Judaism and Social Justice

Image: Elie Wiesel (Photo: AP/Bebeto Matthews) Mr. Wiesel was a tireless advocate for the underdog, based on his own experience as an enslaved person in Auschwitz.

What need have I of all your sacrifices? says the Eternal.
I am sated with burnt offerings of rams,
And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls;
And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. 
That you come to appear before Me— Who asked that of you?
Trample My courts no more!
Bringing oblations is futile, Incense is offensive to Me.
New moon and sabbath, Proclaiming of solemnities,
Assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide. 
Your new moons and fixed seasons Fill Me with loathing;
They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. 
And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you;
Though you pray at length, I will not listen.
Your hands are stained with crime— Wash yourselves clean;
Put your evil doings away from My sight.
Cease to do evil; Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.

– Isaiah 1:11-17

The prophet Isaiah made it abundantly clear in Chapter 1 of his great book that the Jewish mission is not merely to perform rituals but to aid the wronged in the world. He he closes this salvo with specific directions about two of the most woeful elements of Jewish society in his age: orphans and widows. He did not specify Jewish orphans and widows, and later commentators made it clear that if only for the long-term good of the Jewish people, we were never to limit our efforts to fellow Jews. We were to devote ourselves to justice for all the oppressed.

For most of Jewish history since that time (these lines were written just before the Babylonian Captivity) the Jews themselves have been a persecuted and often homeless people. Still, relief for the poor and the weak and the disenfranchised has been part of our portfolio, indeed it has BEEN our portfolio.

However, our investment in social justice did not begin with the Prophets. Look at this passage from Genesis:

Then the LORD said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?

Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

And the LORD answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.”

But he spoke to Him again, and said, “What if forty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the forty.”

 And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
And he said, “I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if twenty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.”
And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.”
When the LORD had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.  – Genesis 18:20-33
Abraham argued with God – with the Holy One! – bargaining for the souls of the innocent in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, even though he had no idea whether there were so many blameless souls. What a bleeding heart he was! God was set to blast all of them for the sins of which only some were guilty.
God is aware, of course, that there are not ten righteous men in the doomed cities, but watches as Abraham bargains furiously for them. This is the Abraham whom God chose out of all the people in the world at that time, because of his fervour for justice and his kind heart. The sages teach us that it was exactly this quality that attracted God to Abraham. God had considered Noah, but Noah never advocated for the innocents who would die in the Flood.
Centuries of suffering schooled the hearts of the Jews, and for much  of U.S. History Jewish Americans served among other Americans in leadership of great social movements: the labor union movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the LGBTQ movement. We have not always been in the right; a Jew served as one of the leaders of the Confederacy, to give only one example.  Jews have done evil as well as good. We are as prone to error as anyone.
But this great tradition of social justice is the reason that in a time of threat to various minorities in this country I and others feel the need to speak up and make our voices heard. When we say “Never again!” we mean “Never again for ANYONE.
This is not “politics.” This is speaking up for the five-year-old separated from his mother, speaking up for the refugee who has lost her home, speaking up for the young person terrified that he will be deported to a place where he is under threat of death. It is based on the texts in Leviticus 19 which forbid standing by as another person bleeds to death, and in which we are admonished to love the stranger.
And of course, we are Jews, so we will argue about specific applications, but if we say, “We need not be concerned about this “we must think back to those dark years in the 1930’s when all doors slammed in our faces. That was not just “politics.” That was murder.