Editor’s Note: Our hearts are heavy with this morning’s passing of Leonard “Leibl” Fein. In his honor, we republish this 2008 ZEEK essay, “Social Justice Again…” “The question that the heirs to a tradition of rachmanut, compassion, must in every generation answer,” he writes, “is whether they, in turn, will be the compassionate parents of compassionate children.” He was. And, speaking for my own generation, we shall try. –-Erica Brody
SOCIAL JUSTICE, AGAIN? No. Social justice still.
The current talk of the American Jewish community’s abandonment of its traditional passion for social justice is exactly that–talk.
That’s not to say that nothing has changed in the American Jewish relationship with public life. There’s some evidence, for example, of a modest rightward drift in electoral politics, particularly in the growing Orthodox community–even among centrists, voting for the occasional Republican is not the apostasy it once was. At the very same time, however, there’s been a burgeoning of American Jewish social justice organizations, a growing self-confidence on the part of self-identified Jewish social justice activists, and a growing commitment to social justice as a central element in an informed Jewish identity.
Increasingly, Jews are turning to engaged, often interfaith, social justice work at the very same moment that they are rediscovering and celebrating their identity as Jews. Indeed, one might say that at no other time in all of Jewish history has there been as integrated and as effective an understanding of particularism and universalism as there is today within the American Jewish community.
Harmonizing Particularism and Universalism
From time almost immemorial, Jews have wrestled with the competing claims of universalism and particularism.
We are the people who discovered the universal God. Yet, when Christianity came along, saying, essentially, “Thanks very much–but now that we all acknowledge God’s universality, why don’t you yourselves become universal?” (As in, obviously, “the Church universal”) we replied, “You can have our God, but you cannot have us. There is an urgency to the boundaries. Our Torah is a fence, and we live inside that fence.” Shakespeare’s Shylock asks, “Hath not a Jew hands? Hath not a Jew organs, senses, dimensions, and passions? Fed with the same food, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter as a Christian is? When you tickle us, do we not laugh? When you prick us, do we not bleed? When you poison us, do we not die?” In brief, in all the ways that matter, we are the same as you. But this same Shylock, much earlier in the drama, replied to Bassanio’s invitation to dine by saying, “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.”
Shakespeare’s Shylock gives rise to two empirical questions, questions to which America provides an elaborate (but provisional, always provisional), answer: Can you, in fact, refuse to eat, drink, and pray with another and still expect that other to want to walk, talk, buy and sell with you? And: Can you walk, talk, buy and sell with people and not eventually come to eat, drink and pray with them?
For centuries in the course of the European dispersion, the issue of boundaries did not arise for Jews–or, more precisely, the boundaries that separated us from others were fixed by those others. Balancing the claims of universalism and particularism was very far from the ongoing concerns of Ashkenazic Jews and even farther from their sway. We were not invited to demonstrate our universal values, nor even permitted to do so. Defending our particular interests was the most we could attempt, and too often, we failed even at that.
But always, like a song that plays inside your head in an endless loop, there was an unarticulated awareness of what the good life might mean for our people: fully accepted and fully Jewish. I say “song” because I have in mind Mozart talking in Amadeus to the emperor, explaining to him the virtues of opera. In normal speech, we speak sequentially. By contrast, as Mozart explains it, in opera four different people can be singing four different librettos to four different melodies, and the results can bring us to ecstasy.
Nuala O’Faolain, in her Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman, describes the effect of hearing four singers, each with their own song, in Fidelio:
The four protagonists come down to the footlights, and they do that thing that happens in opera: Seemingly unaware of each other, they each sing their line of music straight to the audience, as if it is not their doing that the lines intermingle in a complex and perfect harmony it takes the four of them to make, but is a separate thing from each of them. I was transfixed, as I always am by ensemble singing. When the curtain came down on the act, I wiped the tears from my eyes and I said to Arnold, “Why is ensemble singing so beautiful? What makes it move us so much?” and he said, “People would be like that all the time, if they could.”
And here is Hillel, in Pirkei Avot, speaking two sentences that we recite in the only way we can, one after the other, familiar sentences that are meant, plainly, to be spoken simultaneously, in perfect balance and in perfect harmony: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”
People–in the instance at hand, Jews–would be like that all the time, if we could, particular and universal, both at once.
