Can Social Activism and Rabbinic Study Go Hand in Hand?
"Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:10); the Law demands it, the prophets wax lyrical about it, the Writings make incisive comments about it. Yet the religious world seems remarkably hesitant to do it.
The religious community in Israel supports thousands of charitiable funds. It is overrepresented in the higher ranks of the army, still managing to inculcate its youth with a sense of idealism and self-sacrifice that passed out of most of the world with bellbottomed trousers. Hospitals and schools are filled with religious girls devoting endless dedication to National Service. But few of these people will be seen at a human rights protest, in a lobby group, or indeed taking any active interest in the forces that make the rich richer and that keep the poor poor.
The suspicion dividing religious Jews from social change initiatives is not new. The Communist Revolution, promising freedom and equality for all, did not deal kindly with Soviet Jewry. Activism, altogether, tastes a little too “goyish” for certain palates. Perhaps there is a temperamental contradiction between the fiery furnaces of politics and the prayerful conservatism of faith. The growing religious-secular divide in Israel, however, has prompted a new initiative to challenge this.
“The Beit Midrash [or Jewish study center] for Social Justice was born in the Gaza Strip on the eve of the Disengagement,” explains its founder and co-head, Rabbi Benny Lau. “We sat around a table in Neveh Dekalim, a group of rabbis from the religious Zionist movement, and discussed the situation. I realized that if we did not do something, the rift between our sector and the State would become unbridgeable. Supporting the project are Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, an academic center for advanced Jewish studies and leadership development dedicated to conveying the relevance of Jewish tradition to contemporary society, and Bema’aglei Tzedek, a vibrant, young, religious social activism organization. It was a bid to bridge the religious-civil abyss by bridging another gap—the “language barrier” separating the Jewish legal discourse of obligations with a contemporary social discourse of rights.
This is no simple undertaking. The religious world has developed relationships with physics, technology and up-to-the-minute advances in medicine. There are detailed works on the “Jewish laws of” everything from the IDF to IVF. Yet Orthodoxy and the social sciences remain virtual strangers. Jewish law has had little to say about pension rights and environmental ethics, state education and globalization. Few rabbis have the language even to discuss these issues.
The Institute began as a gathering of scholars keen to learn something about the workings of a welfare state, to discuss it in Jewish terms, and to return to their own institutions with the fruits of their discourse. This year’s group was different; a large proportion of the thirty fellows are still rabbis and educators, but the doors of the Beit Midrash have been opened to women, to grassroots workers, and to the non-Orthodox.
There is definitely a change in the air—both within the Institute and in the way it is perceived outside. “Until this year the fellows would hurry home at eight and as far as they were concerned that was it,” observed Efrat Degani-Topperof, educational coordinator of Bema’aglei Tzedek. Now, six weeks after this year’s closing meeting, the fellows’ email list is as passionately argumentative as ever, still in terms of “How should we react to…?” “Since joining the program I hear the news differently,” remarked Rabbi Moti Goodman, who makes the fortnightly journey to Beit Morasha from his yeshiva in the Jordan Valley. For a very “kosher” institution, the group represents a remarkable variety of views. Rinat Weigler is deputy legal adviser to the Welfare Minister, while Ariel Yosef Israel herds goats in a West Bank settlement. Yoav Rubin edits a socialist journal from his urban kibbutz, while Rabbi Avi Deutsch combines leadership of a Conservative synagogue with social work in one of Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods. Topics researched by the fellows have included conversion, epilepsy, attitudes to sexual abuse, accumulation of wealth, Fair Trade, refugees, aging, access, adoption, advertising—and the list goes on.
Reaching consensus in such a group is neither likely nor a particular aspiration. And predictably enough, one of the longest standing debates is over the aims of the Institute itself. Some argue that the Jewish legal system covers every aspect of life, and that the religious world must therefore theorize society in its own terms and decide upon normative modes of Jewish policymaking. Others, such as Rabbi Eliezer Weil, insist that “Jewish law only states a litigate social justice, which falls under the category of “do[ing] what is upright and good” (Deuteronomy 6: 8) and should be left to the individual conscience. Some insist that the Beit Midrash should act primarily within its own community, raising social justice concerns on religious agenda. Others are eager to produce position papers to influence Israeli policymakers. In effect, the fellows act both within and beyond “the Community,” producing educational resources, creating a social justice section in the popular religious website Kipa.co.il, engaging in social projects, and developing collaborative responses to the burning issues in the news.
There are moments when bridging the gap between the religious world and that of social involvement seems impossible. But religion has unique contributions to offer social debate. The Jewish library provides access to millennia of human experience, inspiration, and thought. And inside that library, students are trained for a different and valuable mode of action. The fellows’ yeshiva training is evident both in the almost aggressive urgency of their arguments—as if their lives depended upon getting their points across—and in the sometimes incongruous gentleness that always allows them to listen to another view, wherever it comes from. There is something necessary in this beit midrash approach to activism; something involving patience and urgency, humility, and a capacity to accept complexity while remaining unshakably convinced of one’s truth. The challenge is to cultivate that energy and channel it towards effective cooperation with the secular world.
Jessica Sacks was born in England and made aliyah four years ago. She is a fellow at the Beit Midrash for Social Justice, Beit Morasha (www.kipa.co.il/society), works as a translator and studies for a never-ending Master's degree in Rabbinic Literature at the Hebrew University.