Sunday, September 2, 2018

How do you teach Tzedek?

By: Rabbi Danny Kroll, Assistant Principal

While the Torah implores us to pursue tzedek, telling us to chase after it (תרדף), over these past several months I have found myself running from it.  Allow me to explain. Every year SAR High School has an educational theme which guides our educational programming - the schoolwide Shabbaton, Macabee (Color War), and several theme programs interspersed throughout the year - and this year’s theme is tzedek.  Toward the end of our last school year and throughout the summer I, along with the rest of the administration, have been working with our educational programming team to plot out this year’s course of action.  From the very beginning, it became abundantly clear that this year’s theme would require more careful navigation than last year’s theme of tikkun hamidot, character refinement.  For the tikkun hamiddot theme we were anchored by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s 13 admirable character traits.  Students learned about the different middot through experiential and educational programming including a Martin Luther King Jr. Day program and the popular “middah moments” where students emailed in examples of their peers displaying exemplary middot; this was capped off by Rabbi Harcsztark’s weekly announcement of the “middah moment of the week”, which was so popular and impactful on school culture that it will continue and become a permanent fixture of pre-Shabbat announcements.

But tzedek is different.  It is most commonly translated into English as social justice and when we speak about social justice it is difficult to avoid becoming entangled in partisanship.  One option would be to avoid the topic altogether - why get involved in something so fraught with disagreement that has the potential to be alienating? I think this would be the wrong course of action; tzedek is not a partisan ideology that one chooses to ascribe to based on political ideology - it is a Torah value, which God implores us to carry out.  Social justice might also be an inaccurate definition of tzedek.  Consider, for example Dyonna Ginsburg’s definition of tzedek as she put it in her Orthodox Forum paper, in which she defines tzedek along with tzedakkah, chesed and tikun olam.  She writes:

While admittedly, in the classical sources, these terms contain a range of definitional possibilities, for our purposes they mean the following: (1) Chesed - individual acts of loving-kindness, (2) Tzedakah - individual and/or communal acts of philanthropy, (3) Tzedek - the pursuit of justice through systemic and structural reform.
Chesed, Tzedakah, and Tzedek describe three different means at our disposal to help people in need, whether they are Jews or non-Jews.  If we encounter a hungry person, whether or not he is Jewish, we can either choose to feed him (an act of chesed), give him money to buy food (tzedekah), or ask why he is hungry in the first place and lobby for governmental reform so that fewer people go hungry in the future (tzedek).

So how do you do this?  How do you teach a value that so many misconstrue as being partisan, in a way that is safe for everyone regardless of their political leanings?  How do we get past the mischaracterization that tzedek belongs to the so called “left?”  More basically, is tzedek something we should be focusing on in a Modern Orthodox high school? Shouldn’t we be focusing more on furthering students’ observance of and dedication to Torah and mitzvot?

This summer in reading to prepare for our theme, I came across two pieces that I found helpful in answering these questions.  The first comes from the Jewish German-American philosopher, Michael Wyschogrod, who explains why teaching tzedek is a necessity.  In the essay Wyschogrod rails against the notion that the essence of Judaism is its ethics (the essay can be found in a collection of essays edited by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter in memory of Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung).  He writes,

The view that the essence of Judaism is its ethics is primarily a secularization of Judaism...The specifically Jewish in Judaism is not mainly the ethical, which Jews share with many others.  The specifically Jewish is the cultic: the Sabbath, the dietary and menstrual laws, etc. As the Emancipation made it possible for Jews to stop being different from others, and as many Jews strove desperately to become like others, the transformation of Judaism into a rational ethics made it possible to shape a Judaism that diminished the difference between Jew and Gentile.” 

