Culture, Religion

Read this Book

I could probably just about build a raft and sail around the world with all the books advocating for Jewish Social Justice that have come out in the last couple of years. Several of them are very good. I particularly like Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ first book, which is both thorough and excellent.
But I want to recommend a book that’s a little bit different.
Rabbi Shmuly Yankelowitz, the founder of the Orthodox social justice movement Uri L’Tzedek, has just come out with a book very simply titled Jewish Ethics and Social Justice (Derusha Publishing). Unlike most of the the other books in this burgeoning genre, Rabbi Y’s book is a collection of essays previously published in newspapers journals and blogs. This is both a strength and a weakness, which I will touch on later.
What I was most impressed by in this book was its breadth. Although some of the pieces in it barely mention Jewish texts ( while others spend a great deal of time on them), the topics are varied far beyond the usual, with the only topic one might expect that is barely touched upon being the situation in Israel in terms of peace-making with Israel’s neighbors.
One topic which I was pleased to see sprinkled liberally throughout was a constant dialogue with theology and spirituality. Many Jewish social justice books simply leave out this important aspect – or take as a given that the social justice is, in itself, constitutive of spirituality. Rabbi Y does not take this tack. Rather, his view is that gmilut chasidim (I will avoid the “Tikkun Olam” phrase, as its not really the traditional way of referring to these acts, and in fact, the sense of that modern term doesn’t really cover the breadth of what is in this book) is in dialogue with one’s spiritual connection to God in a rather profound way. He even has an odd little piece about reincarnation!
His refrain in the book is a consistent call to responsibility, to mitzvot and to reflection. At least two of the essays are quite long, and go into some theoretical and philosophical depth – I happen to have a great appreciation for anyone brave enough to, on an essay about prison reform, discuss Kant’s moral philosophy, psychological theories (even if I’m fairly sure at least one theory he cites is rather empirically dubious)and halacha. And he does a smashing job of it (it’s the longest essay in the book). He asks in another essay whether God can repent, and elsewhere ponders the mitzvah of Diaspora.
Most of the essays (aside from the one I mentioned, and another one economic responsibility which is very good, also) are short and easily digested. Excellent metro reading, in fact. Possibly not so good for the NY subway, which I find somewhat more distracting – Washingtonians are mostly a quiet and studious bunch, even during a crowded rush hour).
I do have few minor complaints: my review copy contained no appendices and no references to where the essays came from originally. The chapter headings are somewhat difficult to tell apart sometimes, so when a numbering system goes from Numbers, to Roman numerals, to sub-headings, I occasionally wasn’t sure whether I was still reading the same essay or not.
That’s minor.
I also wasn’t entirely sure for whom the book was intended: despite the pluralist introduction in which he thanks a great number of people who I know for a fact are not Orthodox rabbis, the only woman cited in the entire book (despite an essay on feminism, and a strong attempt to make the essays multi-gender-friendly) is Dr. Erica Brown, herself Orthodox, and he seems unaware of the work that others have done on some of the same topics he writes about – by Rabbi Jacobs, for example, among others.
I’m assuming from this, and the case that he makes for engagement by the Orthodox in the wider community, that his audience is intended to be Orthodox (although he does cite Arthur Waskow once, which is brave, in that case!). I think it worth stressing though, that despite this orientation, I think that his book is a very worthwhile read for everyone who is interested in Judaism and social justice, in particular, because it’s useful to have a book where first of all, you don’t need to sit down with a set of colored highlighters to follow the footnotes (which are thankfully, footnotes and not endnotes), second of all, where there one is presented with specific individual theological niblets, and where the assumption is already that the reader cares about being Jewish, in a deep way – that is taken as a premise, and he spends no time arguing for it, which I find to be a bit of a relief, frankly. Many of the other JSJ books, even when they don’t overtly say so, have a certain undertone to them that we have to prove that Judaism is a good idea. I for one, am ready to move on from that.
At the same time, he doesn’t hold back at all from discussing very difficult topics in an easy, accessible manner.
Overall, it’s a nice addition to this growing genre. Buy it here.

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