Changing the World from the Inside Out

This year’s winner of the National Jewish Book Award in the category of Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice is a book titled Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change by Rabbi David Jaffe. The book is an inspiring integration of Musar literature and practice with numerous examples of how one can take the insights of that “inner” discipline and use it to make a difference in the world.

Note: This article appeared in the New York Jewish Week on January 27, 2017.

The integration that is at the heart of the book is not widely embraced in the Jewish community although Jaffe makes a compelling case that this was the intention of many of the rabbinic sages throughout history. One can find many Jews who take seriously the study of classical rabbinic texts. The practice tends to skew heavily in the direction of Jews who are more traditionally observant and, because a large part of that world is Orthodox, the practice is also more widely manifested among men because in many quarters of the traditional Jewish world, women are not encouraged to pursue the study of classical texts. One can also find many Jews who are deeply committed to the pursuit of social justice. This tendency skews heavily in the direction of progressive Jews who, for the most part, are not particularly observant. In fact, it is not uncommon to find among such “justice Jews” attitudes that are, at best, suspicious of all religion and often overtly hostile to formal ties with Jewish practice or affiliation.

The distance between these two worlds is unfortunate. The recent Presidential election revealed a large divide between Orthodox Jews who voted heavily for Donald Trump and non-Orthodox Jews who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. The Jewish communal polarization around Israel reflects a similar divide. The more traditional elements of the community tend to support the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu, are tolerant of settlements over the Green Line and are opposed to the Obama Administration’s deal with Iran. The more progressive parts of the Jewish community believe that Netanyahu has undermined core values of liberal Zionism, they feel that settlements are obstacles to a peaceful, two-state solution and they were supportive of the Obama deal with Iran.

This divide is a result of the failure of Jewish educational and communal institutions to teach and to embody the integration of two central premises of Judaism. In my book, Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World, I argue that there are two central principles of Judaism: tzedek, the pursuit of justice and kedusah, the attempt to create a unique way of being in the world that allows us to live lives of sacred purpose. The latter involves an embrace of and engagement with the wisdom of the Jewish tradition and its many religious practices and rituals. The polarization in our community is a direct result of many Jews privileging either tzedek or kedushah at the expense of the other principle.

Jaffe begins his book with the kind of paradox that is so often the opening to the wisdom of the rabbinic tradition. Olam is the Hebrew word for “the universe” but its root, ayin.lamed.mem means “hidden”. What is the implication that a word can represent the most public of all concepts—the universe—and yet also come from a root that suggests an inner, hard to access dimension? It hints at a similar paradox around the idea of God, an idea that so many Jews struggle with. God is both the “biggest reality” but also imperceptible to the human senses. With this Jaffe challenges his readers to explore the hidden reality of life.

The second paradox offered by Jaffe is no less pregnant with possibility. As with other spiritual traditions in the world, Judaism believes that there is some metaphysical Oneness that unites all humankind. And yet, human existence requires separation, otherness, uniqueness. Each of us is different from the other.

When, in the Shma, we say God is echad, “one”, we are stating that everything in the universe—humanity, the animal kingdom, nature—are part of one Cosmos. The teaching that humans are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Gen. 1:22) is a sub-category of the larger teaching of echad. I’ve long taught that this is the most radical teaching of the Torah. If only we could, in all our human interactions, behave as if we are all part of one greater unity despite our manifold differences—race, religion, gender, ideology, etc.—we’d bring about the messianic kingdom.

This only hints at the richness that one can find in the rest of Jaffe’s important book. He explores Musar soul-traits like humility, patience, dignity and honor, trust, helping us see how much inner work we have to do to be better human beings. But in every case, he pushes the point to suggest ways that these traits require us to engage in repairing a world that seems more broken than ever before.