Leadership & Social Justice: The Relationship Between Power & Responsibility

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World (Jewish Lights, 2006) P. 157-159

Israel: Between Conscience and Solidarity

The fact that the place of Israel in the mind of American Jews transitioned from a source of great pride to one of excruciating moral dilemma in the space of just twenty years relates directly to our understanding of Jewish historical consciousness. Jews are driven by their twin impulses to survive as a people (Exodus) and to help the world be ordered in accordance with a higher moral standard (Sinai). When confronted by the difficult reality that these twin objectives might be in conflict, as was the case in the decades following the Six-Day War, Jews went in two different directions. Some Jews rallied to Israel’s support and redoubled their efforts to protect and defend Israel. Other Jews, no less concerned about Israel’s survival, nevertheless attempted to hold successive Israeli governments accountable for any actions that might be interpreted as an abuse of power or an obstacle to eventual peaceful coexistence in the region. The gap in the perceptions of the respective camps, Exodus and Sinai, was enormous. The Exodus perception of the Middle East conflict by American Jews was that Israel was subjected to an unfair double standard in the court of world opinion. Motivated by a sense of historical justice, Exodus Jews would claim that the Jews had but one state in the Middle East where Arabs claimed more than twenty. The Jewish state was a haven for Jews surviving the Holocaust and fleeing persecution in the years since the end of World War II. Israel fought its wars to defend itself against Arab aggression, not to capture more territory. There were numerous examples of Arab rejectionism, such as the PLO’s Cairo resolution of 1974, which advanced the idea that Palestinians should accept any offer of territory from Israel with the intention of using it as a forward base to destroy the state of Israel… …There is, of course, another perception of the Middle East conflict. Quite apart from those critics of Israel who are from outside the Jewish community (and there are many), there are numerous Jewish organizations that have criticized selected actions of the Israeli government or trends in Israeli society… (Such) groups are not unconcerned about threats to Israel’s survival, but they are primarily motivated by the Sinai impulse of Jewish identity. They expect the Jewish state to be guided by the values of righteousness and justice that have guided Jews since the dawn of history. They expect the Jewish state to live up to the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, and to be a country “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” They expect that a people, so long oppressed, would look into the eyes of their Palestinian neighbors, identify with their plight, and act with sympathy and compassion. In terms of Israel-related Jewish organizations, the relationship between the more pragmatic Exodus camp and the more idealistic Sinai camp is often uneasy. The former certainly is far better organized and represents the predominant perspective of the organized Jewish community. The latter often feels itself unheard and disenfranchised by those who have the ear of public officials as representatives of the organized Jewish community. When Israel faces a crisis, as it did with the second intifada, Jewish individuals or groups that are not in step with the communal party line find themselves facing ostracism, if not worse.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Twenty-five years ago, more than 90% of American Jews felt that Israel's security and safety was a matter that affected their own security and sense of well-being. That number has since declined dramatically, now closer to 50%. Do you feel that your security and safety is linked to the stability of the state of Israel? If your answer is "no," do you feel that your Jewish identity is linked to the state of Israel?

2. Would you call yourself a "Zionist"? Can you define the term? Would the definition "the national liberation movement of the Jewish people" make the term more or less appealing?

3. Do you identify more closely with the narrative and assumptions of the Exodus camp or the Sinai camp as it relates to Israel? Can you understand the narrative and assumptions of the other camp?

מַלְכָּהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, בְּמִשְׁפָּט שֶׁהוּא עוֹשֶׂה, מַעֲמִיד אֶת הָאָרֶץ. וְאִישׁ תְּרוּמוֹת יֶהֶרְסֶנָּה. אִם מֵשִׁים אָדָם עַצְמוֹ כַּתְּרוּמָה הַזּוֹ שֶׁמֻּשְׁלֶכֶת בְּזָוִית הַבַּית וְאוֹמֵר מַה לִּי בְּטֹרַח הַצִּבּוּר, מַה לִּי בְּדִינֵיהֶם, מַה לִּי לִשְׁמֹעַ קוֹלָם, שָׁלוֹם עָלַיִךְ נַפְשִׁי, הֲרֵי זֶה מַחֲרִיב אֶת הָעוֹלָם.

If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, that person gives stability to the land... But if a person sits in their home and says to themselves, “What have the affairs of society to do with me?... Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!”—if one does this, they overthrow the world. [translation by Hazon]

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. When do you sit at home when you might stand up and make a difference? Why is it often easier to do so?

2. What does this text say about the relationship between power and responsibility?

3. “Person of learning” refers to those in society who have training, a higher profession, or power of some other kind. This text is specifically speaking to those who are in power in society – and who still have responsibility to act for others. In today’s society, who would you replace “person of learning” with?

