From the Bookshelf, Justice

Social Justice from the Jewish Sources (David Jaffe, Introduction)

When I think about Judaism and justice, two questions come to mind. What does Judaism say about justice? And how can Judaism help me pursue justice? In other words, what is the theory and practice of justice in a Jewish context? Rabbi David Jaffe’s book, Changing the World from the Inside Out, does a wonderful job addressing those questions. Each month, I’ll share an excerpt from a different chapter, and I encourage you to get a copy of the book for yourself as well.

Jaffe’s introduction lays out the Jewish theory of justice that gives us the phrase Tikkun Olam (repairing the world):

“Before creation, God – the great unity and source of value – was everything. God desired to create the universe to bestow goodness and love one another, but how could there be anything separate from God to relate to if everything was one? God created a space vacated of presence and in that space placed vessels that would form the universe. God poured light into these vessels; the light was too great for the vessels to contain, and they shattered into tiny pieces. These shards make up everything that ever did and ever will exist in the universe, from molecules to animals to thoughts and emotions. Light, or God’s presence, exists in all these shards, but the light is hidden within the shards. Our task – through our thought, speech, and action – is to perceive God’s presence in all aspects of creation. This awareness releases sparks of light that make more manifest the real unity, love, and value that flows through creation.” (p. 5)

Justice from the Jewish perspective is nothing less than revealing God’s presence in this world through repairing whatever we see that is broken or harmful. So how do we do this? That’s the theory, but how do we practice it?

Jaffe focuses on weaving together two powerful strands of Jewish practice – Hasidut and Mussar. The Hasidic perspective identifies devekut, attaching to God, as its central goal. Taking on Hasidut means embracing passion, joy, yearning, and responsibility for finding those sparks of God in every way we can. Hasidut as a practice means living with verve, living with honesty, living with a constant imperative to re-awaken to reality. But Jaffe writes:

“While the fire of Breslov Hasidism spoke to my passion and yearning for God, I was also looking for teachings that provided step-by-step guidance for ethical and moral development. Mussar…provided this guidance…The Torah is a continuing story of aspiration, imperfection, failure, and return…Mussar is the branch of Jewish wisdom that addresses this gap, seeks to align values with behavior, and asks, ‘How do I actually walk in God’s ways?’” (pp. 7-8)

The rest of the book will help us weave elements of Hasidut and Mussar into our own lives, both for our own improvement but also, and critically, for our work in improving the world around us. Jaffe’s introduction leaves us with an image of a fractal:

“A fractal is a natural phenomenon that contains the whole in each of its parts. Similarly what is true in someone’s inner life gets reflected in that person’s relationships. What is true in people’s relationships gets reflected in families or workplaces, and what is true in families and workplaces gets reflected in the broader society. This dynamic works in the other direction as well. The quality of our social arrangements affects our workplaces and families, and ultimately our inner lives are deeply affected by the societies we live in and our relationships.” (p. 11)

At Temple Isaiah, we are blessed to live in community. We have an awesome opportunity (every day) to cultivate in ourselves, in our relationships, and in the community, a microcosm of the world that ought to be. We are here to care for each other, to inspire each other, to be spiritual allies for each other, and to practice responsible citizenship together.


Temple Isaiah’s Jewish justice learning this year centers on a book from David Jaffe, Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change (2016). Rabbi Jaffe teaches us a grounded Jewish lens and practice for engaging in the work of social justice. Read his bio here. Order his book through Amazon Smile and a percentage of the cost will go to Temple Isaiah. Every month, we’ll feature a short excerpt from a different chapter in the book.

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