Do the Good and the Just: An offering to the Jewish social justice movement

Rev. Michael-Ray Matthews told me this story. During the Ferguson protests a group of clergy who were there to support the protestors were dismayed that the protestors in the street were not interested in traditional clergy leadership, nor in coming to church. They met to discuss what they could do. During the conversation, Rev. Traci Blackmon said: “These children are making church in the streets. They don’t need our walls.”

I am a rabbi who creates sacred spaces in the streets by organizing and participating in nonviolent multifaith protests against injustices of various kinds. Whether its organizing a Passover/Easter/Lailat al-Miraj action at the Metropolitan Detention Center; or a Hanukah/Christmas posada action at the Mayor’s office and the LAPD; or shutting down a major thoroughfare in Downtown Los Angeles to protest children being separated from their parents at the border and held in cages—I am a street preacher activist who uses the texts and the rituals of Judaism to create morally compelling spectacles which are intended to impact the political conversation and the policy outcomes. 

In this sense, I resonate strongly with Rev. Blackmon’s idea that the children are making church in the streets. 

At the same time I would argue strongly that there is more. In sum, my argument is that for Jewish organizations and activists who see themselves as part of the social justice movement as Jews, there is a lot at stake in preserving Jewish liturgy and practice in both political theatre and expression, and in organizational and movement culture. (I am intentionally not discussing personal religious belief or expression.) At the end of the day, the movement away from the particularities of Jewish practice toward a nondescript (and therefore less particularistic, perhaps) spiritual expression is, I am arguing, an expression of (White) Christian hegemony. (White) Christian hegemony is a backbone of white supremacy. These organizational and movement practices therefore, inadvertently contribute to white supremacy culture. 

There are many Jews who are involved in movements for social justice, and by that I mean also movements for racial justice and the struggle to dismantle white supremacy. The questions of racial justice, white supremacy, and anti-Black racism are all embedded in the various inequities that plague our country—poverty, immigration rights, antisemitism, mass incarceration, police violence and abuse, women’s rights, reproductive rights, and so on.

While Jews in these social justice movements understand the relationship between white supremacy, anti-Black racism, and other social justice issues, they often do not understand how all this relates to Jewishness, or more specifically, to Judaism. Many Jews in social justice movements have a vague idea of the historical connections with the labor movement, or the immigrant rights movement. There is also that  ubiquitous photo of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma in 1965. However, many (most?) of those who laud Heschel’s statement after the Selma march: “I felt like my legs were praying,” do not themselves engage in Jewish ritual practice. While holding signs that cite the biblical passage, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” those activists and activist organizations often do not have any deep connection to Judaism as a living religion of practice. 

There is a history to this, of course. Reform Judaism, the Jewish movement which, in the United States embraced most wholeheartedly the ideals of the civil rights movement, descended from the German Reform movement. The Reform movement in Germany was a movement which embraced Germanness, that is whiteness. That is, in the nineteenth century Jews were fighting for emancipation. The way that they sought to achieve such inclusion was to declare that they were fully German, and part of that program was to make Judaism reflect the Protestant ethos of their time. They thus excised from their religious practice what they considered the unfortunate primitive aspects of Jewish law, thus claiming to “civilize” Judaism. (My apologies to my historian friends.) This is the Jewish form of respectability politics.

However, in America there is also a danger to this. White Christian hegemony, the unspoken assumption that “religion” is Christian, and other religions—Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, or any of the other hundreds of religions and their denominations—are measured by the standard of White Protestant Christianity, is a profound force in American life. When Joseph Lieberman, a practicing Jew, was running as Al Gore’s Vice-President, Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat from Louisiana, when questioned about whether Lieberman’s Judaism was a factor, remarked: “I think people don’t care so much about where he goes to church on Sunday, but just that he has the moral values and principles to lead the country.” Apparently, Breaux thought Jews go to a “Jewish” church on Sunday. 

