Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When Tzedakah Becomes Social Justice

So, one of my favorite teachers, my daughter, Rachie, is teaching my high school classes today, Wednesday December 22, 2010. She is presenting a seemingly innocuous concept but one that is important for all of us to consider – namely the similarities as well as the differences and connections between Tzedakah and Social Justice. It’s a very interesting differentiation to make to be sure.

Rachie has really been dedicated to causes within the framework of Social Justice and was able to put this dedication into practical and ongoing application throughout her one year with Avodah, The Jewish Service Corps (part of Americorps). She worked in New Orleans in the office of the Public Defender. Her clients were the poor, under privileged, lacking resources, and poorly educated. She continually shared how she was struck by the vast differences between her life and theirs, and that when people do not have access to the ongoing resources and support which we generally take for granted, we are all responsible in some way for this unbalanced inequitable distribution of resources.

I always teach that Tzedakah is NOT CHARITY, but rather it is THE OBLIGATORY SHARING AND CARING WITH OUR RESOURCES. Consider the many practices we are taught in our Torah about which parts of our crops that are harvested in our fields are ours and which parts BELONG TO OTHERS, with our responsibility being to insure that the distribution of THESE resources to THESE others actually occurs, through giving them an opportunity to COME INSIDE of “our property,” so to speak, and WORK FOR THEIR ACCESS TO THESE RESOURCES. This is Social Justice in a Jewish way – it is not just distribution of resources, be it money, food, clothing, or even pockets of donated time. Rather, it is the ongoing engagement in BRINGING THE OTHER INSIDE OUR CIRCLE and providing for each person as ONE OF US. This is the society that John Rawls encourages us to strive for – in which each person can achieve their potential in a constructive and meaningful manner through such access.

Rachie talks often of her experiences in townships in South Africa when she was a student at the University of Cape Town a few years ago and more recently in New Orleans. She explains how cultural context creates significant boundaries of which we must be aware. In Cape Town, she was this rich, white, educated privileged young woman who came to help (and she tried to do so in a meaningful manner) poor black kids in the townships who were without resources and with very limited opportunity. In New Orleans when she works with her predominately male prisoner population, she is the Northeast white Jewish girl with the education and the opportunity that they never had.

How do we help in such situations? How do we ENTER the world of the other and more importantly, bring them INTO OUR WORLD? Is this even possible on any level at all? For me, Tzedakah is about giving out…. We are taught by our Jewish sources to not have our hand JUMP when we give money, that is to do so graciously, looking the other person in the eyes and letting that person know that WE SEE THEM. This is difficult enough to do. How much harder it is to work, truly and continually ENGAGE OURSELVES in the tasks related to social justice with those with whom we cooperate and work to build such a community? Here we bring the people with whom we are engaged into our world. We recognize that this is an ideal but in actuality how much are we prepared to do so?

Consider this one fact that Rachie pointed out to me. Churches often run shelters IN THEIR BUILDINGS for homeless members of the community, invite these same people to worship and prepare food for and SIT AND EAT with these same people. How many of our synagogues, shuls, and temples do this?

This is a challenge. I love the teaching (words that Rachie lives by) that “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time,… but if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” This comes to us from an Aboriginal Activist Group from Queensland in the 1970’s.

So how do we do this in our world, practically, really, and honestly? Is it even possible? Maybe Margeret Meade can help us with this one, when she teaches that if we each take care of our one square foot of the earth (and all that are included), we will have accomplished some degree of social justice, so to speak.

1 comment:

  1. Saundra,

    terrific. so few 'get it' and it is so nice to see that you do, and that rachie does. send her to israel and i will make sure that she can make a super-contribution to the jewish people.

    arnie draiman