Faith communities, when they work, are places that get people to focus on ethical values that encourage greater kindness and generosity, one for the other.

About 15 years ago, I met a Black, homeless man who became one of my rebbes, a teacher who would introduce me to deep truths. I was leaving a hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., where I was in charge of a leadership seminar for high school students under the auspices of PANIM, an organization that I founded and still lead. The seminars are designed to train the next generation of Jewish activists committed to Jewish values and social responsibility.

As I left the hotel, I encountered a Black man with a broad grin who was doing a little jig to a melody that only he could hear. He greeted me, and I returned the greeting. He introduced himself as Jesse, and I introduced myself as Sid. He inquired what I was doing in this part of town, and I told him. When I asked of him the same question, he told me that he was the “mayor.” I happened to know the mayor of Washington, D.C., at the time, Marion Barry, so I asked Jesse if he was trying to hustle me. He assured me that he was not, and he invited me to follow him a few blocks to meet the people in his “village.” My curiosity got the better of my good judgment, and I followed. We walked a few blocks in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington to the building that serves as the headquarters of the Federal Reserve, the government agency that oversees our country’s money and monetary policies. In what only could be described as the height of irony, around the Federal Reserve building there were some 30 to 40 homeless people camped out with blankets and shopping carts that held all of their worldly possessions.

Jesse was excited by my curiosity and interest. He explained to me the harsh reality of life on the streets. He didn’t blame others for his plight. He took responsibility for a series of bad decisions he had made that resulted in his homelessness. But he was also something of a crusader, and there was no denying his charisma and leadership skills. More than once, he had been beaten up by local college students who had one beer too many. Knowing that other homeless people suffered a similar fate, he began to organize “his people” to come together every night to create a community of comradeship and mutual protection at the Federal Reserve. And just as people in pre-modern societies learned how to live off the land, Jesse had learned a lesson or two about how to survive the urban jungle. He pointed out to me that two features of the building made it an ideal shelter—the large overhang of the roof provided protection from the rain, and the wide columns surrounding the building provided a barrier to the cold winds of winter. Jesse then pointed to the two armed guards across the street, guarding one of the entrances to the State Department. Jesse had introduced himself to the guards and to his scheme, and had gotten their assurances that they would be available to help should any trouble come to his homeless village. Jesse’s homeless friends were deeply indebted to him, and they took to calling him “mayor,” a title he was happy to brag about.

Thus here, not three blocks from the hotel used for my program, I had a great, if unconventional, example of leadership and social responsibility. I sensed that Jesse and his small homeless village had much to teach the teens who came on our program. Jesse was more than willing. The very next night, I decided to bring the teen participants from my program onto the street to meet him. He, in turn, took the kids around his village, introducing them to those who had gathered for the night, and inviting them to sit down and talk in small clusters.

The experience turned out to be more powerful than I ever imagined possible. When we returned to the hotel, I invited the teens to share what they experienced. They told stories they had just heard of people’s lives: A Vietnam vet who could not find a job after he returned from fighting for his country; an auto mechanic who could not control his need for alcohol and who lost his job; an immigrant family of four without the proper papers to get gainful employment, but where the male, head of household, nevertheless worked odd jobs to buy food and clothing for his wife and two children. When I asked what the students took away from the experience, they began to articulate some of the core teachings of Judaism: the importance of acting towards others in a spirit of compassion (hesed); the dignity and worth of every human being (k’vod habriot and tzelem elohim, the biblical teaching that every human being has within them a spark of God); the need to reach out to the stranger and the most vulnerable in our midst (ahavat ger). The teens weren’t knowledgeable enough to invoke the biblical and rabbinic values; I did that. What fascinated them, however, was how values that Judaism brought into the world more than 3,000 years ago spoke directly to an experience that they had just lived through.

