It's no secret that social action is a central maxim of Judaism – but as Rabbi Jonah Pesner said during a text study I attended this summer, we often take for granted this deep relationship between Judaism and social action, to the point that important ideas like tikkun olam (repairing the world) become insignificant jargon.
Some people, he joked, even ask him, “How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?”
Social action is at the very core of our Reform Jewish tradition. I have been taught my entire life that helping others is not just the right thing to do, but a Jewish obligation. That’s part of the reason I chose to spend the first half of my summer with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) as a participant in its Machon Kaplan work-study program.
Throughout the past six weeks, I have thought a lot about what it actually means to pursue justice. To “Do Justice, Love Mercy, March Proudly,” as the RAC sign in my dorm room says. For one thing, it means standing up for those whose voices have been silenced, even when it’s not easy or convenient to do so. But more importantly, it means knowing that sometimes, even most of the time, you’ll lose. And when you do, you’ll get back up and keep marching.
As Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Sometimes, the arc is really long – and at times this summer, it has felt endless.
When that arc feels long and that justice feels unattainable, I like to look to role models and trailblazers who have come before me, whether it’s Dr. King or others. In Judaism, there are examples aplenty. In fact, the value of justice – and the pursuit thereof – goes all the way back to our patriarch.
In the first Friday morning text study of our summer, we read an excerpt from the Sodom and Gomorrah story. In the passage, God is eager to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their alleged transgressions, but before any punishment is executed, Abraham challenges God.
In Genesis 18:23, Abraham asks God,
“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?”
Abraham points out that there are innocent people living in Sodom and Gomorrah who do not deserve punishment. He begins bartering with God, asking how many innocent people there would have to be for the cities to be spared. He ultimately bargains down to 10 innocent people before the episode concludes.
As Abraham says,
“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25).
Even God, the ultimate judge of right and wrong, makes mistakes. Luckily, our patriarch is there to nudge God on the right track, in the name of justice.
After reading this story, the rabbi leading our text study asked if anyone could think of modern parallels. I drew a connection to President Trump’s travel ban, and the more I thought about it, the more I saw a disturbing correlation. It was perhaps the time when the arc of justice felt longest.
In January 2017, President Trump signed an executive order banning foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering America for 90 days, prohibiting entry of all refugees for 120 days, and indefinitely suspending entry of all Syrian refugees. It was the first iteration of his travel ban.
After more than a year of legal battles, and two more proposals, Trump’s third ban reached the Supreme Court in April. Finally, in June 26th, the Supreme Court issued its decision: The ban is constitutional.
This is Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0.
Think about it: In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God wanted to punish two entire cities for the transgressions of a few. Today, President Trump wants to punish an entire religion for the transgressions of a few. The connections are stark.
There is, however, one key difference between the two instances: Abraham. In the Torah, Abraham steps in to guide God back on the path of justice and fairness. He stands up to God when he believes God has made a mistake. In America, we seem to be lacking a true Abraham.
Speaking truth to power is not an easy task, especially when God or the President of the United States are the perpetrators of injustice. But both are capable of evil, and in the face of such evil, Abraham’s role is paramount. Sadly, we’re still waiting for a political Abraham to emerge.
With the righteous voice of Abraham eluding us at this crucial episode in history, we have two options: keep waiting, or get out there and fight. When God calls upon Abraham throughout the Torah, Abraham responds Hineni, I am here. God is calling on us at this very moment, and it’s time for us to answer the call.
It is incumbent upon you and me, as Jews and as human beings, to stand for justice. It’s on us to fight for those who have been silenced, marginalized, and banned. It’s on us to hold our elected officials accountable and ensure that they vote in the best interests of all of their constituents. It’s on us to advocate for our Muslim brothers and sisters.
With such troubling headlines each day, it is all too easy to become cynical or hopeless. But if I’ve learned one thing in my time in world of public policy, it’s that throwing in the towel is not an option. No, there’s no easy solution to racism, bigotry, or hatred, especially when our courts fall on the wrong side of history – but it is on us to keep giving it our all. If Abraham was able to stand up to God, surely we can stand up to some politicians.
I’m spending the remainder of the summer at URJ Eisner Camp, where the idea of Hineni is at the center of our mission statement. At camp, we are taught, “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben horin, l’heebatel mimena. You are not required to complete the work, nor are you free to ignore it" (Pirke Avot 2:16). No single person or community is responsible for solving every problem, but that doesn’t mean we are off the hook.
That, to me, is the essence of Jewish social action. Tikkun olam is a group project, and we all have our part to do to make the world more whole. Just like Abraham, it’s on us to fight for what we believe in. Let’s get to work!