THERE ARE TWO AUDIENCES for this provocative and clear-eyed new book by Rabbi Jill Jacobs:
The first audience is Jewish. In his Foreword to the book, Rabbi Elliot Dorff of American Jewish University explains this more clearly than I could: “Ever since the Civil Rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, social justice has been the concern primarily of secular and Reform Jews. This book demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt, however, that social justice needs to be a focus of more traditional Jews as well. Those who take Jewish law seriously will find in this book not only references to general principles of the Torah and the ringing declamations of the prophets commonly cited to ground social justice activities in the Jewish tradition, but also ample citations from Jewish legal literature, including the Mishnah, Talmud, codes, responsa (rabbinic legal opinions), and medieval and modern commentaries.”
That’s precisely the reason this book has a second audience: Christians.
I can’t count the number of talks, articles and books by leading lights in Christianity today who toss in references from Abraham Joshua Heschel and refer to popular terms like Tikkun Olam and Jubilee. The Christian chorus ranges from Rob Bell’s brand new tour, “Drops Like Stars,” to denominations like the United Methodist Church where leaders have adopted “Jubilee” as a popular rallying cry.
Rob Bell is impressive because he does his homework in these traditions — but many references in the Christian chorus of preachers and writers are, as pollster George Gallup sometimes put it: “miles wide and an inch deep.”
This book is a guide to the depth you need. In 200 pages, plus notes and introductory material, Rabbi Jill Jacobs helps readers sort out the more substantial threads in this fabric. Think of Jill’s new book as an invitation for non-Jews to move deeper. She’s opening up the fabric in many ways, pointing out the threads to follow. She’s welcoming the curious who, armed with more substance, may become the prophets we need in each community in the years ahead.
It’s great for small-group discussion, as well. But, plan for several months on this 9-chapter book.
Who is Rabbi Jill Jacobs? She’s rabbi-in-residence at the Jewish Funds for Justice — and she is included in Newsweek Magazine’s newest “50 Most Influential Rabbis” list (just a half dozen slots away on the list from Rabbi Elliot Dorff).
HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR
CONVERSATION WITH RABBI JILL JACOBS:
DAVID: We’re talking at Passover, so let’s start with that. Your work relates on many levels to the traditions we recall at Passover. Tell us about that from your perspective.
JILL: The story of Passover is the core narrative of the Jewish people—the story of coming out of oppression and slavery to become a free people.
There is a commitment that comes out of that to forming a community. It’s not like each person sneaks out as an individual. In the book, I write about is what it means to have responsibility to your community and also to higher ideals and to God.
A second theme is almost a little counter-intuitive in the Passover story. The story is that these non-Jews, the Egyptians, oppress the Jewish people. One approach to that long oppression, and the more psychologically common approach, is to seek revenge — to go after anyone who is Egyptian or who is outside your core group. The Torah takes absolutely the opposite approach. It says: You’ve experienced being strangers so you have a clear responsibility to others who are strangers and who are less fortunate. Your response is not vengeance. It is to learn from your own experience as the oppressed so that you welcome others who are oppressed and who are strangers.
This is especially important right now. We’re not only at Passover, but we’re also in the midst of an economic crisis and people are concerned about themselves, their 401k, their family home, whether they can send their kids to school. It’s easy to close in. It’s easy to feel angry at the world. But that is not the lesson of our tradition.
DAVID: I was struck while reading your book that so many of the concepts you explore — and link to deeper references in Jewish traditional teaching — are core teachings in contemporary Christian thought as well. We’ve written about Pope John Paul II, not praising everything he ever did, but we have honored him as an Interfaith Hero, for example.
One of the central themes in John Paul II’s teaching concerns the sacred dignity of each human being. You write about this as well. Do you feel you’re talking about similar themes?
JILL: I’ve read some of his work, especially his writing about the nature of labor. Here is what I would say generally: We’re both looking at the same biblical texts, the concept in Genesis that humans are created in the image of God.
This becomes a complicated question: Does this mean that we have godliness in us? Are we physical manifestations of God? What does that mean? But one thing we know it means is—if you meet a homeless person on the street and they may smell bad and they may not look like anyone else in your actual physical family right now—but the challenge is to see the image of God in this person.
DAVID: The greatest strength in your new book is the way you move step by step through various popular reference points in social justice today and explore the roots of these concepts in Judaism from ancient times to present day. You’re serving as a guide, helping people to move past just a surface understanding of religious slogans.
So, let’s talk about one of those terms you explore. One example is the very basic term — tzedek, usually is translated in English as “justice.” We share this from our earliest biblical texts. Often we hear it out of Deuteronomy 16:20, a line you talk about in the book.
