Wednesday, September 3, 2014 Elul 8, 5774

Faith Is an Engine for Realizing Social Justice

June 6, 2014 By:
Rabbi Steve Gutow
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We have a responsibility to each other — as Jews and as human beings. The Torah is unequivocal on this. While it has little to say about accumulating great wealth, our foundational text is filled with concern for the sick, the stranger and the poor. The prophets said that we could not be worthy followers of Judaism if we did not comprehend our duty to the vulnerable in our society.
 
As American Jews who believe in our tradition and who understand the limits of voluntary charity, we have a responsibility to be engaged with our government and to ensure that our laws and our institutions reflect our focus on social justice. 
 
These ethical norms influence the work we do at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. In organizing communities and advocating for federal, state and local policies, we first help the American Jewish community find a consensus and then pursue the course around which that consensus has formed. Our work is driven by resolutions that have been put forward, debated and voted on by 125 Community Relations Councils and 16 national agencies, with a veto of religious conscience afforded to the Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and Orthodox movements.
 
Our policy compendium is a reflection of what it means to be civically engaged while driven by faith. For example:
  • From the commandment not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor, we created our campaign against the daily horror of gun violence;
  • From the precept that each of us was created b’tzelem elokim, in the image of the Divine, we fight for equal treatment regardless of your sex, whom you love or where you are from;
  • From the Torah’s acknowledgment of our responsibilities to the needs of workers comes our support for an increase in the minimum wage;
  • From the command, “There shall be no needy among you” comes our support for SNAP   (food stamps); and
  • In working for comprehensive immigration reform, we remember that we were strangers in Egypt, and so we must love the strangers among us. 
As Jews, we are the beneficiaries of this rich moral and legal tradition that commands — above all — justice and compassion. But we do not live only in the Torah. As Rabbi Shimon said in Pirkei Avot, the collected wisdom of the early rabbis, “Studying Torah is not the most important thing, rather fulfilling it.” 
 
So how are we doing in fulfilling it?
 
Here in Philadelphia, one in four is at risk of hunger. That startling statistic holds for the Jewish population as well, where approximately 57,000 Jews, out of some 214,000 in the region, are at or near the poverty level. As Jews, we have an obligation to the poor, Jew and non-Jew alike. As Americans, in a country of wealth and means, we have the ability. Nobody should be hungry in a land of such abundance. 
 
Of course, solving the scourge of poverty is not simple. Many of these hungry Philadelphians may also face language or cultural barriers. The requirement to open our hands to the needy, therefore, is intertwined with our obligation to love the stranger. Recognizing the complexity of society and its failings, Judaism is a mosaic of social justice. The various laws are each a necessary component to a world dedicated to realizing equality and dignity for all. 
 
Fortunately, we are not alone. There are many interfaith partners who share in our religious commitment and our moral imperatives. At less than 2 percent of the national population, partnership is essential if we are to have an impact on our government. The model of community relations we espouse at the JCPA is predicated on finding these natural allies, developing relationships and partnering to enact the policies needed. 
 
Also compelling us forward is the knowledge that Jewish involvement in social justice resonates with today’s Jews. In the recent Pew study on the American Jewish community, 56 percent said that working for justice and equality was essential to being Jewish, just behind remembering the Holocaust (73 percent) and leading an ethical and moral life (69 percent). We will not be acting like prophets excoriating our people to pursue justice; they already are seeking that call. 
 
We are fortunate to live in a democracy where ideas can move people and change is always possible. The challenge is how to do that. I firmly believe that faith is the most powerful galvanizer of humanity, but it is rarely and poorly used. 
 
We are the keepers of a rich tradition that teaches us that a virtuous life is a life spent in recognition of the value of each human being. When we learn how to best speak the truth of our tradition, faith will be the engine that moves us toward justice.
 
Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the New York-based Jewish Council for Public Affairs, will speak at the annual meeting of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, JSPAN, co-sponsored with the Philadelphia JCRC, on June 8 at 7 p.m. at the Philadelphian apartments in Center City. The program is free and open to the public. For reservations, call 215-292-9575, email jspan@jspan.org or go to jspan.org.

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