Christian hegemony is also the ideology that draws sharp binaries between goods and evils: Letter and Spirit; Body and Soul; Acts and Faith; Women and Men. Spirit, soul, faith, and men are favored whereas letter, body, acts and women are denigrated. The next binary, or the one the includes all the others is Jew and Christian, and then Black and White. Christian hegemony, which is really White Christianity, underpins the ideology that leads to white supremacy, and it is built on the foundation of a belief that faith is more important than acts, that the spirit is more important than the letter. In essence, as Augustine put it, that the Jews are a carnal people. 

So, perhaps unknowingly, when Jews claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” they are choosing Christian hegemony. The practices of Christian hegemony support White Supremacy. Claiming Judaism in its bodily fullness, the fullness of letter not spirit, pushes back against and undermines Christian hegemony.

It is important to say that there are non-White-hegemonic forms of Christianity which are liberationist and are fighting their own battle over what Christianity is, or should be.  (Thanks to Francisco Garcia for clarifying this for me.)

Am I then arguing that all Jews should be halakhic? That everybody should be punctilious in following Jewish law? While a Conservative rabbi, and personally observant, I am not here arguing that everybody needs to do that. I am arguing about the organizational positioning, rhetoric, aesthetics, and analysis of those who comprise the Jewish social justice movement. The Jewish analysis of an issue, through the lens of the accumulated Jewish wisdom and conceptual vocabulary of the last two thousand years or so, should be as important as other analyses. While the Jewish analyses will obviously be informed by a political analysis, the strategic and tactical response must be informed on both conceptual and tactical levels by a Jewish analysis that would take more than a sentence to articulate.

This approach will also strengthen the Jewish social justice movement. Facing the carceral system with an analysis which starts with the fact that Jewish tradition does not, on the whole, recognize punitive incarceration, and therefore proceeds from a position of restorative community based justice, is more powerful than a sign that says “Justice, justice you shall seek.” At the same time, as part of a virtuous cycle, the movement makes a strong claim on Jewish tradition, raising it up as articulating a specific liberatory vision. 

To paraphrase Rev. Traci Blackmon, “These children are making Judaism in the streets. They don’t need our walls, they need our texts.”

6 thoughts on “Do the Good and the Just: An offering to the Jewish social justice movement

  1. I read with interest your point that Jewish social protest based in Judaism is a contradiction to white Christian hegemony. While, as you point out, the Reform movement was a catalyst for assimilationist Judaism, these ideas were ubiquitous in my generation of Jews who had recently moved from working class urban life to the suburban middle class, regardless of denominational affiliation. The contradiction I experienced growing up in a social justice-oriented Reform synagogue, was that we were encouraged to support civil rights and oppose the Vietnam War while simultaneously being encouraged toward upward mobility and Whiteness for safety and belonging. I don’t know how a lens of Judaism as you describe it would address these issues – and would love to hear more from you about this.

    I think that the drive to incorporate Jewish religious symbols in social justice movements, which originated in the mid-1960s, was in part a statement against the assimilationist trend of our communities. While it may not have come from a firm base of Jewish knowledge, for many of us, it was a catalyst for Jewish identity exploration in all its variant forms.

  2. Thanks for this comment Aliza. My interest is in the contemporary Jewish social justice movement more than in the past. Parts of the Jewish social justice movement in the sixties was Judaism inflected but most of it was either agnostic or even hostile. This was the case for a long time. And, it is exactly because of the practices of Christian hegemony, in which the study of Jewish texts and the practice of Judaism was seen as embarrassing. As Abbie Hoffman said about his Reform Temple growing up: it had about as much spirituality as a Howard Johnson’s.
    What I am calling for is to center Jewish textual analysis and Jewish practice in understanding and interacting and responding to injustice. This is the opposite of the religion should be civilized (like Christianity) and remain in the synagogue which buttresses the practices of white Christian hegemony and thereby white supremacy.

