Judaism as a Social Movement

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
December 10, 2012
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The reason, I believe, the Jewish people have been at the forefront of so many social movements around the world (Socialism, Civil Rights, Feminism, Environmentalism, just to name a few) is because Judaism in its origin was a social movement towards community based monotheism. The clarion call of the movement was the Sh’ma – Hear, Israel, Hashem our God Hashem is One.  In each generation, social movement continued to propel the Jewish people, whether spurred by acceptance of or opposition to influential forces from external forces. However, even more dramatic than the initial move to monotheism or, for example, the nationalist impulse of the anti-Hellenist movement of the Hasmoneans or even the movement to return to the Land of Israel from exile, the single most important, most impactful and longest lasting social movement effecting the Jewish people was the social movement of the Rabbis at the turn of the first millennium.

In attempting to curtail influence from idolatrous cultures and in an effort to unify disparate communities across the globe, the Rabbinic movement utilized law, ethics and ritual to codify a way of life that would connect past to future and ensure a continuity through the generations. If it were not for that social movement that overtook the Jewish workd between the 1st and 7th centuries, Judaism may never have survived the Roman exile or the countless challenges our communities have faced at the hands of violent opposers.  What is more, because of the important value placed on respectful disagreement, the social movement spearheaded by the Rabbis paved the way for future Jewish social movements such as Haskalah, Denominationalism and even Zionism.

We often focus on how modern Judaism is indebted religiously to the influence of the Rabbinic movement, but we often forget how the same movement galvanized us socially to always demand justice and seek improvements in whatever society we have dwelled. Had the Rabbis not fused seemingly disparate segments of our lives, the notion that one can identify as a Jew on either religious or cultural grounds (or both, and more) may never have materialized; we the have to ask the question, were it not for the Rabbis, would Judaism have survived in the modern world at all?

The work of the Rabbinic social movement was much greater than debating legal minutiae, although that is perhaps what they are most famous for. By codifying Jewish law, the Rabbis successfully forged a community across cultural, ethnic and geographical lines. It was their efforts which connected Jews in Europe with Jews in the Middle East and North Africa. It was also their efforts which connected future generations of Jews with the heritage of their past.  Now we may take it for granted, but the social movement of the Rabbis is likely why any of us today call ourselves Jews at all.

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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at On1Foot.com . Find Justin at rabbijustingoldstein.com, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at facebook.com/rabbiJDG


  1. Dear Justin,

    Yes, I fully agree that social movements have been instrumental in developing and maintaining the various Jewish identities, and with great success.

    However it appears that the widening gap between conservative Jews, such as those supporting Zionism and the Liberal Jews who want an end to the oppressions of Palestinians as increasingly Jews throughout the world face criticisms

    The deadly holocaust resulted in an almost world-wide support for Jews. Increasingly that support now goes to the Palestinian.

    Is that another social movement splitting the Jewish sense of Social Justice? The number of Jews who do not support the Israeli actions in GAZA is growing rapidly.

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  2. Thank you for your comment, Ben. I agree with you and also have seen in my experience that Jewish communities and individuals, both in Israel and the United States, have been at the forefront of advocating for a sovereign, viable Palestinian state – Jewish students and professionals are leaders in “pro-Palestinian” movements from anti-Zionism to “traditional” Oslo-based two-state advocacy. I think that Jews who believe in the rights of Palestinians to self determination and sovereignty are just as much grounding their participation in these social movements in Jewishness (consciously or subconsciously).

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