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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Living Spiritually in an Arguing World



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What is the view of the relationship between religion and politics?

by Howard Greenstein

History provides a Jew with ample reason for developing political and social sensitivity to the needs of one’s neighbors. The Torah teaches (Exodus 23:9) “A stranger shall you not oppress, for you know the heart of the stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Because of their experience with oppression for centuries, Jews were expected to feel compassion for other scapegoats. Roots of social concern run deep in Jewish history and theology. Whatever concept of God a Jew chooses to follow, that belief always includes a moral imperative to do justice. If one believes God cares for all people, then so should we all. If one perceives God as the power within people and nature that explains the social order, then we all are responsible to protect it and defend it.

Others may speak of the covenant between God and Israel that binds a Jew to observe the divine mandate for truth and righteousness. One may even propose that the Jewish people have chosen themselves to be messengers of right conduct and to enjoin the rest of the world to emulate their example.

Jews are also especially preoccupied with social issues because of their experience with anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism increases in proportion to the level of frustration in any society and its insatiable quest for a scapegoat to vent its anger. Jews therefore eagerly strive to achieve a society that affords maximum self-expression for all its members, minimizes frustration and thereby weakens the impulse to inflict harm on helpless minorities. A closed society that suppresses basic civil liberties poses a potential disaster for the most vulnerable segments of any community, which is why Jews generally have always labored for a free and open body politic.

Bernard Malamud summed it up well in The Fixer when he noted,

We’re all in history, that’s sure, but some are more than others, Jews more than some…One thing I’ve learned…there’s no such thing as unpolitical man, especially a Jew…You can’t sit still and see yourself destroyed.

The roots of political protest among Jews can be traced to the pre-exilic prophets of Israel who challenged the most cherished beliefs of the people. The Israelites under the reign of Jeroboam II believed that soon “the day of the Lord” would arrive, a day of triumph over all their enemies. Amos shook their complacency by warning that the day of the Lord would be one of darkness and not light, a day of disaster. The people would suffer because they had turned aside from their covenant of justice.

After the exile, when the priesthood tried to hold the small Judean community together, the concept of a goy kadosh, (“a holy nation”) slowly evolved. Although the priestly period was marked primarily by religious and political conservatism, the idea of a goy kadosh resonated with radical implications. The root meaning of kadosh is “to be set apart for a higher spiritual purpose.” The priests, and later the rabbinic sages, insisted that the Jewish people should maintain their distance from others so that their own ethical standards might not be tainted by the popular immoralities of their time. The biblical and rabbinic ideal called for moral concern for all humankind.

The very purpose of Jewish existence was “to make the right go forth among the nations,” “to be a light unto the nations that My salvation may be known in all the earth.” The justification for Jewish distinctiveness was that the Jewish people might better fulfill its messianic mission.

One of the most decisive justifications for political activism in Jewish terms is the lesson of the Hasidic story that tells of the tzadik (a wholly righteous person) who was going to Sodom and Gemorrah to rebuke the people for their evil deeds. A passer-by mocked him: “You know that no one will pay you any heed. You can never change the way they are.” To which the tzadik replied, “I know I can never change the way they are, but by speaking out, I can keep them from changing the way I am.”

On the subject of race relations, the sages taught that God formed Adam of dust from all over the world, so that no race on earth can ever be told, “This soil is not your home.”

Jews therefore are thus more likely than others to support policies that would deal more vigorously with the social, educational and economic conditions that breed poverty, frustration and violence, as opposed to relying entirely on stricter law and order. Whether the reason be minority status, religious tradition, education or class (or a combination of all these factors), Jews are still represented out of proportion to their numbers in movements that would secure social justice and preserve our civil liberties.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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