Act Kindly (Demand Justice)
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein
The first time I led a seder was my sophomore year in college. There were nine of us in Perkins Hall, three Jews and six Catholics. I was so proud of my charoset and matzah balls. I borrowed haggadot from Hillel and confidently led us through the readings. But when we started the part after the meal, I stopped in confusion. “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You…for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation?” What was this? I had never noticed it before. It made me intensely uncomfortable. How did it square away with my favorite midrash, recounted when we diminish the wine in our cups for the Ten Plagues, about the ministering angels bursting into song at the Sea of Reeds and God rebuking them, saying, “My children are dead on the shores of the Sea and you want to sing?”
We speak a lot about the experience of interconnectedness and how spiritual practice helps us cultivate greater capacity for forgiveness and compassion. We often see this as a corrective towards the judgmentalism, which, while not being a uniquely Jewish trait, is certainly honed to an art form in many Jewish circles. Many of us have experienced how painful that judgment can be and strive to be gentler with ourselves and others. We seek a kindness in response to suffering, not vengeance. It is inspiring to read of God’s grieving for the dead Egyptians, even though they were the instigators of our slavery and our oppression.
But judgment is also a Divine attribute. The balance to chesed, or loving-kindness, is din, judgment. Judgment is necessary for justice to flourish. Cruelty should have consequences, not just for the victim, but for the perpetrator as well. The cry at the end of the haggadah is a cri de coeur: “We are still living under oppression! We need justice!” Many of us who know firsthand what it is like to be terrorized by another understand the righteousness of this plea.
It is a paradox. And yet, it seems to me that the spiritually grounded goal might be to develop the ability to demand justice while still remaining connected to the essential truth: that at our core, we are indeed all God’s children. Even those people we despise, even those we are scared of, even those we distain. On some fundamental level, we are not separate from them. It doesn’t mean that we have to acquiesce to them. But it means that we might try to see the me’at tov, the little bit of goodness in them that is a reflection of Divine goodness.
It’s a tall order. But perhaps if we were to catch glimpses of that truth, it might lead to the true liberation we all desire.
“Equitable Justice”: Uniting Shekhinah and the Blessed Holy One
Rabbi Jonathan Slater
“Judges and officials you are to provide for yourselves, within all your gates (she’arekha) that YHVH your God is giving you, for your tribal districts; they are to judge the people with equitable justice (mishpat tzedek)” (Deut. 16:18).
The Hebrew bible is filled with the call for justice, for righteousness and for equity. The terms justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tzedek, or tzedakah) are paired regularly, one term preceding the other and vice versa. In the Zohar mishpat is associated with the sephirah of Tiferet, the blessed Holy One. Justice is what emerges when din and chesed, strict justice and love, are balanced. Mishpat is the moment when they are in the scale and weighed appropriately. This is the place of Tiferet (also rachamim, compassion), balancing din and chesed. This is also the place of emet, Truth.
In the Zohar Tzedek is identified with Shekhinah. This sephirah is aligned with the left side, the feminine, and so with judgment and rigor. Alone, when distant from her partner and lover, Shekhinah is diminished, and her capacity to transmit the flow of blessing from above restricted. Our attention to tzedek, to righteousness, to Shekhinah, can delight her, expanding and raising her. She is thus transformed to Tzedakah, righteousness filled with love. As Tzedakah, she is united with Mishpat, with the blessed Holy One, and all is balanced and the flow of blessing unimpeded.
Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev warns us to provide ourselves with judges and officials at all of our “gates”: the sense gates of eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Guarding these “gates” we may more likely avoid judging others harshly, and so raise Tzedek to Mishpat. Not only will others be blessed, but we will also, in turn. These “gates” may also be the way we evaluate ourselves (sha’ar has the connotation of evaluation as well). When we judge ourselves too harshly, we tend to judge others harshly in turn. Placing judges and officials there – neutral officiants – we may see ourselves (and so others) more clearly. Again, we can unite Shekhinah and the blessed Holy One, bringing blessing to the world.
