Where Justice Dwells
A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community
By Rabbi Jill Jacobs
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011, 264 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 16, 2011
This book makes it clear that Judaism is not designed to have its religionists restricting their behavior to ceremonies, for ceremonies are a means to an end, one goal of which is social justice. "What is more Jewish," the author asks, "wearing a kippah (head covering) or clothing the naked? What is more urgent – feeding matzah to our children on Pessach (Passover) or feeding the starving children in Sudan? Which is the more religious act – welcoming with joy the Sabbath Queen or welcoming with love the refugee fleeing persecution?"
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, fills her easy to read book with many stories showing, among other things, how people were successful in helping communities, such as when the Jewish and Muslim groups worked together with mutual benefit. She includes thought provoking insights as when she observes that many people confess to her that they didn't observe the Shabbat as they should, or always eat kosher food, or pray daily; but she never heard people bewail their social misdeeds, not paying the proper taxes or feeding the poor. Yet the word halakhah, which is commonly translated "Jewish law," actually means "the way to walk," proper behavior. She notes that when she tells people that she is a rabbi they "often ask whether I work on 'Jewish issues.' This question puzzles me. Is poverty a Jewish or a non-Jewish issue?" Certainly it is both a Jewish and a human issue.
She concludes her chapters with incisive and insightful questions, such as asking if the reader identifies with a historical, halakhic, visionary, or utilitarian approach to the problem being discussed. She peppers her discussions with the sharp views of the ancient sages, such as the advice they gave not to settle in a city that has no clothing fund or burial fund for the poor.
Encounters, she writes, are not enough. They are only first steps. Encounters do not compel action. Saying hello daily to the cleaning lady or dropping money into the outstretched hand of a homeless person does not solve their problems. We need to talk to them and learn about their difficulties. She gives advice how to draw out their stories and how to move on to the next steps.
The duty to help people and aid in perfecting the world are two separate matters, improving oneself and the world, but the two responsibilities must be undertaken simultaneously. Jewish communities should perfect themselves and focus their attention upon creating the kind of community that others would want to emulate, but at the same time help solve some of the many societal problems? The advice that Rabbi Jacobs gives in her book helps facilitate these endeavors and people should pay attention to her perceptive suggestions.