The encounter with human suffering had not only burst the comfortable bubble of these middle-class white Jewish teens from suburbia, it made them want to better understand what they could do about it. I once heard someone quip that rabbis have answers for questions that Jews no longer ask. Not true. In this circumstance, the teens were eager to explore the very values that shape the Jewish ethics of social responsibility. These are values that motivate people to engage in political and social action on behalf of people in need …

Why Religion?

… We live in a world in which people are quick to find fault with people and institutions. The media feeds this phenomenon. Individuals in public office or in the public eye endure greater scrutiny and criticism than an average citizen in the event of misdeeds. Similarly, nonprofit organizations whose mission is to help others will be harshly criticized when evidence of misdeeds surface.

Religions cannot escape the harsh judgment of people, in part, because they position themselves as standard-bearers of moral and right action. Those who already have a low regard for organized religion can readily point to the sexual-abuse problems of the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestant ministers who have enriched themselves with monies that church-goers intended for worthy causes, or Islamic fundamentalists who support violent actions against those whom they perceive as their enemies. Judaism comes in for its share of criticism as well. There are those who see it as overly legalistic, who see synagogues long on form and short on substance, or who see Jewish organizations as celebrating and honoring people of wealth without sufficient regard for character.

But upon closer examination, one could just as easily identify organized religion as a force that drives movements for positive social change — as sponsors of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, job-training programs, after-school care and programs to combat substance abuse. Faith communities, when they work, are places that get people to focus on ethical values that encourage greater kindness and generosity, one for the other. A recent book edited by Roger Gottlieb, Liberating Faith, chronicles the words and actions of dozens of people of faith who, in the words of the volume’s subtitle, serve as religious voices for justice, peace and ecological wisdom. They, and the religious traditions in whose voice they speak, make a difference.

It is precisely because of the rise of religious extremism, violence and intolerance in the world today that we must reclaim the value of religion. This requires us to understand the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. Righteousness is when we act towards others in a spirit of tolerance, justice and compassion. Self-righteousness is when we come to be convinced that our own religion, lifestyle or philosophy of living is superior to alternate paths. When we cross the line between righteousness and self-righteousness, we find ourselves in territory that leads to prejudice, hatred and death. In a similar way, there is good religion and bad religion. Bad religion is triumphant. It confuses ends and means. It places doctrines over people. It accepts injustice as a Divinely ordained condition, beyond the ability of humanity to affect. It breeds self-righteousness. Good religion recognizes that there are many, equally valid paths to God. It puts a premium on acts of kindness and compassion for others. It is based on the belief that every person is made in the image of God.

Good religion promotes the belief that a human being’s duty here on earth is to repair a broken world. In the Jewish tradition, we call this concept tikkun olam. Every religion has elements of good religion and bad. Ironically, when our loyalty to our own religion blinds us to the truth and wisdom of another’s tradition, we go down the road that has given religion a bad name. This is why it’s so easy to hate religion. This is why so many dismiss it.  This is why so many have overlooked the possibilities that religion offers to create a reality more just, more compassionate and more peaceful than the world in which we currently find ourselves.

The Bible gives us a paradigm of how religion can and has functioned in the world. We start out with an idyllic past in the first books of Genesis. God, representing the perfect unity of creation, fashions a perfect place on earth called Eden. Adam, the first human being, is conscious of a transcendent power beyond himself. From Adam, all humanity descends; we are all related. Soon, humanity is “out of Eden,” and reality sets in. We see a world of murder, fratricidal jealousy, slavery, territorial conquest, alienation, disobedience and punishment.

This is not just the biblical story; it is our story. It is the world that we live in. It is the wilderness. Starting with the idyllic past and then taking us through the wilderness of reality, the Bible leads us to understand its messianic vision of the future. Part of the spiritual vision of the Bible is its vision of a messianic future. We find it in many places in Scripture, but nowhere is it better articulated than in the book of Micah, chapter 4 (also paralleled in the second chapter of Isaiah):

