Wednesday, June 10, 2009
I admit it. The reason I haven't posted up until now on the amazing new book by Rabbi Jill Jacobs is only partly because I've been reading it slowly. Really, a big part of it is that books this good just don't come around all that often, and I'm feeling kind of 1st gradish about sharing. But we all have to grow up sometime. Or at least, if we don't someone will come along and make us share our toys. Ahem.
SO, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote, There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition for all of us. Framed by a foreword from the utterly menschlikh gadol Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and prefaced by Simon Greer, Jacobs wrote the book during her tenure at Jewish Funds for Justice as rabbi-in-residence.
Grounded deeply in Jewish text, Rabbi Jacobs begins with her own journey to understanding how Jewish canonical texts are actually far more deeply invested with the everyday experience of poverty and need than most of us will (God willing) ever be, and how allowing the midrash, the talmud and other of our classical works to really enter us, not as something which we read for fun or education just because they're important texts, but to really become doors to a perception of God and our fellow human, can cause us to be transformed through those texts, in the way that the rabbis meant us to be.
While she does this, Rabbi Jacobs also takes on the imprecise... well, let's be honest, the complete meltdown of "Jewish" terms such as "Tikkun Olam," "Tzedek" (as in the ubiquitous, and so therefore now nearly empty, verse "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof," the favored phrase of Jewish organizations that don't know -or at least can't be bothered to find- any other text, no matter what the topic under discussion) and "Prophetic Judaism" into the utterly meaningless and restores them to a Jewish and more faithful context (And can I say, thank you thank you thank you).
This isn't to say the book is completely without flaw. Like the tradition of leaving in tiny flaws to prove that a human creation cannot be perfect, there are some minor quibbles I have here and there. Primarily, I think that Rabbi Jacobs occasionally slides between "we can say that..." and the assumption of the supposition. Or that there doesn't seem to be much room for the individual and national relationship/ communion with the divine in any context other than social justice. But these are minor quibbles in a book so terrific, that I will be buying it for all my friends. How can I make any complaints about someone who at least implicitly supports my observance that, while everybody loves Hillel, it is Shammai who in his grumpy stringency, is actually the one who is more concerned for the disempowered and helpless (p. 32).
Rabbi Jacobs' book also includes an excellent, concise introduction to the canonical texts, meaning that even the beginner can make sense of what Rabbi Jacobs writes, and I hope, that reading her work, will come to see that Judaism and social justice cannot be untangled from Judaism and Jewish law - that the system is a holistic one, and that Judaism does indeed give us a mission.
As Jacobs herself states in the conclusion, wrapping up her fine book with a brief codicil about Judaism in the public sphere, ""What is missing...is a real public discussion about how Jewish law and tradition might address contemporary policy questions... when Jews engage in the public discourse as Jews, we should bring Jewish law and principles into the conversation in such a way as to enrich... discourse...The commitment to living our Judaism publicly should then push us to take public action on these principles, both as individuals and as a community... We will witness the emergence of a Judaism that views ritual observance, study and engagement in the world as an integrated whole, rather than as separate and distinct practices."
As God and the rabbis meant it to be.