After weeks of walking by the Occupy Wall Street protesters daily, I read Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s call to social action, Jewish Ethics & Social Justice, and appreciated the stark difference between exhibitionist and activist protest. Yanklowitz is a familiar social critic in Jewish circles. His byline regularly appears in the Jewish media alongside articles objecting to perceived immoral business practices across a variety of industries. Abounding in energy, he has led service learning trips across the globe, instructing young Jews how to help the underprivileged, and co-founded Uri L’Tzedek, an organization that, among other things, certifies kosher restaurants as socially responsible.
Throughout the ongoing Global Financial Crisis, Yanklowitz’s concern is for its innocent victims—the starving families, the unemployed and particularly the impoverished underemployed. A fountain of actionable ideas, his life is a verb—doing, helping, alleviating. In contrast, the Occupy Wall Street protesters were a noun.
The Wall Street occupiers certainly utilized many action words—screaming, complaining, quarreling, even urinating. However, their lack of agenda belied their claim to the activist label. The paramount social protest of a generation lacked all vision and sought to achieve nothing beyond acknowledgment of the protesters’ existence. They wanted to be; Yanklowitz wants to do.
Yanklowitz’s book reflects his indefatiguable personality, jumping across the map of social ills from one practical solution to another. However, his message is more powerful than its medium. The book’s writing is uneven and its scholarship is suspect. Someone searching for a sober analysis of Judaism’s views on a social justice subject should look elsewhere rather than risk falling prey to Yanklowitz’s cherry-picked sources, often missing crucial texts and concepts. Yanklowitz rightly objects to child labor because American law forbids it but also, he claims, because children must study Torah until the age of twenty. In doing so, he neglects the status of those who lack an obligation to study Torah and the financial independence that the Talmud awards to those above bar mitzvah age.
Through the laws of indirect torts, Yanklowitz attempts to argue that consumers must consider the damage their purchasing choices cause when those very laws imply that consumers are too remote to be held liable. While responsible consumption is certainly commendable, Yanklowitz’s clumsy hermeneutics are self-defeating. The book’s extensive survey of the literature of imprisonment in Jewish law misunderstands the obligation to redeem unjustly imprisoned Jews and entirely omits the important discussion at the birth of the state of Israel, in which the cogent argument that a country cannot function without imprisoning criminals won the day among religious legal thinkers. Despite all these and other flaws, Yanklowitz’s book radiates optimism and succeeds in inspiring readers with its author’s energy and soaring vision.
Yanklowitz raises to the fore Jewish values that are easily forgotten in our busy world. Only a moral cripple, blind to the cries of the destitute and the emphatic Biblical and Talmudic imperatives, would deny the righteousness of social justice. We can quibble about specifics — does a living wage help or hurt the working poor? — but the underlying premise of helping those in need is unquestionably Jewish. Just as God clothes the naked and feeds the hungry, so must we. However, our daily struggle to earn a living, take care of our families and fulfill our own spiritual needs can blind us to those around us who are suffering. Sadly, this is particularly true about observant Jews who pack their lives with a full schedule of religious rituals in addition to facing substantial financial obligations for their kosher and tuition needs. The inward focus can easily blur the outward lens. Yanklowitz wakes us from our distraction, pointing out many people we encounter in our routines who need our help yet whom we easily overlook. He takes us through the difficult lives of domestic workers, hotel cleaning staff, food producers and many more, showing us not only their troubles but how we can alleviate them. And he thankfully does so based on tradition and not cliche.
I once observed a social justice professional use the term Tikkun Olam in a gathering of Orthodox scholars. The ensuing protests over the inappropriate use of this technical term, which refers to a number of concepts but not aid for the needy, were hardly pedantic. Every sensible religion preaches charity and good deeds. Judaism, with its myriad of laws, categorizes and codifies these imperatives. The term Tikkun Olam is only necessary for those with little interest in following the Torah’s mandates, those who desire a religion of compassion rather than a compassionate religion. People committed to the Divine law speak of the obligations of tzedakah and chessed, bal tashchis and yishuv ha-olam, tza’ar ba’alei chaim and kevod ha-beriyos (charity, loving-kindess, preserving resources, settling the world, avoiding animal pain, respect for human dignity).
Yanklowitz does not set out on his own, separating himself from centuries of Jewish tradition by coining his own terms and creating a Judaism in his own image. His social justice agenda is based on the concepts embedded in Talmudic law and thought, expressed throughout the generations of rich rabbinic literature. There is no era in Jewish history during which the regnant rabbinic writings failed to exhort toward social justice. Every genre teaches toward that goal, whether pondering its philosophical sources, detailing the minute laws, poetically describing the beauty of helping others, or chastising those who fail to live up to Judaism’s high standards. Even today, responsa emanating from the most isolated ultra-Orthodox communities continue the prophetic chain of demanding strict adherence to the Torah’s interpersonal obligations. In his haphazard way, Yanklowitz builds his activist agenda on classical Judaism. His vision is a profoundly Jewish social action, emanating from an authentic religious imperative and not just kosher-style.
Yanklowitz tends toward favoring government solutions to social problems, a short-sightedness often found among young idealists who have not experienced the distortion an uncaring bureaucracy inflicts on otherwise worthy programs. However, Yanklowitz’s private sector actions speak louder than his public sector words. Unlike the Wall Street occupiers who want the government to enact some undefined change, Yanklowitz, with his colleagues and students, has built in a few short years an effective educational network encouraging volunteerism and purchase power activism. This passionate teaching and enactment of Judaism’s prophetic message does more to imbue the world with godly values than any financial district occupation has accomplished.