Barry H. Block
Barry H. Block
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Social justice should not be controversial

American Jews must not turn away from the Torah’s imperative that we learn about and work for a more just, peaceful, and equitable world

There is a crisis today in our public schools: in many classrooms across the country, truth is being deemed treif, unfit for consumption. Politicians are proposing laws that attempt to restrict teachers from educating students about hard truths – such as the extent to which the United States was built by enslaved Black people, or that our country’s white founders did not really mean it when they said, “all men are created equal.” In some cases, this legislation seeks to ban teachers from discussing or even mentioning supposedly dangerous concepts in their classrooms, including the term “social justice.”

As a rabbi, I’m particularly troubled by this assault on the concept of social justice, which Jewish religious leaders have been championing for longer than the term has existed. The truth is that social justice is a noble and worthy concept that has every place in our classrooms and our broader society. At this critical time in our nation’s history – when many Americans have a renewed understanding of the extent to which systemic racism has infected our nation, while many others willfully close their eyes to that harsh reality – embracing our Jewish tradition of social justice has never been so pressing.

So, just what is social justice? In Judaism, it is commonly understood as the Torah’s mandate to establish, nurture, and protect social institutions – including governments – that uphold the wellbeing and dignity of individuals and communities, particularly those who lack privilege and whose voices are often silenced.

A belief in social justice inspires Jews and many other people of faith to work for progress and change on a wide range of societal problems, from poverty to climate change to structural racism. Many of us draw on the sacred texts of our religion to ground our commitment to social justice. Biblical prophets might not have employed the term “social justice,” but they called for it all the same. For example, the prophet Isaiah rejects the concept of religion without accompanying steadfast compassion and support for our fellow human beings. He castigates elite Israelites for imagining that scrupulous religious observance will protect them from God’s wrath when they oppress their workers and lash out in violence. Instead, he proclaims, God will favor those who free the enslaved, feed the hungry, provide shelter to the homeless, and clothe the naked.

With the very idea of social justice under assault from numerous fronts, the encouraging news is that a growing number of Jewish leaders are speaking out in defense of social justice and the role it plays in our society. The Social Justice Torah Commentary, a new collection published by CCAR Press and written by an array of diverse, thoughtful, and critical voices that I was honored to assemble – dives deeply into each week’s Torah portion (parashah) and connects the Torah to contemporary issues such as racism and mass incarceration, with practical ways for readers to pursue social justice action.

With insights from leaders like Ilana Kaufman of the Jews of Color Initiative, who focuses her chapter on issues of diversity and racial justice in Jewish communities and beyond. Rabbi David Spinrad, who explores the biblical story of the patriarch Isaac to explore the impact of systemic racism on access to clean water and sewage. Finally, Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, who excavates Leviticus’s prescriptions for maternal isolation after childbirth to formulate an argument that all child-bearers deserve equal access to give birth safely. These powerful perspectives show how the ancient Jewish understanding of social justice is as relevant today as it has ever been.

Nothing about social justice should be controversial. America must confront the truth about the systemic racism and economic injustice that plagues our nation. Schools need to grapple with historical reality and teach our children to be thoughtful, open-minded members of our society who seek to improve it and not merely accept the status quo. American Jews must not turn away from the Torah’s imperative that we learn about and work for a more just, peaceful, and equitable world, wherever we see such opportunities in our own lives.

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