Social justice lies at the heart of the Jewish people
Jews must constantly labor to mend the world, making it a place of peace and justice.
"How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob..." (Numbers 24: 5)
We don't know whether Bilaam, the gentile prophet prophesied the protest tents of the Israeli social justice movement, but other prophets certainly identified with the spirit of the struggle. Most famously, Amos, the prophet from Tekoa resolutely insisted that social justice lies at the heart of Judaism.
Currently, the gap between the rich and the poor in Israel is one of the widest in the developed world. The protestors object to this, and the ancient prophet shared their concerns. He railed against a society which taxed the poor beyond measure, while the rich lived in decadent luxury. This, he states is intolerable and unsustainable:
"Therefore, because you trample upon the poor, and because you exhort taxes on their grain, you have built houses of carved stone, but you won't live in them; you have planted lush vineyards, but you won't drink their wine" (Amos 5: 11).
His warning remains potent. Israel will only maintain law and order and persuade our young people to sacrifice years of their lives serving in the army if they feel that society treats them fairly. They need to know that their political and religious leaders are looking out for their needs.
Amos faced a religious leadership which focused almost exclusively on ritual with little or no concern for the suffering of the poor. Speaking in the name of God, Amos expressed His utter contempt for religious piety, which is exercised in a moral vacuum.
"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies" (5: 21) he said.
This pattern is echoed by some of our current leaders. Former Cabinet minister Rabbi Michael Melchior also points out that many of our "religious" politicians cite Judaism, not as a motivator for goodness, but as a cover for immorality. They tell us, 'We would love to help the refugees or the Bedouins or whoever else suffers injustice, but what can we do? This is a Jewish country and we must secure our own interests first." They evade responsibility for attacks and injustices against Palestinian farmers on the basis of our Divine rights to the land. Their perverse view that the Jewish people's relationship with God grants us immunity to act immorally is summarily dismissed by Amos, the champion of Judaism, justice and morality.
"You alone have I known of all the families on earth", says the prophet, "therefore I will punish you for every one of your sins" (ibid 2:2)
The prophet's advice is clear; "Let justice roll on like an ever flowing river and righteousness like a mighty stream" (5: 24). This should be the mission of the Jewish people. Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks explains that Judaism's yearning for the Messiah signifies our dissatisfaction with the current state of the world and our ongoing protest against its injustices. President Shimon Peres calls this "dissatisfaction" our greatest gift to humanity. Jews must constantly labor to mend the world, making it a place of peace and justice.
A Holocaust survivor was recently interviewed about her experiences. She described being overwhelmed by the sight of a large Hebrew sign hanging over the gangway of the illegal immigrant ship that carried her to Palestine. Explaining its significance, she said, "Where I came from in Europe, the Hebrew language was only ever written in small letters, for the private consumption of Jews at prayer. For me, this sign signified a new era when our culture could be inscribed in bold Hebrew letters writ large for all to see." Her message, which I heard from Dr Gadi Taub at a conference organized by the Makom unit of the Jewish Agency, is beautiful. We must never cease marveling at the astonishing revival of our language, religion and culture in the State of Israel.
But now we must aim even higher. It's not enough merely to affirm the revival of the Hebrew language, we have to consider the messages we write with it. For if our government's messages promote unfairness and corruption, our language is blasphemous. But if we can rewrite the script as one of justice and loving kindness for everyone who lives here, then we will be a Jewish State worthy of the name.
Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and Director of the Rabbis for Human Rights Beit Midrash at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.