וכן אל יחשוב בלבבו לאמור שמא על ידי זה שאני מטפל בעסקי זולתי פן יבולע לי ויהיה לי איזה הפסד ממוני או גופני או לא יהיו עוד דברי נשמעים אצל הממשלה, ואבידתי ואבידת חברי אבידתי קודמת וכיוצא. כי לא יאמר כזאת רק מי שהוא בעל נפש לא טהורה, האחד כי אם כה לא יעשה להציל ולהושיע עני ואביון למחר או למחרתו יוסיפו עוד בני עולה לענותו גם הוא ונמצא כי הדבר נוגע ממש אל עצמו ואל בשרו. ועוד כי בדבר כזה שהוא כללי לישוב המדיני, החוב והמצווה על כל אדם למחות לקיים מה שנאמר ובערת הרע מקרבך. וכל המעלים עין בזה אינו אלא טועה נבזה וחדל אישים

Moshe's Moral Bravery - "Darkhei Moshe", Parshat Shemot, Rabbi Moshe Chalphon HaCohen - Part 4

A person must also not think to themselves: "Perhaps by attending to someone else's issues I will suffer some physical harm or monetary loss, or my status will fall in the eyes of the local government", even quoting the Rabbinical rule that "Your lost object and your peer's lost object – your lost object takes precedence" etc., for only someone who is of an unclean spirit would say such things, firstly because if one does not act to help and save the poor and impoverished – tomorrow or the day after the persecution will arrive at that person’s door – and then it will indeed be one’s own affliction. And moreover in issues that regard the rule of the land – it is an obligation and a commandment for every person to protest, thus fulfilling the verse: "And you shall purge the evil from your midst" (Deut. 13:6). And whoever turns away from such situations is a despicable lost wretch. [Translation by Mishael Zion. Edited for gender neutrality]

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. To what common fear does this text speak?

2. What are the reasons he provides for why one must not shy from helping others in vulnerable positions?

3. How does he command you to act? How can we act today?

כָּל הַיָּמִים שֶׁאָדָם חָבֵר לֹא אִכְפַּת לוֹ בַּצִּבּוּר וְאֵינוֹ נֶעֱנַשׁ עָלָיו, נִתְמַנָּה אָדָם בָּרֹאשׁ וְנָטַל טַלִּית, לֹא יֹאמַר לְטוֹבָתִי אֲנִי נִזְקָק, לֹא אִכְפַּת לִי בַּצִּבּוּר, אֶלָּא כָּל טֹרַח הַצִּבּוּר עָלָיו, אִם רָאָה אָדָם מַעֲבִיר בִּיָּיא עַל חֲבֵרוֹ, אוֹ עוֹבֵר עֲבֵרָה, וְלֹא מְמַחֶה בְּיָדוֹ הוּא נֶעֱנַשׁ עָלָיו. וְרוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ צוֹוַחַת: בְּנִי אִם עָרַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ, אַתָּה עָרֵב עָלָיו, (משלי ו, א): תָּקַעְתָּ לַזָּר כַּפֶּיךָ, אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אַתָּה הִכְנַסְתָּ עַצְמְךָ לַזִּירָה, וּמִי שֶׁהוּא מַכְנִיס עַצְמוֹ לַזִּירָה אוֹ נִצּוֹחַ אוֹ נוֹצֵחַ, אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֲנִי וְאַתָּה עוֹמְדִים בַּזִּירָה אוֹ נִצַּחְתָּ אוֹ נִצַּחְתִּי.

As long as one is but an ordinary scholar, one has no concern with the congregation and is not punished [for its lapses], but as soon as one is appointed head and dons the cloak [of leadership], one must no longer say: ‘I live for my own benefit, I care not about the congregation,’ but the whole burden of the community is on that person's shoulders. If one sees a person causing suffering to another, or transgressing, and does not prevent that person, then that person is held punishable. The Holy Spirit then exclaims, “‘My child, if you have become surety for your neighbor’- you are responsible for your neighbor, because ‘you have shaken hands on behalf of a stranger’” (Proverbs 6:1). The Holy Blessed One says to that person: “‘You [by assuming office] have placed yourself in the arena’, and one who places oneself in the arena stands either to fail or win. We two stand in the arena; either you prevail or I.” [Soncino translation]

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. In what ways can leaders help their community be more involved in acts of justice? 2. In what ways are all citizens of a democracy leaders?

תא שמע גדול כבוד הבריות שדוחה [את] לא תעשה שבתורה

Come and learn: Human dignity is so important that it supersedes even a biblical prohibition. [Soncino translation]

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What is human dignity? Why is it so important that it supersedes a biblical prohibition?

2. What happens when human dignity is not a priority, such that this text makes it the most important thing?