“It shall come to pass in the end of days that the mountain of God’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains. And all nations shall come to it, and we will walk in God’s way. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Life is a journey through a wilderness filled with much pain and suffering, injustice and inequality. Religion has the power to move us towards the messianic future. It is no coincidence that many of the most important movements for justice in the world have rallied around religious personalities whose leadership was deeply rooted in their respective faith traditions. Mahatma Ghandi used Hindu teachings to rally Indians against an unjust British occupation of their land. Dietrich Bonhoeffer used Protestant theology to articulate Christian opposition to Adolf Hitler. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister who used his pulpit to stir the conscience of America against the evils of racism. Desmond Tutu invoked Christian teachings about forgiveness and reconciliation to keep South Africa from plunging into a cycle of violent revenge after it succeeded in ridding itself of the white minority apartheid government. Elie Wiesel went from being a chronicler of the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust to an international voice of conscience in the world, speaking on behalf of people experiencing oppression in every corner of the globe.

These are examples of people whose lives bear witness to the incredible power of faith to stand up to evil and oppression, and to rally people of conscience to a given cause. There are thousands of other such religious role models for social justice.

We wonder: What has given these individuals, what has given us the strength to be, in the words of Martin Luther King, “drum majors for justice,” in a world filled with poverty, oppression and selfishness? Good religion gives people just such strength. A person of faith believes that good can triumph over evil, despite the injustice that they see in the world, and lives his/her life in a way to make that belief true.                 

Social justice is to religion what love is to family. One is the institution; the other is a quality that makes the institution worthwhile. Just as a family without love is dysfunctional, so is a religion dysfunctional when it does not teach and manifest a deep commitment to social justice. It is a religion that has lost its way.

A person does not have to be a member of an organized religion to be kind, generous or to act with compassion. At the same time, it can be overwhelming to live in a world that contains so much suffering, pain and injustice. Many good people come to the conclusion that there is nothing that one person can do to change the basic order of the world. They shrink from public causes and civic engagements that require both time and money, and often fail to achieve their stated objectives. They conclude that “the good life” means to provide for oneself and one’s family, and to live happily ever after.

Answering the Call

Judaism does not concur with the above-mentioned version of the “good life.” The “call” that Abraham responded to in the desert (Genesis 18:6) was “to extend the boundaries of righteousness and justice in the world.” Prophets like Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah railed at kings for creating societies that did not address the needs of the poor. They saved their most vehement rhetoric for the priests who dressed up in all their finery and tried to foist on the people Israel the notion that religion was no more than some incense, a ritual offering and a few empty words.

Religion is about the stranger, they cried; it’s about the widow, they cried; it’s about the orphan, they cried. In the name of God, they declared: Keep all your holy rituals and pious words. Religion is about caring for the needy in our midst.

How little things have changed. Our rabbis, priests and imams are still overseeing all forms of religious activities that give people comfort. All too few make the social ills of our society a centerpiece of their religious communities. If any religion is to be relevant, it must call its adherents to act upon the issues that affect the world. How we treat the poor is both a moral issue and a religious issue. How we protect our environment is both a moral issue and a religious issue. How we levy our taxes and spend state revenues is both a moral issue and religious issue. How we reach out to try and understand people who do not share our faith, race, lifestyle or ideology is both a moral issue and a religious issue.

Today, more than ever, religions are challenged to bring the wisdom of their respective traditions to bear on the moral crises besetting the human community. Religious leaders must challenge their adherents to respond to the same call that Abraham heard in the desert. Every human being has the ability to “extend the boundaries of righteousness and justice in the world.” This needs to become the litmus test of true and good religion.

Note: This article is excerpted from the final chapter of Rabbi Sid’s book, Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World (Jewish Lights, 2006).

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is currently a senior fellow at Hazon. He is the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., where he continues to teach and lead services. Rabbi Sid is the author of three groundbreaking books — Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue (Jewish Lights, 2000); Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World (Jewish Lights, 2006); and Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Jewish Lights, 2013). Rabbi Sid created and directs the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a program that trains rabbis to be visionary spiritual leaders. He also created and directs the Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network, which is identifying, convening and building the capacity of emerging spiritual communities across the country.