Recently, I invited a friend to join me at a Shabbat service. He declined my invitation, explaining that at the last service he’d attended, the rabbi had referred to political events in the sermon. My friend said, “There’s too much political talk – I want my rabbis to give sermons on Torah, not the political issues of the day.”
My friend is far from the only person who wishes current events would remain out of our worship services. I understand that feeling – after all, there are days that I, too, need a service to offer sanctuary from the stresses of our bitterly divided world.
But I also remember the words of Deuteronomy 16:20: “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof! Justice, justice you shall pursue!” These words command us as Jews – all Jews, not just Reform Jews – to open our eyes to the pain in this world and to act. We’re taught that we are God’s partners, and through tikkun olam, repair of the world, we can fulfill the role God envisions for us.
Social action projects play an important role in tikkun olam. This is why Temple Beth El members gather canned goods for LIBERTY’s food drive at the High Holidays, volunteer as tutors at Sterling Elementary, sign up for Mitzvah Day, and perform other good deeds in Shalom Park and our greater Charlotte community.
But I would suggest that good deeds alone can’t make our world a fairer, more just place. Our Jewish community doesn’t exist in a vacuum – we are a part of a city, state, and nation whose laws, regulations, and spending affect how we educate our children, maintain public safety, conserve our natural resources, and care for our most fragile people. Jewish tradition demands that we pay attention to the world outside our synagogues – the Babylonian Talmud emphasizes that our sanctuaries and places of prayer should have windows so we can see outside (Berachot 34b). Scholars interpret these Talmudic words as a sign that Judaism requires us to look not only inward but also outward, engaging with the world beyond the Jewish community.
As much as we may be tempted to shut our eyes, sometimes we need our leaders to connect our traditions to the events that shape our society. Sometimes, as individuals, in small groups, and even as an entire congregation, we need to say, “This [domestic violence, lack of affordable housing, etc.] is wrong, and we need to work together to change it.”
Moreover, in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides argues that the highest form of Tzedakah is helping another person find a job (Laws of Charity, 10:7-14). To me, this suggests that Jews should advocate for policies to prevent poverty and other forms of suffering in addition to volunteering and donating tzedakah. Do we want to feed the hungry, or do we want to prevent as many people as possible from experiencing hunger at all?
I believe that the separation of church and state is essential, and I believe in respecting the diversity of our membership’s beliefs. I also think that there is a big difference between being political and being partisan. Being political means engaging in the civic life of our community; reflecting on current issues and expressing our voices as involved citizens. In contrast, a congregation behaves in a partisan matter when its leadership directs members to vote for a specific candidate or party.
We can’t avoid that we, the members of Temple Beth El, live in a political world. Sometimes it’s important not just that we buy toys for Sterling students through our Giving Tree, but also that we consider demanding that our government provide effective policies and funding for all of Sterling’s students to succeed. Social justice has a role in our congregation – even in our sanctuary.
In October 2017, our new Community Organizing Team started holding small-group listening sessions, trying to learn what issues most concern our members. We hope to uncover common themes so that we can hold a congregation-wide conversation in the spring: How can the 3,000 plus members of Temple Beth El act work together and improve our world? If you would like to learn more about this effort or participate in one of these conversations, please contact Rabbi Dusty Klass and put #TBERace&Justice in the subject line of your email.
Jill Blumenthal is the 2017-2019 chair of the Tzedek Council, Temple Beth El’s committee focused on social justice and action.