n 2016, in my capacity as a Rabbi, I chaperoned a Jewish youth-leadership event on social-justice issues. During the program, a teenage boy approached me with a memorable observation. “I might not know that much Torah,” he said, “but I certainly can’t believe that every issue in the world comes under the general heading of ‘Justice, justice, shall you pursue.’”
He had picked up on a disturbing truth: For years now, liberal Jews have been teaching a Judaism of slogans. And these slogans are all of a particular political bent.
Liberal Jewish groups have long taken standard progressive positions on various social issues, such as civil rights, immigrant rights, LGBT inclusion, gun control, and environmentalism. The Reform movement’s involvement in civil rights is, in fact, more than a century old. Its rabbis, such as the late Arthur Lelyveld, shed blood in its cause.
The problem with this has less to do with what liberal Jews say about these matters than with how such Jews justify their positions. They tend to attach Jewish texts to the issues at hand, and to do so sloppily. Talmudic Judaism calls this practice the asmachta: the use of a biblical text in support of a particular practice when, in fact, there is no proof that the practice is actually derived from that particular text. In citing Jewish texts to bolster political stances, liberal Jews too rarely unpack what these texts meant in their original context. More rarely still do they admit to stretching their original meanings.
The need for a more truthful and coherent approach becomes clear when considering the findings of a 2017 study by Yale University. It showed direct correlation between the observance level of a denomination and social and political liberalism. It found that 80 percent of Reform rabbis and approximately 70 percent of Conservative rabbis identified as Democrats. Among Orthodox rabbis, Democratic affiliation dropped to 40 percent. If Jewish texts point in an inexorably liberal direction, then we would expect that those Jews who, presumably, are the most adept with Jewish texts—the Orthodox—would be the most liberal. Yet it seems the opposite is true.
How, then, have many liberal Jews managed to make biblical texts support the political policies of their choice? The answer is that key parts of these texts have been shrunk down to a set of memorable slogans and repurposed as progressive maxims. The four most common examples are: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue,” “Made in God’s image,” “Love the stranger,” and “Repair the world.”
‘Justice, Justice, Shall You Pursue’?
Who but the champions of injustice could possibly disagree with this as a general dictum? The verse itself, however, comes from a biblical chapter, Deuteronomy 16:20, that offers a blueprint for creating a court system, specifically for establishing “magistrates and officials for your tribes.” It specifies that judges must show absolute impartiality in their judgment. Rashi, the 11th-century commentator, says of the text: “The judge must not be gentle with one and tough on the other, or make one stand and permit the other to sit.”
This context makes “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” a strange slogan for modern liberalism. Equality before the law is in no way an exclusively liberal goal. It is, in fact, a guiding principle of the American legal system.
It’s worth noting that in Leviticus 19:15 we find a similar exhortation: “You shall not render an unfair decision: Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.” Once again, this instruction to judges speaks of nothing more or less than equality before the law. And, in this case, there is even a particular warning about using the law to favor the poor.
Whatever else “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” might teach, it is not readily apparent that we can use it promiscuously to defend any particular political or social stance.
Made in God’s Image?
The understanding that we are all “made in God’s image” (B’tzelem Elokim) is one of the most commonly promoted ideas in contemporary Judaism. It is employed by rabbis and others across the denominational spectrum.
Consider the work of Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and Shmuly Yanklowitz. Greenberg is a leading voice among modern Orthodox thinkers, and Yanklowitz is a proponent of Open Orthodoxy, which, as its name indicates, emphasizes ideas such as interfaith dialogue and inclusivity. Yanklowitz has recently edited a celebration of Greenberg’s work.1 He quotes Greenberg as writing: “The principles of human infinite value, equality, and uniqueness not only regulate the realm of society and collective behavior. They are equally the ethical principles that are meant to govern all human relationships.”
The Shoah, adds Greenberg, makes the task that much more urgent:
After the Shoah (Holocaust), the value of Tzelem Elokim [sic]—of nurturing the infinite value, equality, and uniqueness of every person—is crucial. Such confirmation is the only credible statement about God one can really make. This is the true glorification of God in an age when God is profoundly hidden, in a time where there has been a serious assault on the credibility of faith because of the great destruction of human life.
For Yanklowitz, as for Greenberg, we affirm the image of God in every person through the active doing of the mitzvot (the obligations of Jewish life). And the ultimate purpose of the mitzvot, they claim, is two-fold: tikkun ha-adam, or repairing the individual, and tikkun olam, or repairing the world (more on this later).
