Why Advocacy is Central to Reform Judaism

by Rabbi Marla Feldman, Executive Director Women of Reform Judaism

“Reform Jews are committed to social justice. Even as Reform Jews embrace ritual, prayer, and ceremony more than ever, we continue to see social justice as the jewel in the Reform Jewish crown. Like the prophets, we never forget that God is concerned about the everyday and that the blights of society take precedence over the mysteries of heaven. A Reform synagogue that does not alleviate the anguish of the suffering is a contradiction in terms.” – Rabbi Eric Yoffie, speech to the UAHC Executive Committee, February 1998

It has become axiomatic that to be a Jew is to care about the world around us. To be a Reform Jew is to hear the voice of the prophets in our head; to be engaged in the ongoing work of tikkun olam; to strive to improve the world in which we live. The passion for social justice is reflected in the ancient words of our prophets and sages and in the declarations of our Movement’s leaders throughout its history. The ancient command “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof! Justice, justice shall you seek!” constantly reverberates in our ears. It has become deeply embedded in the Reform Jewish psyche. This charge has led to a long and proud tradition of political activism by the Reform Movement..

The idea that people of faith have a mandate to bring their values into the public arena is not unique to the Reform Movement. There is a long tradition of faith groups “speaking truth to power” and advocating for social change, and every major religious organization in American life participates in this civic exercise. Religious voices have been central in the major social justice movements throughout our nation’s history, from the abolitionist movement to those involved with desegregation and civil rights. In the international arena as well, faith groups have led the way in advocating for nuclear disarmament, international aid and human rights around the world.

This is not an easy time to stand up to be counted. We are challenged by an overwhelming number of issues, each one central to our understanding of the prophetic message of our faith and critical to creating the kind of society we wish to bequeath to those who follow us. And not only are we overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the issues that are before us, but we are confronted by those who claim to speak in the name of faith, but who offer a different version of what God expects of us; those who proclaim themselves the upholders of family values yet who do not value individual rights or personal autonomy, and who have little respect for the Constitutional principles that have allowed religion to thrive in this country unfettered by government coercion or corruption.

Ours is a different message. We proclaim that maintaining a strong safety net for those who are most vulnerable is the modern manifestation of our obligation to “leave the corners of our fields for the poor and needy.” We believe that supporting public schools so that every child in America has access to a free and appropriate education and that paying workers enough to support themselves without having to choose between shelter and food, medication or heat, are family values. If we don’t bring these progressive religious values into the public arena with us, we will abandon the public square to those offering a different view of religion and values.