Culture, Justice, Religion

Open thread: Who are the two most influential Jewish social justice theologians?

Heschel marches with King
Jo Ellen Kaiser, editor in cheif of Zeek Magazine, covered the burgeoning Jewish social justice sector for Sojourner’s Magazine, a liberal Christian mag. Each day for a week, we’ll host an open thread on one element of the article on how we see ourselves, our movement, our thinkers, and our values.
Jo Ellen claimed that all contemporary faith-based Jewish social justice thought can be traced to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and that Heschel’s two most influential disciples were “undoubtedly” Rabbi Michael Lerner and Rabbi Arthur Waskow.

21 thoughts on “Open thread: Who are the two most influential Jewish social justice theologians?

  1. I don’t think the Neviim would have described themselves as “civil rights workers” or concerned with “social justice.” The Neviim were interested in ethical Judaism, but in an ancient sense, not a modern one. “Human Rights, Racial Justice, Social Justice, Equal Rights” are, as Salo Baron said, are simply anachronistic when used to describe the Prophets. At the same time, I don’t discount that Heschel, etc understood the Prophets as having a message compatible with American progressive ideals of equality and civil rights, but to compare the Prophets to Heschel or Prinz is imprecise.

  2. It would start with the Nevi’im. In the modern age, though, we also cannot ignore Rabbi Stephen S. Wise’s contributions.

  3. When I heard this claim, I had a couple reactions.
    First, I was a bit taken aback to think that indeed I can’t recall the last notable work interpreting social justice in Jewish law except Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ recent There Shall Be No Needy. And that’s really recent.
    Second, while I don’t count Lerner and Waskow as Heschel’s disciples, I recognize their places in the pantheon of Jewish social justice. Which doesn’t leave me with a great feeling, because they’re both marginalized even in social justice circles. Groundbreaking they may have been in their day, today they’ve been surpassed by leaders far more pragmatic (and effective), but who aren’t authors or theologians.
    Is there really nothing between Waskow’s Godwrestling and Jill Jacobs? Who’s writing social justice theology these days? Or is our movement totally dependent on sloganeering from Pirkei Avot and Amos?

  4. I think that searching for “social justice theologians” is too narrow. I’ll suggest that certain modern notions of social justice and social equality emerge during the Jewish Enlightenment. Writers like Yoysef Perl, Yisroel Aksenfeld and Shloyme Ettinger, were all concerned with religious hypocrisy and social exclusion within the Jewish community. This concern often manifested itself through criticism of Shadkhonus (traditional arranged marriage) and the economic greed of Hasidic rabbis. I’d argue that all modern Jewish notions of social justice and critique derive from the Haskala rather than the Prophets. The question of how the Prophets are utilized in post-war America is an entirely different discussion, and I think it has more to do with internal discussions about the relevance of Judaism in a rapidly secularized Jewish-American public.

  5. I think Jo Ellen is accurate by putting Waskow and Lerner out there as defining figures and thinkers of the Jewish social justice movement. And it is fascinating to note how ineffective they have been at creating sustainable organizations with members, leaders and followers.
    I’ve worked closely with both of these men. They are deeply flawed. I asked one of them – why don’t you just concentrate on writing and speaking? Give up the organizing part, which you aren’t that good at?
    His answer was – who else is doing this work, trying to link the progressive edges at the margins of the great religious traditions – as opposed to the centers?
    I’m deeply unsatisfied by the leadership of these two mortal men, and angry at how they have treated some people I care about. But I’m also unsatisfied at the cowardice of the mainstream Jewish community, up to and including a lot of the people and groups I connect with, for refusing to show courage in the institutional decisions they make. Concerns about funding, yichus, and effectiveness have muted what should have been a thousand prophetic voices into a handful of advocacy careers funded, inevitably, by a mix of Cummings, Federation, and some rich Jews.
    Waskow and Lerner are difficult men. And they are among the few that grabbed what the 60ss regeneration of America and Judaism was all about and refused to let it go in favor of a Sid Schwarzian realism.
    Rabbi Jill Jacobs is great, and maybe someday will be important, but her careful measured tones won’t inspire anyone to revolution.
    As we approach Pesach, the season of our liberation, in celebration of a slave revolt led by a stutterer who got so angry he murdered a simple guard, perhaps we can find a way to honor the revolutionaries in our midst.

