Is social justice the soul of Judaism?

Some folks may recall my back and forth convo with Steven I. Weiss (of Canonist and CampusJ) last April, entitled “Picking and choosing”, in which Steven accuses me of selectively choosing the elements of Torah which suit my radical agenda and abandoning or negating those with which I disagree.
Jewcy took an interest in our discussion and invited Steven and I to debate the issue on their website. Though our debate took place over the summer, Jewcy saved it up for MLK Day, publishing Steven’s opening email today on their homepage.
Check it out and throw your two cents in. The discussion will continue each day throughout the week, with my response to Steven’s initial letter coming tomorrow.

3 thoughts on “Is social justice the soul of Judaism?

  1. I’d like to reprint my original comment on this disucssion, as it still has some relevance, in my opinion:
    Interesting discussion. However, as much as I sympathisize with Mobius and would like to wholeheartedly agree that Torah really leads in a radical political direction, I’m afraid it doesn’t. Quite the contrary, unfortunately (perhaps tragically). I say this not because one can’t make clever arguments showing that Torah “really” teaches anti-militarism/imperia lism, racial justice, radical ecolgy, etc; one can cf. Waskow, Lerner, Heschel, Zalman, Daniel Boyarin, Leibowitz etc. The problem, for me is the following: if Torah Judaism “really” taught an emancipatory politics, one would see this reflected in those who really live and breathe the stuff yomam va’layla i.e the people referred to as haredim and, to a lesser extent, the “modern Orthodox” people. But all one sees in these circles, of course, is nothing but ugliness – racism, extreme nationalism, war-mongering, etc. And these get worse the more “frum” one gets.
    The proof of whether Torah Judaism – or any ideology – “really” teaches liberation has to be in how these teachings affect its’ followers. The usual response to this is – Judaism and religious Jews have been distorted by centuries of pogroms, Holocausts, enforced isolation, restriction from the outside world, etc. Thus, the Judaism of the haredim and the m/o is not the “real thing” – and if we work hard enough, we can create(recover?) the “real thing” – a genuinely emancipatory politics based on Torah Hudaism.
    Nope. Why? Because if the core of traditional Torah Judaism were truly emancipatory, one would see this reflected SOMEWHERE/SOMEHOW in its’ followers – all of the historical/sociological distortions notwithstanding. And, of course, we see nothing of the sort. The most egregius and awful effects of war, racism, global warming etc. leave virtually ALL Torah Jews totally unaffected – indeed, they actively cheer most of these things. This, not clever textual arguments, is what is ultimately decisive.
    By way of contrast, return , for a moment, to those glorious days of yesteryear, the 1960s. There was an anti-war religious peace group called Clergy and Laity concerned. One of its’ founder members was the legendary Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who was, at the time confronting a monolithically anti-communist and war-mongering Catholic Church. After enduring various persecutions, Berrigan was able, amazingly, to turn around the Jesuits and a good chunk of the Church to the support of peace and anti-war causes – because he was able to tap into an underlying anti-war stream in an otherwise reactionary Church. In contrast, Berrigan’s self-confessed mentor and comrade in CALC, R. Abraham Heschel (ztl) was isolated and ignored by virtually all of traditionally religious Jewry(including JTS), AND THIS NEVER CHANGED. Why? – if orthodoxy “really” teaches peace, etc.? Perhaps, tragically, it doesn’t.
    So, what to do? There are various options, all of them unattractive. Continue to do Torah and radical politics, keeping them in separate parts of your soul – maintains intellectual integrity, but keeps you feeling fragmented. Drop either the politics(most Baalei Teshuvah) or the religion (ex- Baalei Teshuvah like me). Take the politics, add it to the Torah, and divide by 2, coming up with an unsatifying mush (all non-Orthodox movements, including Jewish Renewal). Or, do what I do – do yoga, meditate, and do Judaism sort of/sometimes. Wish there were a better answer, but I don’t see one.

  2. Torah teaches whatever Jews want to teach. It’s only going to be good if we are, is one opinion.
    The bible’s law is certainly bound to the concern for slavery and the dangers of pharohs out of control. Beyond that, and to be honest, including that, it’s pretty much whatever is important tou you is Torahcable…
    And to the degree that the soul of any living thing is concerned with social justice, The Torah genuinely will be.
    But yeah, to echo the criticisms of Steven’s point, how could the disparity between rich and poor be great when all buisness transactions involving land are turned over every fifty years? and the poor are always guaranteed free food, in the corners of every field?
    Not too say that any of this is “The Torah” The Torah is what ever we’re saying, and it’ll get as good and as bad as we let it.
    I don’t think that Dan generally ignores the parts of torah that don’t fit in with his “agenda.” There’s a long tradition of rejecting rather than ignoring, though there is a fair amount of ignoring that does go on, which may or may not be ok.
    Lately, it may not, just because we ignore so much already. For instance, how Jews treat non-jews may not be something the religious community has any rigth to ignore anymore.

  3. Of course Torah leads in a radical political direction. Just not YOUR radical political direction.
    Torah leads to MY radical politics!!!
    (sorry, couldn’t resist.)
    But I think Dan is certainly more right than Howie, on this level. Real engagement with Torah IS inevitably radical and world-changing. You can claim to disagree with many of today’s Torah-observant Jews, but there’s no denying that much of their life and politics ARE radical and extreme– just not necessarily in forms palatable to western liberals so sure they know what ‘radical’ is. Settling the west bank in wildcat hilltop outposts IS a radical, even revolutionary act. Spurning almost the whole material world and modern world culture to live an ultra-orthodox life IS a radical rejection of Babylon.
    Even other peoples, when they genuinely engaged with their translations of Torah, were pushed in directions of world-changing political-social reforms. Early Christianity succeeded in dsmantling the decadent wild-orgy and slavemaster excess of the Roman empire. Then when the Bible was re-translated into the vernacular, it unleashed radical demands for egalitarianism and abolition from Quakers and the like, and even sparked protestant-flavored capitalism, itself a radically transformative force. Need I continue?
    True engagement with Torah DEMANDS that the world change, be remade, be made better. If the revolutions it sparks don’t make you uncomfortable, it’s time to reexamine yourself!

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