Social justice is to religion what love is to family. One is the institution; the other is a quality that makes the institution worthwhile
How fitting it is that the Haftarah selection for Yom Kippur morning is Isaiah 58. The focus on the “inner work” of Teshuva, important as it is, can easily lead the congregant into a mindset that Judaism is primarily about personal transformation. Along comes one of the most powerful passages in all the Torah, reminding us that without a commitment to social justice, religions don’t work.
It is precisely because of the rise of religious extremism, violence and intolerance in the world today that we must reclaim the value of religion. This requires us to understand the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. Righteousness is when we act towards others in a spirit of tolerance, justice and compassion.
Self-righteousness is when we come to be convinced that our own religion, lifestyle or philosophy of living is superior to alternate paths. When we cross the line between righteousness and self-righteousness, we find ourselves in territory that leads to prejudice, hatred and death.
In a similar way, there is good religion and bad religion. Bad religion is triumphant. It confuses ends and means. It places doctrines over people. It accepts injustice as a divinely-ordained condition, beyond the ability of humanity to affect. It breeds self-righteousness.
Good religion recognises that there are many equally valid paths to God. It puts a premium on acts of kindness and compassion for others. It is based on the belief that every person is made in the image of God. Good religion promotes the belief that a human being’s duty is to repair a broken world. In the Jewish tradition, we call this concept tikkun olam.
Every religion has elements of good religion and bad. Ironically, when our loyalty to our own religion blinds us to the truth and wisdom of another’s tradition, we go down the road that has given religion a bad name. This is why it is so easy to hate religion, and why so many dismiss it. This is also why so many have overlooked the possibilities that religion offers to create a reality more just, compassionate and peaceful world than that in which we currently find ourselves.
Life is a journey through a wilderness filled with much pain and suffering, injustice and inequality. Religion has the power to move us toward the messianic future. It is no coincidence that many of the most important movements for justice in the world have rallied around religious personalities whose leadership was deeply rooted in their respective faith traditions.
Mahatma Ghandi used Hindu teachings to rally Indians against an unjust British occupation of their land. Dietrich Bonhoeffer used Protestant theology to articulate Christian opposition to Adolf Hitler. Dr Martin Luther King Jr was a minister who used his pulpit to stir the conscience of America against the evils of racism. Desmond Tutu invoked Christian teachings about forgiveness and reconciliation to keep South Africa from plunging into a cycle of violent revenge after it succeeded in ridding itself of the white minority apartheid government. Elie Wiesel went from being a chronicler of the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust to an international voice of conscience in the world, speaking on behalf of people experiencing oppression in every corner of the globe.
What has given these individuals, what might give us, the strength to be, in the words of Martin Luther King, “drum majors for justice,” in a world filled with poverty, oppression and selfishness? Good religion gives people just such strength. Persons of faith believe that good can triumph over evil despite the injustice that they see in the world and a way to make that belief true.
Social justice is to religion what love is to family. One is the institution; the other is a quality that makes the institution worthwhile. Just as a family without love is dysfunctional, so is a religion dysfunctional when it does not teach and manifest a deep commitment to social justice.
Isaiah 58 minces no words. It is a warning that religions—if they are to “work”- must balance the way they can inspire personal transformation with the never-ending task of advancing social transformation as well. While the former might be effectively advanced in the sanctuary, the latter calls upon Jews to leave the quiet of the sanctuary and enter the public square where we need to be God’s agents to ally with the most vulnerable among us.