— by Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, President of JSPAN
The new Jewish year is a time to focus our thoughts on weighty matters of society’s concerns. We are taught that as individuals and as nations, we are responsible for our decisions that enhance or impede human freedom and the cause of justice.
In a striking image, we are reminded of the importance of every deed. Life is pictured as a balance scale: The pans are evenly loaded, with good deeds in one, and evil deeds in the other. And the next decision we make, the next act we take, will tip the scale one way or the other. Will it be to good? Or to evil?
And so it is for nations as well. Our next act will impact not only our individual lives, but the life of the nation, too, for good, or for ill.
What does this quaint image of the balance scale say to us, living in these precarious times, filled with so much violence and the threat of violence, so much injustice and so many social problems that defy solution? Do we throw our hands up in despair? Or do we get involved, believing that our righteous deed, no matter how small, can make a difference?
I became involved in JSPAN because I believe that we each have the power to improve the world with our deeds. As Jews, it is an obligation, a mitzvah, a sacred responsibility. Together, our deeds are bundled together and become transformative in ways we cannot imagine.
Jewish tradition demands of us that we be activists for those whom society has abandoned. We speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. We speak for those who are weak, shunned, and made invisible.
I believe there are three key issues we need to focus on, at this time, from the standpoint of social justice.
Black Lives Matter
Over the last year the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray became household words. Why did their deaths resonate so powerfully? Was it not because they were betrayed by the very law enforcement establishment that is supposed to protect all Americans?
Some ask, why is it not enough to say “All Lives Matter”? The reason is that not all lives are treated equally. The cry “Black Lives Matter” reminds us that 150 years after the Civil War ended, even with an African-American president of the United States, to be Black in America is to live, unavoidably, in fear of the authorities, based on the belief that there are two sets of rules, one for White Americans and another for Black. This is unacceptable.
Our tradition teaches us that all human beings are created equal. We are taught that a legal system must treat each person equally and judge each person on the merits of his or her case. We must work for a society that makes this ideal a reality, and ally ourselves with others who are in the forefront of this struggle. It is overdue.
In the aftermath of the “Great Recession” of 2008 and 2009, the consolidation of wealth among the few is breathtaking. For many Americans, jobs today are harder, less secure and less lucrative. In contrast to the wealthiest, they have lost ground economically. Unions, once the engine that created equity and dignity for working men and women see their membership dwindling and their legal protections disappearing. Government leaders balk at the idea of raising the “minimum wage” to be a “minimum living wage.” Politicians fall over themselves in efforts to diminish the safety net that guarantees that the least able among us can live with dignity.
Our tradition teaches us that each person has the right to a fair wage, and that no one can be truly free without the social guarantee of economic stability for all.
America is a nation of immigrants. It is immigration that has made this country great.
Instead of acknowledging our immigrant past, and honoring those who, today, like our ancestors, are desperate to escape oppression and eager to embrace a brighter economic future for their children, we hear fear-mongering demagogues demean not only “illegal immigrants” but whole nations and cultures. They are even ready to jettison the Constitution and its clear definition of American citizenship in their reckless diatribes against immigrants.
Even with the lessons of the Holocaust and the shuttered American Golden Door to victims of Nazi oppression, our leaders are not willing to be part of the solution to the greatest humanitarian refugee problem facing the world today in the Middle East.
The Bible reminds us many times that we were foreigners in a foreign land. We know the soul of the stranger, the alien, the “illegal.” We Jews would not be here in America but for a wise ancestor who chose the promise of the unknown over the resigned inertia of the familiar. If the gates of America had been open during World War II under the same terms as the pre-1924 golden era of immigration, who knows how many Jews might have been saved from annihilation by the Nazis?
Progressive liberalism is born not of political currency but of prophetic mandate. It is a passion for justice that is the soul of who we are.
We must work so that our individual and collective actions will tilt the scale of justice toward security and dignity for all Americans. In that way, we will continue to evolve into a nation worthy of our ideals.