In this hour we, the living [post-Holocaust Jews], are “the people of Israel.” The tasks begun by the patriarchs and prophets and continued by their descendants are now entrusted to us. We are either the last Jews or those who will hand over the entire past to generations to come. We will either forfeit or enrich the legacy of ages. – Abraham Joshua Heschel (The Earth is the Lord’s), 107
What A Wonderful Path Judaism Is!
- Judaism proclaims a God who is the Creator of all life, whose attributes of kindness, compassion, and justice are to serve as examples for all our actions.
- Judaism stresses that every person is created in God’s image and therefore is of supreme value.
- Judaism teaches that people are to be co-workers with God in preserving and improving the world. We are mandated to serve as stewards of the world’s resources to see that God’s bounties are used for the benefit of all.
- Judaism asserts that nothing that has value may be wasted or unnecessarily destroyed (bal tashchit).
- Judaism stresses that we are to love other people as ourselves, to be kind to strangers, “for we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and to act with compassion toward the homeless, the poor, the orphan, the widow, and all of God’s creatures.
- Judaism urges efforts to reduce hunger. A Jew who helps to feed a hungry person is considered, in effect, to have “fed” God.
- Judaism mandates that we must seek and pursue peace. Great is peace, for it is one of God’s names, all God’s blessings are contained in it, it must be sought even in times of war, and it will be the Messiah’s first blessing.
- Judaism exhorts us to pursue justice, to work for a society in which each person has the ability to obtain, through creative labor, the means to lead a dignified life.
- Judaism teaches that God’s compassion is over all of God’s works, that the righteous individual considers the well-being of animals, and that Jews should avoid tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, causing pain to animals.
- Judaism stresses involvement, nonconformity, resistance to oppression and injustice, and a constant struggle against idolatry.
Producing a Better World by Applying Jewish Values
This ancient, marvelous Jewish outlook, applied to the planet’s gravest problems, can help shift the planet away from its present perilous course to produce a far better world. Strategies to obtain a better world include:
There should be a central focus in Jewish life on the preservation of our natural environment and the improvement of economic and social conditions. Synagogues, yeshivas, Jewish centers, and other Jewish institutions should increase the awareness of Judaism’s powerful messages about justice, peace, environmental sustainability and other values, and how these teachings can be applied to the problems of today. Hopefully other religions will apply their own teachings and join in these efforts.
- We should seek a fairer tax system, with a reduction of major tax breaks for thewealthiest Americans and highly profitable corporations. The increased tax revenues should be used to finance a major effort to rebuild our decaying infrastructure, produce more renewable energy, improve our educational systems and research capacities, and make other necessary investments that will create jobs, increase tax revenue, and help improve the economy, while providing dignity and confidence to workers.
- We should promote major changes in response to the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that climate change is happening, that it poses a grave threat to life on earth and human civilization, and that we – humanity – are both a major cause of current climate change and are the only potential solution. Preventing the climate catastrophe that many climate scientists are predicting should be a major focus in all aspects of Jewish life today.
- A Global Marshall Plan should be established, led by the United States and other developed nations, including European Union nations and Israel, to sharply reduce world poverty, hunger, illiteracy, pollution, disease, and other societal problems. This would improve the image of the U.S. and Israel, potentially reducing future acts of terrorism.
- There should be a major effort to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and other Middle Eastern conflicts, as well as conflicts throughout the world, for the great benefit of all the people involved, and so that more money, time, and attention can be applied to addressing today’s many global challenges. Israel cannot avert renewed conflict and increased diplomatic isolation, effectively respond to her serious economic, environmental, and other domestic problems, and remain both a Jewish and a democratic state, without an enduring Middle East peace. While recognizing the many obstacles related to Palestinian statements and actions, we should encourage increased efforts to reach a resolution of the conflicts. The U.S. and other nations should support Israel in every attempt to achieve a comprehensive, just, and sustainable peace.
