Honoring the Ancient Covenant

By Sheila Dector

The Jewish Alliance for Law & Social Action (JALSA) was founded in 2001 by a circle of former American Jewish Congress members and allies who were committed to preserving a vehicle to continue a passionate pursuit of economic and social justice for all which “derives authentically from the Jewish tradition and deserves full and energetic expression in our own time.”

Thinking about this article, I polled JALSA board members on the possible wellsprings of their efforts in pursuit of social justice. Foundations for some were religious, for others historical, for some political. Several talked of a “mandate” that they felt emanated from their Jewish roots or an “imprinting” they absorbed as a child to change a troubled world for the better, and this held true regardless of whether they are religiously observant in formal ways. Others said that justice and service have always been major teachings of our faith, in the Torah, Talmud, etc., as exemplified by two scriptural commands we cite frequently in JALSA communications: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) and “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21).

There is a notion that G-d established a covenant with Noah and all living things after the great flood, that Jews have accepted a responsibility for the stewardship of the world and that the Lord would not deliver such a devastating flood again if we fulfilled this obligation. There is the concept of Tikkun Olam, or “repair of the world,” that says we must work to perfect the world. Some interpret this to mean that Jews are not only responsible for creating a model society among themselves but also for the welfare of the society at large. This is expressed in multiple places in the Torah, including in Leviticus as “You shall treat the stranger who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you, have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel famously captured the essence of Jewish teaching with a version of the Golden Rule, saying, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” Some Jews believe that the performing of daily “mitzvoth,” i.e. commandments or good deeds, is necessary for the coming of the Messiah, the more mitzvoth being done, the sooner the Messianic Age will arrive.

A large percentage of JALSA members are attorneys. Their dedication to our work seems consistent with the following of Torah, which itself is known as the Written Law of the Jewish people. JALSA’s Committee on Law and Social Action has met weekly for decades to review and discuss possible advocacy and action by JALSA, defending the rights of minorities, promoting equal opportunity in employment and education, upholding religious freedom and protecting Constitutional guarantees for all Americans.

Having a stake in each other’s wellbeing is an enduring theme of JALSA’s history; our use of coalitions to achieve change reflects the strength and advantages of communal vs. individual action. We have responded to violations of civil rights and civil liberties and assaults on the dignity and economic security of those of other nationalities, skin colors, religions and sexual identities. Our members provided early support to people with HIV/AIDS. We monitor and contest budgets and legislation that impact the vulnerable. We have organized legal clinics for those facing foreclosure or eviction.

From the breadth of materials in our ancient texts and history, clearly people can pull out different principles to guide their lives. Within the Jewish community, for example, we see contrasting positions on the role of government interventions to address social challenges vs. emphasis on personal responsibility to make the world better. To me there is a progressive exhortation to protect the vulnerable and make our communities more just. As a JALSA board member aptly pointed out, in “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” the operative word is pursue – not hope for, think about or observe – but pursue.

Sheila Decter is Executive Director of JALSA.

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