Book Review: Righteous Indignation

Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice
Rabbi Or N. Rose, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, and Margie Klein, editors

I love me a good social justice anthology, and considering my growing involvement in Jewish social justice, I figured that this book would be right up my alley.

Unfortunately, the most disappointing aspect of the book was its almost exclusive focus on activism from a religious viewpoint. Not only did this fail to address many of the concerns and contributions of secular, cultural Jews (we need love, too!), but it led to a lot of repetition – I ended up skimming a lot of the passages whose main focus was presenting even more Biblical evidence that social justice is a good thing. Which isn’t to say that justice-oriented readings of the Torah and Talmud aren’t very useful for many people. But if that’s not the thrust of your activism, then it can leave you feeling really unsatisfied.

Despite its flaws, though, there were some really interesting essays. The writing of Jay Michaelson, April Rosenblum, and Rabbi Jill Jacobs was wonderful, as usual. And I found that I was moved by some of the Biblical readings despite myself. Take, for example, Rabbi Jane Kanarek’s explanation of what tikkun olam really means. Rabbi Kanarek shows us a peculiar Mishnah on the subject of captivity:

One does not redeem captives for more than their worth because of tikkun ha’olam. One does not help captives to escape because of tikkun ha’olam. Rabban Shimon the son of Gamliel says: because of the decree of the captives. (Mishnah, Gittin 4:6)

Kanarek explains that, even though the Mishnah seems to imply powerlessness – we can’t ransom prisoners because it encourages kidnappers to take more prisoners, and we can’t free them because future prisoners will be treated even more cruelly – it’s actually suggesting that the proper course of action is to create a world in which no prisoners are taken in the first place. It’s not literally saying that we should never try to release people from captivity, but rather that our first priority should eliminating systemic injustice.

The book also gives Jews some ammunition against anti-choicers who use religion and morality to shut down arguments about abortion and stem cell research. Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff points out that “[d]uring the first forty days of gestation, the fetus, according to the Talmud, is ‘as if it were simply water,’ and from the forty-first day until birth it is ‘like the thigh of its mother.'” This means that, from a Jewish point of view, an embryo is not a human being; furthermore, even when the pregnancy is advanced, the fetus is still part of its mother’s body.

However, Dorff explains that late-term abortions are “generally prohibited” because the mother would be doing harm to her own body (just as if she tried to cut off a thigh). But if the thigh needs to be cut off – just as late-term abortions are virtually always necessary procedures, not flighty changes of mind – then she’s obligated to do what it takes to protect her health and wellbeing. (This may seem like a loophole, given the “generally prohibited” clause, but I think we can read it as an assertion that the woman is the best judge of what she and her body need.) Similarly, if embryonic stem cell research will save lives, then we’re obligated – indeed, commanded – to do whatever it takes to save those lives.

Abigail Uhrman tells an interesting Talmudic story to explain the pitfalls of ableism: Rabbi Elazar meets a disfigured man and comments on his ugliness. “Tell the Creator who made me what an ugly, empty vessel I am,” the man replies. Rabbi Elazar realizes that to insult one of God’s creation is to insult God, and begs for forgiveness. Here’s where the story gets interesting, though – the man refuses to forgive him, no matter how much Rabbi Elazar begs. His grudge indicates that the man is just as flawed as Rabbi Elazar. He’s not a saint; he’s just human. This demonstrates that putting disabled people – or any version of your personal Other – on a pedestal is just as myopic as considering them lesser beings.

One essay that really affected me was Rabbi Elliot Rose Kukla’s “Created Beings of Our Own.” He makes a very eloquent case against transphobia:

Although Jewish Sages often tried to sort the world into binaries, they also acknowledged that not all of parts of God’s Creation can be contained in orderly boxes. Distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, Shabbat and the days of the week, and purity and impurity are crucial to Jewish tradition. However, it was the parts of the universe that defied binaries that interested the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud the most. Pages and pages of sacred texts are occupied with the minute details of the moment between fruit and bud, wildness and domestication, innocence and maturity, the twilight hour between day and night. We read in the Babylonian Talmud:

Our Sages taught: As to twilight, it is doubtful whether it is part day and part night, or whether all of it is day or all of it is night… Rabbi Yosi said: “Twilight is like the twinkling of an eye as night enters and the day departs, and it is impossible to determine its length.” (Shabbat 34b)

…Jewish tradition acknowledges that some parts of God’s Creation defy categories and that these liminal people, places, and things are often the sites of the most intense holiness.

This essay hit home for me as a half-Jew (an identity which many Jews and a surprising number of gentiles are quick to inform me doesn’t exist – as if I’m supposed to cut my connection to my own family) and a secular Jew (since so much of Ashkenazi culture has been obliterated in the last century). It’s intensely lonely to find yourself straddling a binary; if it feels so bad to be the only secular Jew around, or the person at a Seder who has to dodge questions about her mother, I can’t even begin to imagine the pain that transpeople feel at our society’s ferocious attempts to disappear them. Profundity is a very scary thing to witness, and perhaps cisgendered people’s fear of transfolk is evidence of that. Rabbi Kukla’s essay was nothing short of inspiring.

The editors have put up a website with resources and action alerts; it’s a bit sparse right now, but hopefully they’ll add more content as time goes on. In the meantime, the book is definitely worth a read, even if you don’t find all the essays useful.