- There should be a widespread effort to increase awareness that a large-scale shift toward plant-based (vegan) diets would provide numerous benefits, including significantly improving human health and reducing climate change, deforestation, desertification, rapid species losses, soil erosion, and many other environmental threats. There is no way that the world will be able to avoid an unprecedented climate catastrophe and meet increasing needs for food, energy, water, and other resources, without a major societal switch toward vegetarian, and preferably vegan, diets, along with other positive changes.
- We should stress that plant-based (vegan) diets are the diets most consistent with basic Jewish teachings on preserving health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, helping hungry people, and seeking and pursuing peace.
- A commission of highly respected religious leaders, environmentalists, educators, politicians, and other experts should be formed to investigate and report on the best approaches to reduce current threats and greatly improve conditions worldwide.
Of course, it will not be easy to carry out the strategies listed above. However, we must recognize the seriousness of the threats we face today, and that business as usual is no longer an option. Unprecedented changes in thinking and action must be made very soon and Jews, along with others, must play a major role in increasing awareness in the urgency of these changes in order to avoid a catastrophic future. This should be a priority in all aspects of Jewish life. Failure to apply Jewish values to address current threats will result in a very dismal future, with increased poverty, hunger, terrorism, war, pollution, and severe climate events.
Many Jews today justify their lack of involvement with the world’s problems by stating that Jews have enough troubles of their own, and that we can leave it to others to involve themselves in “non-Jewish” issues. Certainly, Jews must be actively involved in battling anti- Semitism, working for a secure and just Israel, and engaging with numerous other Jewish needs and obligations. But can we divorce ourselves from active involvement with wider problems? Are efforts to obtain justice, peace, environmental sustainability, etc., really “non-Jewish” issues? Don’t Jews also suffer from polluted air and water, resource shortages, the effects of climate change, and other societal threats? Can we ignore issues critical to the future of our community, nation, and world? When people are poor, hungry, oppressed, disease-ridden, and victimized by violence, does our tradition not mandate that we respond, and is it not also very much in the self-interest of our own safety and advancement? Perhaps the situation is, in mathematical terms, one of conditional probability. If conditions in the world are good, it is still possible that Jews will suffer. But if these conditions are bad, it is almost certain that Jews will be hurt along with everyone else. Jews must be involved in working for a just and harmonious world for the sake of our ethical values as well as our own self-interest.
It is essential that Jews, along with others, actively apply Jewish values to current critical problems. We must be “God’s loyal opposition” to injustice, greed, and immorality, rousing the conscience of humanity. We must shout “no” when others are whispering “yes” to injustice. We must involve Judaism in the universal task of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” We must act as befits “descendants of the prophets,” reminding the world that there exists a God of justice, compassion, and kindness. Nothing less than global survival is at stake.
As indicated by the list of activist Jewish groups in Appendix C, there are many dedicated Jews who recognize that Judaism has splendid values that can play major roles if applied to today’s critical issues. It would be very helpful if many more Jews educated themselves on the issues, got more involved in Jewish life, and spoke out.
There is a battle worldwide between the forces seeking harmony, tolerance, common ground, and solutions and the forces of fear, obstruction, hatred, bigotry, and demonization of people who are different in views, nationality, or religion. This book is a calling to join with the many, although yet too few, activist Jews serving our Covenant with God, with actions that respond to God’s call for our partnering in building a more caring humanity and a better existence for all God’s creatures.
The afternoon service for Yom Kippur includes the prophetic reading of the book of Jonah, who was sent by God to the city of Nineveh to urge the people to repent and change their evil ways in order to avoid their destruction. The people of Nineveh listened and changed their actions – but will we? Today the whole world is like Nineveh, in danger of annihilation and in need of repentance and redemption. Each one of us must be a Jonah, with a mission to warn the world that it must turn from greed, injustice, and materialism, in order that we may avoid global catastrophe.
Some Questions to Ponder
I would like to conclude this chapter with some questions that I have been trying to raise for many years about current Jewish life. I ask these questions (addressed to me as well as everyone else) with great love and respect, because I hope they will lead to positive changes that will be a kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of God’s Name):
- Are we defining Judaism in too narrow a fashion? Shouldn’t a definition of a religious Jew include a passion for social justice, a moral sensitivity, a strong feeling for ethics and morals?
