Before Passover came to camp out in our kitchens and dining rooms and lower intestines, I went to the closing event for Justice and Jewish Thought 2011, held at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan. (The Brecht Forum, if you don’t already know, is a fantastic space for social justice activists, resources, and programing. It would behoove you to visit their website.)
Justice and Jewish Thought (JJT for purposes of brevity), a project of Pursue: Action for a Just World, is an 8 week, 5 cohort opportunity for folks interested in how Jewish thought/practice and social justice work are impacted by our multiple identities, as well as concepts of power, privilege and oppression. It began at Wesleyan University as a student forum on contemporary radical Jewish thought and has since become a course offered in Boston, Washington DC, the Bay Area and New Orleans. Topics explored in the syllabus and discussed include racism, sexuality, Zionism, intersectionality and liberation.
“When we started,” one participant wondered aloud during the closing session, “I thought, how many Jewish social justice texts are there really? It’s as though we always repeat the same ones.” This had been bothering me as well. It seems like “Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” and “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” are ubiquitous. How many times can we invoke and reinterpret them before they have no longer have meaning?
What I realized and what I hope others took away from JJT, is that if we work from a place of wholeness-that is, by bringing all our complicated identities into the conversation-we can actually create alternative narratives that bring richer Jewish interpretations and imperatives to the forefront. What do we consider to be a legitimate Jewish text? The Torah? (The Talmud? Commentaries? Written by whom and when?) What if we saw ourselves and our experiences as a source of Jewish legitimacy?
What’s tangible about what we’ve taken away from 8 weeks of intellectual, moral, and Jewish wrestling? What can we make tangible? How can we create positive forward movement so we don’t lose momentum? In the end, we made a list of resources-organizations, communities, events and individuals, that can help us continue to engage and confront, before closing with a ritual. The term “hadran” connotes a type of discourse one might conduct after completing a tractate of Talmud, as well as a celebration of the occasion.
Part of this ritual is committing to have an ongoing, dynamic relationship to the text. To do this in the long term requires an integration of our values as social justice activists with a recognition of Jewish history and modernity, as well as a welcoming of the notion of productive discomfort-if you stay in the room, even (and especially when it’s hard), you’ll grow. Folks who participated in JJT were surprised by various Jewish perspectives, identities and experiences they confronted in their cohorts, and struggled openly with connection to the issues and the sources-in short, explored what it meant to be part of a radical Jewish thought community.