There are no words in the world more knowing, more disclosing, and more indispensable. Words both stern and graceful, heart-rending and healing. A truth so universal—Elohim [God] is One. A thought so consoling—He is with us in distress. A responsibility so overwhelming—His Name can be desecrated. A map of time—from creation to redemption. Guideposts along the way: The Seventh Day; An offering—contrition of the heart. A utopia—would that all people were prophets. The insight—man lives by his faithfulness, his home is in time, and his substance in deeds. A standard so bold—ye shall be holy. A commandment so daring—love thy neighbor as thyself. A fact so sublime—human and divine pathos can be in accord. And a gift so undeserved—the ability to repent.--Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Based on the very powerful quote above by Rabbi Heschel and so much more in the Jewish tradition, I believe that Judaism is a radical religion. However, most Jews nowadays would probably disagree with this assertion. Even the word “liberal” has become a negative word for some Jews. So I think it’s important to explore why applying basic Jewish values and teachings could revolutionize the world.
Judaism’s Radical History
From its beginning, Judaism has often protested against greed, injustice, and the misuse of power. Abraham, the first Hebrew, smashed the idols of his father even though his action challenged the common belief of the time. He established the precedent that a Jew should not conform to society’s values when they are evil. Later he even challenged God, exclaiming, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justly?” when God informed him of His plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:25). By contrast, Noah, though personally righteous, was later rebuked by some Talmudic sages because he failed to criticize the immorality of the society around him.
At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Torah relates three incidents in Moses’ life before God chose him to deliver the Israelites from Egypt. They teach that Jews must be involved in fighting injustice and helping to resolve disputes, whether they are between Jews, Jews and non-Jews, or only non-Jews.
On the first day that Moses goes out to his people from the palace of Pharaoh in which he was raised, he rushes to defend a Hebrew against an Egyptian aggressor (Exodus 2:11-12). When Moses next goes out, he defends a Hebrew being beaten by another Jew (Exodus 2:13). Later, after being forced to flee from Egypt and arriving at a well in Midian, Moses comes to the aid of the shepherd daughters of Jethro who were being harassed by other shepherds (Exodus 2:17). In all three cases, Moses pursues justice, no matter who the victims are or what group they belong to. One could argue that it was these three actions that demonstrated to God that Moses was the right person to confront Pharaoh and later lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
The story of Moses has become an archetypal model for liberation movements today. This is a great gift from the Jewish people to the world. When Dr. Martin Luther King said to a gathering of civil rights activists in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” he was evoking the eternal story of Moses as a model for the United States civil rights movement. Like Moses, Dr. King was confronting the Pharaoh of his own day with “Let my people go!”
Balaam, the biblical pagan prophet, intends to curse Israel, but ends up blessing them. He describes the role of the Jewish people: “Lo, it is a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). To the Israelites, the keynote of their existence is: “I am the Lord thy God, who has separated you from the nations that you should be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26). Throughout their history, Jews have often been nonconformists who refused to acquiesce to the false gods and values of the surrounding community.
When the Jews were in Persia, Mordechai refused to defer to an evil ruler. As the book of Esther states: “And all the king’s servants . . . bowed down and prostrated themselves before Haman. . .. But Mordechai would not bow down nor prostrate himself before him.” (Esther 3:2) Mordechai believed that bowing down to a human being was inconsistent with his obligation to worship only God. Later Mordechai condemns inaction in urging Esther to take risks to save the Jewish people (Esther 4:13, 14).
The greatest champions of protest against unjust conditions were the Hebrew prophets. Rabbi Abraham Heschel summarizes the attributes of these spokespeople for God: They had the ability to hold God and people in one thought at the same time; they could not be tranquil in an unjust world; they were supremely impatient with evil, due to their intense sensitivity to God’s concern for right and wrong; they were advocates for those too weak to plead their own cause (the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed); their major activity was involvement, remonstrating against wrongs inflicted on other people.
So prophets, in Judaism, are not fortunetellers. They are social activists, protesters, and yes, radicals. They care about the common people in the here and now and call the community to decisive action. They do not claim that human suffering is some sort of karma to be accepted with resignation. They challenge us to change ourselves and the fabric of society and to make the world a better place in which to live. The prophets rage against injustices and demand that we fix them now. In the words of Rabbi Heschel:
What manner of man is the prophet? A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the marketplace … Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.
