13 January 2012
18 Tevet 5772
Last week during a follow-up discussion about the ethical dilemmas relating to the choices we make as consumers, one student suggested that these are not Jewish issues but rather universal ethical issues. His comment raised important questions, especially in light of the upcoming Martin Luther King Day. In what ways are our universal human ethics and values grounded in Torah and Jewish tradition? How do we develop students with deep commitments to social justice in ways that also strengthen their Jewish identities? Do Jewish ethics and social justice simply put Jewish language on universal values, or can Judaism, in particular, add to our understanding and practice of these values?
In the spirit of these questions, I shared with our students this week a wonderful article written by Rabbi Saul Berman in 2007 around Martin Luther King Day. In the article, he recounts his experience as a young rabbi who travelled to Selma, Alabama, in 1965. One of the most striking aspects of the article for me is Rabbi Berman’s description of how his motivation to travel to Selma and to participate in the civil rights movement emerged from his reading and understanding of this week’s parsha, the opening of the Book of Shemot (Exodus). Rabbi Berman’s sense of obligation to fight for justice in the world, which is rooted deeply in his relationship with Torah and his Jewish identity, is inspiring. He writes:
I explained to (my) congregation why I felt impelled by Torah to join in this civil rights effort. . .the Torah tells us three short stories about Moshe and injustice that help us understand why he will eventually become the liberator and leader of the Jewish people. First, Moshe, a bystander, intervenes to rescue a fellow Jew by killing an Egyptian taskmaster. Then he intervenes a second time in a dispute that is not his, to separate two Jews, one of whom is about to strike the other.
In consequence of that second intervention, Moshe is compelled to flee Egypt and ends up wandering in the Midianite desert. There he comes upon yet a third instance of injustice as shepherds prevent the daughters of Yitro from watering their flocks. Moshe understands that even though none of the parties to this conflict are Jews and that he could stand aside and not risk being accused of having caused the evil, his Jewish responsibility is to do what he can to prevent the perpetration of injustice. (my italics)
Later in the article Rabbi Berman describes that, just as his original reading of the Torah inspired him to act in pursuit of justice, so, too, did his experience in Selma shape a new reading and interpretation of those same verses: “By the time I got back to Berkeley a few days later, I had experienced a new understanding, additional layers of meaning, in the Torah’s narrative of the three stories about Moshe.” You can read more about his new interpretation and the details of his experiences in the complete article:
In light of our questions, however, I am struck by the larger lesson that his reflections teach us about Judaism and social justice. When our close readings and interpretations of our texts call us to action and compel us to make ethical choices and to live lives of meaning and responsibility, we are acting from a deeply Jewish place and actualizing the ideals of our Torah. We are developing ethical sensibilities and our Jewish identities simultaneously. Similarly, when our actions and experiences in pursuit of a more just world shape the lens through which we then read and reread our particular Jewish stories, we can see our own tradition through new eyes and to understand it in new ways. When we do this, we are not only internalizing Torah but also contributing to the ongoing evolution of a Torah that lives not only in our texts but in our lives, and, through us, in the world.
As we approach MLK Day, may this week’s parsha and Rabbi Berman’s story inspire us to go out into our community and play our part in creating a more just society. I encourage everyone to spend part of Monday participating in one of the various Gann organized events around the Greater Boston Jewish community. This is a powerful way to honor Dr. King and to live out our values together.
Rabbi Marc Baker