Ask A Jew: Social Justice in Judaism

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This column has been updated

By Hyphen Parent

What does social justice look like in Judaism?

Social Justice in Judaism most often looks like Tikkun Olam. The Hebrew phrase means “Repairing the world.” Tikkun Olam has always been a fundamental part of Judaism and in recent years, it has taken on a life of its own particularly in progressive Jewish spheres.

The Torah includes many very specific references for how we are to treat others. Just a few examples include, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Exodus.22:20) This is repeated 36 times throughout the Torah. “Before the blind, do not put a stumbling block” (Leviticus 19:14). “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”(Exodus 20:13)

Yet what is written in the Torah is only our beginning of understanding how we should behave towards others. Our sages expand on these to better understand and apply to our daily lives. For example, the reference to a stumbling block before the blind inspires actions for how we make spaces accessible to all and even current-day fair business practices.

Social justice isn’t just limited to words on a scroll or the notes of rabbis from hundreds of years ago. It’s not just a philosophical concept. In Deuteronomy 16:20 we’re told, “Justice, justice shall you pursue….” I’ve written in the past about how this translates to action.

We Jews are commanded to actively work for justice. This is done in a number of different ways in the Jewish community.

In some communities this looks like a Tikkun Olam or Social Justice group or committee. This is often a group that recognizes needs in the community (the immediate Jewish community and the larger secular world) and organizes events and raises money to address those needs. This is done in a variety of ways. Various Tikkun Olam groups to which I’ve belonged have provided funds for members affected by the government shutdown; served food to the homeless; organized drives for food, clothing, and school supplies for the local secular community; and gathered and shipped supplies and funds for refugees in other countries.

To some people, social justice looks like their connection to Judaism. Some Jews who don’t keep kosher and don’t go to services are still very active in Tikkun Olam programs. Once, our synagogue at the time organized a group to help feed the homeless. While we were there, a man introduced himself to me. He explained that he was a member of the synagogue, but hadn’t stepped foot inside for years. Yet here he was in the freezing cold serving food to the hungry. He told me, “But this–this is why I’m Jewish.”

In many communities, social justice looks like a service requirement as part of b’nei mitzvah programs. Since pursuing justice is a fundamental part of Judaism and the Jewish experience, many synagogues make it a necessary part of becoming a Jewish adult.  These projects are sometimes tailored to relate to the young adult’s Torah portion.  Some b’nei mitzvah projects we’ve seen have included volunteering at animal shelters, collecting food to donate, creating hospital bags, and volunteering with special needs sports teams.

In most communities, it looks like collecting tzedakah. Tzedakah is the obligation to give financially. Tzedakah boxes are banks to collect funds to donate.  You’ll find them everywhere. They’re in homes, synagogues, and Hebrew school classrooms.  They’re even commonly given as gifts to babies.  Coins are collected and sent to various organizations. Even the youngest child is able to take part in social justice by placing coins in tzedakah boxes.

In some communities, social justice takes the shape of a gemach— where people who may not otherwise be able to afford something, can borrow and return items. Those who can afford it buy and donate items like chairs, decorations, cribs, or wedding dresses to the gemach. Others who need such items can then borrow them without having to worry about cost.  The community comes together to take care of each other.

These are just a few examples, but there are a wide variety of ways the Jewish community addresses social justice.

Torah lays the foundation for social justice within Judaism. We take the charge to pursue justice in a variety of different ways and from there actively work for it within our immediate communities and beyond.

Hyphen Parent

About Hyphen Parent

Dorothy-Ann Parent (better known as Hyphen) is a writer, a traditional Jew, a seeker of justice, a lover of stories, the self-proclaimed Jewish Molly Weasley, hobbit-sized, and best not left unattended in a bookshop or animal shelter.

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