In sharp contrast to this prophetic heritage, today Jewish communities (and most others) often ignore or respond placidly to immoral acts and conditions. We try to maintain a balanced tone while victims of oppression are in extreme agony. But not so the prophets:
Cry aloud, spare not, Lift up your voice like a trumpet, and declare unto My people their transgression . . .. Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bonds of oppression, to let the crushed go free, and to break every yoke of tyranny. (Isaiah 58:1,6)
The prophet Amos berates those content amidst destruction and injustice (6:1,4-6):
Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
And to those who feel secure on the mountains of Samaria. …
Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory,
And stretch themselves upon their couches,
And eat lambs from the flock,
And calves from the midst of the stall;
Who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp. . . .
Who drink wine in bowls,
And anoint themselves in the finest oils,
But are not grieved on the ruin of Joseph!
In order to carry out their mission, to be a kingdom of priests and a light unto the nations, Jews throughout history were compelled to live in the world, but apart from it—in effect, on the other side. This, the sages comment, is implied in the very name “Hebrew” (ivri), from “ever,” the other side: “The whole world is on one side [idolaters] and he [Abraham, the Hebrew] is on the other side.” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah) Jacques Maritain, a French Catholic philosopher, wrote in 1939 that the Jewish people were
found at the very heart of the world’s structure, stimulating it, exasperating it, moving it . . . It [the Jewish people] gives the world no peace, it bars slumber, it teaches the world to be discontented and restless as long as the world has not accepted God.
Several distinguished Orthodox rabbis of the past two centuries, including Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading 19th century German Orthodox rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known as the Rav, as well as Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, have stressed that Judaism has a message for their surrounding cultures and that Jews should convey it to their host societies. Rabbi Soloveitchik, one of the foremost Torah leaders of the twentieth century, believed that Jews have a responsibility to work with others to promote the welfare of civilization. He felt that Jews must aid the needy and protect human rights because such obligations are “implicit in human existence.” He states: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of civilized society over against an order that defies us all.” Rabbi Sacks believes that working for tikkun olam (healing and improving the planet) can be an antidote to religious isolationism:
One of the most powerful assumptions of the twentieth century is that faith … belongs [only] to private life. Religion and society, many believe, are two independent entities, so we can edit God out of the language and leave our social world unchanged.
Based on Jewish tradition and values, Jews have been active in many protest movements. Some of these movements have been on behalf of Jewish needs, such as the effort to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust, the battle to support Jewish independence and survival in Israel, and the struggles for Soviet Jewry and later for Syrian and Ethiopian Jewry. But Jews also have been actively involved in struggles for a more peaceful world, human rights, and a cleaner environment. A group of rabbis, acting in accordance with the Jewish ethic of protest, explained why they came to St. Augustine, Florida in 1964 to demonstrate against segregation in that community:
We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence … We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.
Some of Judaism’s Radical Teachings
The Uniqueness and Sanctity of Each Person
Judaism teaches that every person is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and therefore is of supreme value. This is a truly radical statement, considering that many ancient civilizations (and even some people today) considered their race or nation superior to all others. The English word “barbarian” comes from the ancient Greek barbaros, meaning “not a Greek.” Judaism expresses the concept that Jews are a chosen people, but this does not imply any special favoritism, but rather a call to greater involvement in working to create a better world.
Imagine if people really took the claim of Genesis 1:27 seriously and viewed each person as created “in the image of God.” We likely would not have so much hatred, bigotry, animosity, and violence toward each other. We would not have so much oppression of the poor and underprivileged—“the widow, the orphan, and the stranger,” so often invoked in Scripture.
Do Not Oppress the Stranger
There is a commandment in Exodus that is repeated in various formulations 36 times in the Hebrew Bible, more often than any other mitzvah: “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Having historically been aliens in a foreign land ourselves, we should know what it is like to be oppressed and looked down upon simply for being foreigners.
Based on this frequent scriptural repetition, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former Chancellor of Bar Ilan University in Israel, points out that Judaism teaches a special kind of justice, an “empathic justice,” that seeks to make people identify themselves with each other’s needs, each other’s hopes and aspirations, each other’s defeats and frustrations. Because Jews have known the distress of being slaves and the loneliness of having been strangers, we are to project ourselves into the souls of others and make their plight our own. We are to empathize—literally “to feel with”—the lonely stranger among us.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz, the Bostoner Rebbe, reinforces this concept:
The fact that the Jewish people had to experience 400 years of Egyptian exile, including 210 years of actual slavery, was critical in molding our national personality into one of compassion and concern for our fellow man, informed by the realization that we have a vital role to play in the world. …. For this reason, God begins the Ten Commandments with a reminder that “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). We must constantly remember that we were slaves in order to always appreciate the ideal of freedom, not only for ourselves but also for others. We must do what we can to help others to live free of the bondage of the evil spirit, free of the bondage of cruelty, of abuse and lack of caring.
