Whenever a rabbi speaks about social issues, the response of the community tends to be, “It was striking how much you spoke about politics.” From my understanding, politics concerns activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power. I sense that people believe that religious leaders are meant to speak about matters of “religion”, that is, those things that for many concern how one uses ritual to relate to the ineffable. However, that is not, and never has been what Judaism, the faith path of our people is about. Especially in this season, when we read stirring prophecies from Isaiah that distil the values of the extensive speeches of Moses that comprise the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), we understand that the prime concern of Judaism is that which we call the social weal, or communal well being.
Moses begins the words of this week’s Parasha, Eikev, with the exhortation that “if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your fathers. The Parasha will close with a parallel teaching that has become known as “the second paragraph of the Shema”, a teaching that we are meant to recite every evening and every morning, a teaching that is found on the scroll inside our mezuzot and tefillin, so that when we look upon these objects we are reminded of our role as a covenantal people. As one reads the details of the covenant, which the Torah first records and that are further explicated in the thousands of years of our teaching tradition, one realises that there is a blend of obligations incumbent upon us — some ritual, some relational and social. As our prophetic tradition teaches, the performance of ritual without ethical is meaningless, for the relationship we have with that which we call God is judged first and foremost by our treatment of that which shares life with us: our respect for the environment, our treatment of animals, our care for other human beings, especially those less materially privileged.
Speaking in support of those who are marginalized or unprotected in society follows in the Torah tradition of each one of us is created in the “divine image”, that we should love the other as we love ourselves, and that our particular obligation as Jews who escaped oppression in Egypt is to provide for the stranger and oppressed. Indeed, each of these issues will play out in the political arena as society attempts to find solutions to these failures of humanity. To remember with great grief the murders of Ali Dawabsha and Shira Banki this last week in Israel is to remember our covenantal commitment to right the wrongs of society. The religious voice compels us to speak out about these issues from the core of what it means to be fully human, as conscious and caring as possible. We can all learn from each other in these matters, including hearkening to the words of our tradition, calling us to be a faith people, teaching us he sacredness of all life.