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August 28, 2015 | 13th Elul 5775

Justice, Justice I

January 18, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

Once again this year we have been asked by the local high school to provide a field day for the 200 students in the tenth grade on the topic of social justice in Israel. Uncomfortable as we are in principle with the outsourcing of value education, it’s a living, so we are gearing up for the day. When I mentioned at a planning meeting that in our introductory sessions in the morning, before setting out to encounter injustice and its remedies in the area, we might like to introduce some Jewish text study, the grade coordinator’s response was “whatever...” but another teacher couldn’t contain her enthusiasm – and her frustration with the fact that the system has produced kids who don’t see – and don’t want to see – any connection between Jewishness and ethical behavior, between Judaism and social justice. I myself, with my Reform upbringing, am constantly amazed by the incredulous responses I get whenever I try to suggest such a connection.

As I mentioned in a previous entry, the struggle between “normalization” and “a light unto the nations” dates to the beginnings of the Zionist movement. However, today, it seems that in the popular culture, those who cling to utopian visions are mostly seen as quaint, obsolete, naïve – what we call a “friar” (sucker) in Hebrew slang. The great novelist and secular social critic S. Yizhar has receded in the public mind to this corner, having written, for example, in 1988:

...Jew is not an empty word. A Jew is subject to restrictions and prohibitions; there are things that distinguish him from everyone else. Not just things that give him pleasure or that make his life easy, or comfortable, or simple, but just the opposite: things that make life harder, and restrict his comfort and diminish his ease and complicate his simplicity. For example, everything that relates to persecuted minorities. For example, everything relating to injustice and evil. For example, everything relating to the use of force and conquest by force. For example, “the poor man’s lamb” [II Samuel 12]. For example, “have you murdered and also taken possession?” [I Kings 21]. For example: “justice, justice shall you pursue.” For if all of these are just silly demands, and Jews are permitted to do everything like a non-Jew... then a huge, major, primal concern has collapsed beneath our feet, one that is hard to define, but that is like the land itself - if it collapses, then we cannot stand.
Obviously, we can’t do much to change the culture in one 45 minute study session. Nevertheless, it seems worth the effort to demonstrate to the students and their teachers that there really are healthy, normal non-orthodox Jews for whom Judaism really matters, not only as an ethnic identity, but as a source of values – values with supreme relevance to the decisions we make about our behavior as citizens of the state and of the world.

The students will be able to choose among half a dozen different routes, exploring different aspects of social justice: labor relations, the courts, foreign workers and trafficking in women, model communities, government vs. voluntary welfare services, and the ethnic gap. Each will include a mixture of experiences and encounters around the Galilee, designed to demonstrate both the failures and the achievements of Israeli society. The day will start for each group with a classroom study session of relevant texts. The trouble with Yizhar’s inspiring plea is, of course, that much as we might like the traditional sources to support our own social vision, they don’t always cooperate – being rich, and multifaceted, and representing centuries of development in a variety of historical circumstances, they remain stubbornly ambiguous on many issues, as the next few entries will try to show…


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