JILL: To even start talking about this, we have to understand that every translation is an interpretation of the original words. This term tzedek generally is translated as justice and people love to throw around that biblical line from Deuteronomy: “Justice, justice you should pursue.”
It’s powerful but people use it to explain almost anything they do. If I’m pro-choice, I can quote that line. If I’m pro-life, I can quote that line. In the end, if everyone is quoting it from all sides, it doesn’t mean anything.
I did an experiment and Googled this and found the line used both for one side of an issue – and for precisely the opposite side of the issue.
What I wanted to do was go back to the biblical texts and also to later texts and tease out what it really means. Tzedek very much is a relational term. It’s not a theoretical concept of justice in the world—it’s about the ways our relationships should be based in justice.
DAVID: Your definition of the term spreads across 4 pages in your book — to give readers a sense of how much meaning is connected with this tiny term. For example, you point out that it’s related to the term “tzedakah,” which refers to support for the poor. You write that tzedek is “a relational term that describes a contract between God and humanity, or between humans of differing social and political status, to establish a system aimed at liberating the vulnerable from their oppressors.”
Once we begin to understand the long, long history and associations with a term like this, the pathways toward justice become clearer.
JILL: It can be an abstract concept. Then it becomes clearer when we see a practical application of the concept like tzedakah, which includes caring for those in need.
DAVID: “Those in need” also gets spelled out fairly clearly, over time. You point out in the book that there are historical understandings of these concepts—and modern extensions of those concepts as well. That’s eye-opening reading for non-Jews who haven’t had much of an introduction to these traditions.
Here’s a good example of that. On your chapter about “Poverty and the Poor,” you write:
Rabbinic texts chastise those who would declare certain people to be undeserving of support. For example:
If the rich man says to this same poor man, “Why do you not go and work and get food? Look at those hips! Look at those legs! Look at that body fat! Look at those lumps of flesh!” I the Blessed Holy One say to him, “Is it not enough that you have not given him anything of yours, but you must set the evil eye on what I have given him?” (Vayikra Rabbah 34:4)
The text here has God rebuking the wealthy for judging the poor By way of responding to the assumption that excess flesh signifies a well-fed body, God claims responsibility for determining the physical makeup of each person. In calling attention to a poor person’s girth, then understood as a sign of health, the wealthy only tempts “the evil eye,” which, in Jewish superstition, brings disaster to those who are too beautiful or too healthy. … It is not unusual to assume that a person’s physical appearance or habits offer an accurate picture of his or her financial needs. … This text challenges the reader to respond to the poor person’s stated need, and not to his or her own projections about this person’s need.
What you’re talking about here is a far-reaching sense of reconciliation between segments of our communities that seem to be pulling into ever-tighter circles and not even thinking clearly about the needs of the other groups we’ve excluded.
JILL: This issue of relationships between wealthier and poorer segments of the community — and the separations that are widening between these communities — also relates to environmental issues.
DAVID: Blind spots form here — even as all of us think we’re pursuing environmental justice.
JILL: The environment obviously is one of the hottest issues right now among younger people. One of the dichotomies I address in my chapter, “The City and the Garden,” is that, on the one hand, there are conservation people who want to increase energy efficiency, reduce waste and reduce global warming. I’m painting this in broad strokes here, but there’s that group and there’s also a group of people who are much more focused on environmental justice issues that are more neighborhood based. These issues often focus on people with lower incomes. For example, we’re talking about an issue like buses idling and spewing pollution around poor people’s homes. Or, we’re talking about waste-collection points in our urban planning that are located near poor people.
Often those two camps don’t speak and one of the things I worry about is that it’s very easy to get committed to the fight against global warming without even considering the direct impact of environmental issues on low-income people right now.
Sometimes it feels very safe to get involved with global warming — it’s clean, it’s easy for upper-middle-class people to get involved. I see this in synagogues all the time. It’s easier to change all the synagogue light bulbs to energy-efficient bulbs than it is to motivate people to support moving a regional waste-transfer station maybe to a neighborhood where the homes are more spread out and maybe some of their neighbors live rather than locating it in the middle of a neighborhood where lots of poor people live.
These two things shouldn’t be distant from each other. Ideally, we should be trying to build sustainable communities with a larger vision of what we’re trying to accomplish together.
DAVID: Are you hopeful or pessimistic right now about where we’re all heading in this time of crisis?
JILL: I have to be hopeful because there’s no other option. I can either be hopeful or I can be despondent.
DAVID: What gives you hope?
JILL: In my work I meet so many people in heir 20s or in college for whom Judaism and social justice really are synonymous. When I started rabbinical school in 1998 and told people I want to do social justice work – it was like saying I wanted to go work in a synagogue on Mars. And now I get calls all the time from seminary students who are telling me they want to devote their life to this work or who at least want to make this a significant part of their lives.
That has to give us hope.
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