IT’S a very old question. Should we face inwards or outwards?
Does the prophetic mission of serving as a “light unto the nations” require the Jewish people to visit far corners of the world, bringing illumination by aiding others, or do we shine by working on perfecting our own community, and let that become an example for others, at a distance, to emulate?
A contemporary version of this question is the special concern of educators and communal strategists – what does it mean to be Jewish? What is the core of a Jewish identity?
This is more than an important philosophical debate; in our generation, with large numbers of young Jews disaffecting and disappearing, with the rate of intermarriage in Australia at nearly 50 per cent and rising, we must also ask: what identity can we fashion that will sustain a young person’s Jewish engagement?
One answer follows the “reaching outwards” approach. Judaism believes in justice; “making the world a better place” is a Jewish ideal. Therefore a Jewish identity focused on social activism is not only a legitimate manifestation of Jewish values, it is one that is accessible and attractive.
The alternative path fixes Judaism’s epicentre firmly around observing Jewish law (halachah) and working on our own spiritual condition rather than turning to the physical needs of others.
But, as the little girl in the tacos advert would say, “por qué no las dos” – why don’t we have both?
And she would be right.
A Judaism that ignores the rest of the world ignores our religious obligation to act with chesed (altruistic kindness) at every opportunity and especially towards those in greatest need; to be good citizens of our host country; and to sanctify God’s name by raising appreciation of the values by which His covenantal partners live. This is not a balanced Judaism.
But a Jewish identity built exclusively on social justice will also lack equilibrium. Teaching our young people that “tikkun olam” (erroneously understood as “fixing the world” and often applied to any hashtag campaign of the moment, when the accurate meaning is to “perfect the world under the kingdom of God”) is enough, that it is a complete expression of what it means to be Jewish, leaves out so much that is beautiful and precious, such as Shabbat and its positive effect on our work-life balance; the power of repentance that enables us to grow; sexual ethics that build strong families, and much more.
Too often “social justice” in practice is reduced to activism or demonstrating in support of a cause. This is not the same as chesed, which requires rolling up one’s sleeves and actively helping people and not just holding a placard or clicking a “like”.
And crucially, a Jewish identity revolving solely around social justice lacks a critical element – namely, a uniquely Jewish characteristic. It is absurd, bordering on racist, to suggest that concern for the world around us is a particularly Jewish value. It is a moral imperative shared by those of other religions and of none. Is “fixing the world” (according to any understanding) not an aspiration of Christians, Muslims, and humanists?
Therefore, if we teach the next generation that social justice is the way to express their Judaism, then why should they need to stay engaged with the Jewish community, if other societies are equally devoted to the same cause? Why should they build a Jewish future, or a Jewish family, if they can create a home dedicated to social justice with a partner who is not Jewish just as easily as with someone who is?
We owe it to the future of our community to create an entry point to Jewish engagement that is both accessible and authentic, with a genuine involvement of Jewish learning and Jewish practice.
We need to communicate that Jewish law does not just guide us through our “ritual” obligations, but the interpersonal ones too.
The same halachah that gives us Shabbat tells us to help the vulnerable, to not speak ill of other people, to maintain scrupulous honesty, to respect others’ property to the extent of not borrowing or downloading without permission.
Jewish identity need not and should not require isolation from the world. In fact, it must include a sense of responsibility to help others near and far.
But universal values, even written in Hebrew letters or decorated with decontextualised biblical quotes, will not build a Jewish future. For that, we need more.
We need a Jewish identity that includes the wisdom of Jewish learning and the beauty of Jewish practice, that sees the world and our place in it through a Jewish lens.
RABBI JAMES KENNARD is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College.