But we can’t, not all the time. Hillel’s is the song that plays in our heads, but we often find it hard to sing. Now and then, we may even forget the words–or, more likely, suppose they really are sequential sentiments and not meant simultaneously.
From Social Action to Social Justice
What does it mean to “be for the other?” There is slippage along the line from self to community, from the particulars of myself; to the particulars of my friends, my neighborhood, my school; to the more universalizing demands of my nation, my people, my religion; and eventually, to the rights and well-being of all people. When we act “for the other,” what is it that we do? Are we pursuing what the Jewish tradition calls “g’milut chassadim,” acts of loving kindness or “riduf tzedek,” the pursuit of justice? Are we engaged in social action or social justice?
On the whole, social action—or what is sometimes called direct service–is a more immediate arena. Strictly speaking, a synagogue mitzvah day during which volunteers clear urban spaces, paint neglected apartments, or visit homebound elderly is an exercise in social action. Social action is always particular, though it always goes beyond “me.” Social action tackles the problems in my own orbit in concrete, useful, and often fulfilling ways.
The serious quest for justice takes a different route, however. It leads, inevitably, to the halls of government. “Justice” is how a community–a city, a state, a nation–distributes opportunity and reward. Social justice obeys the demands of the universal, demands for rights, liberties, principles. With modest apology for the broad brush, establishing and staffing a neighborhood health clinic, building a Habitat house, or creating a soup kitchen are praiseworthy activities in the arena of social action; working for a more equitable system of health care, for more affordable housing and for a more ample food stamp program–or, more generally, actively seeking a redistribution of resources and rewards sufficient to narrow the obscene income gap, to end abject poverty and its pernicious consequences–these are activities that fall under the “pursuit of justice” heading.
The distinction between social action and social justice is not always crystal clear. But it is a distinction, and it is often altogether too real. We have yet to figure out how to persuade the average donor to Mazon that it is unacceptable for the relief of hunger to depend on Mazon’s success at encouraging charitable contributions, that a serious concern for the hungry requires active advocacy of governmental reform–at the least, for more effective and generous government programs to alleviate hunger, better still for a more serious commitment by government to do battle with poverty. Volunteer tutors who help young children acquire reading skills through the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy can and should become advocates for the range of investments required to improve schools–and decrease poverty–throughout the land.
Advocacy on behalf of policy change is inherently more amorphous (and more time consuming) than serving a hot lunch to a hungry person. But a mature commitment to social justice requires such advocacy. And we’ve not yet learned how to drive home the connection between the compassion that leads to social action and the indignation that informs the pursuit of justice. The heart of kindness beats rather independently of the mind of policy.
The Push and Pull of Israel
In the real world, there are tides. Suddenly, a bomb, and the tide shifts; suddenly, a windfall, and the tide shifts again. There are times that events crowd out consideration of the Other; there are times when then the plight of the Other is so awful that our hearts have room for little else. But most days, most times, a balancing is possible. The blunt fact, too often neglected, is that Judaism does not ask that we resolve the tension between universalism and particularism; it suggests that we learn to live with that tension, suggests even that the tension is a source of wisdom and perhaps even of decency.
More than anywhere else in the Jewish experience, America has been hospitable to the tension. For in America, more than anywhere else Jews have lived, Jewish interests and Jewish values have, for the most part, been consonant. A people particular in structure while universal in ideology has been able to retain its particularity and pursue its ideology–and to prosper. But yes, tides. As the oceans’ tides are set in motion by the gravitational interaction between the Earth and the Moon, so the tides that affect what I will here call “the Jewish balance” are affected, and deeply, by the push and pull of Israel, our very own gravitational field.
From the profoundly anxious weeks preceding the Six Day War in 1967 until at least the summer of 1982 and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Israel’s safety and welfare became the universal priority item on the American Jewish agenda. New levels of funding and new levels of political advocacy and, most important, new levels of sensed intimacy developed, and any manifest crisis in Israel (e.g., the Yom Kippur War of 1973) induced a massive redirection of American Jewish attention (both institutional and personal) from the quotidian details of American Jewish life to the high drama of the Jewish state. More generally, Israel displaced other central themes in Jewish life, which came increasingly to be fueled organizationally and emotionally around just two phenomena–Israel, and the Holocaust.
