Judaism's Call for Social Change

The world is not as it should be.

This statement resonates with us as decent human beings who observe all the imperfections of our society–poverty, violence, war, inequality, racism, illness, greed, injustice. We know it to be true. But do we know that the statement also expresses the very essence of Judaism?

In fact, Judaism is almost hypersensitive to all that is wrong in our world, and is primarily concerned with repairing it. This involves social change. Tikkun olam, to repair the world, to make the world more just, is a Jewish mandate. Judaism believes that not only do individuals have the ability to initiate change, but they have an obligation to do so. The very story of the beginning of the Jewish people, which is told in the Torah, is a story of change: the transformation of skeptical, wandering individuals into a cohesive, holy, just community. (So that's what the Torah is about!)

The demand for social change is, for many, one of the most compelling aspects of Judaism because it is one of the most concrete ways of understanding Judaism's relevance to our lives. It gives us a clear purpose and role.

We must make the world as it should be.

We're not talking about tzedakah, the righteous giving of money to those in need. Tzedakah is good and necessary. But we're talking action, and not just our own action, but the instigation of others' action, as well. Action, so that some day, tzedakah is no longer necessary because society provides enough for everyone's well-being. We're talking about examining problems, speaking out, signing petitions, demonstrating, building houses, curing diseases, ensuring health care, supporting job creation, paying livable wages, minimizing waste, welcoming refugees, pacifying violent tendencies, etc.

Overwhelmed? Don't be discouraged! Of course no one individual can do it all. But each person can do a part. Martin Buber, a 20th century Jewish philosopher, once wisely suggested that we work on the spheres that are allotted to us. Choose your calling.

It's hard work.

Bringing about social change forces a person to move beyond the self and insists that a person recognize that he or she is but a tiny fraction of larger structures at play. There is a certain humility involved in accepting one's own insignificance. But there is also a certain amount of self- importance necessary to believe that a person's own actions can have an impact on society. To participate in social change is to participate in both a personal and a communal challenge.

And a divine challenge.

In Judaism, social responsibility is born of the covenantal relationship between God and human. All of God's creations are sacred, and this sanctity must be protected. Any injustice, any wrongdoing, any amount of dissatisfaction on the part of any of God's creations is a violation of how God envisioned the world to be. Creation can be seen as God initiating a dialogue with humankind. What we do on this earth is our attempt to answer God.

In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, written almost 2000 years ago, Jews are told, "Do not keep aloof from the community" (2:4). This directive harkens people to be active participants in all the communities of which they are a part. It demands that people extend beyond themselves, work with others, build coalitions, and be responsible for one another. This is a powerful message. It tells an individual that no one should live in a vacuum. You must engage in the world around you. The commentary goes on to say, "He who does not join the community in times of danger and trouble, will never enjoy the divine blessing…May this one that withdrew from the community, not live to see the comfort of the community." (Rashi and Bartinoro)

The belief in the necessity and ability to initiate change and to affect the world is inextricably linked to its motivator: hope. Judaism sustains an eternal vision of a world that can be. The phrase l'shana haba'ah b'Yerushalayim, next year in Jerusalem, does not only mean that next year may Jews physically live in Jerusalem. It has come to mean "We recognize that the world as it is today is not how it should be. Next year may we be living in a better world; a peaceful world." Jerusalem symbolizes the concept of "perfection". The recitation of this phrase during the Passover Seder illustrates that to its core, Judaism believes the world can and will be a better place.

Judaism's belief in the Messiah is evidence of its continuous hope, as well. The Messiah, from a Jewish standpoint, is not something God simply bestows on the world. The Messiah is earned by humanity. God brings about the Messianic Age, but only after humankind has done its work.

Now that's a religion of which we can be proud to be a part.

Julie Chizewer Weill is the Coordinator of Institutional Advancement for the Union for Reform Judaism's Just Congregations.