Words and Deeds. And Needs.


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, must change. 

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 helpful guide.

The underlying principles that we draw from Jacobs’ work guide each of these aforementioned issues and their policies:

·      Will the policy protect the dignity of the individual?

·      Will it shift the balance of power in ways that strengthen the individual and community at risk and minimize its exploitation?

·      Will 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 to?

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.”