Social Activism

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Is there an obligation placed upon us by Judaism to be involved in changing society as a whole? Is there a specific agenda enumerating the areas of concern for the Orthodox social activist? There are many who would answer both these questions with a well articulated NO. With only a chance acquaintance with the Orthodox community one could conclude that Orthodox Judaism is insular and separatist in nature. And yet I would suggest that the reverse is true.

Judaism places before the believer a very clear agenda for social activism. In the Diaspora however, the Jew was typically elated when the majority simply left him alone. There was no possibility for the Jewish community to influence the majority. And so Orthodox Judaism as a society (known simply as Judaism until the advent of Reform in the 19th century) became accustomed to avoiding any unnecessary contact with the majority as such contact usually placed the Jewish community in peril.

As Americans however, living in a society that welcomes the Jew and respects Judaism we have a wonderful opportunity to influence society; a society which proudly claims its roots in the Judeo‑Christian ethic. As the harbingers of the Judeo ethic we are, by this very definition, empowered and required to play an active role in defining its parameters for American society.

Where does one begin? The Torah presents a very clear and defined direction for the Jewish social activist. After the deluge survived by Noah and his family, G‑d makes a covenant with humanity. Representing that covenant for eternity is the rainbow which contains seven bands of color each representing one of the seven Noachide laws incumbent upon humanity. It is from these seven laws, the Noachide laws, that we must seek guidance as Jewish Americans in our quest to further develop the vitality, harmony and peace we desire for the United States and thereby fulfill one of the obligations of citizenship.

Let me list these laws and provide some analysis of each one. They are a demanding task for the most committed social activist.

  1. PROHIBITION OF IDOLATRY ‑ Pagan worship, idols, nature gods and the like has traditionally brought humankind to the lowest forms of expression. Human sacrifice, torture, ritual rape and prostitution have played a dominant role in paganism. The Jew must work toward society’s acceptance of one G‑d, Creator of all. Maimonides notes in his Mishna Torah that a non‑Jew is not warned against the concept of “partnership with G‑d.” suggesting that an individual who serves some intermediate role in humanity’s relationship with G‑d is acceptable in the monotheistic belief of the non‑Jew.
  2. PROHIBITION OF BLASPHEMY ‑ Simply, this means cursing G‑d. The intent is to mitigate the importance of the Creator to literally erase his existence. Witness what I refer to as the battle for the soul of America ‑ the G‑dly vs. the unG‑dly and the ramifications of the outcome of this conflict for the future of our society. This battle centers upon a belief in an absolute morality emanating from G‑d that is to be lived up to by humanity vs a subjective morality of mortal creation that is constantly changing to “fit the times.”
  3. PROHIBITION OF MURDER ‑ The Mishna Torah states that one who kills someone who is terminally ill or is certain to die momentarily or for any other reason has transgressed the prohibition against murder.
  4. PROHIBITION OF CERTAIN SEXUAL RELATIONS ‑ “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cling to his wife and they shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24). Rashi, the famous French Rabbi and quintessential commentator on the Torah, states ‑ “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother” forbids the man to have sexual relationships with the wife of his father even after the death of his father, when she is no longer considered a married woman. Obviously this also includes his natural mother. “Cling to his wife” teaches us that he is to have relations with his own wife and not another’s wife, “to his wife” teaches us he is to have relationships with the opposite sex only, “and they shall be of one flesh” excludes bestiality as man and animal are not of one flesh.
  5. PROHIBITION OF THEFT ‑ The Torah lists 16 categories of theft. Interestingly Rabbinic authorities include in this category rape or seduction as these acts diminish the woman and consequently are an act of theft, as for example the loss of the victim’s personal sense of worth.
  6. PROHIBITION OF EATING THE LIMB OF A LIVE ANIMAL ‑ “But flesh with its living soul you shall not eat.” (Genesis 9:4) The mystical teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (Kabbala) tell us that the Holy spirit will not rest upon anyone who kills any creature, even an insect, purposelessly. Refinement, internalization of the respect due all life on this planet is the goal of this commandment.
  7. ESTABLISHING COURTS OF LAW ‑ Society is commanded to establish fair and equitable courts of law to insure that humanity lives by the Seven Noachide laws.

The dynamics of these laws are a full agenda for the Jewish social activist.