The push was towards particularism. The appropriate manner of love for Israel, it was widely preached and believed, was to be unconditional. The pull came from those friends of Israel, even lovers of Zion, who preferred a more critical, more universalist, stance–who believed that true loving is to be expressed not only well but also wisely, who asserted that the defense of Israel required honesty as well as affection.
Though Newton, the discoverer of gravity, also taught that “every action begets an equal and opposite reaction,” the push and pull of Israel have not been equal. Those who question Israel’s politics, even while embracing the state, have often been condemned and sometimes ostracized by the established community And, where the response has not been quite so harsh, they have almost invariably been criticized for “washing Israel’s dirty linen in public.” (The all-too-obvious rejoinder, that the criticism ought be directed to those who dirtied the linen and not to those who called attention to it, fell on deaf ears.)
Israel’s place in the American Jewish consciousness belongs in a discussion of Jews and social justice because Israel sets on edge the question of social action vs. social justice, the requirements of the particular and of the universal.
Israel’s defenders often use support for Israel as a litmus test not only for who merits honor by the community but, more pertinently, for who merits its organized political support. At various points these past few decades, Jews have been importuned to help finance and vote for some “pro-Israel” candidates for Congress who, on all other counts, would traditionally have been regarded as utterly reprehensible. (Senator Jessie Helms comes powerfully–but not uniquely–to mind.) The need for “correct” social action on Israel trumps, for these defenders, the social justice needs of the state.
This particularist view promoted by the mainstream pro-Israel community–“if you’re not with us, you’re against us–leaves little room for and much resentment against those who think themselves quite pro-Israel but whose response to Israel’s actions is less than gung-ho. Some among these simply drop out, become indifferent to Israel’s saga, preferring other ways to express their Jewish identity. Some, their numbers perhaps exaggerated because of the shock of their disaffection, become vocal critics of Israel, lose the capacity for nuance, lose any sign that their arguments are born of love, override the distinction between critique and condemnation. They can no longer be counted as pro-Israel in any meaningful sense; their Israel is a bastard state. As within the vastly larger pro-Israel community there are noisy people who believe that Israel can do no wrong, there are elements within the left-liberal community who believe Israel can do no right.
And then, in growing number, and in particular among younger people–this repeatedly confirmed in survey research–there is, as if in reaction to these two absurdist extremes, a growing refusal to engage with Israel at all. Why willingly enter a debate at once silly and vitriolic? Why emotionally engage with a nation bound to cause you psychic distress, why intellectually engage with a disputation that has so tiny a chance of resolution? Dropping out seems far more attractive.
The growing polarization around Israel has unfolded, over the last several years, in a context among whose central features has been the rise of an apparently respectable intellectual force that has come to be known as “neo-conservatism,” fueled in the main by Jews. And that, too, has contributed to the community’s polarization. Whether its roots be traced to the editorial offices of Commentary magazine and Norman Podhoretz’s own intellectual journey in the 1960s and 1970s or to Leo Strauss’s seminars at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, the status and stature of the neo-conservative movement, its prominent think tanks, law school professorships and government officials have given it highly visible clout. This has been especially true in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the post-1990 triumphalism that ensued–and, most recently, with the presidency of George W. Bush.
The prominence of a number of Jews in high level government positions, particularly in the Defense Department, fervent advocates of the war in Iraq and fervent defenders of Israel, as also the president’s evident sympathy for Israel, as also the support for Israel by many Evangelicals and many of the most prominent conservative members of Congress, has further served to polarize the Jewish community; extremely sharp differences on both domestic and foreign policy have become all the more complicated because the right has seemed almost to preempt support for Israel. Vice President Cheney, reviled by liberals, received multiple standing ovations when he addressed the annual AIPAC conference; Tom DeLay urges Israel to keep hold of the occupied territories. So, again, “pro-Israel” comes to be defined narrowly, alienating significant numbers of young people and others from the established community.
That is not to say that anyone in the Jewish community who is pro-Israel does not contribute to social justice projects as well. Many do. Fortunately, simply supporting a pro-Israel candidate whose views in other spheres are opposed to your own does not tend to change one’s mind. Even Jewish supporters of the most right-wing but pro-Israel politicians tend to donate overwhelmingly to liberal social justice causes. Yet the rise of Jewish neo-cons has created the false dichotomy between pro-Israel, pro-conservative Jews on the one hand, and liberal Jews on the other.