  3. First of all, Abbie Hoffman’s remarks were not surprising given the time in which he grew up. Jews were desperately trying to gain safety from antisemitism through assimilation and acceptance in the white gentile world . The Reform movement reflected this approach to security, a trend that the radical Jewish youth social justice movement of the 1960s and 70s sought to redirect.

    Secondly, in the hundreds of interviews I conducted with Jewish social justice activists from the 1960s onwards, I never heard hostility to Jewish texts and practice, granted this was not the direct focus of my research. In addition, a number of Jewish social justice activists ended up becoming observant, some becoming clergy. WhIle I sense indifference about religious practice, I wondering about what your source is for the “hostility” you reference. Your description of “Jewish social justice activists” sounds to me more like Jews on the secular left or perhaps Zionists who were influenced by Israeli secularism.

    Thirdly, the question of upward mobility remains salient today, albeit in a different form than when I grew up. Back in the 1970s, Breira was talking about how the US Jewish community opportunistically used the fear generated by Israel’s ongoing conflict with Arab countries for domestic fundraising. I don’t know that Jews had the more personal conversations happening today, but the issues are still very much present. Below are a couple of examples I heard about from personal friends.

    *A young friend told me about how Avodah did not take into consideration people of her economic background when they set their stipend level. Unlike others in her program, she did not have supplemental income support from her family. She sought outside employment, violating Avodah guidelines, in order to meet her basic needs.

    *A Black member of my synagogue told me how people kept suggesting he take a year off and do this or that Jewish program. Nobody seemed to understand that it wasn’t feasible for him as structured because part of his salary went to support his widowed mother.

    Lastly, I don’t think we can talk about the present without being fully grounded in our past. You make the claim that Jewish text is salient but seem to claim that history is not. So, what does Jewish textual analysis and religious practice have to say about these issues and why do you reference the past but say “My interest is in the contemporary Jewish social justice movement more than in the past.”

  4. We may be talking past each other.
    For this conversation I’m not interested in the Jewish social justice movement of the past because I am an activist and the world is on fire now, and I’m interested, as a Jewish social justice activist, in putting out the fires.
    A friend of mine who was the head of a Jewish social justice org went to speak to the Sholom Community and was castigated for having the audacity to quote Talmud in that gathering. That was twenty years ago. So there is that.
    I have no dispute with you about how the institutional Jewish community fails Jews who are not white middle or upper middle class. This is also an issue of justice. I have been writing about all these issues for years on this blog, on my blog at Justiceinthecity.com in my book Justice in the city, and in my academic work. In all that work I use Jewish texts as a frame of analysis.
    The danger of just looking at history is lauding the picture of Heschel with King and being blinded to the contemporary racism of the Jewish community.

  5. You write, “Facing the carceral system with an analysis which starts with the fact that Jewish tradition does not, on the whole, recognize punitive incarceration, and therefore proceeds from a position of restorative community based justice, is more powerful than a sign that says “Justice, justice you shall seek.” ”

    You may be interested in my wife’s and my restorative justice experience in dealing with the person whose distracted driving killed my stepfather. She helped us put together a book for his posthumous show as partial restitution. We opted right from the beginning to walk our talk around restorative justice and to seek alternatives to prison. This was admittedly easier because: 1) the accident did not involve drinking, drugs, or texting; 2) she has been intensely remorseful, cooperated fully with the authorities and even stayed with Yoshi as he was dying until the ambulance arrived; and 3) she’s a single mom who earns her living as a court-appointed lawyer for disenfranchised people. Since the accident almost three years ago, she’s devoted her life to honoring Yoshi’s memory.
    We saw no benefit to her doing prison time and instead helped work out a sentence that includes her making presentations to student drivers (as well as other kinds of community service). And she did lose her driver’s license for 15 years, which is a significant hardship in our rural area with its poor public transportation. Even more amazingly, we got my conservative sister to go along with this plan. I continue to feel very good about what we did, and we’ve had several contacts since the court date in December 2019.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this Shel. This is indeed a model for how restorative justice which is victim centered and not prison based can work.

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