Liya Rechtman and fellow MKs with Rep. Kieth Ellison (MN-D)
My Bat Mitzvah portion was Shoftim; I had the great honor of chanting out “tzedek tzedek tirdof” – that landmark phrase of all Jewish social justice work, which translated to “justice, justice, you shall pursue.” I’ve also written the above line dozens of times before. It was in my personal statement for all my college applications, it was in the dvar I gave to my congregation on Yom Kippur as the keynote speaker after returning from a semester of high school in Israel, full of self-righteous authority on all topics Jewish. I have used it for as long as I’ve been engaged in the Jewish world.
The elevator-speech catch-phrase justification for the social action impetus of the Jewish people sends a clear and strong message. To cite “tzedek tzedek tirdof” is to say: “I have read at least some of the advertising material from the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and I accept your platform.” Or, actually, you could be saying: “I have read at least some of the advertising material from The Shalom Center, Congregation Shir Hadash, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (aka CBST, for those of you in-the-know), Orthonomics, or Beth Emet – to name a just the first page of a Google search – and I accept your platform.” My point being that “tzedek” twice and “tirdof” alone are not enough for me. I’ve written about the importance of the repeated word “tzedek” and the emphatic distinction Jews must make between the Jewish conception of justice and the Christian notion of “charity.” During my Bat Mitzvah project, donating teddy bears to Israeli orphans, I would have proudly told you that I was doing my part to make the world a better place, and fulfill my quotient of “tikkun olam.” I’ve written too on the purpose of pursuit – the arching trajectory of merely having a goal. When campaigning for Obama back in 2008, spending long nights wandering the streets surrounding Penn State putting campaign materials on door handles, I felt the power of pursuit. I couldn’t have told you what Obama thought about healthcare, or the death penalty, or even gay marriage, but if you had asked me about any of those things I would have been able to point you in the direction of some literature. I find myself frustrated with my canonical, yet limited, interpretation of this ubiquitous one-liner. There are only so many ways I can spin it to fit with my ever-changing model of the relationship between Judaism and politics. That is to say, between me, and Judaism, and politics. Since coming to D.C. to intern with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as a Machon Kaplan participant, I have attempted (in my own, constantly evolving, way) to take on the city. I steep myself in the flow of each C-Span-ed day like it’s my job, and I research same-sex marriage legislation like my executive summary is my thesis. I sign up for everything from Planned Parenthood information sessions to Young and Powerful Black Professionals for Obama and rallying at the Supreme Court on the morning that the healthcare and Arizona immigration decisions came out. The longer I stay here, the more I realize that it will never be enough. This is overwhelming. As a native New Yorker, I would imagine that the fast-paced nature of our capital would prove an easy transition for me. But in Washington, everyone’s always looking up. There’s a more prestigious internship, better job, a higher office, and a policy that would take our country further down the road to liberty, judicial fairness, pursuit of happiness, and justice – justice for all. Marriage equality, for example, doesn’t end with marriage equality in New York; it doesn’t end with the overturning of Proposition 8 in California or the passing of new proposed legislation in Maryland. It won’t end with the President’s support of gay marriage or Jay Z’s or the NAACP official press release stating that they, too, endorse marriage equality. It won’t end with the Presbyterian Church or the United Methodist Church's recognition of gay marriage, either. Prospectively, I realize that there will still be a fight ahead on that happy day in our (hopefully near) future when the Respect for Marriage Act (which legislates marriage equality on a federal level) is finally signed by the executive office. That simple policy-ideal of eliminating discrimination based on gender in regards to whom an individual can marry and what rights they, and their children, can have, has a much farther reaching battle. The gay rights movement and the marriage equality advocates have an unforeseeable stretch ahead of them until our society comes to a point when they are rendered unnecessary and are gradually forgotten. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” begins to speak more and more exactly to my very frustration with it on re-examination. I can see a tertiary meaning in the text. The phrase does more than pointedly note that justice is more than charity or push us into a blind pursuit of ambition under the guise of “justice.” I choose to reread “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” to mean: “Pursue justice. Then, continue to pursue justice.” The must be tirelessly repeated in order to create meaning, and fulfill real purpose. Donating teddy bears? Not really a long-term investment in the well being of orphans, or the Jewish people at large. But, as a thirteen-year-old, my understanding of making the world a better place was restricted to what I knew about the world. I knew that having parents was good and helpful, not having them was bad and that I should, in whatever capacity I had, attempt to rectify the situation of parent-less-ness. Working for the Obama campaign? A step in the right direction. I had begun to acknowledge a more overarching concept of justice – namely, through the power of government. However, I made the critical mistake of being unarmed with knowledge, of believing blindly (like many Americans in 2008) in the messianic powers of a biracial president who promised to save us from all the Bad Things. Now maybe (hopefully) I know a little better. It’s 2012 and I read the news. A lot of news. And a Court opinion here and there. I don’t mean to sound self-righteous again. As evidenced above, I have a bad track record with that. I just mean to say that I am coming a point in my constantly evolving political identity where I know just enough to be finally aware of how little I know and the pursuit of justice can take on the third, newest meaning of pursuing a more specific justice. …and pursuing… and pursuing… Liya Richtman is a participant in the Machon Kaplan Summer Social Action Internship Program. She is interning at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This post originally appeared on She-Bomb.