Clearly, since the time of the bible (and so, in a sense, the beginning of time) the world has required those who would seek justice, who would fight injustice – tzedek and mishpat. Our day may seem more in need than others. As we set out to protest, to march for equality and equity, to petition our government to do rightly by the people, we might keep in mind R. Levi Yitzkah’s teaching: if we focus solely on “justice/Mishpat” we will address only half of the matter. If we are too forceful in seeking righteousness/Tzedek we will increase limitation and judgment. Softening our own hearts to see the divine in all others – even in our “opponents” – we may then also soften Tzedek to become Tzedakah, to unite Shekhinah and the blessed Holy One, and bring greater blessing to the world.
Yes, I am Mindful of Their Pain: Guided Meditation for Compassionate Social Justice Work
Rabbi Sam Feinsmith
The overwhelming nature of tikkun olam and social justice work can make us harden our hearts to avoid feeling vulnerable, approaching our work from a place of anger, frustration, and pain can lead to burnout, exhaustion, and more suffering. In this teaching, Sam offers a meditation for approaching this work from a place of compassion towards ourselves and those who have been marginalized and harmed rather than a place of anger toward those who have done the hurting. When we ground social justice in compassion and open-heartedness, we pave the way towards work that is transformative, meaningful, and sustainable.
Jewish Mindfulness and Social Justice
What is a social justice niggun? Any niggun is a social justice niggun! What is a mindfulness niggun? Any niggun is a mindfulness niggun! Judaism, social justice, mindfulness are not separate things — they are ways we live our lives, and they can be woven together into a seamless whole.
Mindfulness aids social justice in much the same way that it aids all of life. Because social justice — or social change, or activism, or organizing, or advocacy, or any of the other terms for the ways we engage with the social systems that shape so much of our world — is not, or should not be — something separate from the rest of life: merely a job, merely a volunteer activity, or merely something that we happen to be interested in or not interested in. It is not separate from life. It can be seen instead as the way we respond to the experience of living in a broken world. And to respond compassionately and responsibly to a broken world, we need open and alert hearts and minds.
Mindfulness practice supports our efforts to create social and ecological healing in a number of ways: It strengthens our ability to open up to and witness suffering instead of turning away from it. It helps us to not be so swept away in the suffering we witness that we respond unwisely, up to and including even creating more suffering.
[These are both made possible by the same core practice of mindfulness: noticing the arising of different mind states and emotional states and experiencing their ephemerality.]
It gives us the ability to sustain our efforts over the long-haul, including patience. So that when one effort fails, or doesn’t produce results as quickly or in as great a measure, we are not overtaken by discouragement, but merely return to the core practice of hopeful engagement, just as we return to the breath in our sitting meditation, or take the next step in our walking meditation. It gives us greater clarity with which to see the problems before us and with which to choose our actions. And it supports our fundamental stance of hopefulness, the attitude that encourages us to act rather than not to act.
Transformation, One Observation at a Time: Mindfulness and Social Justice
When I think about mindfulness and social justice, the first thing that comes up is the quote by Gandhi:
Be the change you want to see in the world.
Implicit in Gandhi’s words is that for real change to happen, we must embody it. It’s not only what I am doing (ie campaign organizing, advocacy, etc.) but how I am doing it that matters.
I realized this many years ago, when I was working as the Director of Social Justice at B’nai Jeshurun in NYC, a large synagogue with a powerful social justice mandate. From an external perspective, I was doing incredible work. We had launched a community organizing initiative, six new organizing campaigns, and just held an accountability session for the Speaker of the City Council to push him to support a health care bill for 14,000 low income workers in NYC. 600 people attended. It was a total success.
But inside, I was burnt out, cynical, tired, and confused. I had no balance in my life, I had no boundaries. My heart was broken. Within the year, I left the organization in the middle of an existential crisis. I did not think that I could do social justice work any longer.
The interesting thing was that I had a meditation practice—I meditated several times/week. I thought I was doing the right things to “be the change”, but it wasn’t working.
I became very curious about the question of how: how do you become the change you want to see in the world?