more than a momentary tear or a cold coin. Hesed means to merge with the other person, to identify with his pain, to feel responsible for his fate.” (Fate and Destiny p.13).

The Rav understood hesed in Maimonidean terms (See Guide III:53) as literally meaning “excess,” requiring man to share with the other anything in life that is deemed excessive. The Rav taught:

“Judaism has raised the idea of hesed to an existential level. Fundamentally, hesed denotes the opening up of a personal, unique closed-in existence. Self-transcendence and the surge towards the other are called hesed. In other words, an overflowing existence. . . . The norm of hesed demonstrates itself first within external deeds. I am duty bound to aim my efforts at the good of others, not only at my own welfare. However, hesed is not limited to the external sphere of human activity, but reaches into the spiritual life of man. His total existential experience must be an all-inclusive awareness, embracing himself and others, sharing with them the riches of his inner world. Hesed means a community existence of two individuals (or more), feeling each other’s troubles and joys, each giving the other whatever he cherishes as his most precious possession; joy, grief pride, etc.”  (Out of the Whirlwind pp. 209-10)

As such, the hesed ethic focuses on man’s responsibility to the other, and not the self. “Hesed is a movement away from oneself. Hesed surges forward, rushing toward parts unknown, vistas invisible, and horizons enveloped in the haze of the morning.” (Festival of Freedom p. 18). The movement away from the self and the focus on the other is fundamental to transforming man’s natural biological instincts into an ethical human being. “There is, Judaism asserts, a community capable of raising natural man and his compulsive ‘activity,’ his coercive automatism, to the level of humanity; it is the community of the forward movement of hesed.” (ibid p. 19).

To demonstrate how critical the hesed ethic is to Judaism, the Rav (as was his fashion) set up a typology, essentially contrasting Abraham, the prince of hesed, with Job. Chapter One of the Book of Job identifies the protagonist of that story as the greatest man who ever lived. But not just that. Job was the most righteous man of his time. “The Lord said to the Satan ‘Have you noticed my servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8) Likewise, Chapter One ends with “Job did not sin nor did he cast reproach on God.” (ibid 1:22). The Talmud accentuates Job’s greatness by identifying several possible eras in which he could have lived including those of our patriarchs, thereby elevating Job’s stature beyond those of our most heroic personalities. (Baba Batra 15).

Yet, the Rav indicted Job for his lack of hesed in Kol Dodi Dofeq (translated into English as Fate and Destiny), the Rav’s major statement in support of a non-messianic religious Zionism.  The Rav wrote:

“You were a contemporary of Jacob, with Esau, and with the man at the ford of the Jabbok. Did you seek to help him and offer him of your counsel and wisdom? Who was Jacob? A poor shepherd. And you? A wealthy and influential man. Had you accorded Jacob a proper measure of sympathy, of caring, had you treated him with the attribute of steadfast loving kindness, then he would not have had to endure so much suffering. You lived during the time of Moses and were numbered among Pharaoh’s advisers. Did you lift a finger when Pharaoh decreed, “Every son that is born shall ye cast into the river,” when the taskmasters worked your brethren with rigor? You were silent and did not protest, for you were afraid to be identified with the wretched slaves. To slip them a coin – fine, but to intervene publicly on their behalf – out of the question. You were fearful lest you be accused of dual loyalty. . . . You stood by idly!  You did not  participate in the struggle of those who fought for Judaism, for the land of Israel and for the redemption . . . . You were concerned only about your own welfare .  . .”  (Fate and Destiny pp. 13-14).

Elsewhere, the Rav explained the Book of Job as describing the transformation of a religious man from “religious philistine” to a ba’al hesed. In general, the Rav teaches that “the philistine personality (so common in bourgeois society) leads a narrow shut-in existence, focusing all his efforts on a single object: self-preservation. . . . The philistine must always be successful, the first to attain and the last to lose, or, better yet, the one who need not relinquish anything at all. This drive for conquest and security is the motivating force of our civilized effort.” (Out of the Whirlwind p. 151). There are, the Rav adds, religious people who “may turn to God” as philistines seeking “the acquisition and protection of his privileges. . . . The religious egotist and philistine is represented by Job.” (Ibid). Job “served the Lord sincerely and conscientiously, not because the service itself conveyed to him a singular meaning, but for egotistic reasons, as a way to preserve his sense of security.” (Ibid). By the end of the book, however, Job experienced a transformation and the “Job who was isolated and shut in, living for himself and concentrated into himself, descending deeply into the abyss of his own being, is replaced with the Job who has opened up to and is bound up with others.” (Ibid p. 154).

By stark contrast, stands Abraham, the prince of hesed. Abraham may not have accomplished anywhere near what Job, “the greatest man” of his time materially, intellectually, professionally and reputationally, was known for. But Abraham was selected to be the av hamon goyim (the father of many nations) and his family was charged with promoting the covenantal message.  As the Rav described:

“What key virtue did the members of this household possess that made them fit for and worthy of joining the covenant? The answer is hesed, kindness expressed through hachnassat orchim, hospitality. . . . This passional experience taught Abraham and his descendants the art of involvement, of sharing in distress, of feeling for the stranger, of having compassion for the other. It trained Abraham to react quickly to suffering, to try to lighten the other’s burden as much as possible. No matter who the stranger was, what he stood for, and how primitive he was, the stranger had suffered. . . . We have mercy on all uprooted and defenseless human beings in exile. . . . We are burdened with an ethical norm to help because we remember how we felt when we were in distress. . . . If our morality had to be one of kindness and hesed, it could not have been formulated for people who knew not what suffering is. Only a people in exile could understand and appreciate a morality of kindness.” (Abraham’s Journey pp. 195-97).

Hesed most certainly demands social justice responsibilities towards all Jews and the Jewish state, as the Rav so eloquently and passionately articulates in Kol Dodi Dofeq. Supporting our own communal institutions, caring for the poor, the oppressed, the under privileged and the vulnerable in our own communities is vital. It remains equally essential that American Jews defend, protect and promote the State of Israel against defamation and all forms of physical, diplomatic, economic and legal attacks. Israel’s struggles, pains and tragedies as well as its accomplishments, joys and pride are ours as well.

Our hesed responsibilities, however, do not end with our own families, communities, people and nation. Where there is injustice in the world, Abraham’s family and legacy cannot be silent. The Rav made that clear:

“The idea of hesed embraces the entire world and erases borders between nations. We are obligated to love man per se. Even if we have no spiritual closeness to him, even if he lives a life beyond distant horizons and in ways that are foreign to us, even if our thoughts are not his thoughts and our ways not his ways, even if we are separated by differences of culture, religion, language and race, even if immeasurable geographic distance lies between us – he remains within the compass of our hesed, which takes account not of the content of a person’s consciousness, but only the fact of his existence. All people, from anywhere in the world, are creatures bearing the image of God . . . . Accordingly we are duty-bound to love them, including those who are strange to me and despicable to my spirit and state of mind. From the point of view of hesed, all racial, cultural, historical and moral differences are null and void. (Halakhic Morality pp. 178-79).

We live in a time in which the American Orthodox community is being put to the test as to whether it can live up to the demands of Abrahamic hesed responsibilities or will fall prey to Jobian Religious Philistinism. Whatever the merits of any particular political agenda or party politics, the ethical responsibilities to stay true to the credo that hesed is the password of the Jew requires us to “publicly protest against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan.”

About the Author
Daniel D. Edelman resides in Teaneck and works as an attorney in New York City.
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