Helping the Poor and Hungry
To help the poor and hungry and to support communal purposes and institutions, Judaism places great stress on the giving of charity as an act of righteousness. The Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah, literally means “righteousness” and is derived from the same root as tzedek—justice. In the Jewish tradition, giving tzedakah is not an act of condescension by one person to another who is in need. It is the fulfillment of a mitzvah, a holy commandment, to a fellow human being, who has equal status before God. The beggar has the right to ask for help, and the person asked is often obligated to give it. All wealth ultimately belongs to God, so, if you prosper, that good fortune is meant to enable you to be a steward of God’s wealth and to take care of the less fortunate. In so doing, you yourself are also blessed. And everyone, even a beggar, is obligated in turn to give to others, because there is always someone worse off than he is.
For this reason, many Torah laws are designed to aid the poor: the produce of corners of the fields are to be left uncut for the poor to take (Leviticus 19:9); the gleanings of the wheat harvest and fallen fruit are to be left for the needy (Leviticus 19:10); and during the sabbatical year, the land is to be left fallow so the poor (as well as animals) may eat of whatever grows freely (Leviticus 25:2-7). In the same chapter of Leviticus in the Torah portion “kedoshim” (“You shall be holy”) in which “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) appears, the Torah outlines some specific ways that this mandate can be put into practice:
You shall not steal; nor shall you deal falsely nor lie to one another. . . . You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. . . . You shall not curse the deaf, and you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind. . . . You shall do no injustice in judgment; be not partial to the poor, and favor not the mighty; in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19: 11, 14-16)
Proper Treatment of Non-Jews
Judaism is concerned with the proper treatment of non-Jews as well as Jews. The Talmud contains many statutes that require Jews to assist and provide for non-Jews as well as Jews:
We support the poor of the non-Jew along with the poor of Israel and visit the sick of the non-Jew along with the sick of Israel and bury the dead of the non-Jew along with the dead of Israel, for the sake of peace (mipnei darchei shalom). (Gittin 61a)
In a city where there are both Jews and Gentiles, the collectors of alms collect from both; they feed the poor of both, visit the sick of both, bury both, comfort the mourners whether they be Jews or Gentiles, and restore the lost goods of both, mipnei darchei shalom: to promote peace and cooperation. (Yerushalmi Dmai 4:6 (24a))
Jewish Teachings on Involvement and Protest
Judaism teaches that people must struggle to create a better society. The Torah frequently admonishes: “And you shall eradicate the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 13:6, 17:7, 21:21, 24:7). Injustice cannot be passively accepted; it must be actively resisted and, ultimately, eliminated. The Talmudic sages teach that one reason Jerusalem was destroyed was that its citizens failed in their responsibility to constructively criticize each other’s improper behavior (Shabbat 99b). They indicate that “love which does not contain the element of [constructive] criticism is not really love” (Genesis Rabbah 54:3).
Among the many teachings about the importance of proper criticism are the following:
Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is punished [held liable, held responsible] for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his community and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of his community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of the entire world. (Talmud, Shabbat 54b)
If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, he gives stability to the land. But if he sits in his home and says to himself, “What have the affairs of society to do with me? . . . Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!”—if he does this, he overthrows the world. (Tanchuma on Mishpatim 2)
While the essential elements of individual Jewish practice include devotion to Torah, study, prayer, performing good deeds and other mitzvot (commandments), and cultivating a life of piety, Judaism teaches that to be considered truly pious, a person must also protest against injustice in society (Shabbat 55a). Moses did not simply sit and study after encountering the burning bush. He returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and free the Hebrew slaves.
Judaism teaches that it is not sufficient merely to perform mitzvot while passively acquiescing to unjust conditions. The Maharal of Prague, a sixteenth-century sage, said that individual piety pales in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil, and a person will be held accountable for not preventing wickedness when capable of doing so (R. Judah Loew, Netivot Olam, Shaar Hatochahah, end of chapter 2). Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel said: “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
One of the most important dangers of silence in the face of evil is that it implies acceptance or possibly even support. According to Rabbeinu Yonah, a medieval sage, sinners may think to themselves, “Since others are neither reproving nor contending against us, our deeds are permissible.” (Orchot Tzaddikim 24)
Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue. (Deuteronomy 16: 20)
The pursuit of a just society is one of the most fundamental concepts of Judaism. The prevalence of injustice in today’s world makes all the more urgent Judaism’s emphasis on the importance of actively seeking justice.