While this would make it seem that Wyschogrod’s feelings are more in line with those on the so called “right”, it is what he writes next that I found particularly striking.  He concludes,

However much the reduction of Judaism to ethics is a distortion, it is not a distortion without biblical roots.  The prophets who criticize those eager to bring sacrifices while oppressing the poor do not mean to denigrate sacrifices but only to object sacrifices accompanied by injustice.  But because there are no prophetic condemnations of those who feed the hungry but do not bring sacrifices, it is fair to conclude that between the two, feeding the hungry is more important than feeding God. Nevertheless, the former without the latter is also incomplete and does not yield a viable Judaism.

According to Wyschogrod, Judaism cannot be reduced to a religion of ethics. The essence of Judaism is in the ritual, but the ethical is also necessary - “feeding the hungry is more important than feeding God.”  Yes, to reduce Judaism down a religion focused exclusively on ethics is a secularization, but to not focus on it at all is also a distortion of God’s will.

The other item I read over the summer that will guide how we teach tzedek came from a collection of sermons from Rabbi Shai Held.  In a sermon on Parshat Re’eh, Rabbi Held takes a deeper look at chapter 15 of Sefer Devarim, which details many of the tzedek related laws (shemitah, tzedakkah, treatment of a Jewish bondsman).  Rabbi Held notes that Torah repeatedly refers to the poor as “brother” (see 15:2,3,7,9,11,12).  Certainly this teaches us that we should treat those who are less fortunate as family, to act generously and with empathy.  But Rabbi Held goes further and writes:

Consciously or not, explicitly or not, it is extremely easy for people to imagine that socioeconomic inequality points to some real, deep, metaphysical inequality as if the rich were in some ultimate way worth more than the poor.  The Torah exhorts Israel to remember that socioeconomic status tells us nothing at all about the real worth of people.

When teaching tzedek we must heighten our students’ sensitivity to and encourage self-reflection about how we view those with a lower socioeconomic status.  So how do we implement tzedek? While there is a lot interesting data about the intersection of religion and politics, I think it is fair to say that Hashem does not have a party affiliation and that His Torah leaves room for people on both sides of the aisle.  We can debate and disagree on how to implement tzedek, but we cannot disagree on the value of tzedek.  The poor, the disadvantaged are our brothers - the policies we should implement to help them is open to debate.  Rabbi Held eloquently and firmly makes this point in that same sermon when he writes:

The Torah’s simple but radical claim is that the plight of the poor is our responsibility.  A society in which there are no economic second chances, let alone one with a permanent underclass, is intolerable to God.  To be sure, it can be difficult to discern just how the Torah’s vision should guide us in modern times.  Ideological polemics notwithstanding, there is no one-to-one correspondence between Deuteronomy 15 and any particular contemporary social policy.  But we must avoid the temptation to domesticate the Torah, to admire its dream even as we silence its message. It is a religious imperative to build a society in which the poor are seen and treated as truly equal, and to work to ensure that entrenched poverty does not rob people of the dignity of opportunity.  Well-intentioned people will no doubt disagree about how best these goals can be achieved, but we are nevertheless obligated to keep them firmly in mind...Deuteronomy makes clear that only a society truly committed to alleviating the suffering of those ravaged by poverty is worthy of God’s blessing.

This past week during teacher in service, Rabbi Harcsztark led a learning session with the entire faculty about our theme, opening a conversation about how to educate toward this important value.  What emerged from that discussion is the need for civil discourse amongst teachers, students and the entire SAR High School community surrounding our theme. Teachers pointed out that we will need to teach students how to have respectful conversations when we disagree with one another by learning and practicing how to listen to one another.  We should seek to understand the viewpoints of others, even, or especially, when we disagree. Come Wednesday, and when we officially kick off our theme on Tzom Gedaliah, this conversation will expand to include over 560 unique voices. We will learn together that the Torah calls upon us to perform the ritual and cultic along with the ethical and so it is incumbent upon us to practice tzedek by pursuing justice through systemic and structural reform.  As educators, we have the obligation to create space for all students in this pursuit and I look forward to an enriching year, where we examine together ways in which we can make our community and world an even better place.