Both Yanklowitz and Greenberg have embodied this teaching in their work. But neither of them offers a systematic understanding of what it means to be “made in God’s image.” Does it mean that every person looks like God? Does it mean that God looks like every person? Does it mean that God possesses an “icon” (an alternative translation of tzelem, or image) of every human being? Might it even mean, as Melilah Helner-Eshed of the Shalom Hartman Institute once intimated, that we are all pixels in an imaginary photograph of the face of the Shekhinah, the female divine image?
Consider this bizarre invocation of B’tzelem Elokim. Several years ago, I was at a rabbinical meeting in Jerusalem during which there was a terrorist attack not far from our place of meeting. Many colleagues expressed frustration, anger, and, yes, borderline hatred toward those who had committed such a horrific deed. Finally, an older rabbi stood up and admonished the group. “My friends,” he said, “aren’t even Palestinian terrorists created in the image of God?”
One can understand a call for civility. But it’s not at all clear that the idea of being “made in God’s image” is the best or the most useful framework for dealing with the conduct of terrorists. This liberal reading, concerned as it is with not sowing undue hatred and anger in the wake of a terrorist massacre, redefines the idea as a recommendation of blanket acceptance of others.
The possible meanings of “made in God’s image” are tantalizing and pregnant with possibility. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that it allows for deeper spiritual exploration, but it is a curse in that it’s infinitely ripe for misuse.
On the face of it, we don’t quite know what the phrase means. Perhaps it means that everyone can, and must, imitate God’s actions or that all human beings are entitled to dignity. But it is invoked so often that it has become a cliché. It is now a textual fallback position for when we are out of arguments either for or against a particular action, political or otherwise.
Love the Stranger?
Among those on the center-left, “love the stranger” is probably the most quoted text in the Torah. And for good reason: Jewish lore says that it appears there no less than 36 times.
Who was the biblical stranger (ger)? Quite simply, a non-Israelite who lived within a Jewish polity, i.e., the land of Israel. Jews had to provide for the welfare of the stranger, often an impoverished laborer or artisan, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Israelites probably needed this cajoling. In the words of the late biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz: “A history of alienation and slavery, the memory of your own humiliation is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you have gained independence and left it all behind you.”
Let us assume the righteousness, and even the sanctity, of this idea. Let us also remember that, in the postbiblical world, the sages applied the notion of loving the stranger (ahavat ha-ger) not to resident aliens within a Jewish polity—which was the biblical emphasis—but to converts to Judaism.
But let us also acknowledge that, as it stands, “loving the stranger” fails to offer the concrete policy prescriptions that we might want from it. That hasn’t stopped some from using the quote as a basis for immigration policy.
For example, in June 2017, Joanna Samuels, writing at Sh’ma Now, an online journal hosted by the Forward, said of “loving the stranger”: “We need to learn together, in real time, how to actualize this mitzvah.” She continued:
These communal actions could include ad hoc legal clinics at airports as immigrants are detained and in need of legal services; they could include new coalitions between Muslim and Jewish communities….They could include synagogues becoming sanctuaries for undocumented Americans and members of suburban communities preparing safe rooms in their homes to protect those threatened with deportation.
“Loving the stranger” says nothing about the proper disposition toward those who are neither residents in a Jewish polity nor converts to Judaism.
It might be about immigrants. But it is very difficult to translate a biblical or rabbinic idiom into concrete contemporary policy. Moreover: Two people might be positively disposed toward those who wish to become Americans while simultaneously disagreeing about what constitutes sensible policy on U.S. immigration at a given moment. The biblical text offers us very little guidance here, other than raising a lofty ethical standard.
Repair the World?
Tikkun olam, or “Repairing the world,” is one of the most popular Hebrew phrases in America. Its use is so common that one joke imagines a visitor to Israel asking: “How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?”
There is much to respect and admire in Jewish groups that are engaged in tikkun olam. That has become the preferred term for social-action and social-justice committees. But, somewhere along the line, the meaning of tikkun olam was transformed. It now seems to mean just about anything—which is to say, it means almost nothing.
A comment in the current Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah, notes:
Tikkun olam…originally (2–3 century) referred to rabbinic legislation to remedy social ills or legal injustices. In the Aleinu [a prayer in praise of God], composed about the same time, it represents acts by God to replace this imperfect world with the legal and moral perfection of divine rule. Sixteenth-century kabbalistic thought applied the term to human action, shifting the responsibility for perfecting the world onto us.