  6. Why are we ignoring the Nevi’im?
    They spoke out against corrupt rulers, against exploitative plutocrats, against economic oppression, and against court systems run by graft.
    I don’t see the difference. Maybe they didn’t have today’s vocabulary or political insights but they fought to correct pervasive injustices in their society.

  7. In his long biography at the website of the Waskow Center, ‘rabbi’ Waskow never mentions ever meeting Heschel.
    OTOH ‘rabbi’ Lerner did. Undoubtedly he picked up Heschel’s understanding that when your colleages think little of your intellect (as Heschel’s did at the JTA) a lot of self-promotion can do wonders (how did he get so close to King in all those photos?).
    Hopefully Lerner will get well again so we can see him in front of the cameras again, having learned from the master.
    PS I’m looking forward to Pesach also, when I can say the Shefokh Hamatkha.

  8. @ Dave. ALL those photos? I know of one. I’m curious where you get the idea that Heschel was thought to have little intellect. Can you reference something? I’d be curious to know.
    On the other hand, if you want to know about the connections between King and Heschel, here’s an essay by Susannah Heschel:
    But since you’ve researched Waskow’s site so thoroughly, I’m sure you’ve read it already.
    As for your snarky use of ‘rabbi’, do tell us why.

  9. Not everyone recognizes their semikha, which is from (the admittedly controversial) Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

  10. @chillul who
    I don’t think we are ignoring the Neviim – but I don’t think that they can be considered the beginnings of a Jewish “social justice” movement. I think the Neviim were concerned with lack of piety in Israel – but more importantly – they were able to speak intimately with H’. I think that the Jewish social justice movement is about human agency – about Jews being able to use their tradition to inform the development of an ethical, modern world. I don’t think that people like Heschel would have ever argued that the first Jewish social justice theologian was Amos. I think it would be more appropriate to argue that prophetic texts are the first attempt to describe a kind of ideally ethical Jew.

  11. Regardlerss of the validity of their smicha, which I’m not going to get into, I rather doubt that Heschel would consider either of them his disciples. While Arthur Waskow is a knowledgeable individual who has done and continues to do important work, when we hold them up as the descendants of Heschel, we are missing quite a lot of important things about Heschel, not least that his theology and practice were very traditional. But more importantly, I am offended by the idea that the civil rights movement was about individual charismatic figures; that idea is a recent corruption of the actuality of the civil rights movement, which was the work of thousands of people working hard and taking calculated risks which often lost them jobs, and sometimes lives. The picturte of teh civil rights movement as theologically driven and charismatically lead is wrong, which is why one can say that the disciples of that movement are not Waskow, and even less so Lerner, but rather the many, many Jews who are working without name recognition, many of them in organizations which are not Jewish, and some of which are.

  12. Let’s not overlook the Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, aka Baal HaSulam. His theology was passionately anti-capitalist, and his kabbalah was synonymous with what he described as “altruistic communism.”
    “Religion is the only basis assured to raise the level of the collective to the moral level of ‘working according to the ability and receiving according to the need.'”

  13. In 1885 a group of Reform rabbis got together in Pittsburgh to craft a platform. The last plank of that platform reads: “In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.” Historians believe that this plank was pushed by Rabbi Emil Hirsch.

  14. From my understanding, one major distinction between Heschel and Waskow is that Heschel came to social justice through Judaism. Waskow came to Judaism through social justice. While there are similarities to their beliefs, it’s a stretch to call Waskow a disciple. I don’t know much about Lerner, but, from my time in the Bay Area (full of congregations with social justice programs), he advertised his congregation as ‘not one of those terrible other places’ rather than ‘here’s the great stuff we do.’ I could never call someone who did that a leader in any form.
    In response to Jew Guevara, despite your nom de comment, who says we’re looking for a revolution or that a revolution would make things better? Constant positive change by many little-known groups or people is hugely valuable. It doesn’t always happen, but waiting for the revolution makes sure nothing happens.

  15. Not everyone recognizes their semikha, which is from (the admittedly controversial) Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
    Well not everyone recognizes ANY Reform smicha. Or for that matter, any Recon, Rewewnal, Chabad, and many ultra-Orthodox smicha.
    And the statement is not entirely true that they were ordained solely by Reb Zalman. There were other Rabbis in the bet din that granted smicha.
    And since when does calling a Rabbi “controversial” make a difference? Name me an admired Rabbi who isn’t considered controversial.

  16. Heschel’s very favorable Wikipeida entry mentions that for many years he was not given a graduate assistant or allowed to teach graduate students .
    Not the actions you would do to a great mind.

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