Rebalancing Judaism and Social Justice
For all the polarization of the current period, despite the new respectability of both conservative ideology and pro-Israel zealotry, something has taken root that is still unfolding but that feels rather like a renaissance of social justice commitment.
This new movement began during the Reagan years, and was in some ways a response to them. During a brief flurry in the 1980s, the Jewish Fund for Justice (now the Jewish FundS for Justice), American Jewish World Service, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the New Israel Fund were born. The Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center matured into a highly visible advocate of the liberal agenda, the veteran Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, founded in Chicago back in 1964, displayed unexpected staying power, and more local organizations popped up here and there–in Boston, in Minneapolis, in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.
All along, the progressive community in America had been home to a disproportionately large number of Jews. But many of them had at most very minimal involvement or even identification with the Jewish community. While that remains largely the case still, there has emerged a visibly–and visibly identified–Jewish activist network, some working through Jewish agencies and organizations–Avodah in New York City, Washington and Chicago, the Jewish Organizing Initiative in Boston, the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Brith Tzedek V’Shalom nationwide, among a growing number of others. Note must be taken, in this hardly encyclopedic list, of Tikkun magazine and its indefatigable editor and mìse en scene of the “Tikkun community,” Rabbi Michael Lerner; of the Shalom Center and its leader, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who has likely done more than anyone to insist that the Jewish renewal movement remain politically engaged, and of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in New York, which proudly identifies as part of a more radically-oriented subset of social justice organizations.
Surprisingly, given the distemper of the times, these liberal organizations have all been accepted by the mainstream Jewish community (more or less grudgingly) as legitimate expressions of Jewish concern. Here and there, the old critique that they are inadequately concerned with Jewish interests, or that they confuse authentic Jewish concerns with the agenda of the Democratic party, can still be heard, but such criticism comes mostly from the far right of the Jewish community. Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of the reinvigorated Jewish progressive movement is that there is more than rudimentary communication among its activists, a growing sense that they are part of a cadre.
The sense of a new balance between Judaism and social justice is also evident in the blooming of dozens of new cultural flowers, aimed at creating a new Jewish particularism more comfortable with Judaism’s universalizing tendencies. Edgy Jewish magazines and comedians, klezmer ensembles, Yiddish classes, reasonably rigorous Jewish studies programs for adults, Jewish film festivals, diverse “renewal” communities dot the Jewish landscape. Some–klezmer perhaps most dramatically–have developed sturdy legs. Of many, it is still far too early to tell. They may prove passing fads, they may become ongoing facts. There is some reason to believe that among the purposes that some of these serve is to make available places where Jews, especially young Jews, can express their Jewish identity without “dealing” with Israel. How their relationship to Israel, hence also in significant measure to the larger community, will play out depends quite heavily on developments in Israel over the coming years. Alas, one cannot be more than hopeful with regard to Israel; optimism is not warranted. Yet the movement toward Jewish social justice itself remains strong.
Compassion Dor l’Dor
The tradition teaches that we are “rachmanim b’neit rachmanim,” the compassionate children of compassionate parents. The question that the heirs to a tradition of rachmanut, compassion, must in every generation answer is whether they, in turn, will be the compassionate parents of compassionate children. On the whole, that’s harder to do at a time when Jewish bellies are, for the most part, full, when we are not, save with regard to Israel, as driven a community as we like to think we were not very long ago, when the virtual worlds available to us are more enticing than the actual world we inhabit, when there is such marked fatigue, even despair, with the public domain and such a rise in concern for issues of safety and security. Voluntarism, compassion, empathy–along with indignation the oxygen of a commitment to social justice–are not genetically prescribed. They depend on a vigorous and sustained commitment and can never be taken for granted.
Yet the earth has been turned, new seed planted. The notices of the demise of the Jewish commitment to–obsession with, really–social justice are demonstrably premature. As the pages that now follow persuasively show.
*The Forward’s news announcement, “Leonard Fein, Progressive Activist and Longtime Forward Columnist Dies”
*The Berman Jewish Policy Archives has a diverse collection of the prolific Fein’s writings.
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