Tzedek, Chessed and Women's Empowerment
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Author: Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum
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Tzedek, Chesed, and Women’s Empowerment Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the supreme court justice, graduated Madison High School in Brooklyn and entered Cornell in 1950, and in 1954 she married Martin Ginsburg. Her first encounter with sex discrimination came while working for the Social Security office in Oklahoma where Martin was working for the military. After revealing her pregnancy to administrators, she was demoted.

She applied and was accepted to Harvard Law School where her husband was also now re-enrolled, and where she was one of nine woman students out of a class of five hundred. At a tea for woman students, she remembers Dean Erwin Griswold asking each student how she felt about taking a place earmarked for a man. Afraid of seeming too assertive, Ginsburg answered that her studies would help her to understand her husband’s work and might lead to a part time job.

When Ruth Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School because her husband had gotten a job in New York, one classmate recalled that ‘we heard the smartest person on the East Coast was going to transfer and we were all going to drop down one rank.’ But, despite tying for first place in her class, and editing the Law Review, Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not receive a single job offer when she graduated in 1959.

Nevertheless, Ginsburg went on to teach at Columbia University Law School, and between 1973 and 1976, she argued six women’s rights cases before the Supreme Court and won five of them. And, in the process, she pioneered the notion of gender discrimination as a legal category. Ultimately because of the work she did shattering gender stereotypes of both men and women, Ginsburg became known as the Thurgood Marshall of gender equality law.

I mention Ruth Bader Ginsburg because she is an example of an important distinction we make in Jewish ethics, the difference between Tzedek and Chesed. We usually translated tzedek as justice, and chesed as kindness. But, in Jewish social justice circles today, these two words have a more specific meaning. Chesed refers to an act of kindness that helps an individual person. And, Tzedek refers to the act of institutional change, changing the framework of society that causes injustice in the first place.

So, when the Torah tells us to leave the corners of our field for the poor, that is an act of Chesed, kindness. It helps the poor get by, but it doesn’t address the larger issue of poverty. But, in this week’s parasha, as Dani explained earlier, the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee year address the root social causes of poverty. The goal of these laws is to prevent a person from having to need to accept the corners of the field, because he’ll have his own field.

In modern times, the Jewish community in America and in Israel has had plenty of experience with both Tzedek and Chessed. Marching in Washington to get Jews out of the Soviet Union was an act of Tzedek. Helping a Russian Jewish family get established once they came to America or Israel was an act of Chesed. Jews who rode as Freedom Riders were engaging in Tzedek. Operation Solomon to airlift Ethiopian Jews was Tzedek. The creation of the State of Israel itself is Tzedek.

Both Tzedek and Chesed are important. But, it seems to me, that if we look at the last thirty years or so, in the American Jewish community, the balance has shifted to Chesed. And, when we say the words ‘social justice’ or ‘social action’ in the synagogue world or in other Jewish institutions, we’re talking mostly about chesed, alleviating the plight of individuals who need help, but not challenging the frameworks which make that help necessary in the first place. And, since Jews in modern history have never been reticent about doing Tzedek, I’d like to suggest that we look at that imbalance, and think about doing something about it. And, in the spirit of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, here is a place to start.

There has been a lot of talk in recent year about reforming the American educational system. There is a view that if we could just get rid of all the bad teachers, everything would be fixed. But, there is another view that goes more to heart of the problem: we should be ashamed of what we pay teachers in America. In the NY Times recently, Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari said that if we want to prove we’re serious about education, we need to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates. And, to do that we need to dramatically increase teacher salaries.

Erik Benner is an award winning history teacher in Keller, Texas. He has two children and for 15 years he’s been unable to support them on a teacher’s salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from his middle school to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor where he works until 11pm. That’s ridiculous.

The consulting firm McKinsey recently did a study comparing the treatment of teachers here and in three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea. In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers an average of 250 percent of what we do.

This is not only an economic issue. It’s a gender issue. The other day I was remembering with Janine of how lucky my two children were to have had two world class teachers, both women, in the third grade and the fourth grade, which I am convinced changed their lives, and were the foundation of all of their future academic success. How is it that the Solomon Schechter Day School was able to attract such brilliant and talented women as Debbie and Joanne on the modest salaries they offered them—a tiny fraction of what they could have made in other professions?

Well, I’m going to say it bluntly. Both Debbie and Joanne were married to doctors. So, they could get by on one family income, and they were willing to work for very little because they were idealistic, and they enjoyed their work, but also, because they could afford to. But, it’s a different world now, and their daughters will not accept these conditions, and neither will their sons, and they shouldn’t have to. And, I have to believe that if teaching were a profession dominated by men and not by women, the issue of teacher salaries would have been solved a long time ago. Overall in all professions, women’s salaries in America are still only 70% of men’s. So, the issue of education in America is a gender issue. It’s not about poor teachers. It’s about discrimination against women. Pay teachers what they’re worth—men and women, and education in America will be transformed.

One of the reasons we hesitate to get involved in Tzedek, in changing larger frameworks, is we sometimes don’t know where to begin. But, experts from around the world have been telling us for at least ten years: begin with women and education. Everything flows from there. If the countries which discriminate flagrantly against women were practicing racial discrimination, we’d be boycotting these countries left and right. There would be outraged cries against apartheid at the United Nations. So, why is it that when women are suppressed that we have stayed so quiet?

Women’s equality is the keystone to the democratic transformation of the Middle East. Here’s what Tom Friedman said recently about Amr Moussa, the person most likely to be the next president of Egypt:

“In the decade he led the Arab League, he spent a great deal of time jousting with Israel and did virtually nothing to….deal with the conclusions of the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report, produced by Arab scholars, that said the Arab people are suffering from three huge deficits: a deficit of freedom, a deficit of knowledge, and a deficit of women’s empowerment.”

Middle East expert Bernard Lewis was recently interviewed by the Jerusalem Post. The final question he was asked was what should Israel do to respond to the upheaval in the Arab world. And, he said: “Watch carefully, make the necessary preparations, and reach out, reach out.” He said there are two things in Israel’s favor. First, is that many in the Arab world see Israel as a barrier against the Iranian threat. “But, the other,” he said “is even more important…There are an increasing number of people in the Arab world who look with…wonderment at Israel, at the functioning of a free and open society…with rights for women, an increasingly important point, especially in the perception of women.”

It’s time for the Jewish community in America to get back in the business of Tzedek. And, the place to start is the issue of women’s empowerment and education. If we care about Israel’s peace and security, we should be pressing the issue of how women are treated in the Middle East. No country should get a free pass on this issue. If we care about democracy succeeding the Middle East, women are the key. If we care about the quality of education in America, women are the key. These are not side issues. These are central to the moral health of the world, and the physical safety of the Jewish people.

This is a moment of opportunity. Let’s take advantage of it. In the past, when there has been a moral issue that we have felt passionately about, we have not hesitated. We were not deterred by the complexity of the issue or the odds against success. We’ve come a long way since Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to apologize for being in law school. But, the work is not finished. It’s only just begun. Let’s make our voices heard---for our sake, for Israel’s sake, and in the pursuit of a higher ethical standard for men and women all over the world.

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This Dvar Torah uses the inspiring story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to highlight the difference between Tzedek and Chessed and the importance of women's empowerment.