What is the view of the relationship between religion and
by Howard Greenstein
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 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.
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.
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.
Malamud summed it up well in The Fixer when he noted,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
©2006 Howard Greenstein
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).
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.