"Justice for all is a Jewish concept," said Dr. Steven Nasatir, President of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Speaking at the JUF Rabbinic Action Committee's Annual Study Institute for the Rabbinate, Nasatir noted the upcoming 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht and that event's disturbing parallels to today's mounting attacks on Christians and churches in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.
"I am alarmed at the quiet around this issue, and I am alarmed at the quiet it has been met with. There is more we can do in our synagogues and our communities," he said.
Nasatir's remarks helped set the tone for the study institute, which this year focused on the Jewish model of social justice in text and in practice. The program, which drew more than 70 people, was held at Beth Hillel Congregation B'nai Emunah in Wilmette.
"The commitment to social justice keeps the Jewish people united across denominational lines," said Rabbi Saul Berman, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. Berman explained that the halachic (Jewish law) and theological bases of social justice are found in the Torah.
"The laws of the Torah provide more than a framework to worship God," Berman said. "As Rambam (Maimonides) taught us, all laws of Torah have a human purpose."
First, we need the truth, he said. "If people believe what is false, it can destroy self and society…. Truth is a fundamental belief and not a threat to society or self."
Second, noble virtue. The Torah shapes our essential character and understands that humans are not born with all virtues. Last, the Torah mandates the creation of a just society by mandating a just social order in which humanity can exist.
"The Torah is not a random series of law, but an organized way of directing human behavior to create a just society," Berman said. It is then up to a society to create laws, based on ethics and morality, and say that every member of society has to act within that standard.
"You are not permitted to achieve all the goals of a just society," he said, "but you need to be careful to never deny the responsibility to create a just human order."
In more contemporary times, "The answer is found in the universal application of moral law," said Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Saperstein explained that the halacha addresses how to resolve issues in a Jewish society, but does not address what to fight for in a non-Jewish society.
"Moral law is basic to any civilized society," he said, "and the Jewish value is regarded as being a universal value in every human being as having a civic duty." When applying the rule of law, the question becomes whether the choice of human decision enhances or diminishes moral law, Saperstein said. "The great sin is to stand idly by, but morality can include argument over what is the best route to achieving the ideals."
As the session came to a close, Suzanne Strassberger, Associate Vice-President, Government & Community Partnerships for the Jewish Federation, talked about the importance of legislative advocacy as a tool for pursuing social justice.
"The voice of the Jewish Federation really has an impact on public policy … because our voice as a major faith constituent group provides legislators with the moral authority and vocabulary to explain difficult votes."
Strassberger also stated that the Federation, as a human service provider, must stand together with other providers to protect the dwindling funds in the human services budget, rather than fight over an agency specific issue.
"I see this as a social justice issue," she said.
The Federation is engaged in the daily practice of tikkun olam (repairing the world) by providing social services to more than 300, 000 Jews and non-Jews in the Chicago area. It addresses a variety of human service issues through its network of agencies, such as homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, and the health care needs of the disabled and elderly.
"Adequate public funding for human services makes it possible for people to work, raise a family, and worship safely in the world. Without human services, you are isolated."
Mara Ruff is the associate director of State and Local Government for the Government Affairs Department of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.