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Tikkun Olam- the message of Reform Judaism

Rabbi Baroness Julia NeubergerThis keynote speech was given by Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger at Chagigah 2012: a weekend celebrating Reform Judaism.

When my father wanted to make me feel badly, he would always say “You remind me of my mother.” My grandmother, Anna Schwab, was a formidable character. We have a portrait of her in our drawing room, sitting behind a desk at Bloomsbury House, surrounded by people, painted by Rose Henriques. She chaired the welfare committee of the Refugee Committee in the 1930s, and worked tirelessly to get more refugees into the UK, fighting constantly with the Home Office, as she found lodgings, work, and helped desperate people get their families out where possible. But she could be impossible, and was uncompromising in her belief that social justice, making the world a fairer place, was more important than anything else.

She was also a very orthodox Jew, unlike me. I believe my grandmother’s ruling passion for social justice, helping the disadvantaged, fighting the authorities to get what is right, is absolutely what Judaism- all of Judaism- is about. The old story of the non-Jew coming up to first Shammai and then Hillel and asking to be taught Judaism whilst standing on one leg appeals to me because the answer- do not do to a fellow human being what you would not have done to yourself- the rest is commentary, go and study it- really encapsulates what it’s about. If I had to boil Judaism down into a nutshell, I might express it differently- more perhaps in the words of one of the great influences on my life, though I never met him, Rabbi Marshall Meyer of congregation B’nei Jeshurun in New York City, but the principle is not so very different. This was his take:

Tikkun Olam- the message of Reform Judaism









“They heard the sound of God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day. And the man and his wife hid from God among the trees of the garden. God called out to the man and said to him, ayechah, where are you?”


Meyer continues:

“Didn’t God really know where Adam was? The omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God had to ask where Adam was? God most certainly knew where Adam was! Adam didn’t know where he was. This question is asked throughout the ages, of each and every one of us, man and woman, where are you? Where am I, where are you, where are we? At every given moment of our lives, whether you believe in God or you don’t believe in God, that’s the question that perforates your being! If you dare listen. Whether it’s when you’re putting on your makeup, or you’re shaving, or you’re walking amazingly impressed with the turn, with the hills ablaze with colour or with the snow in the mountains, and the crunch of the ice beneath your feet, the question is always there. Where are you? I don’t know the answer for tomorrow. I have to struggle with the answer today! I cannot, nor can you, dare to hide in our respective gardens when people scream in pain! Whether you be conservative or liberal, rightist or leftist or centrist. Circumcise your hearts and listen to the calls of the most vulnerable who are in pain and who are bleeding! They are asking, where are you?”

Put the two together- don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you- and ‘ayecha’ and you have a powerful moral call, from the very centre of Judaism, to say that tzedakah is what it’s about.

Now we can do it in many ways. We can simply have the old tzedakah box, and give our ten per cent. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a mitzvah. But it isn’t enough. We can add to tzedakah with g’millut chassadim [acts of loving kindness]. That’s going beyond tzedakah, which essentially can only be carried out by giving money. G’millut chassadim involves giving of ourselves, by personal service as a volunteer, or by generally offering words of comfort and consolation. It’s by being there. We can sensitise ourselves to disadvantage, and part of g’millut chassadim– the extension of simply giving tzedakah to even things up, is by volunteering and spending time with the most desperate, the most disadvantaged. That’s how you hear their suffering. That’s how you empathise. That’s what drives you to give tzedakah, to get others to give, to try to change the world.

For we can also listen to the words of the prophets, appalled as they were by what our ancestors were doing ritually- the ritual observances were perfect- whilst they ignored pain and hunger and poverty and despair. For Reform Judaism, that has cherished the prophetic teachings – and could, I believe- make much more of the haftarah in our regular services- it’s a given. On Yom Kippur in synagogue we read, for very good reason:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Is 58:6

Or, also from Isaiah:
“Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Is 1:17

But what does it mean? We know about deprivation. We’ve heard the appalling report just this week from the All Party parliamentary group of children in care, lambasting the professionals who take so little interest in troubled teenagers that they allow them to abscond for weeks at a time and regard them as troublesome, promiscuous or criminals.

It makes for shocking reading. And we’ve all read and seen more than we can comfortably stomach about Asian men in northern cities grooming young troubled, insecure underage girls for sex, and seen the accounts of getting them hopelessly drunk, and then systematically raping them over and over again. What’s worse is  that the failures of the care system for troubled teenagers has been pretty well known for years now- with the worst children’s homes closed down, with the result that these youngsters get sent far away from home, family and any friends, leading to ever greater isolation.

This is not really new, any more than the tales of abuse and neglect of older people in some-but by no means the majority- of our nursing and care homes around the country is new… Again, something we’ve sort of known but ignored for more years than I care to think about.

None of this is news. Or take for instance what we know about destitute asylum seekers, with the very words ‘asylum seeker’ becoming a term of abuse in playgrounds up and down the country. Some of our synagogues, mine included, run drop-ins for asylum seekers, and a good thing too. We have fellow feeling. Most of us are descendants of refugees, asylum seekers, or economic migrants. That’s how we got here. So we can share a bit of the experience. But do we do enough, given how little they have? We do not.Ayechah? Where are you?

