Commentary Magazine

Tower of Babble

Jewish Ethics
and Social Justice:
A Guide for the 21st Century
By Shmuly Yanklowitz
Derusha Publishing, 344 pages

In the increasingly crowded field of Jewish social justice, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz has carved out a niche for himself as a Modern Orthodox crusader. While studying for his ordination at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in the Bronx, he helped found Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social-justice organization that claims “Torah values” as its inspiration and “combating suffering and oppression” as its primary objective. He and his organization made waves with their advocacy for undocumented workers at Agriprocessors, the Iowa kosher meat supplier raided by the federal government in 2008 for employing almost 400 illegal immigrants.

Since then Uri L’Tzedek has focused on an assortment of labor-related causes. Yanklowitz, however, has loftier ambitions. Not only is he a self-proclaimed “global social-justice educator,” but a “moral philosopher…by disposition” and “developmental psychologist…by training.” Only 31 years old, Yanklowitz has served as the director of Jewish life at the UCLA Hillel, where he has started yet another Jewish non-profit. The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, its website tells us, promotes “animal welfare activism” as well as the heretofore untouched cause of “kosher veganism.” His activist imagination, it seems, has no limits.

Jewish Ethics and Social Justice, his first book, is his attempt to convey that imagination to the broader public. He explains his modus operandi as “applying Jewish values and law to the most pressing contemporary moral issues of our time,” and the book’s as determining how “our traditional Jewish ethics translate into contemporarly Jewish social justice requirements.” In other words, he hopes to employ “Jewish values” in the service of “sustainable and systemic social change for the most vulnerable in our society.”

Yanklowitz says the essays that make up the book are “devoid of overly extensive analysis and apologetics,” and the first chapter, “A Vision for Street Torah,” amply justifies this disclaimer. He urges observant Jews to eschew both liberalism and conservatism because, in his words, “we need more radicals!” These staid ideologies have little impact on societal change whereas radicalism helps us “win in the streets”—though where these “streets” are he does not say. Yanklowitz vacillates between defining them as the marketplace of ideas or present-day circumstances. Nor does he fully define radicalism. In fact, his attempt to do so only deepens the confusion. Being a genuine radical, to him, means “ensur[ing] authenticity…with a personal relationship to Torah, with a self-identity, that transcends the comforts of passive rhetoric and partisan identity escaping the self-referential and attempts to resolve complex tensions without proper recourse to dialogue.” Though it is difficult to extract any meaning from this muck of words, the message is, essentially, that we should use Torah to address contemporary social problems.

Yanklowitz’s writing becomes clearer once he turns to concrete policy questions, but his ideas remain tissue-thin. His discussion of ObamaCare provides a perfect example. He expresses genuine surprise over the very existence of opposition to it. As he recounts, he was certain that “if the secular state was championing an issue that speaks to our deepest religious communal values, there could only be cause for celebration.” He cannot register why anyone would reject a plan that “help[s] America become a society that can heal all of its sick.” It’s worth mentioning that he may be the only advocate for ObamaCare who believes the plan could achieve that ambitious goal; not even the president himself would make such a broad claim.

Yanklowitz, however, views ObamaCare as the realization of a biblical and rabbinic mandate. Disagreements on health-care reform should not blind us to Judaism’s unambiguous position on this issue, he argues. If we do not support Obama’s reforms, we have abandoned Torah’s values; specifically, we violate the biblical precept of “‘do not stand by the blood of your neighbor!” We would also ignore numerous rabbinic sources obligating us, as well as government, to provide medical services to the sick. Thus Yanklowitz argues that Orthodox Jews must collaborate with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the United Jewish Communities, and the National Council of Jewish Women—groups that vocally supported the president’s plan. The biblical imperative to “Choose life!” demands that we do so. Opposing the president is a choice for death or, as Yanklowitz implies, a choice to become party to bloodshed.

Notably missing here is a discussion of means—that is to say, exactly how we apply this divine mandate to our particular situation. Yanklowitz believes that the biblical and rabbinic sources demand a particular moral goal; therefore, the manner of reaching that goal is irrelevant. In Yanklowitz’s universe there can be no gap between moral vision and practical application. If the rabbis or the Torah issue a directive, any attempt to meet it satisfies their demands—even if the means employed have only a tenuous relation to the original sources.

We encounter this bankrupt moralism again in the essay “Jewish Wisdom and a ‘Wise Latina,’” in which he suggests that Jewish teachings agree with Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s statement that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” He asserts that the Bible’s invocation of the Egyptian bondage to justify concern for the downtrodden means that “the lived experience of the Jewish people…[is]…the best guarantor of justice.” This interpretation leads Yanklowitz to puzzle over the Jewish community’s aversion toward bringing religious sensibilities to bear on today’s pressing issues. An alternative model, he argues, is the Orthodox rabbi Samuel Korff, whose religious court in the 1970s ruled on timely issues such as the ethics of the Vietnam War and employing non-unionized labor. Yanklowitz concludes that “the responsibility of a judge, in secular and religious cultures, is to ensure that the interpretation of the law accounts for its real-world consequences in people’s lives.” He says Korff “recogniz[ed] the importance of bringing the best of one’s personal and communal background…into public discourse for the sake of achieving justice for all.” Never mind that religious courts are non-coercive and have an impact on only a tiny part of the citizenry, and thus cannot serve as a model for secular courts, or that rulings based on “the best of one’s personal and communal background” rather than the Constitution would wreak havoc upon the rule of law. Yanklowitz’s compass points in one direction only: If the moral impulse dictates, follow. Don’t sweat the details.

Judaism certainly impels us to employ our moral sensibilities and to pursue justice. Yanklowitz’s understanding of this mandate, however, is shallow. By presuming to harmonize the Torah’s mission with the Democratic Party’s domestic agenda, Yanklowitz makes a mockery of the rigorous inquiry that sustains the Jewish tradition. Indeed, Judaism survives only if we take it seriously, if we struggle with Jewish texts, not merely quote them blithely. It is our duty to use these sources to rethink our assumptions, not simply to deploy them to confirm our pre-existing prejudices.

Judaism has always recognized that the Torah’s blunt moral formulations provide scant guidance for real-world implementation. Our inability to appreciate God’s direct message means that the law cannot reside in heaven, and that it must be subject to the imperfections within the mortals who inherit it. We cannot fully translate divine will into practice, but we continue trying, for it is these strenuous attempts that give life to our ancient tradition. To Yanklowitz we have no such shortcomings. All we need be is radical.

It is inadvertently comic that Jewish Ethics and Social Justice’s cover should feature Pieter Bruegel’s masterwork The Tower of Babel. The story of Babel is one of man attempting to erase any separation between heaven and Earth. God, however, humbles human ambitions, demolishing the edifice of self-congratulation and dispersing mankind throughout the globe and into many tongues. He enforces the unbreachable gulf between the divine realm and human striving. Like Babel’s architects, Yanklowitz presumes God’s ways can be our ways. He might consider paring down his aspirations.

About the Author

Judah Bellin, a new contributor, is assistant editor at Minding the Campus.

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