Words and Deeds. And Needs.
By DAVID COHEN
THERE SHALL BE NO NEEDY
Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law & Tradition
By Rabbi Jill Jacobs
Foreword by Elliot N. Dorff
257 pages. Jewish Lights Publishing. $21.99.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs' pioneering book, There Shall Be No Needy, contributes much to the understanding
of Jewish law and tradition, and how that understanding fits, or should fit, into
our lives. It is (potentially) the Jewish version of Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, which challenged rigid
secularism and stimulated reflective discussions about religious beliefs and
ideas in the public square.
Jacobs tells us why Jews should connect Jewish religious teachings with our
social-justice public work. She shows that the old ways of keeping our Judaism shah shtill (quiet) no longer apply;
we've moved out of the shtetl, and we
should stop recoiling from the use of religious language because
fundamentalists, of many faiths, do so. The strong American belief in the
separation of religious practices from state actions has led us to downplay and
even dismiss religious learning from our public discourse. That, says Jacobs,
There Shall Be No Needy is organized in
the classic Jewish mold. Jacobs draws on the wisdom offered by ancient Jewish
texts and learnedly applies Jewish moral and legal teaching drawn from ancient,
medieval, and contemporary sources to contemporary public issues. She
skillfully integrates Torah, the Prophets, Talmud, Mishna, Mishneh Torah, and the
use of midrashim to raise questions
that flow from justice and equality issues and explains why the answers should
focus on how these teachings affect people’s lives.
Jacobs’ writing draws on her actual social-justice work, and it demonstrates
that she has taken the time to converse and reflect with her peers on the
meaning of that work. She seeks to push us beyond being Jewish “children of
light,” those ever-present universalists who do good and who happen to be Jewish. Jacobs says we have
the responsibility of learning what Jewish teachings are about and applying
them to our society’s deep deficits of inequality and injustice.
She forcefully argues that paradoxes are not reasons for paralysis in dealing
with overcoming injustices. It is not
pre-determined that the poor will be with us. They are with us, and the result
is our responsibility. Tzedakah
stands as our obligation. Tikkun olam
is about our serving the divine mission in working to perfect the world. Jacobs
moves us out of the mundane secular world as she keeps us grounded in working
with, listening to, organizing, and helping others. Our response must be active
and engaged. Passivity has no place when we are focused on those who are needy
or are marginalized in a society that is plagued by too much Social Darwinism.
There Shall Be No Needy confronts
many of our immediate issues that roil the political environment. These include
poverty, homelessness, health, workers, unions, employers, crime, punishment,
rehabilitation, and environmental sustainability. Even on immigration, an issue
she barely touches, Jacobs shows us the limits of aggadah (narrative). Our multiple Torah references on being mindful
of the needs of the ger (stranger) do
not provide proof text of what our policy should be. But Jacobs serves as a
The underlying principles that we draw from Jacobs’ work guide each of these
aforementioned issues and their policies:
the policy protect the dignity of the individual?
it shift the balance of power in ways that strengthen the individual and
community at risk and minimize its exploitation?
we meet our responsibilities to our community, and the community at large, the
way Abraham and Joseph did and as our remembrance of our slavery calls on us
Jacobs engages these timely questions that are with us
because of neglect, an absence of political will, and sustained direction. In
dealing with these bristling issues Jacobs touches our voice of conscience. She
summons us with her loud blasts to make our “still small voice” into a
collective voice that is heard, listened to, and acted on.
If Rabbi Jacobs had published There Shall
Be No Needy, that would be enough. Her book itself is a Dayenu, and its publication comes at a
time of great change in our United States and American Jewish community. That is why Jacobs work can serve as a
breakthrough in Jewish learning for affiliated and non-affiliated Jews.
Whether we can move in a new direction, and sustain this motion, remains
unanswered. But this is the moment to try. As American Jews we participate and
thrive as citizens in our democracy. We are unafraid. We are not a silent group
or an unorganized one. We have influence, and we assert it daily.
A little history. The changes since the golden era of 1945-64 have been
significant. In 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the Chair of the American Jewish
Congress, was the only Jewish speaker at the March on Washington. The days when
American Jews were defined largely by organizations such as the American Jewish
Congress, American Jewish Committee, AIPAC, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai Brit,
Jewish Labor Committee, and the Federations are over. These organizations
hunker down and make contributions of varying quality, from excellent to poor.
An equally important part of the community has brought a renewed vitality in
the last 30 years. These new groups cast a wide net, one that strengthens our
core as it reaches out to the periphery of American Jewish life. We now see
organizations that connect people with their Jewish identity as they
participate in the larger society. These include organizations, for instance,
that break out of the boundaries on Israel: Peace Now, Brit Tzedek, Israel
Policy Forum, J Street.
What has changed is that the old secular/non-secular divide no longer exists.
The Jewish Labor Committee joins religious groups in a community seder to
recognize the issues surrounding Day Laborers. Post-Postville leads to the
invention of the Heksher Tsedek initiative. An Orthodox organization certifies
kosher restaurants that treat their workers fairly. Jewish organizations are
challenged to meet their obligation under halakhah
to pay low-paid workers a living wage. Efforts are made to alleviate the
condition of predator interest rates that could lead to future collaboration
with Muslim groups.
Rabbi Jacobs constructs a way of working that all rabbis should follow. Yes, in
Orthodox and Conservative congregations the rabbi makes the halakhah (the way to go according to
Jewish law) decisions. That is their practice. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, halakhah decisions are rarely unanimous
among the varied Jewish authorities. These rabbis, and those of other
denominations, have a responsibility to explain their decisions and show what the
different halakhah arguments are.
Nothing less is a failure to perform the duty of educating other Jews
particularly those that are affiliated with that particular rabbi. Such actions
are necessary for the rabbis to meet their educational duties and help us as
Jews meet our covenantal responsibilities.
Our job is to take the wisdom in There
Shall Be No Needy out of the beit
hamedresh of Jewish institutional life, and bring it to our own
neighborhoods to serve, in Father Hesburgh’s words, as a community that is a
“lighthouse and a crossroads.”