Judaism and Justice

The Jewish passion to repair the world.

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Excerpted with permission from Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World (Jewish Lights, 2006).

The Jewish people's narrative has several possible starting points. While Abraham is the first Jew for bringing the idea of monotheism into the world, it is the Exodus story that represents the beginning of Jewish national consciousness. A group of slaves that might not have had much in the way of ethnic homogeneity shared a common predicament (slavery) and a common oppressor (the Egyptians). What shapes the national consciousness of the people that the Bible calls "the children of Israel" (b'nai yisrael) is the pairing of that enslavement experience with the Israelites' escape to freedom. Their consciousness was forged not only by an experience of common suffering, but, more importantly, by a shared experience of redemption…

From Political to Moral Consciousness

With the Exodus story, all the elements of political consciousness were now in place: a common history (Egyptian slavery), a founding myth (being redeemed from the Egyptians by a God more powerful than any other), and a leader (Moses). The Exodus dimension of Jewish existence would continue to be central to the Jewish people throughout their long history. For a time, it would play itself out in the form of political sovereignty, as it did with the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judea. In the twentieth century, the Exodus dimension would manifest again with the creation of the modern state of Israel.

gavel for justiceBut the Exodus consciousness described here transcended conventional political arrangements. The Jewish people manifested this consciousness during their wandering in the desert, in their early settlement in the land of Israel arranged by tribal affiliation, and during the two millennia that Jews existed in the Diaspora. Exodus consciousness caused Jews to identify with each other regardless of the fact that they might be living thousands of miles apart, under different political regimes, speaking different languages, and developing variations on Judaism that often synthesized elements of traditional Jewish practice with the specific gentile culture in which they lived.

This consciousness also meant that Jews took care of one another, not only when they lived in close proximity, but even when they became aware of Jews in distress in other locales. During the time that Jews lacked political sovereignty, they became a community of shared historical memory and shared destiny. They believed that the fate of the Jewish people, regardless of temporal domicile, was linked. This is what explains the success of the Zionist movement, the historically unprecedented resurrection of national identity and political sovereignty after 2,000 years of dispersion. The Exodus consciousness of the Jewish people was the glue that held the Jewish people together. It was the secret to Jewish survival.

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Rabbi Sidney Schwarz

Sidney Schwarz is the president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values and is also the author of Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue.