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In Defense of Jewish Liberals

There have been many recent articles and letters in The Jerusalem Post critical of Jews who are liberals. Somehow the word “liberal” has become a negative one for many Jews. However, there is much in Jewish history and teachings that is consistent with Jews being liberals and even radicals, in the best sense of that word.

From its beginning, Judaism has protested against greed, injustice and the misuse of power. Abraham, the first Hebrew, smashed the idols of his father even though his action challenged the common belief of the time (Genesis Rabbah, Chapter 38). He established the precedent that a Jew should not conform to society’s values when they are evil. Later he even challenged God, exclaiming, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justly?” (Genesis 18:25) when God informed him of His plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. As a sign of Abraham’s non-conformity, the Jewish sages assert that he was on one side of the river while the entire rest of the world was on the other side.

At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the Torah relates three incidents in Moses’ life when he acted against injustice, before God chose him to deliver the Israelites from Egypt. They teach that Jews must be involved in fighting injustice and helping to resolve disputes, whether they are between Jews, Jews and non-Jews, or only non-Jews.

The greatest champions of protest against unjust conditions were the Hebrew prophets. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel summarized the attributes of these radical spokespeople for God: they could not be tranquil in an unjust world; they were supremely impatient with evil, due to their intense sensitivity to God’s concern for right and wrong, they were advocates for those too weak to plead their own cause (the widow, the orphan and the oppressed), and their major activity was involvement, remonstrating against wrongs inflicted on other people.

While Judaism has 613 mitzvot, there are only two things that Jews are to pursue: justice and peace. It is not liberals but the Jewish scriptures that proclaim, “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), “let justice well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24), and that we are to “do justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Many other statements in the Jewish tradition emphasize the great importance placed on working for justice. For example, the Book of Proverbs asserts: “to do righteousness and justice is preferred by God above sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3). The Psalmist exhorts: “give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (Psalms 82:3).

Judaism mandates a special obligation for Jews to actively strive for peace. While there are many commandments that require a certain time and place for their performance, with regard to the mandate to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15), we are to seek it in our own place and pursue it in other places (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 9:9).

It is significant that many of the most important Jewish prayers conclude with a supplication for peace. These include the Amida (silent prayer – also known as the Shmoneh Esrei – which is recited three times daily), the Kaddish, the grace after meals and the Priestly Blessing.

While Judaism expresses the concept that Jews are a chosen people, this does not imply any special favoritism, but rather obligations and responsibilities, a call to greater involvement, in being a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) in working to improve the world.

There is a commandment that is repeated in various formulations 36 times in the Torah, more often than any other mitzva: “you shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9, for example). Having been aliens in a foreign land, we should know what it is like to be oppressed and looked down upon simply for being foreigners.

Based on this frequent scriptural repetition, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former chancellor of Bar Ilan University in Israel, points out that Judaism teaches a special kind of justice, an “empathic justice,” that seeks to make people identify themselves with each other’s needs, hopes and aspirations, and defeats and frustrations.

To help the poor and hungry and to support communal purposes and institutions, Judaism places great stress on the giving of charity.

The Hebrew word for charity, “tzedaka,” literally means “righteousness” and is derived from the same root as “tzedek” – justice. In the Jewish tradition, giving tzedaka is not an act of condescension by one person to another who is in need. Rather, it is the fulfillment of a mitzva, a holy commandment, to a fellow human being, who has equal status before God.

For this reason, many Torah laws are designed to aid the poor: the produce of corners of the fields are to be left uncut for the poor to take (Leviticus 19:9); the gleanings of the wheat harvest and fallen fruit are to be left for the needy (Leviticus 19:10); and during the sabbatical year, the land is to be left fallow so the poor (as well as animals) may eat of whatever grows freely (Leviticus 25:2-7).

Judaism is concerned with the proper treatment of non-Jews as well as Jews. The Talmud contains many statutes that require Jews to assist and provide for non-Jews as well as Jews, “for the sake of peace.”

Judaism teaches that people must struggle to create a better society.

The Torah frequently admonishes: “And you shall eradicate the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 13:6, 17:7, 21:21, 24:7). Injustice cannot be passively accepted; it must be actively resisted and, ultimately, eliminated. The Talmudic sages teach that one reason Jerusalem was destroyed was because its citizens failed in their responsibility to constructively criticize each other’s improper behavior (Talmud Shabbat 99b). They indicate that “love which does not contain the element of criticism is not really love” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 54:3).

While the essential elements of Jewish practice include devotion to Torah, study, prayer, performing good deeds and other mitzvot, and cultivating a life of piety, Judaism teaches that to be considered truly pious, a person must also protest against injustice in society (Shabbat 55a).

Judaism teaches that it is not sufficient merely to perform mitzvot while passively acquiescing to unjust conditions.

Of course, while it is essential for Israel and the world that these and other universal values be applied, this does not mean that Israel’s needs be ignored. As Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” But it is also essential that we do not consider only our own needs, because as Hillel continued, “if I am only for myself, what am I?” And, almost 2,000 years before Rev. Martin Luther King stressed “the fierce urgency of now,” Hillel added, “if not now, when?” What about the attitudes of liberals toward Israel? One can love Israel and be critical of some of the policies of its government. The highest form of patriotism may be to challenge one’s country to live up to its highest ideals. There are times when the best thing a friend can do is to reveal an inconvenient truth.

An American who, for example, opposed the US invasion of Iraq and opposes policies of the current administration to give major tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans and to roll back regulations to decease greenhouse emissions and other environmental safeguards does not hate the US. Similarly, a Jewish liberal is not a hater of Israel if he or she, while recognizing the difficulties involved and the significant Palestinian responsibilities for the current situation, feels that Israel should be doing more to promote peace because this is necessary for Israel to have a decent future, and believes that there should be greater tolerance of alternative political and religious views.

Unfortunately there are people, liberals and conservatives, whose positions about Israel are wrong and based on prejudice and hatred, but to brand all liberals, or all conservatives, as hateful and evil is wrong and counterproductive.

The author is professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island, president emeritus of Jewish Veg, and author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalising Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet.

[This article originally appeared in the April 11 edition off the Jerusalem Post.]
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