by Salvatore Caputo
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz holds that Jewish social justice work offers a bridge-building opportunity within the Jewish community and beyond, and that thinking is at the heart of his third book, The Soul of Jewish Social Justice, which was published May 1 by Jerusalem-based Urim Publications.
The book is a series of short discourses, articles that have appeared previously in a wide range of venues including the Jewish Forward, the Jewish Journal, Times of Israel, Ha’aretz and the Huffington Post, to name a few, and that address a wide range of issues from bullying in school to organ donation. Before he came to the Valley as director of Valley Beit Midrash, the rabbi was already known for Uri L’Tzedek, which he describes as “the first and only Orthodox social justice organization.”
“I think that the liberal denominations have done a great job for decades at promoting social justice, and the Orthodox community has done a great job at focusing on ritual and more parochial concerns,” he said. “The Orthodox community did not advance their social justice efforts at the same pace and rigor that the non-Orthodox communities did,” which exemplifies at least part of the polarization between the liberal and Orthodox streams.
Asked about a traditionalist critique that sees the liberal streams’ focus on tikkun olam as virtually supplanting theo-centric religious values, the rabbi told Jewish News, “The goal with this book and with this work is to lay the intellectual discourse on what it means to work to improve the world and to deepen the connection between Jewish texts and ritual with our local and global responsibilities. So I share the concern that the notion of tikkun olam has become deeply watered down and a trite saying that has lost a lot of meaning,” and feel that we need to bring a lot of rigor and depth back to Jewish social change work.”
In the book, he lays out the core issue: “How do our traditional Jewish ethics translate into contemporary Jewish social justice responsibilities?”
Uri L’Tzedek, he said, has succeeded “because there’s a great hunger [for social justice work] in the Orthodox community. As a pluralist, I think that it’s through activism and social action work that we can find some of our best unity, and it offers some of the best potential for bridge-building.”
On the local level, he said, “I’m very interested in helping to further the interfaith relationships to improve the welfare of our local community and in harnessing and supporting the work that’s being done in the Jewish community to help to support and protect the vulnerable.”
This review originally appeared on jewishaz.com