- Is coming to the synagogue more important than what happens there? Are we transformed by our services to become better people, to do something about the injustices and indignities suffered by our fellow humans?
- Have we forgotten who we are and what we stand for and Whom we represent? Have we forgotten our roles: to be a chosen people, chosen to be God’s servants and witnesses, a light unto the nations, a holy people, descendants of the prophets, the original champions of social justice?
- Are we too complacent, too ready to believe that we need not change? The patriarch Abraham began the history of Judaism by a radical break with the past, by smashing the idols of his society. Are we ready, too easily, to accept modern idols of conformity, materialism, secularism, and permissiveness?
- Do we realize that the task of religion is to be a challenge to the status quo, to prejudices, and to a herd mentality, and that complacency and taking things for granted are not consistent with Judaism?
- Are we taking our ethical ideals and prophetic teachings seriously enough? If we implore “justice, justice, shall you pursue” and “let justice well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream,” why is there so much complacency about poverty, exploitation, corruption at every level of government, and corporate actions that negatively affect our health and safety?
- Why are there so few dreams of a better world through Jewish ideals?
- Are we segregating God in our synagogues? If God is sanctified by justice and
righteousness, why are we so complacent in the face of an unredeemed, immoral, and
- What would the prophets say about our society today? About Judaism in our time? About
activities in our synagogues and other Jewish institutions?
- Moses said, “would that all God’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29), but where is
the voice of prophecy in our synagogues and other aspects of Judaism today?
- Have we forgotten, amidst our many study groups, that it is not study that is the chief
thing, but action?
- If “to save one life is to save an entire world,” why such silence in the face of conditions
that lead to the deaths of millions of people annually due to hunger?
- If every person is created in God’s image and we all have one Creator, why aren’t there
greater efforts to combat racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of
- Consistent with our prayers to a God of compassion, shouldn’t we feel more compassion toward all of God’s creatures? Considering the many threats to our (and God’s) world, from climate change, destruction of tropical rain forests, depletion of the ozone layer, acid rain, rapid loss of bio-diversity, soil erosion and depletion, and widespread air and water pollution, and in light of Judaism’s strong environmental messages, shouldn’t the preservation of the global environment be given greater priority on the Jewish agenda?
- If all Jews put our splendid teachings into practice in efforts to improve the world, can you imagine the effects? Would there be so much crime, violence, distrust, prejudice, and discord, and air, water and land pollution? Would we have so much “private affluence along with public squalor?” Would we have the misguided priorities that lead to spending so many billions of dollars for the military and not enough for human needs and a better environment?
- When considering what Judaism can and must become, shouldn’t we consider the statement that Robert Kennedy often made: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were, and ask, ‘Why not?’”
- In summary, since Judaism is such a wonderful, challenging, dynamic religion, why isn’t this translated more into Jews’ lives today?
This has indeed been a very difficult book to write, but as I did the research and writing, I saw
Israel increasingly isolated, facing what former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called a looming “diplomatic tsunami.” I saw the United States and many other countries facing difficult economic conditions, and signs of climate change occurring more frequently. And I saw many Jews and others in denial about such issues and/or backing very conservative policies and politicians. As I saw these things, the importance of this book became increasingly clear. I hope that people will respond with an open mind and a desire to apply the arguments I have presented in pursuit of a more sustainable future. I very much hope that many respectful dialogues result, and that they lead to solutions to current problems.
My intent was not to offend, and I apologize to anyone who was offended. I certainly mean everything in a positive way, “for the sake of Heaven,” with the hope that the book will help revitalize Judaism (and perhaps other religions, from our example), improve Israel’s security and well-being, reduce anti-Semitism, reduce climate change and other environmental threats and, in general, lead to a far better future.
I hope this book will help revitalize Judaism and enable Jewish groups and individuals to truly apply Jewish values in their lives and communities, in efforts to create a more compassionate, just, healthy, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable world.