It’s all about us and me

– a quick guide to how we can all participate in applying social justice, everywhere
A Mensch courageous conversation-piece

By Jonathan Yach, Chairperson, Mensch

So, what is Social Justice, what is it all about, and how can you participate more?

Let us start with the basics. Judaism has always promoted universal social values, and holds that we are all created in the same image. Jews therefore have a responsibility for the wellbeing of our neighbours, regardless of their faith, creed or colour; and we “should ensure justice for all and especially the widow, orphan, and stranger (those who are traditionally poorest in our society), as well as for the environment, as guardians of the creation; and should seek peace and the welfare of our cities. The existence of this tradition is undisputed and goes back centuries.” (Alexander Goldberg, The awakening of the Jewish Social Justice Movement, The Guardian, May 2011)

Is social justice about equity (over equality)? Is social justice about ‘me’ and my place in the world, and others and theirs? Is social justice about balancing rights and obligations and substantive fairness? Is social justice about forgiveness and understanding? Is social justice about being of service and making a difference? Social justice is about all of the above. We are all connected in the spirit of Ubuntu. 

The drafter of the proposed Cape Town Jewish Community Charter said it best, that “a person is a person through other people.” We should not just look after the stranger, but also feel their pain and link it to our own experience. As Hillel stated in Ethics of the Fathers 1.14, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” This is of course explored in Leviticus 19:18, v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha (love your neighbour as yourself). My humanity is bound up in yours. 

Historically, Jews have distinguished between form and essence. For roughly 1000 years, Jewish worship meant bringing sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem. Then in 70 CE, with the Temple about to fall, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai imagined an alternative. He famously asked the Roman Emperor to “Give me Yavne and its Sages.” From the academies of Yavne came a new form of worship, based on prayer and study. (Beinart, Yavne). 

Why is this relevant you may ask? It is because throughout our tumultuous history we’ve accommodated change and learnt from our neighbours whilst always remaining strong and being aware of the needs of others. Is an applied approach to social justice not a call to action? Is it not an opportunity to be more involved? Does community involvement not offer a way out from aloofness and despair and our own eventual extinction? Do we prevaricate because we are critical of our own inaction? “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.’ (Theodore Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic, 1910)

“One becomes a good Jew not by seeking to repair the world but by putting the commandments of personal decency ahead of the dictates of political ideology.’ (Bret Stephens, Jews and the Dilemmas of Social Justice)

I’d like to believe that in our Cape Town Jewish community, we are committed to the pursuit of an energetic civil, just, equal and respectful society for all, including caring for the vulnerable; as it says in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof”. (Justice, justice shall we seek). 

Adam Smith, philosopher and economic theorist, got it right when entitling his book The Wealth of Nations, and not the ‘GDP of nations’. Smith understood that nation-building was ultimately about the stock of wealth, not the production of income. The wealth of a nation is determined by its human, natural, and social capital; and we are starting to understand that a balance needs to be found between them all.

In reading this courageous conversation-
piece, Mensch encourages your continued participation and active role in our Jewish community within the warm fabric of Cape Town, and our continued consideration of the social justice and environmental principles that underpin that support. 

Wishing you and your families a significant and meaningful High Holidays. | Mensch on Facebook | Mensch on Instagram

• Published in the September 2022 Rosh Hashanah Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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