‘Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ Amos 5:24
There is something profoundly stirring about these words from the prophet Amos. They have a place in the liturgy of Siddur Lev Chadash and remind me of the centrality of Prophetic Judaism to the pioneers of the Liberal movement in Britain, going back at least as far as Rabbi Israel Mattuck, the first rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. One of several possible Haftarot quoted in the Liberal Judaism lectionary, Amos may well sum up the spirit of this week’s parashah, while leaving the detail to the Torah itself.
As the modern inheritors of the Torah text, a summary could serve a useful purpose, as the detail often needs explaining, and sometimes even ‘explaining away’. There is the verse in Mishpatim – ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’, used to justify the judicial murder of countless women in seventeenth century England, to name only one instance, and which surely brings God and religion into disrepute. Then there is Lex Talionis, the law of an ‘eye for an eye’, perhaps the most misunderstood concept in the entire Torah, and actually a limitation on retribution and interpreted in terms of monetary compensation by the Rabbis. Amid the lengthy and mundane legislation, which is needed, admittedly, to make concrete some general ethical principles, are reminders to treat the stranger with an empathy borne of historical experience and the injunction to assist an enemy in raising his burden, which may, in turn, revolutionise that relationship. The parashah is a full one, indeed, and it will be interesting to see where rabbis turn their attention this week. And yet, it may still be Amos who inspires us the most with his words and imagery, especially coming in the wake of some dire warnings to those who will not seek the Eternal One!
I was reminded of the power of Liberal Judaism to capture the imagination, as it first caught my own, during a Friday-night conversation around a dinner table in Haifa last week. I am currently spending a semester in Israel as part of the rabbinic programme at Leo Baeck College and was at the home of Rabbi Golan Ben Chorin, who co-ordinates things on the ground here. I was speaking to a young American student studying at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. From a modern Orthodox background, he knew little of Progressive Judaism in Britain, and was particularly interested in learning more about the three ‘M’s of the Liberal movement: Mattuck, Claude Montefiore and Lily Montagu. He was genuinely excited by their ideas, courage and innovations and fully intended to find out more. His intention mirrors my own – to find out more. The purpose of the Israel semester, which now takes place in Haifa rather than Jerusalem, to allow for a more realistic experience of the country, is to engender a relationship between the student and the state, or at least its people, culture and principal language. The hope is that we will return with a far greater degree of knowledge and understanding, especially about the challenges which Israel faces, which can then be put to use in a Jewish context and beyond.
In connecting Israel with the parashah and the prophetic reading from Amos, the obvious, if somewhat pessimistic step, would be to seek the injustice. Indeed, some of my time will be spent exploring issues of social justice, or the lack of it, as well as inter-communal tensions. For example, I will be attending a seminar day at the end of February run by Rabbis for Human Rights. However, having been in Israel now for a little over two and a half weeks, and having seen quite a lot of Haifa and its surrounds, I can only quote instances of just behaviour and kindness. If Israel is an extraordinary country, which even its opponents are likely to concede, everyday life makes for a degree of normality and Haifa feels like a very normal city. In an Israeli context, it may be unique, in that the population is mixed and that relations between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis seem generally good. It may also be that the cracks are hidden at first to the newcomer, so I will have to see. However, I could quote a succession of examples which may show that it is the small things that make a difference.
Fighting injustice on a macro level is a religious imperative and there are always opportunities to ‘pray with our feet’, to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously marched with Dr Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights era in the United States. This is one way to further justice, but there is another, in which every moment, every encounter, has the potential to be sanctified, the repercussions of which we cannot know. We may notice them and appreciate them if we are attuned, and we can emulate them: the visually-impaired runner being guided by his sighted companion on the Carmel beach front; the Ulpan teacher handing out pieces of chocolate to stressed students during an exam; the Druze restaurateur who entered into conversation with us and then offered to waive the bill; the spontaneous invitations made to this stranger in the city; offers of help and assistance at every turn. The prophet, Micah, in a verse perhaps even more beloved than that of Amos within Liberal Judaism, links the quality of justice with those of mercy and humility.
And what does the Eternal One require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
How can we further justice in the world? In our every action and interaction; with kindness and gentleness; by remembering our own vulnerability when we deal with others; even by helping our enemy in lifting her burden. Amos’ river rolls on, perhaps even in a powerful torrent, but his stream flows more gently. And both can change the landscape profoundly.
Student Rabbi Nathan Godleman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.