This column is a protest: its intent is to help prevent Jewish thought from being hijacked to the monastic serenity of quiet mountaintops where peace is chosen over truth and the self over the collective. Authentic religion today is lived in the hustle and bustle of the streets and it is here that Torah can be most transformative for 21st century Jews. As Moses is reassured (Deuteronomy 30:12), “Lo bishamayim hi” – The Torah is not in the heavens!
Bumping on the sidewalk, ringing of unsavory honks, canvassing by activists, and the extending of a beggar’s palm, dignity can be forgotten on the streets. But it’s here, in the public sphere, that we tell our story along with the potpourri of Jewish stories long forgotten.
While religion has a private dimension, its relevance is proven in the public arena in the encounter with strangers and in the face of an unexpected moral dilemma.
We can only fully engage within those encounters and discourses that we feel personally connected in our daily lives. Said in rabbinic parlance, “Ain adam lomeid Torah ella me’makom sh’libo chafaitz” (one can only truly learn Torah from the place that one’s heart desires).
In the street, the proclivities of our hearts can be opened to the complexity of the Other and of society. But then, with Street Torah, our hearts must open our hands in order to achieve the ideal of being lomed al menat laasot, learning in order to fulfill.
In fact, we can call a moratorium on the perpetuation of partisan markers as the primary images of Jewish political identity. In lieu of continuing to construct the monolithic traditional liberal and conservative identities which have become so pervasive throughout the Jewish community, we need more radicals!
Liberals and conservatives are too frequently content with bumper stickers, quoting stats at meals and in emails, cultivating animosity for the opposition, and then doing bubkis, doing nothing from a distance.
The liberals and conservatives fully understand that millions of lives and billions of dollars are at stake in health care reform, and although they rant and rave, their actual contributions to social change are too often limited.
Radicals, on the other hand, ensure that they win in the streets. It isn’t enough to care and to talk. A virtuous radical must ensure his or her own authenticity by being fully present in the streets with a personal relationship to Torah, with a self-identity that transcends the comforts of passive rhetoric and partisan identity escaping the self-referential and attempts to resolve complex tensions without proper recourse to dialogue.
As homo socius, social beings, our truths are created and recreated in dialectic conversation. Rather than bow to the socially accepted conventions of Jewish language, we can speak our truths and embrace those of our fellow, whose soul is also like a pomegranate – packed with juice yet divided with complex seeds.
The Midrash teaches us that Abraham was the Biblical paradigm for this model of running from the security of one’s tent to great strangers and to teach and learn Street Torah. His epic heritage of courageous discourse and social engagement is our path to follow.
Our theological calling to the public arena is not inherently a political summons. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argued in the first half of the twentieth century: “We affirm the principle of separation of church and state. We reject the separation of religion and the human situation.”
So too, for religion to matter, it must be deeply responsive to and molded by the society in which we are embedded. Since FDR’s New Deal, American Jews have entered all types of public leadership as economists, policy-makers, and political advisors.
But Street Torah maintains that our responsibilities transcend our professions and suggests that our full being belongs in the public arena. As Rabbi Dessler once argued “The physical needs of another are my own spiritual needs.” Spiritual life is embedded in the presence of the crude realities before our eyes and to neglect them is to resemble a fish unaware of the very water it swims in.
Yet there is an ethic to one who courageously jumps into Street Torah. Within the tirades of our critiques and visions, we must remember the dignity of all parties.
When our societal critiques are not hurled from a distance but from within the streets and the vicissitudes of daily life, our encounters must be deferential to the other. To refresh our lives, we ought to begin not only to hear the stranger but to become strangers ourselves. It is in the authentic and novel encounters of the economics, politics, and theologies of the complex globalized world that that our Street Torah begins.
Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, a 4th year rabbinical school at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and a 4th year PHD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Philosophy.