On Global Jewish Responsibility: Putting the Olam in Tikkun Olam

This is an excerpt from the essay, “On Global Jewish Responsibility: Putting the Olam in Tikkun Olam,” by Ruth W. Messinger and Rabbi Rick Jacobs from Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, edited by Rabbi Seth L. Limmer and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner (CCAR Press, 2019).

B’reishit bara Elohim, in the beginning, God didn’t create the Land of Israel or the Jewish people. No, God created a wondrous universe, teeming with beauty, complexity, and possibility. Within this incomplete world, God created human beings to partner with God in shaping a world of justice and compassion. The sphere of divine concern includes not only the triumphs and trials of our people. Its reach is global, extending to all who inhabit the planet.

The fundamental question for this chapter has in many ways already been asked and answered, debated by Rabbinic sages and subjected to further discussion by contemporary writers. We ask it anew today as Jews work to find themselves in a rapidly changing twenty-first-century landscape. Are Jews responsible only to other Jews and only for their well-being, or do we have a responsibility to the other and the stranger, whether they live in our community or across the globe? Although scholars and leaders—and the members of the Jewish community more broadly—have had differing answers and differing priorities, if we take the texts at their word, if we take seriously our responsibility to the ger, “the stranger,” and define that notion broadly, recognizing the many strangers among whom we live and who live among us, then we have our answer. As Jews, we have a foundational responsibility, a moral obligation, to act not only for ourselves, our families, and our people, but also for the global community.

All [the] provisions from the Bible through the Rabbinic period provide the foundation, the rationale, the “how-to manual” of the Rabbinic decree that we must be an or lagoyim, “a light unto the nations,” a call that animates much of Jewish life yet today.

Then the next sets of questions loom: Why do we have this responsibility, and how has it played out over time? How broadly must we take this charge? What kinds of actions are we compelled to take?

When we are instructed to care for non-Jews as well as Jews for the sake of peace, do we understand that it is incumbent upon us to reach out across lines of difference and division because that is our moral obligation or because it will allow us to live more safely in the world?

Where can this caring, this assumption of responsibility, occur in our own communities, where we live side by side with people of diverse backgrounds? In our country, where the Constitution protects individual rights, yet we know that we do not always live up to its precepts, and there are times and places when we need to be present for those whose rights are being denied? In Israel, where the struggle of different populations to live side by side raises these issues at practical, humanitarian, and geopolitical levels?

Or, most significantly for this chapter, building on what has gone before, are we to understand that we need to extend our care and our concern to the rest of the world?

Be a force for good in the world: any time we fail to act, for any persons, whatever their relationships to us, when we know that they are in need, we are to be held accountable for whatever goes wrong.

And, whether we are responding locally or globally, there is the question of what response we are asked to make.

So, we are called upon to act, to do what we can, both at home and abroad, to be that light unto the nations even—or perhaps, particularly—in hard times. We must pursue justice at home, in our own communities, in our own country, in Israel, and throughout the world….Only in these ways can we take up fully our intended role on this planet, helping to create a world in which we toil for equity and fairness and hope that encourages others so that more and more of us each day are working for the good of the entire globe.

Ruth W. Messinger is the Global Ambassador of  American Jewish World Service.  Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. 

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice is now available from CCAR Press.