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A Jewish Call For Social Justice


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Pope Benedict XVI recently called on the Catholic community to promote human rights and bring an end to poverty. The pope’s directive, laden with biblical charges and humanistic principles, spurns deregulation and freedom from taxes and instead focuses on addressing the root causes of poverty and ensuring universal access to basic human needs such as clean water, sustenance, health, education and employment.

This basic reminder of the need for social justice offers the Jewish community much to think about.

An innovative papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritae (“Charity in Truth”) maintains that “grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.”

On a more basic level, the pope addresses how “locating resources, financing, production, consumption and all the other phases in the economic cycle inevitably have moral implications. Thus every economic decision has a moral consequence.”

This clarion call to ethics dethrones the all-powerful dollar (or euro, for our European friends) as primary motivator of change. “People-centered” is how the pope describes his call for the establishment of a new moral norm.

While the pope dedicates an entire chapter to the dignity of the poor, he doesn’t claim this to be a uniquely Christian value; rather, he argues that all faiths hold these moral values and must unite to address this dire situation.

After happily taking in the new papal reform initiative, I was left with a larger, more personal concern. If even the pope admits that reclaiming the dignity of the poor is not a uniquely Christian value, then where, I wondered, is that value being articulated in the ideology of my own faith?

Please don’t misunderstand. Even a brief perusal of Jewish religious literature quickly reveals that the Torah, the Talmud and various other halachic sources are replete with demands to give charity, release debts, make loans, restrict cutthroat competition, establish communal funds, and support the most vulnerable in our society.

Certainly many Jewish leaders and theologians have, over the past century, offered their unique critiques of capitalism where they are due.

For example, the first chief rabbi of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook, suggested in the early 20th century that “Without determining the economic system envisaged by the Torah, it is evident that a consistent application of the Torah’s socio-economic norms is incompatible with the tenets of capitalism. The Torah’s statutory insistence [on the command] ‘thou shall do that which is right and good’ harbors such severe limitations upon private property as to render it virtually untenable and unprofitable.”

British Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, who recently became a member of the House of Lords due in large measure to his being an outspoken voice for social justice, has put forth arguments strikingly similar to the pope’s. He argues that while markets are not inherently flawed, they are not inherently moral either, and thus require regulation.

In a globalized, unregulated market, we live in what Hobbes called a war of all against all. Who will account for the most vulnerable?

Yet the voice of Jewish conscience has been all too silent on these issues in America during this economic recession. As a rabbinical student, I have to wonder: Where are the rabbinic voices that transcend Jewish self-interest by raising a banner of universal conscience for the world’s most vulnerable individuals: the two billion human beings living off $2 a day, the one billion living off $1 a day, the thirty million children who die each year of preventable diseases?

I am told that for a rabbi looking to keep a pulpit, critiquing capitalism can be as dangerous as criticizing God or Israel. The sustained mantra is that communism failed and that (an unchallenged) capitalism is the only evolved and necessary truth.

Do our rabbis aspire to be internationally recognized for their ethical positions? Abraham, chosen by God to be the first Jew, was given a mission to pursue justice (“laasot tzedakah u’mishpat”). Maimonides, the great 12th century Talmudist and philosopher, argued that ensuring the just state was in fact the primary purpose of all Jewish law (Guide for the Perplexed 3:27).

This was the essence of Torah that the great Modern Orthodox leader Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik also argued for: “A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending the aggrieved, [whoever] the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek (justice) is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed.”

Whether or not Jewish values are a precise fit with the ostensibly anti-individualist stance of the pope (and they probably are not), Jews can certainly join in responding to his call for the immediate and passionate restructuring of our global economic priorities. What will it take for the Jewish community to return to the most fundamental of our tradition’s values and demand universal justice?

The organization Uri L’Tzedek is rallying Orthodox Jews to adhere to the Torah and place domestic and global justice at the top of our theological and moral agendas. We do not need the pope to teach Jews social justice; we have the Torah. But the timing and content of his encyclical should serve as a wakeup call to our own community.

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About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”


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