Is there a rabbinic home for progressive politics?

The search for an authentic Jewish view of social justice must begin with our sources


Let all who are hungry come and eat: Seder hosted by Israelis for African Refugees in Tel Aviv, 2008 (photo: Flash90)

For me, the months since October 7 have been marked by a simmering sadness that spills over when I read the news or talk to Israeli friends and family, all of whom have personal connections with people who have been killed or kidnapped.

Alongside my grief, I experience feelings of shame when I see the suffering of Palestinian civilians who are deprived of electricity and water, and who have been killed, bereaved or displaced by the war.

Within the Jewish community, the conversation between progressive activists and mainstream Israel advocates is a dialogue of the deaf. Establishment values of Jewish solidarity, self-defence and pride in the IDF are perceived by the left as racist, discriminatory and militaristic.

The radical left, conversely, presents itself as faithful to the spiritual traditions of Judaism: anti-racist, non-violent and realistic about Zionism’s impact on the Palestinians and its failure to eliminate Jewish vulnerability. To the right this looks like a combination of treachery and naivety about what Jews need to do to survive in a hostile world.

Currently our schools, synagogues and youth movements fall into the same trap as the wider community. Some promote Zionist values and teach young people how to defend Israel and rebuff criticism – which they frequently take to be implicitly antisemitic.
Others encourage a critical approach to issues of oppression and inequality in Israel/Palestine, generating empathy for Palestinians but, all too often, alienation from the Jewish state. And some educators find the whole issue too complicated and simply ignore it.

More than ever, people like me who identify with both sets of values, who want to be proudly Jewish and unapologetically progressive, are experiencing a growing sense of desperation. We want to find a pathway back to a liberal, humanist Zionism that lets us be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian and, moreover, recognises that you cannot be one without the other.

This is a desperately important challenge if we are to find ways for young, politically progressive Jews, to find their home within the Jewish people.

But Israel-Palestine is just one expression of the broader relationship between Judaism and progressive politics. For me, these painful times highlight a question I have long struggled with: is it possible to create a genuinely Jewish vision of social justice? This is the issue at the heart of my book: Judaism, Education and Social Justice: Towards a Jewish Critical Pegagogy.

Applying ancient concepts to modern ideas of social change is a complex endeavour. Working out what traditional Jewish social and political norms actually were, and then translating them into terms that are relevant to the modern world, requires a level of literacy and intellectual effort which most people are not prepared to invest.
Instead, the Jewishness of social justice initiatives is often reduced to broad-spectrum “Jewish values”.

For example, when Jewish progressives talk about refugees and asylum, they often quote the Torah’s injunction to love the stranger and cite the Jewish people’s historical experience of expulsions and forced migration.

However, this leaves open the complex question of who the Torah is referring to when it talks about strangers (gerim), how the classical and medieval rabbis understood the concept, and whether traditional Jews would ever have applied it to contemporary, non-Jewish refugees.

This kind of talk also reveals a pervasive bias within the Jewish left: the assumption that Judaism is inherently progressive. To understand how unwarranted this is, we only need to look at the ways in which right-wing Jews interpret the same texts and historical experiences in ethnocentric, survivalist ways. For them the lesson of Jewish history is that we live in a hostile world and have to look out for ourselves.

And maybe these conservatives have a point. Is it not possible to combine progressive politics with the positive values of Jewish pride, solidarity and self-defence?

So, can we be serious about Jewish learning and practice and at the same time commit ourselves to a truly egalitarian politics and a radical conception of social change? I want to suggest that any such approach must have four key ingredients.

First, Jewish social justice has to be firmly grounded in Judaism. This is not about general overarching values, but the detail of Jewish texts, practices and historical experience. It is vital to be immersed in our own intellectual traditions, to see the world through our own cultural lenses. This starting point is essential if Judaism is to add anything unique to Western progressive politics. If not, if Jewish social justice is nothing more than liberalism or social democracy with a different vocabulary, then the enterprise is not worth the effort.

Second, alongside its loyalty to universal, egalitarian principles, a genuinely Jewish progressive politics also has to be committed to the particularistic values of Jewish pride, mutual aid and self-defence.

Of course, being connected to other Jews does not mean we have to agree with them. We must learn to maintain relationships with our ideological opponents, whether they are ultra-Orthodox or extreme secularists, Jewish neo-conservatives or hard-left anti-Zionists, while standing our ethical and political ground.

Third, we have to recognise that Judaism is not inherently progressive. Rabbinic Judaism is an ancient religious tradition that has nothing to do with modern political ideologies. When our texts happen to remind us of ideas from Marx or John Stuart Mill, let’s recognise this as what it is – a coincidence.

If we want Judaism to speak to contemporary issues, we have to bring it intentionally into dialogue with progressive politics, explore what these two traditions have to say to each other, and discover what insights we can glean from this conversation.

The final ingredient of a genuinely Jewish approach to social justice stems from what Kenneth Seeskin, a scholar of modern Jewish philosophy, has termed the “primacy of practical reason”.

Jewish thinkers typically worry less about what the world is like and more about how we should conduct ourselves within it. Any genuinely Jewish conception of social justice must therefore be action-oriented.

From a Jewish standpoint, the popularity of Marx’s statement is well-deserved: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” And if the job of progressive Jewish politics is to inspire and enable action, the character of that action also needs to be characteristically and authentically Jewish.

Matt Plen’s book Judaism, Education and Social Justice: Towards a Jewish Critical Pegagogy, Bloomsbury, £26, is newly out in paperback

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