Ruth Messinger left a 20-year career in politics, including Manhattan borough president, in 1998 to become president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a nonprofit that supports human rights for marginalized people around the world.
Alfredo Borodowski is executive director of the Skirball Center for Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El and founding rabbi of Larchmont’s Congregation Sulam Yaakov.
Alfredo: Ruth, any thoughts on sharing your views of God with a lot of Jews. Are you concerned, maybe nervous?
Messinger: Yes, I’m used to approaching this indirectly and sort of skipping over what is God, and just talking about the Jewish commitment to social action and social justice. That’s a more comfortable framework for me.
Some of our sages teach that deeds are more important than anything else, while others teach that learning precedes anything else. You are a person of action; how do you reconcile those two opposite views?
I don’t think they’re opposite at all. However, my job is to urge the American Jewish community to take more action, to make a difference in the world, and I have enough trouble convincing people to do that. I don’t want them to think they have to believe anything in order to act.
There’s an imperative to take action to fix the world, and I think that this imperative is the essence of Judaism. I want to find the right language for Jews to hear that they ought to be doing more to help heal the world. I don’t want them to think they have to believe anything in order to do it. But I do want people to reflect on their actions by asking: Do they affirm the inherent dignity of people around us?
But that must be rooted in some kind of belief, some notion that you are commanded to act. If you peel the “doing,” what is under it?
OK, so there are lots of pieces to that, which I often lay out, usually without the God element as part of it. The root is my family. I was raised with the idea of social-justice Judaism, and the idea that people whose lives often were in danger and often helped by others also have an obligation to help others. Jews must have concern for the state of the Jewish world and for the state of the broader world. We also must remember the core value of b’tzelem Elohim — that every person is created in the Divine image and is of equal value.
I was told that you enjoy going to synagogue [at Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist congregation] when you are not traveling. What is Ruth the “doer” experiencing while compelled to sit for two to three hours facing the prayer book?
Yes, I really like some prayers; they speak to me. I am not a quiet person and I am well aware of that, so services give me moments of quiet reflection, moments when I just stop and think and take stock, what am I doing in this world?
May I guess that given what you do in the world, you find God in human relationships?
At AJWS, we listen very closely to what the people on the ground are telling us about their biggest problems and their best solutions, and we work not exclusively but significantly within their framework. If all of us are made in the image of God then each of us has a piece of that responsibility. That’s the motivating force in my life.
At those moments when you have to deal with poverty, disease and misery, do you get upset with God?
I always get upset at human beings. So I understand what you are asking; it’s a perfectly legitimate question, but is not the way I think about it. Religious and political leaders are sowing seeds of divisiveness. We have a job to do to get beyond these divisions and to try to mend some of these separations and put things back together.
Some people believe that you have crossed boundaries, they say, “Why does my kid as a Jew have to go do service work in Guatemala?”
For me Judaism lives in the struggle between the particular and the universal. I don’t want Jews to separate their advocacy and their observance of Yom Kippur; that’s not what the religion ever meant to me.
I’ll give you a final chance to answer this question. If I were to ask: ‘Ruth, tell me a God you believe in,’ what would you say?
I believe in a God that’s a force for justice in the world.
For the full version of this conversation, go to www.thejewishweek.com.