Judaism and Social Action I

This is an email response to a friend of mine:

I enjoyed your essay. There’s a lot there that makes sense. I think you’re right about the importance of “separation” and binary opposition. Have you read the work of the structural anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, on this general subject? He bases his theory primarily on the work of structural linguistics and its application in the study of kinship patterns. The anthropologist, Mary Douglas, has a lot to say as well (particularly in her book, “Purity and Danger”). Most recently, Saul Olyan has written a book that you might find interesting and relevant: “Rites and Rank: Hiearchy in Biblical Representations of Cult” (Princeton, 2000). I have not seen or read it, but he apparently deals with these issues in detail.

On the issue of polarity in Christianity, you definitely make a good point about the centrality of evil, the consequent concern for preventing it, and the resultant tragedies that have occured. Yet, it is also true that Christianity is fundamentally different from Zoroastrian religion in at least one respect. Christianity does not posit an equal force of evil (the devil) in the universe that is on a par with God (good). Gnostics, Mandaeans, and even some Jews (Elisha ben Abuya) may have done this, but not the mainstream Christian tradition as it has come down. Original sin is a human creation (Adam and Eve), not directly part of the original creation of God. So Christian views of evil are actually rather complex.

At the same time, Judaism was certainly influenced by Zoroastrian religion. The notions of an afterlife, physical resurrection, and paradise may all have part of their origin in Zorastrianism. And the Christian idea of a “devil” figure comes from Judaism! Satan occurs in Job, and in later intertestamental Jewish texts, Satan appears as an opponent of God. Many Jews have had, and continue to have, a preoccupation with evil forces in the universe. Evil is not an exclusively Christian concern, though I think you’re right that Christians may emphasize it somewhat more than Jews, especially as an abstract concept or force in the universe. You’re also right that Christians tend to place evil outside of ourselves and the world than have Jews. And your point about entropy and original sin is excellent.

Yet, I do believe that we Jews have had our own preoccupations as well and that this has led to our own process of externalization: unclean and clean, pure and impure, especially. While traditional Judaism has not posited “sin” as an outside force, we have tried to keep “impurity” and “uncleanliness” outside of our environments. Some have gone to great lengths to achieve this. Judaism has tended to envision these disturbing elements not in theological terms, but rather in ritual terms.

As for “gemilut hasadim,” I think “acts of mercy” or “acts of compassion” is a translation that does not quite catch the depth of this phrase. “Rahamim” usually translates “mercy,” and that’s what most translators have used. “Hesed” can mean “kindness, “love,” “affection,” “piety,” and more. “ahabah” refers to the concept of love, particularly between human beings (whether that of friendship or family). It’s a very common word in Hebrew. “Lovingkindness” is an English attempt at trying to convey two of the connotations of “hesed”: “love and “kindness.” I think “hesed” includes the quality of humaneness associated with the Yiddish word (from German) for a real human being, “Mensch”: Somebody who goes above and beyond their apparent obligations to take the pain, suffering (and joy!) of others into their hearts. It is a concern for others that includes an awareness of our fundamental connectedness to one another.

The noun, “gemilut,” comes from the Hebrew verb, “gamal”: “to do good/evil,” “to reward,” “repay,” “ripen,” “wean.” “Gemilut” is not used in the Bible, however, and we are not certain of its original meaning. It is my hunch that “gemilut” conveys a sense of “ACTION,” EDUCATION (broadly speaking), and also of “MORAL OBLIGATION`.” So “gemilut hasadim” is a moral imperative to love your neighbors, helping them when they need it and sharing in their joy: clothing the naked, feeding the starving, healing the sick, comforting the bereaved and the depressed, celebrating weddings, rejoicing in other’s successes, adding positive energy to the world. It’s that force of goodness in the world that maintains our existence, as Simeon the Righteous implied when he said, “On three things, the world stands: the Torah, worship, and acts of lovingkindness.”

So “gemilut hasadim” definitely calls us to act on behalf of others, including social action. As to the specifics of “sweatshops,” you have made some very good points. This is not an easy issue. Even so, I think, for example, we have an obligation to stand up for what we believe. If we believe that it is inappropriate and immoral for children to work full-time for low pay at factories which produce our clothing, we have an obligation to say so and work toward another means of production. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, industrialists and free market theorists offered the same arguments when they faced popular opposition to child labor. Yet, though the content of the arguments had changed, the assumptions have remained more or less the same since antiquity: cheap labor allows the production of more goods at a lower cost and greater profit.

But we decided to pursue another course, eventually resulting in a system of compulsory education for children. In fact, this gave us the skilled labor that allowed us to create the powerful economic engines characteristic of Western nations. I think we have the obligation to encourage other countries to take a similar course–to use the incentives at our disposal in order to produce more just societies. Do we want societies riven by the division of the population into small wealthy classes and large poor classes? I don’t think so. What threatens our national security? I believe it is no longer large armies, but rather unstable nations, much of whose populations live in poverty, illiteracy, poor health, and consequent despair. This produces terrorism, jingoistic nationalism, mass emigrations, environmental disasters, population explosions, drug economies, antagonism to the U.S. and the West, etc. It’s not just a moral or economic issue, but one of national security. By discouraging child labor and by encouraging education, we have the chance to see the formation of nations with dynamic middle classes and more powerful economies. In other words, we will have a more productive and safer world. At least, I hope so.

I’m by no means an expert on this, but it seems to me that the moral call to social action and economics actually conspired to create what we have now. Does it always work out this way? No. Do good intentions sometimes lead to bad results? Yes. Can bad intentions actually at times produce good results? Yes. Can good people disagree about a moral course of action? Of course. In fact, the discussion itself may produce an awareness and a plan of action that would not have otherwise existed.

I believe, however, that “Gemilut hasadim” does call us to take action on behalf of others, including those we don’t even know in parts of the world we may never have visited. We may make mistakes, but that does not mean we should avoid putting ourselves in the world. Not to do so is (in my opinion) an error and misses the thrust of “gemilut hasadim.”

Thank you for thinking about these issues so deeply. Your essay should help us all. I know it’s helped me. I think you’re absolutely right about God and the holocaust. We spend too much time thinking about God’s intentions and not enough looking at our own actions and foibles. Also, I had never thought about entropy in such positive terms as you put it. You really changed my view there Perhaps entropy is a gift that God has given us. Hmm . . .


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