Rabbi Barry H. Block is the editor of the new CCAR Press book The Social Justice Torah Commentary, which delves into the many ways that the Torah can inspire us to confront injustice. In this excerpt from the introduction, he discusses how the book’s contributors approach the biblical text.
“Rabbi, we want to hear Torah, not politics, from the bimah.” Every rabbi has heard this refrain, and many echo it. The plea, though, has always been discordant to my ears. No, I don’t preach “politics,” which I define narrowly in this context as taking to the pulpit to endorse or oppose a candidate for elective office. I understand Torah to be the Jewish people’s primary teaching about how to live our lives, individually and collectively. Torah shaped our covenantal people in formation in ancient Israel and Judea, establishing fundamental norms—regarding ritual matters, yes, but even more, in legislating society’s obligations toward individuals and vice versa.
The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 offers a microcosm of the Torah’s dual emphasis. Famously beginning “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), the Holiness Code proceeds in the very next verse to tell us how to achieve this lofty, overarching goal of being holy. It first articulates an obligation toward other human beings, namely our parents, and then proceeds without pause to what may be viewed as a ritual commandment, the obligation to observe Shabbat. As the passage continues, injunctions to avoid idolatry and specific regulations about consumption of sacrifices are interspersed among directives about fair labor practices, care for the aged, and providing for the poor and needy. The message is clear: Israel serves God no less by pursuing social justice than through proper worship.
Even commandments that appear to regulate exclusively ritual matters often have ethical ends. For example, Professor Ruhama Weiss and Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz will persuasively argue in these pages that the laws of kashrut (dietary regulations) cannot be fulfilled absent fair labor practices and the ethical treatment of animals. Thanks to Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, we will see that requiring purification for a person who has given birth, a practice out of use since Temple times and abhorrent on its surface, must inspire us to demand that our society ensure proper reproductive health care for all people. And Rabbi Craig Lewis will excavate the detailed regulations for creating the priests’ bejeweled choshen (breastplate), marshaling parshanut (commentary) alongside gemology to formulate a persuasive argument for equity in education.
Rabbis and others who articulate social justice arguments are sometimes accused—not always unfairly—of basing a complex and controversial assertion about society merely on a pithy phrase from Torah, such as one of the three aforementioned beloved passages, with little depth. This volume is both an antidote to that accusation and a refutation of it. Here, a diverse array of members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) and our colleagues in other movements, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion faculty, Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) staff, and lay leaders1 build their social justice arguments on robust and creative employment of parshanut haTorah (Torah commentary), including academic biblical exegesis, classical midrash and commentary, modern midrash, and more.
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer begins his chapter with the familiar verse “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger” (Numbers 15:15), but he does not reach his conclusion about the rights of immigrants until he has drawn on sources as diverse as the Talmud, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dennis Prager, Ibram X. Kendi, and the Brown-Driver-Briggs biblical lexicon. While Rabbi Tom Alpert begins his commentary with “justice, justice…,” (Shof’tim), he builds his argument about the ongoing need to uproot the sin of racist lynching by turning to the next verses, an apparently ritual commandment forbidding the Israelites from erecting “a sacred post,” a form of idolatry.
The Social Justice Torah Commentary is not, therefore, a book “about” social justice, nor, even in its breadth, does it seek to address every ill that faces our world. Instead, it probes deeply into each Torah portion to shape an argument that confronts injustice in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. I am grateful for the learning, teaching, and creativity of the contributors who enable CCAR Press and me to place The Social Justice Torah Commentary into your hands.
1. Many of the authors fall into more than one of these categories.
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the CCAR’s Vice President for Organizational Relationships and also edited the The Mussar Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).