social responsibility

Written by  rabbi benjamin ehrenfeld

art-selmamarch“In a free society, some men are guilty and all men are responsible.”

These were words spoken by Abraham Joshua Heschel concerning his specifically religious protest of the American war in Vietnam during his 1972 interview with Carl Stern. Heschel is often known for his active involvement in political and social issues, most notably his support of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights movement more generally. In the same interview Heschel noted that his book, The Prophets, changed his life because his intensive encounter with the prophetic books pushed him out of his study and into the “affairs of men.”

It would be more than safe to say that American society is in a significant amount of social turmoil. It would be particularly short-sighted of me to claim our turmoil is “more extreme” than at other times in American history. Nevertheless, the degree of comparative severity does nothing to diminish the fact that the voices of religious concern for the wellbeing of the created world and its people need to be louder than they currently are if they are to overcome the cacophony of violence and hate. I am not convinced this is only because of sensationalist media looking to highlight religious violence (though this is a factor). Rather, I think the polarization in American politics has made many American religious individuals afraid to speak up on social issues lest they discover conservatives, liberals, libertarians, moderates, and socialists have all been breaking bread together in the same community for years.

There is not a single sphere of human life where God has neglected to demonstrate both his care as well as his expectation that we should care also. Whether as rulers (Gen 1:28) or custodians (Gen 2:15) we are responsible for this earth and we all are each other’s “keepers.” It is very hard to engage such issues in community without getting political, and getting political in community is fraught with complications. That said, I see no way for us to live up to our calling as followers of the God of Israel through Messiah Yeshua without bringing our internal work and learning of Torah, mitzvot, mussar, etc. to a world in desperate need of healing. Work on the middah of responsibility can inspire us to get involved in our local communities and towards justice in all spheres of life. With such work we may even begin to transcend our political ideologies and find common ground in the call of our Written, Oral, and Living Torah. So, as we all work toward taking the logs out of our own eyes, may we begin to see clearly enough to help our world out of its blinding darkness.

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