This describes a lofty, even cosmic, goal. But note the evolving principal actors at work. First there are the sages and judges, who tinkered with various pieces of rabbinic and Torah legislation to make matters more equitable. Then, in the Aleinu, there’s discussion of what God must do to restore the moral order. Finally, there’s the kabbalistic sense of tikkun olam. As the 16th-century mystic Isaac Luria describes it, the universe was shattered through a cosmic accident. Shards of the divine presence were scattered through all of creation. Thus whenever Jews do mitzvot, it is as if they are restoring the world—and God—to a state of primal unity.
Quite separate from this rich history, it has only been since the 1950s that tikkun olam has assumed its social-justice connotations. It is now used as justification for supporting projects and causes that are of primary concern to those whose politics lean center-left. It leaves those whose politics are center-right wondering whether there is still room for them at the tikkun olam table.
For example, the teen seminars of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center are called the L’taken Social Justice seminars; the word l’taken means to repair. Through these programs, the Religious Action Center promotes center-left positions on issues such as immigration, the environment, and economic equality. Likewise, the preeminent journal of leftist Jewish opinion is Tikkun.
It is worth nothing that Netzer Olami, the international Zionist youth movement of Progressive Judaism, offers a more nuanced and differentiated understanding of tikkun. It distinguishes five separate types: There is tikkun atzmi, healing the self; tikkun kehila, repairing our communities; tikkun am, healing the Jewish people; tikkun medinat Yisrael, repairing the Jewish state; and finally tikkun olam, repairing the world. This categorization makes for a much cleaner and less exploitable doctrine.
f Judaism supports all the policies you believe anyway,” writes David Wolpe, “can’t you be at least a little suspicious that your politics are guiding your Torah, and not your Torah leading to your politics?” As one can see from the above examples, that suspicion has been slow in coming. But as that skeptical teenager shows, it exists.
In 1966, Commentary published a symposium on “The Condition of Jewish Belief.” In it, Jacob Neusner captured the nature of the challenge we still face:
Judaism may provide political insight. It is to be discovered through a search for the political implications of its theology, surely not through a hunt for texts proving whatever we have already decided we want to do. We have not been sufficiently serious about either a study of Jewish tradition, or reflection upon Jewish realities today, to say just what political insight Judaism has now to offer.
I am, by nature and disposition, a political centrist. That is to say, I lean mostly liberal on American domestic issues and am slightly more conservative on foreign-policy and security issues. Like Wolpe and Neusner, I wish that Jews on or near the political left would be more intellectually honest. As that Commentary symposium was published a half-century ago, it’s past time for us to admit that too often our political and social stances come first and are then followed by interpretations of Jewish texts that serve as post facto justification.
Today, American Jews find themselves in sociological, economic, and political environments that are wholly unlike those of the Jewish past. While we can draw on the past for inspiration, there are very few policy recommendations to be found there.
What would happen if we reversed the preferred order of the day? If we first approached the Jewish texts themselves, wandered into the rabbinic tradition and later commentaries, and then discerned what our social and political stances might be? There are precedents for this in other religions, like the “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,” released in 1986 by United States Catholic Bishops. The letter, like the earlier “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response—A Pastoral Letter on War and Peace,” by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1983), begins with theology and text, and only then moves to a broader sense of the implications. The document states:
The pastoral letter is not a blueprint for the American economy. It does not embrace any particular theory of how the economy works nor does it attempt to resolve the disputes between different schools of economic thought. Instead our letter turns to Scripture and to the social teachings of the Church. There, we discover what our economic life must serve, what standards it must meet.
It’s true that Roman Catholicism contains a systematic theology and Judaism does not. But the process of discernment is instructive. It relies on large statements that emerge from text and tradition, and it avoids particular partisan prescriptions. It finds in the tradition a broad enough—and therefore, powerful enough—set of guidelines for what economic life should look like.
A similar process undertaken by Jews would, at the very least, help us avoid a Judaism based on slogans. As a people with an unparalleled tradition of religious scholarship and spiritual breadth, we deserve far better. And the world, and God, deserve better from us.
1 Shmuly Yanklowitz, ed. A Torah Giant: The Intellectual Legacy of Rabbi Dr. Irving Greenberg. Jerusalem: Urim, 2018.