If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?”
These words of Hillel, the first-century Jewish sage and contemporary of Jesus, have a peculiarly modern ring. The third question has an urgency appropriate to so many crises we face today—climate change, the expanding gap between rich and poor, authoritarian challenges to democracy. There is a growing sense that if we do not deal with these crises now, it might soon be too late. “If not now, when?” has been taken up by Jewish progressives as a motto, a call to reaffirm the Jewish commitment to social justice with a sense of urgency.
The vast Jewish cultural heritage, from the Bible and the Talmud to contemporary Jewish thinkers and philosophers and the lived experience of Jews as a marginalized minority, is filled with a yearning for justice.
The Hebrew prophets railed against the mistreatment of the weak and the vulnerable and have inspired both Jews and non-Jews to champion the cause of the oppressed. A passage from the Book of Isaiah, interestingly read in synagogues during the Yom Kippur fast, condemns fasting in the absence of justice as mere piety. What is required is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the vulnerable.
There are striking examples of arguing with God about issues of justice in the Hebrew Bible. When God prepares to destroy Sodom, Abraham argues that it would be wrong to destroy the righteous with the wicked. In an almost comic exchange, Abraham gets God to agree not to destroy the city if 50 righteous people are found, and ultimately argues him down to just ten.
Of course, concern for the poor and solidarity with the oppressed are not uniquely Jewish values. As the 20th century Jewish philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz pointed out, there are no specifically Jewish ethics and morals, just universal ones expressed in different cultural accents.
The Christian abolitionists who sought to end slavery were inspired by the Hebrew prophets, but also by the New Testament and other Christian writings, even as the slave holders, who read the same prophets, quoted the Bible to justify it. The American civil rights leader Martin Luther King drew inspiration from the Hebrew prophets, but also from the Gospels and black radicalism.
The Torah repeatedly admonishes the Hebrews freed from slavery in Egypt not to oppress the stranger, “because you know the heart of the stranger, having been strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt.”
East European Jewish immigrants to North America brought with them a political radicalism forged in their fight against oppression that inclined many of them to participate in the struggles for workers' rights and racial equality. Some Jewish victims of the Holocaust took up the slogan “Never again for anybody.” Hedy Epstein, a Jewish American human rights activist said that her experience as a Holocaust survivor was the major influence on her passionate commitment to human rights.
Martin Luther King eloquently invoked the common interests of African Americans and Jews:
“My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make the oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”
In 1964 some 700 mostly white volunteers went to Mississippi to register black voters and monitor intimidation at the polls. Half of them were young Jews.
We need to revive this spirit, and indeed, if not now, when?
Alan Rutkowski is active in the Victoria Jewish Culture Project and is a founding member of the Victoria Jewish dialogue group, If Not Now, When? He has contributed articles to the online edition of the American journal Jewish Currents.
You can read more articles on out interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE: https://www.timescolonist.com/blogs/spiritually-speaking
* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, August 6th 2022