Are Social Movements a Jewish Obligation?

Matt Shapiro
December 21, 2012
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When I’m walking down the street and someone asks me for money, I will make every attempt to give them something. If I only have $20 bills, I’m not quite willing to give that amount, but some change or a dollar seems appropriate. Our tradition, from the Torah to the Prophets to early rabbinic works to our law codes, holds that helping the less fortunate is a commitment we each have, particularly to those in our community, and this action, to me, resonates with this understanding. I’m particularly mindful of this commitment before Shabbat and holidays; going into holy days, a holy act seems to be a fitting way to prepare. This isn’t connected to any deep ideology about the welfare state or a sweeping analysis of poverty in America, though I do think we could do much better as a country to help raise up those who have fallen. I simply think it is clear, in our tradition, that we have an obligation to care for those in need, and this is one way of committing to that. I am sure arguments could be made that this enables, rather than truly helps; however, this is not merely about money. It is also about taking a moment to truly see someone asking for help. Taking a few seconds to reach into my pocket instead of just walking away provides an opportunity for me to see the divine image in a person i would have otherwise avoided contact with completely.

Reading through this paragraph, it sounds pedantic and overbearing. Like I think you don’t know it’s nice to give people money? I do know, though, that committing to this action required conscious effort to shift my behavior. I noticed a friend of mine doing it, and noted this principle in a number of different texts, too numerous to continue to ignore. In many ways, I think that’s what social movements are about, gradually shifting our behavior to a better place based on our personal experiences and backgrounds.

Does Judaism support environmentalism? Is there support for LGBT issues within the Jewish tradition? Should we fight against national militarism because of the value placed on peace within our tradition? I answer in the affirmative for all three, but can also see how one might make an argument for “no.”  I have seen enough back and forth about political and social issues in Jewish circles to see that the blessing of having a textual tradition stretching back centuries is that nearly any reasonable position can be supported with a proof-text; the curse is that nearly any reasonable position can be supported with a proof-text. I don’t know if my general political and social liberalism is driven by my essentially lifelong commitment to Judaism, or if because I happen to be more liberal, I see the roots of many of my social and political ideas in the cultural-religious tradition to which i’m connected.

What can’t be argued with are my own personal actions, and my knowledge that I’m doing my part to improve the world in a way that I believe brings us one step closer to living in loving relationship to each other. Our obligations can only be performed in community, yet the obligation itself rests with each individual person. Furthermore, determining our intellectual relationship to social movements, or lack thereof, could be potentially paralyzing. If I know both sides to an argument really well, when the moment comes to take action, since I can argue both ways back and forth, I often find I don’t even know what to do. The downside of Talmudic reasoning is that it’s meant for the beit midrash, not the world at large. Bringing 150 different arguments for each side of a debate is all well and good, but at the end of the day, I still have to do something.

I’ve recently been learning that Judaism isn’t about intellectual conceptualization. It’s about beliefs motivating action. Principles expressed through movements are ephemeral. Principles expressed through personal action can be maintained. Judaism, through its focus on mitzvah observance and willingness to put theological dogma second to behavioral membership in a community, reflects this commitment to individual action, and any social movement inevitably begins with the actions of an individual. I care deeply about many current social issues, but if they influence my Judaism, to an extent, I think the cart is driving the horse. My Judaism helps govern my engagement and involvement with social issues, and it starts with simple actions. The question, then, is what actions do I need to take to reflect what I believe? Maybe this means supporting a national social movement, but maybe it’s as simple as reaching into my wallet.

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Matt Shapiro lives in Los Angeles, California and works as a spiritual counselor at Beit T'shuvah, a Jewish residential addiction treatment center. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, with a BA in Jewish Studies, and is working toward his ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

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