It is not study that is the chief thing, but action.
Jewish values can contribute to the solution of many critical problems that face the world today. But, as the above quotation indicates, it is essential to apply these values, to put Jewish teachings into practice to help dislodge the world from its present apparent journey toward disaster.
First some preliminary considerations:
In attempting to change the world, sometimes we have to begin by changing ourselves. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the mussar (ethics) movement in Lithuania, taught: "First a person should put his house together, then his town, then his world." If you feel that global crises are so great that your efforts will have little effect, consider the following. Our tradition teaches: "You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it" (Pirke Avot 2:21). We must make a start and do whatever we can to improve the world. Judaism teaches that a person is obligated to protest when there is evil and, if necessary, to proceed from protest to action. Each person is to imagine that the world is evenly balanced between good and evil and that her or his actions can determine the destiny of the entire world.
Even if little is accomplished, trying to make improvements will prevent the hardening of your heart and will affirm that you accept moral responsibility. Even the act of consciousness-raising is important because it may lead to future changes. Here are some things that each of us can do:
1. Become well informed. Learn the facts about global problems and related Jewish values.
2. Inform others. Wear a button. Put a bumper sticker on your car. Make up posters. Write timely letters to editors of local publications. Set up programs and discussions. Become registered with community, library, or school speakers' bureaus.
3. Simplify your life-style. Conserve energy. Recycle materials. Bike or walk whenever possible, rather than driving. Share rides. Use mass transit when appropriate.
4. Consider becoming a vegetarian. It is the diet most consistent with such Jewish values as showing compassion to animals, taking care of health, preserving the environment, sharing with hungry people, and conserving resources.
5. Work with groups on significant issues such as curbing the arms race, recycling resources, reducing dependence on nuclear energy, protecting human rights, funding human needs. If there are no local groups or if you differ with such groups on some important issue, such as Israel, set up a synagogue group.
6. Get books on global issues and Jewish responses into public and synagogue libraries. Donate your duplicates, request that libraries purchase such books, and/or, if you can afford it, buy some to donate.
7. Speak or organize events with guest speakers and/or audiovisual presentations showing how Jewish values relate to global issues.
8. Ask rabbis and other religious leaders to give sermons and/or classes showing how Judaism can be valuable in solving current problems.
9. Ask principals of Yeshivas and day schools to see that their curricula reflect traditional Jewish concerns with peace and justice issues. Volunteer to speak to classes and help plan curricula.
10. Contact editors of local newspapers and ask that more space be given to global issues. Write articles and letters using information from this and similar books.
11. Try to change public policy with regard to the arms race, conservation, hunger, pollution, etc. Contact public officials. Organize letter-writing campaigns and group visits to politicians to lobby for a safer, saner, more stable world.
12. Consult with rabbis and religious educators or leaders on how to apply to today's critical issues such Jewish mandates as "seek peace and pursue it," "bal tashchit" (thou shalt not waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value), "justice, justice shalt thou pursue," "love thy neighbor as thyself," and so on.
13. Consistent with Jewish teachings on helping hungry people and conserving resources, work to end the tremendous amount of waste generally associated with Jewish organizational functions and celebrations. Request that meat not be served, since production of meat wastes grain, land, and other resources; this also expresses compassion for the millions of people who lack an adequate diet.
14. Help set up a committee to reduce energy consumption in the synagogue. An excellent resource for this is The Community Energy Caring Handbook An Activist's Guide for Energizing Your Community toward Conservation and Renewable Energy, by Leonard Rodberg and Arthur Waskow . Use steps taken to reduce synagogue energy use as a model for similar action on other buildings and homes.
15. Set up a social action committee in your synagogue or temple to help involve the group in educational and action-centered activities. Build coalitions with other social justice-oriented groups in the community.
16. Raise the consciousness of your synagogue and other local Jewish organizations and individuals. Ask questions such as:
What would the prophets say about our society today? About Judaism in our time? About our synagogue activities? Where are the Jewish Ralph Naders crying out against "crime in the corporate suites" that leads to pollution, hunger, poverty, and waste of resources?
Why so few dreams of a better world through Jewish ideals? Are we segregating God in our synagogues? If God is sanctified by justice and righteousness, why are we so complacent in the face of an unredeemed, immoral and unjust world?
Are we taking our ethical ideals and prophetic teachings seriously?
If we are implored "justice, justice, shalt thou pursue" and "let justice well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream," why the complacency regarding slums, poverty, police graft, corruption at all levels of government, and corporate malpractices that affect our health and safety?
Are we defining Jewish commitment too narrowly, in terms of adherence to ritual only? Shouldn't Jewish commitment include social idealism and sensitivity to moral and ethical values?
Have we forgotten who we are and what we stand for and Whom we represent? Have we forgotten our roles: to be a chosen people, a light unto the nations, a holy people, and descendants of the prophets (the original champions of social justice)?
17. We should respectfully question the often heard assertion that Jews should be involved exclusively with Jewish issues and charities.
The Talmud (Gittin 61a) states, "We support the poor of the heathen along with the poor of Israel . . . , for the sake of peace." As Rabbi Hillel pointed out, Jews must first be concerned about ourselves. But, he continued, "If we are only concerned about ourselves, what are we?" (Pirke Avot 1:14)
Many Jews today justify their lack of involvement with the world`s problems by stating that Jews have enough troubles of their own and that others can work on "non-Jewish" issues. Certainly Jews should be involved in battling anti-Semitism, working for a secure Israel and improved conditions for oppressed Jewry, , and other Jewish issues. But can we divorce ourselves from concern about more general problems? Are they really "non-Jewish issues? Don`t Jews also suffer from polluted air and water, unemployment, crime, and decaying cities and infrastructures?
It is essential that Jews actively apply Jewish values to current critical problems. We must be God`s loyal opposition on earth, rousing the conscience of humanity. We must shout NO when others are whispering yes to injustice. We must act as befits "descendants of prophets" (Pesachim 66b), reminding the world that there is a God of justice, compassion, and kindness. Nothing less than community harmony and global survival is at stake.
If all Jews really put our splendid tradition into practice, can we imagine the effects? Would there be so much crime, violence, distrust, prejudice, discord, and air, water, and land pollution? Would we have so much "private affluence and public squalor"? Would we have the misguided priorities that lead to spending so many billions for bombs and not enough for human values and a better environment?
Return to The Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights - Main Page