To practice justice is considered among the highest demands of prophetic religion:
It has been told you, O human being, what is good
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justly, love chesed (mercy, kindness),
And walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
The prophets constantly stress the importance of applying justice:
Learn to do well—seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. . . . Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they who return to her with righteousness. (Isaiah 1:17, 27, in the haftorah (prophetic reading) read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av)
The Lord of Hosts shall be exalted in justice, The Holy God is shown holy in righteousness. (Isaiah 5:16)
The prophet Amos warned the people that without the practice of justice, God is repelled by their worship:
Take away from Me the noise of your songs
and let Me not hear the melody of your stringed instruments, but let justice well up as waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:23, 24)
The practice of justice is even part of the symbolic betrothal between the Jewish people and God:
And I will betroth you unto Me forever; And, I will betroth you unto Me in righteousness, justice, loving kindness, and compassion. And I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:21-22)
Many other statements in the Jewish tradition emphasize the great importance placed on working for justice. For example, the book of Proverbs asserts: “To do righteousness and justice is preferred by God above sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3). The Psalmist exhorts: ”Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (Psalms 82:3).
The prophets of Israel were the greatest champions of social justice in world history. Jeremiah (5:28) rebukes the Jewish people when they fail to plead the cause of the orphan or help the needy. He castigates an entire generation, for “in your skirts is found the blood of the souls of the innocent poor” (2:34). Ezekiel rebukes the whole nation for “using oppression, robbing, defrauding the poor and the needy, and extorting from the stranger” (22:29). Isaiah (5:8) and Micah (2:2) criticize wealthy Jews who built up large holdings of property at the expense of their neighbors. The prophetic books are filled with such moral admonitions.
Based on these teachings, Jews have regarded the practice of justice and the seeking of a just society as Divine imperatives. This has inspired many Jews throughout history to be leaders in struggles for better social conditions. The teachings of the Torah, prophets, and sages have been the most powerful inspiration for justice in the history of the world.
Seek Peace and Pursue it (Psalms 34:15)
Judaism describes a special obligation to strive for peace. Our tradition commands that Jews actively pursue peace. The Midrash states that there are many commandments that require a certain time and place for their performance, but with regard to the mandate to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms. 34:15), we are to seek it in our own place and pursue it everywhere else (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 9:9). The famous Talmudic sage Hillel states that we should “be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace” (Pirke Avot 1:12). There is a rabbinic story of how Aaron the Priest would go back and forth between adversaries, gradually bringing them together in peace. He was the model peacemaker. The only other value that Judaism teaches us to pursue is justice.
The Jewish sages stressed the importance of peace:
Great is peace, for God’s name is peace . . . Great is peace, for it encompasses all blessings . . . Great is peace, for even in times of war, peace must be sought . . . Great is peace for when the Messiah comes, he will commence with peace, as it is said, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet (footsteps) of the messenger of good tidings, who announces peace” (Isaiah. 52:7) (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 9:9). Great is peace, for with peace the Holy One, Who is to be blessed, will announce the Redemption of Israel, and with peace He will console Jerusalem (Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:15). See how beloved is peace; when the Holy One. Blessed be He, wished to bless Israel, He could not find a vessel great enough to contain their blessings, except for peace. (Ibid.)
It is significant that many of the most important Jewish prayers conclude with a supplication for peace. These include the Amidah (silent prayer—also known as the Shmoneh Esrei—which is recited three times daily), the Kaddish, the Grace After Meals, and the Priestly Blessing.
The Jewish tradition does not mandate pacifism, nor peace at any price, although some Jews become pacifists based on Jewish values. The Israelites frequently went forth to battle and not always in defensive wars. But they always held to the ideal of universal peace and yearned for the day when there would be no more bloodshed or violence and when the instruments of war would be converted into tools of production:
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.
But they shall sit every man under his vine and
under his fig tree;
And none shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
(Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3-4)
Rabbi Albert Axelrad, former Hillel director at Brandeis University, argued that Jews should be “pacifoids.” This means doing everything possible to avoid war, but also recognizing that in extreme cases war may be tragically necessary. Such an approach would likely have avoided recent United States wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and recent Israeli wars in Gaza and Lebanon, with all the resulting damage and tragedy from which we are still suffering.
* * *
So, as discussed above: Judaism stresses that we are to love other people as ourselves, to be kind to strangers “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and to act with compassion toward the homeless, the poor, the orphan, the widow, even to enemies, and to all of God’s creatures. The Torah also teaches us how to be activists and not “stand by our neighbor’s blood,” which means not allowing evil to happen to others while doing nothing to stop it. We are, as the account of Cain’s question in Genesis implies, “our brother’s (and sister’s) keepers.” The Prophets understood this, and so did our Sages throughout the centuries.
These are only a few of the many authentic concepts and references in the Jewish tradition that can be cited to prove the radical nature of Judaism as an activist religion. More information about these and other radical Jewish teachings can be found in my book, Judaism and Global Survival.