Some Implications of Brit:
Jews and Social Justice: A Covenant of Responsibility
Passover: Can I be Jewish Without Community?
Tzedakah: How Many People Mut I Save?
Talk it out
- How do you code switch in your own life?
- Do you code switch between home and college? Between the rest of college and Jewish life?
- What are some of the words that you use in your college life?
- What are some of the words that you use in your Jewish life?
- If you do code switch, does it bother you?
Rabbi Sid Schwarz, “Can Social Justice Save the American Jewish Soul?”
Based on my reading of Judaism, there are two compelling answers to the question, "What is the purpose of Judaism?"
The first purpose is based on Genesis 18, when God expands on an initial charge to Abraham to go forth from his land to the land that God will show him. In 18:19, God adds a critical prerequisite that will enable Abraham to fulfill his destiny and become the father of a great nation. He is to obey God's commandments and "extend the boundaries of righteousness and justice in the world," la'asot tzedakah umishpat.
The second purpose of Judaism is based on God's revelation to Moses, which is recounted in Exodus 19:6. The Jewish people are told to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," a mamlechet kohanim and goy kadosh. The Hebrew word for holiness-kedusha-comes from a root that means separate and apart.
Judaism is a religion based on a paradox: Jews are expected to maintain a holy apartness as God's chosen people and, at the same time, are expected to be totally engaged with the world around them. The observance of ritual laws must be combined with acting toward others with justice and compassion, to be loyal to God's covenant with the Jewish people.
- Rabbi Schwarz points to two purposes of the Jewish people: to spread righteousness and justice, and to be a holy nation. How have these two purposes of Judaism manifested in your own life?
- Do these purposes seem opposed to each other? Could you think of a way that these two purposes could work together?
Ask: Do you think that this child should be called wicked based on her question? Is her question
really so terrible?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Bo (5768): The Covenant of Fate 5 :
Judaism is a communal faith. This is the “principle” that the rebellious child denies. Judaism is not addressed to individuals. Nor is it addressed to humanity as a whole. G-d chose a people, a nation, and asked them at Mount Sinai to pledge themselves, not only to Him but also to one another. Emunah, that key word of Judaism, usually translated as “faith,” more properly means loyalty – to G-d, but also to the people He has chosen as the carriers of His mission, the witnesses to His presence. To be sure, Jews are sometimes exasperating. Rashi, commenting on Moses’ charge to his successor Joshua, says that he told him: “Know that they [the people you are about to lead] are troublesome and contentious.” But he also told him: “You are
fortunate for you will have the privilege of leading the children of G-d Himself.”
. . .
[A] Jew who does not say “You” when Jews or Israel are under attack, but “Me,” has made a fundamental affirmation – to be part of a people, sharing in its responsibilities, identifying with its hopes and fears, celebrations and griefs. That is the covenant of fate and it still summons us today.
Ask: How important do you think it is “to be part of a people, sharing in its responsibilities,
identifying with its hopes and fears, celebrations and griefs”?
George Robinson, Tzedakah in the Jewish Tradition, MyJewishLearning
Tzedakah is loosely translated as "charity", but that is a misrepresentation of the concept. The Hebrew has its root in another word, tzedek/justice. In the Torah, we are strongly enjoined, "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof/Justice, justice thou shalt pursue." Rabbinical commentators have said that the repetition of the word justice is designed to underline the importance of the command.
Tzedakah is not charity given out of caritas, in the Christian understanding of those words; it is given as an act of redress, as part of the process of seeking a just world.
דרך ארץ זוטא א:כ״ט
אם הטיבות הרבה, יהי בעיניך מעט, ואמור לא משלי הטיבותי אלא ממה שהטיבו לי.
Derech Eretz Zuta, 1:29
If you did someone a great favor, regard it as small, and say, 'I did not do this good act with my own money; rather it was from the good that others have done for me.”
Hillel, a famous early Rabbinic figure, articulates the importance of maintaining a connection with one's community. His other instructions may be understood in this context as well: Do not believe that you can exist without the help and support of others, and without being there for them as well. And being a part of a community often means suspending judgment, and looking for opportunities to identify with those around us.
What does remaining connected to the community look like in your life? What shared values help you suspend judgment of one another and remember the importance of relying on one another for help?
This section from the Talmud acknowledges that when times are tough for a certain group, there may be a natural inclination for an individual to pull away. I might be able to "pass" as a member of a different group, and thereby avoid the difficulties facing my former community. But, the Talmud warns, this person will miss out on future celebrations with this group.
Have you ever felt that a community with which you identify is being targeted or persecuted? How did you respond?
Even more so than the previous source, this Midrashic excerpt makes it clear that abandoning the needs of one's community is destructive, perhaps especially for a leader. The elites have the benefit of being able to withdraw into their own space when things get rough; they don't have to involve themselves in the messy everyday disputes and squabbles of the community. But, the Midrash tells us, true leadership is the willingness to get involved and stay involved in all the many little issues that plague our community.
Are there flaws in your community that inspire you to engage in repairing them, or assisting others in doing so? What makes you feel inspired to do so, and what makes you feel overwhelmed or turned off from getting involved?
Abraham, our first patriarch, enters into a brit or partnership with God in this quote from the book of Genesis. Eventually, Abraham's descendants will inherit the land of Israel, but first, they will be strangers and victims of oppression in another land. This brit is recalled time and time again in the Torah, both in the context of the connection between God and the Jewish people, and also as a basis for forming bonds with others around us. This verse in Exodus is just one of many times when the Torah reminds us that we were "strangers" in the land of Egypt, and therefore we are called upon to recognize the stranger, the underdog, and the oppressed wherever we go. Unlike the sense of partnership that might emerge from Jewish peoplehood, this brit allows us to feel a sense of connection with people from all different backgrounds.
With whom does your Jewish heritage allow you to connect, and why? Does the idea of having been a stranger or underdog resonate with you? Why or why not?
In this ELI Talk, philanthropist and activist Felicia Herman talks about the power of communal giving. It turns out that being connected to a community doesn't just benefit all the individuals who come together, but can actually lead to a culture of giving that is stronger and more vibrant than if one were to give on one's own.
Does your involvement in community ever lead you and those around you to give to others? What do you think would be some shared values that might bring you together with others and inspire you to give?