Social justice is more than a footnote in the Torah. It’s a central theme, argues Little Rock Rabbi Barry Block.
The code of holiness in Leviticus requires more than sacrifices and the keeping of the Sabbath; it discusses fair labor practices, care for the elderly and helping the poor, observes Block in the introduction to âSocial Justice Commentary on the Torahâ.
âThe message is clear: Israel serves God no less by pursuing social justice than by worshiping properly,â he adds.
The new Torah commentary, edited by Block, was recently released by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which describes itself as “the oldest and largest rabbinical organization in North America.”
Block is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel, which he has led since 2013.
In Hebrew, Torah means teaching, instruction or law. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible are also called Torah.
Following long-standing practice, the commentary divides these books into 54 passages – one for each full week of a Jewish leap year. The commentary on each parasha (from Hebrew for “part”) touches on a topic of social justice, ranging from voting rights and remedies for slavery to reproductive choice and mass incarceration.
Some temple enthusiasts would prefer to avoid hot topics.
âPeople say, ‘Rabbi, we want you to teach Torah, not politics. We want you to preach on Torah, not politics. ‘ As if they were different or entirely separate things, “Block said at a book launch event co-sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Reform Judaism Religious Action Center.
But the Torah contains God’s commandments for “how to organize a society, how people are to live in community with one another, how we care for the most vulnerable among us and those who might lack a voice if we do not. ‘let’s not amplify their voices, “Block says.
The teachings of the Torah, Block maintains, remain relevant today, for those seeking to build a more just, peaceful and compassionate society.
Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, agrees.
âAs Jews we believe it is our job to make the world a better place and a book like this that brings Torah and social justice together helps us create a road map,â she said. when launching the book.
Block did “a magnificent job” of bringing together a wide variety of rabbis to write the chapters, Person said.
The completed commentary is “an incredible resource,” she said.
“This book connects the theoretical to the everyday and helps us find our way to the highest aspirations of Jewish values,” she added.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Reform Judaism Religious Action Center, called Block a “remarkable editor.”
âI believe this commentary, this Torah commentary, is one of the most important publications of this generation,â he said.
By distilling a theme of social justice from each part, the commentary provides a weekly overview for rabbis and others.
The scriptures, written on scrolls, are revered and read.
âThe Jews in the synagogue life read the Torah, the five books of Moses, in an annual cycle every year, then on a holiday that we call Simhat Torah, in the fall we roll it back and start over again. same night. We always teach and believe that there is always something new to be learned from the old text, âBlock said.
Complete all 54 parts and you will have read the entire Torah.
âIn an Orthodox synagogue, they were reading the whole part aloud on a Shabbat morning. We usually pick a few verses to read, but we always pick them in this part for this week, âBlock said.
In the commentary, Block’s part is Leviticus 19: 1-20: 27, but he focuses on Leviticus 19: 9-10, which states:
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you will not fully reap the corner of your field, neither will you reap the gleaning of your harvest. And you will not glean your vineyard, and you will not reap the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.
âIn ancient Israel,â Block writes, âproviding for the poor was not optional.
Today, most Jews are not farmers, but they still have a moral obligation to help the poor, he argues.
âPaying taxes is one way of fulfilling this commandment today,â he adds.
âWhen we pay for SNAP, the food stamp program that provides subsistence nutritional assistance, mainly to the working poor, we leave the corner of our field,â he wrote, citing it as an example.
Helping the poor is not an option, he emphasizes.
“It is a mitzvah, a religious obligation imposed on every Jew,” he wrote.
Asked about the passage, Block said, âWe are required to set aside a corner of our products – in other words, a portion of our income – to meet the needs of those who do not have these fields, who don’t have the advantages that the rest of us have. “
Block said he enjoyed working with dozens of fellow rabbis to create the Commentary.
âPart of what I’m so happy about the book is its diversity. Not only the diversity of authors, but the diversity of positions [they take],” he said.
Several chapters deal with racial justice.
One of the chapters of the commentary focuses on “The ‘Original Sin’ of Slavery. Another is called “Lynching: justice and the idolatrous tree”.
A third chapter deals with Confederate statues while another discusses the possibility of reparations for the descendants of enslaved blacks.
“Jews understand the power of reparations,” writes Judith Schindler, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina, noting that Germany had paid reparations to some of its victims after World War II.
Prior to the opening of âThe Social Justice Torah Commentary,â Block recognizes racism and oppression in his own family tree.
While completing work on the project, he was passed on a page from the 1860 Louisiana Slave Census, “real evidence to me that an ancestor – in this case my great-great-great-great -mother, Magdalena Seeleman – was a slaveholder, “he writes.
Block, who supports the repairs, dedicated the book to the memory of the black woman her ancestor once possessed.