Where are we too in care of older people, or own as well as wider society. Our prophetic messages are clear- yet how many of us are deeply involved in homelessness, in hospital visiting- especially the very old and lonely in our own communities, let alone beyond? How often have I heard staff at Jewish Care or Nightingale or Hammerson or Sundridge or elsewhere say that there are old people living in their homes who have few or no visitors? Why not? Some may literally have no family. But what’s wrong with us? Why are so few of us being volunteers for Contact the Elderly, for instance, and hosting a few older people to tea once a month, a brilliant, and simple, endeavour. Ayechah? Where are you?

So for me Judaism is about a cry of the conscience- the conscience being God’s voice within us. And then we get the detail, and that’s what makes Judaism so brilliant. We’re told in many ways how to listen and say‘Hinneni’, I am here. We’re told in Maimonides’ eight orders of charity, from giving grudgingly to giving so the poor person never needs to ask again, and is self sufficient. We’re told how we must help our ‘brother’, (I’d include ‘sister’ here myself), and in Sifra we’re told that even if the person you help falls again and again, you just continue to help- bring him to live with you. And what does that say about our obligation to the really difficult people, the drug addicts, the obsessive compulsive people, the alcoholics?

But it’s not only about ‘Ayechah?’ It’s also about the now. At best, Judaism tells us how. How much to give, how to help the sick, the mourner, the orphan and the widow. How we should help. What our obligations are. How to give, even if you are poor yourself. How to impose a discipline upon yourself that makes it more likely that you will give, and of course how to form a relationship with God that enables you to hear the call when it comes. That’s true for all Jews, and there is a long and strong history of recognising that call, of doing what we can to put the world to rights. For some of us, it is ecological issues. For others it is the pressing human needs of the here and now.

Yet we have forgotten much of our Reform history. We’re supposed to be- alongside our Liberal sister congregations- in the forefront of all this. D W Marks, first minister of West London synagogue, was deeply involved in the girls’ school movement, when that was a brave, even foolhardy, thing to do in polite society if you weren’t a dangerous radical. Why? Because the education of girls was the hot issue of his day, alongside getting West London recognised by other Jews and by national authorities. He was also deeply involved in the housing movements of the mid to late 19th century. Why? Because the state of housing for poor people in London and beyond was an absolute disgrace, with slums stretching for miles and the streets filthy and unwept, as urchins played in the gutters. And he, and his children, played a considerable role in the move for clean water and an end to the epidemics spread by foul water or polluted drinking pumps. It seems tame stuff to us now, but to listen to DWMarks’ sermon at the consecration service for West London Synagogue in 1842 and we realise it must have been a real shock for many of our ancestors, for a good quarter of it was about the need to educate girls.

This is no coincidence. One of his sons married Emma Lazarus’ niece, Emma Lazarus of the “Give me your poor, your huddled masses…” fame. D W Marks was no shrinking violet when it came to social issues. Neither was Leo Baeck. Nor were Bruno Italiener, Hugo Gryn, Harold Reinhart and more. Some of them were refugees themselves, which made their fellow feeling all the stronger. Some were simply good Reform Jews. But in our search for acceptance, in our search to be highly regarded by all brands of Judaism, we’ve lost our prophetic edge. Better by far we go back to our roots in thinking about social justice- like our founders did, and as the prophets taught us. Better by far we explain our haftarah with a proper commentary, instead of it being an unexplained add on to the Torah reading. Better by far we get out there and do something that benefits the wider world, as we’re seeing with FRS’s work with homeless people, Alyth and asylum seekers, and West London the same. That’s what matters in the long run. When we hear the cry ‘Ayechah?’ from God, ‘Where are you?’ the answer should be ‘Hinneni’. ‘I am here’, and I am ready to serve, and through You serve humanity, and work for tikkun olam, making the world, Your creation, a better place. The rest is commentary.

And Reform, like Liberal Judaism, has that deep in its bones, but needs to articulate it, treasure it, do it, teach it, and give our young a sense of purpose- this is what Judaism is, for all Jews, but this is how Reform interprets it, taking the edge of the issue, being brave, and this is what you, and you, and you can do… and it will never be enough.

The founder of Mitzvah Day, Laura Marks, is one of our leading members and now senior Vice-President at the Board of Deputies. Mitzvah Day goes across the Jewish community and beyond it. But it’s Reform Judaism that should be able to really articulate the courage behind Mitzvah Day- the actions that are brave as well as good, the actions that are to be sustained year round, not just for one day. The actions that may bring us opprobrium from local authorities and from frightened people. But the actions we should be taking because they are right- doing them for others, for ourselves, because we grow in the process, and in the name of Judaism, with courage because we are Reform Jews, happy to take a path that is not standard, happy to do the jobs some of our co-religionists do not want to do. And so we need to up our game- on our own, with other Jews, and perhaps most importantly of all with people of other faiths, because we can do that with joy and trust, and truly make the world a better place.



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