Off the Shelf: Social justice messages from Proverbs

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A new genre of biblical commentary has appeared over the past few years. Rather than doing a line-by-line discussion of the text, these commentators use the text as a starting point to explore contemporary moral and ethical problems. One recent example is “The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary” by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz (Reform Judaism Publishing/CCAR Press). That the press of the Reform Movement has published a social action work written by an Orthodox rabbi shows the exploration of ethical issues knows no Jewish boundaries. 

Yanklowitz notes that the biblical book of Proverbs is not a theological work – there is little mention of God – but rather a collection of human wisdom, even if some proverbs contradict others. The author writes that “it appears to have been written not for an intellectual elite, but as a moral guide for all people. It is not an exclusively ‘Jewish’ book, but speaks to universal concerns. It does not address the needs, interests, and challenges of a specific community, but rather seeks to provide guidance for an individual – any individual.” It is clear, though, that the individuals addressed were male.

Although the original Hebrew and an English translation are provided for the complete book of Proverbs, Yanklowitz does not comment on every verse. Instead, he picks a select few and writes an essay using those verses as a stepping stone to explore issues of social justice. For example, the verse “for learning wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of discernment” (Proverbs 1:2) is used as the basis for an essay titled “On Human Responsibility for a Moral World.” Yanklowitz believes that verse shows how “human growth is essentially a constant transformation, a transformation that affects people to the core of their being. To embrace transformation is to embrace human responsibility.” He sees that responsibility as “the foundation of morality.” One might say those sentences summarize the purpose behind his writing this book.

In his essays, Yanklowitz quotes ancient rabbinic sources, Chasidic masters, medieval commentators and contemporary authors. For him, it is important to not just reference traditional material for he sees revelation as ongoing: “It is a constant process. This can be experienced observing our scientific progress, intellectual developments, new spiritual understandings, and the shift of our social paradigms.” The author notes this is not a new idea: he writes of a midrash that states “there were parts of the Torah that were not revealed to Moses but that were revealed to Rabbi Akiva over a millennium later.” Whether or not readers subscribe to his thesis, Yanklowitz offers a great deal of wisdom and thought-provoking ideas in his essays, even if at times he strays from the plain meaning of the verse.

When discussing Proverbs 6:6-8 about how a “lazybones” should observe an ant to learn its ways, Yanklowitz writes how we must use our conscious when making a decision, rather than blindly following a rabbi or scholar. He notes that the ancient rabbis resolved moral and ethical dilemmas by deciding what was the just thing to do, rather than always following Torah law. The author also warns readers against thinking of anyone as infallible: in addition to this not being the rabbinical path, he feels we should not depend on someone else to tell us how to live our personal lives. This includes when “to lease a car, take a new job, or join a new educational program. We need not believe that any authority knows the will of God regarding our personal lives outside the synagogue better than we do ourselves.” 

Yanklowitz uses the verses “for the commandment is a lamp,/ The teaching is a light... (Proverbs 6:23) as a way to discuss a mistake he believes is made by many Jews: that of focusing on only one aspect of Judaism. He believes that people should include all aspects of the religion in their lives – that the reason Judaism has survived over the centuries is due to the complete “Jewish system”: “the social, spiritual, communal, ethical, and intellectual elements and general infrastructure that allow for our ‘family’ to survive. The Torah is the light; the mitzvot are our lamp; our deeds are our way of spreading Jewish wisdom through peace and radical love.” 

Some of Yanklowitz’ writing is beautiful and stands on its own. A few examples are: 

  • “In our defeats, we can experience divine tears. In our triumphs, we sense divine participation. In striving for equality, peace, and justice, we can feel the quiet voice of God urging us forward. Let us listen intently to determine the most intimate path of wisdom.”
  • “All of us are short-term visitors to this world, charged with the task of leaving the universe more whole and less broken than we received it.”
  • “Part and parcel of embracing humanity as it is, is the realization that we suffice in spite of our imperfections. We are imperfect and also perfect. We are broken and also whole. We are lonely individuals and yet interdependent and in community. We live in scarcity but also, hopefully, have everything we need.”
  • “Consider this mind-clearing fact: A person who lives to be eighty years old will take about 672,768,000 breaths in a lifetime. The shofar only makes its sound if someone blows their precious breath into it. So, too, our soul prays only if we allow God to breathe through us. The divine breath breathes through you like a divine shofar.”

As noted, “The Book of Proverbs” doesn’t discuss all aspects of each chapter; there are some obvious omissions. For example, there is no essay discussing the book’s treatment of women, including the proverbs about adultery, or how women can lead men astray, although there are two essays focusing on verses from the Woman of Valor poem. Yanklowitz, however, makes no claim to cover all the material. Rather, his purpose is to offer lessons from Proverbs and inspire his readers to forge their own path, one that includes creating a more just society.