Chazon: Reflections on Orthodoxy and Social Justice
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Chazon- A Reflection on the State of Orthodoxy and Social Justice
One need not be a trained sociologist to detect that Orthodoxy and Social Justice movements cannot often lay claim to the same constituencies. Given the emphasis that we find throughout Sefer Devarim, especially in this week's sedra in Moshe's recapitulation of the establishment of the judiciary, as well as later on in Parshat Shoftim, concerning the importance of צדק ומשפט, justice and fairness, the relative neglect in which Social Justice languishes in our community merits some thought.
It seems to me that there are a multiplicity of factors which contribute to this phenomenon. First, the unfortunate fact that intensive study of Nach, especially the Later Prophets, which to a great extent represent the locus classicus for these values, is virtually non-existent in our educational system, and is rarely supplemented in adult years, erodes basic consciousness of the significance of these values. Second, the boundary between the cardinal and familiar realm of chessed, acts of loving kindness, and the overlapping but distinct realm of tzedek, fairness and justice, is murky for many. Third, since social justice ideals may be derived from a secular humanist point of view, as opposed to Divine revelation which is the only possible point of origin for ritual law, for some, casts a pallor of suspicion over their authenticity. Fourth, the very fact that so many of the leading advocates of social justice, amongst our co-religionists, are ignorant of classical Jewish sources, do not draw their inspiration from Torah sources, or worse, are simply hostile to the foundational principles of halakhic commitment, and may even perceive social justice as a more sophisticated moral system than the allegedly antiquated parochialism which they perceive in rabbinic Judaism, leaves an understandably bitter taste in the mouths of many from our camp.
Finally, given the comprehensive demands of a rigorously halakhic lifestyle on our intellectual, emotional, and financial resources, something is bound to get the short end of the stick. The emphasis which we place, and unapologetically so, on the intensive study of Torah, commitment to mitzvah observance, family life, and engaging in acts of loving kindness towards the indigent, infirm, or emotionally vulnerable amongst friends and neighbors leaves scant resources for thinking about disadvantaged and oppressed groups somewhat further from home base. Fatigue, in the intellectual, emotional, and physical senses, is a silent but potent killer in religious life.
None of these factors, of course, is a fatality. On the contrary, we should see engagement of social justice as an enormous growth sector for Orthodoxy, something that ought to energize those within our ranks who are looking to connect in a deeper and more personal way, for whom social justice is a natural fit. Moreover, it should serve to attract individuals to comprehensive Torah observance who are already deeply immersed in social justice, and intrigued by the immersive commitment to Torah and Yirat Shamayim which are the hallmarks of Orthodoxy, but repelled by the absence of a vibrant social justice platform, a sine qua non of spiritual life from their point of view.
Shabbat Chazon represents the perfect moment for reflection on the value of social justice. Take a moment to read it over Shabbat, and you will find not a word about חסד, important as that is. Chazon is about צדק and משפט alone, establishing a just and fair society; first and foremost in the narrow sense, concerning the judiciary, but more broadly, in society at large, which had become overrun in the era of Yeshayahu by corruption, bribery, fraud, and racketeering. Yeshayahu takes the radical position that in this type of corrupt society, which he likens on two occasions to Sodom and Gomorrah, ritual observance of sacrifices, Sabbath and the Festivals, the Priestly Blessing and prayer, are not merely insufficient means of expiation, but far worse, offensive and repugnant. Abuse of widows and orphans, which Yeshayahu also references on two occasions, is meant to be understood both in the literal sense, but also typologically, concerning vulnerable groups within society in general.
We do not turn our attention to social justice because it has emerged in the last decade as a dominant feature of the zeitgeist. To do so would be a mistake both in intrinsically and pragmatically. Intrinsically, because all of our values must be derived internally from the eternal truth of our Torah, which has a great deal to say about constructing a society marked by fairness and justice. Pragmatically, because zeitgeist, by its very nature, shifts and stirs. Undoubtedly, in ten years time, a new cause championed by its advocates as more enlightened and sophisticated than the social justice movement of the past, will carry the day. Should we wish, and we deeply do, to develop a long term commitment to social justice, towards constructing a society whose hallmarks are צדקand משפט, the vision of Yeshayahu ought to be our foundational text. After all, it is to He whose demands Yeshayahu gave such poetic voice that we are beholden.