Off the Shelf: Looking at the Torah through the eyes of social justice

When writing a card congratulating 13-year-olds on their b’nai mitzvah, the note usually includes the words “wishing you well on your continuing Jewish journey.” That’s because learning – particularly Torah study – is part of a never-ending journey. Numerous books focus on different aspect of biblical verses and search for new ways to understand the text. The latest work in my continuing Torah journey is “The Social Justice Torah Commentary” edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block (CCAR Press). Block sees it as a companion to his 2020 book “The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life.” ( See the previous article.) In his latest collection, the writers teach lessons about social justice they’ve learned from the Torah text. 

As Block notes in his introduction, this work is “not meant to be all-inclusive of the social justice challenges facing the world today”: instead, “each author or pair of authors was asked to plumb a specific parasha (weekly Torah portion) and to derive a social justice argument from that process.” The writers focus on the United States and Israel, and look at such contemporary issues as racism, women’s rights, voting rights, disability, climate change, reproductive choice, religious freedom and immigration, to note a few. 

Although a few writers were not successful in offering a connection between the parasha and their social justice issue, most offered surprising and absorbing ways to understand their Torah portions. For example, Rabbi A. Brian Stoller’s “Unconscious Racial Bias and the Curse of Japeth” about parashat Noah offers a personal look, focusing on the writer’s Southern family and how his great-grandmother treated her Black butler and housekeeper. He now recognizes he was shaped by attitudes that were racist: “Painful as it is, I have to admit that I grew up with the assumptions that Black people tended to work for white people and came when you rang, that their neighborhoods were scary because the people there were scary, and that many of them needed the paternalistic hand of white people to get a leg up in life.” Stoller writes that no one taught him these rules: “In fact, my parents raised me to treat all people equally and kindly, no matter what color they were.” However, he absorbed the assumptions offered by the larger culture without giving them thought until he was an adult.

When looking at Vaera, Rabbi Lauren Tuchman discusses “Moses, Internalized Oppression and Disability.” Her focus is on Moses’ feelings of inadequacy and how those feelings affected his ability to lead the Israelites. She notes that “God must assure Moses twice that he is truly fit to lead and that a reasonable accommodation is not a burden but simply needed.” As “the only blind woman ordained to the rabbinate,” she shows the importance of not internalizing the way society tries to marginalize those with disabilities. 

Block offers his view of Kedoshim in “What We Leave for the Poor.” He notes that we are required by God to help the poor: this is a given – a commandment – not a choice. Allowing the poor to harvest their fields meant less profit for the farmer, but, as Block writes, “the mitzvah is not fulfilled when charity does not cost us anything.” The fact that the poor were required to gather the harvest themselves also helps them “retain their dignity...earning the produce by harvesting it.” 

God’s commandment telling Moses to take a census of the Israelites sparks an intriguing look at identity in Ilana Kaufman’s look at Bamidbar, “Counting Justly: Lifting Up Every Head.” She discusses the narrow ways contemporary censuses catagorize people, offering simple choices for many who have complex identities. Racial choices such as white, Black, Hispanic, etc. do not take into consideration their family histories. Also emphasized is the need for the Jewish community to make certain that it counts its Jews of Color and offers them full membership.

“The Rights and Duties of Citizenship” is Rabbi Seth M. Limmer’s focus when writing about parashat Shelach Lecha. He notes that “in Judaism, the needs of the whole take precedence over the rights of the individual.” This, however, clashes with American culture, with citizens debating personal freedom versus communal obligations. Limmer shows how Judaism requires us to offer the same protections to all members of our society – citizen or “stranger.” As he notes, “Since there is one Torah for citizen and stranger, we uphold a Jewish obligation to extend to noncitizens freedom from want and harm, the privileges citizens enjoy.”

The essays in “The Social Justice Torah Commentary” were consistently well done and thought-provoking. The book is perfect for those looking for exciting and interesting new ways to view the Torah text. It also makes an excellent companion piece to “The Mussar Torah Commentary”: readers can work on improving themselves, while learning how to make the world a more just and ethical place.