This September, I found myself standing in a tomato field in southwest Florida with a group of 17 rabbis. The ground had been plowed into rows, each covered by a strip of thick plastic designed to keep in the pesticides and fertilizer planted along with the saplings. As we watched, workers guided tractors to plant seedlings — along with an impressive spray of white chemical mix. I coughed, felt my eyes water and stepped away to catch my breath.
“When did we cover this in rabbinical school?” I wondered.
This group, organized by Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, had come to Immokalee, Fla., to learn from tomato pickers about working conditions there. We heard about children born with no limbs to mothers who handled the harsh pesticides while pregnant. We touched chains used to hold workers in slavery — an unfortunately not uncommon occurrence in Florida agriculture. And we strained to hoist a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes — for which a worker would get paid 50 cents.
“What can we do?” we asked ourselves.
This was a natural rabbinic reaction. As rabbis, we are taught to act. We learn that we have the power to speak, to determine law and practice —and to serve as moral voices in the wider world.
As I think about how to do justice work as a rabbi, I return again and again to a perplexing story about Rav Huna, the head of one of the major third-century academies of Babylonia:
Raba said to Rafram bar Papa: Tell me some of the good deeds that Rav Huna had done. He replied: Of his childhood I do not recollect anything, but of his old age I do. On cloudy [stormy] days they used to carry him about in a golden carriage and he would survey every part of the city and he would order the demolition of any wall that was unsafe; if the owner was in a position to do so he had to rebuild it himself, but if not, then [Rav Huna] would have it rebuilt at his own expense (Talmud, Ta’anit20b).
I find this text both compelling and deeply challenging. On the one hand, I am moved by the portrait of Rav Huna leaving the comfort of the Beit M idrash (study hall) on unpleasant, rainy days in order to see how the people are doing. Presumably, he chooses rainy days for this activity so that he can see which walls are leaking, shaking from the wind or otherwise unstable. When the owner of the wall cannot afford the repairs, Rav Huna takes it upon himself to ensure the safety of the home.
But much in this story also disturbs me. Rav Huna, described here and elsewhere as an exceedingly wealthy man, allows himself to be carried around in a golden carriage. I imagine the workers carrying him dripping with rain and sweat. I wonder how the people living in shaky homes reacted to this blatant display of wealth. Rav Huna, the outside expert, goes around instructing residents which walls to knock down, and leaving money in his wake.
On the one hand, Rav Huna makes the effort to leave the Beit Midrash, to see how people are living, and to try to create more stable conditions. On the other hand, he holds himself as an exalted outsider, and gives no indication of listening to what the people need.
In the continuation of this text, Rav Huna inserts himself into the vegetable trade in order to guarantee sufficient future supply. Here, too, he intervenes in such a way as to create a functional economic system —and yet does not appear to confer with either the farmers or the vegetable buyers before taking unilateral action.
Rav Huna’s missteps serve as a caution to those of us rabbis who venture into the social justice world. Sometimes, it is easy to be so confident in our own leadership that we try to jump right into action. But such action can make us look like Rav Huna, gliding into town in a golden carriage and dictating infrastructure fixes. Instead, the first step can often be to stop and listen.
But Rav Huna also provides inspiration for those of us hesitant about getting out of our comfort zones. Breathing chemicals in the hot Florida sun may not have been pleasant, but I’m certain it was more enjoyable than cruising the streets of ancient Babylon in the rain. With his very public entry into the most dilapidated parts of town, Rav Huna sets the example that rabbinic work happens outside of the synagogue or Beit Midrash.
And Rav Huna’s role is not always so public. The text at hand concludes:
Whenever he discovered some [new] medicine he would fill a water jug with it and suspend it above the doorstep and proclaim, Whosoever desires it let him come and take of it … When he had a meal, he would open the door wide and declare, Whosoever is in need let him come and eat (Ta’anit 21a).
Here, Rav Huna stops being the benefactor who rides into town on a golden chariot. Instead, he opens his own home to whomever wants to come take medicine, or stop by for a meal. I like to imagine that the conversation at these meals involved much back-and-forth between Rav Huna and his guests. “Tell me about your lives,” he might ask. Perhaps they would respond with stories of their own struggles to earn enough money and their own strategies for creating change. Perhaps these conversations would lead to a partnership between the rabbis and those battling leaky roofs and insufficient food supplies.
The classic picture of the rabbi is one of an unapproachable, authoritarian figure who has (or claims to have) special access to God. In my own rabbinate, I have been surprised at how many times I have been expected to play this role. As a 20-something rabbinical student, I would be shocked when laypeople two and three times my age asked my advice. Since then, I have also become accustomed to the expectation that I am policing what people eat. Just a few years ago, I sat down for coffee with a young man whom I wanted to ask for feedback about a new program in his community. “Rabbi,” he said, as soon as I said hello. “Just don’t tell me to keep kosher.”
The depiction of Rav Huna riding his golden chariot into low-income communities to give advice about community priorities fits right into the classic picture of the rabbi as the unimpeachable expert. But, by subsequently opening his home to those in need, Rav Huna begins to break down the barrier between himself and those he purports to serve. Rather than watching Rav Huna from below, those in need sit around his table and talk to him.
I know very few rabbis who aspire to stand above the crowd, importing sage wisdom from above. Instead, most of the rabbis who are my peers prefer the latter Rav Huna model — the rabbi who spends time in the community, learning from community members.
In one Talmudic text, the rabbis even put forward a self-critique of a system that expects rabbis to be exalted experts. The people of Simonia ask Rabbi Judah the Prince (the editor of the Mishna, and the major rabbinic figure of the time) to send them a rabbi who can teach and preach there. He sends Levi bar Sisi. The people of Simonia ask Levi bar Sisi three easy questions, and he freezes each time. When Levi bar Sisi returns home disgraced, Rabbi Judah asks him what happened. “They made me a large platform and put me on it,” he replies, “and my spirit swelled” (Talmud Yerushalmi Yevamot 12:6). The moment Levi bar Sisi begins to think of himself as deserving of a grand stage, he forgets all of his Torah.
By walking into a tomato field, the group of rabbis I joined ventured far from any stage or platform for taking authoritative leadership. Instead, we stood in the dirt and listened.
That’s not to say that we stopped at listening. Together with the workers, we formed a circle around the tomato display in a local Publix supermarket, and prayed aloud in order to encourage the supermarket chain to buy only from ethical suppliers. Groups of rabbis in Philadelphia, California, and New Jersey visited Trader Joe’s to ask them to sign a fair food pledge.
Rav Huna offers a powerful example of a rabbinic leader who gets out into the community in order to see what’s happening, and to help create safer and more sustainable living conditions. But the challenge, for rabbis, is to step out of the comfortable position of being the expert in the golden carriage, or the sage on the stage. If we instead listen, we will not forget our Torah but will instead increase it.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. Her most recent book is “Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights).