RHR2010: The Crisis in East Jerusalem
Slavery, Trafficking and People of Faith: In Our Own Backyards and Beyond

RHR2010: Whose Rights? Where does Judaism require us to focus our efforts: Global justice, Community Organizing or Israel?

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Breakout session: Whose Rights? Where does Judaism require us to focus our efforts: Global justice, Community Organizing or Israel?

This session was led by Rabbi Jill Jacobs; Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg, Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek; and Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek.

We begin the session sitting in a circle, with our three leaders inside the circle, each of them with her or his back to some part of the group. When someone protests about sitting in a circle where the presenter has her back to us, the presenters note that other presenters are facing her, and I realize that the setup is symbolic: we may feel as though we have to turn our backs on one issue in order to turn toward others, but as long as some of us are facing in each direction, then communally we can be turned in all directions at once.

"Our human rights activism, our social justice work -- in Micah it says, 'What dos God require of you? Only to do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly before God,'" quotes Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg. The humility, she says, is key: to walk humbly before God, as communities of action, communities of conscience, we need to prioritize and figure out how we're going to divide our resources, our passion, and our commitments. We need to figure out who we serve, and we do that in humility because we have limitations.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs begins by explaining our topic for this afternoon: "the question of how we divide our responsibilities, how we think about our responsibilities to our community and to other commnities; to Israel, to America; to other places around the world." We grapple with these questions via studying texts. The traditional way of studying these texts is in hevruta -- paired study, or in this case study done by a trio. The three rabbis in the fishbowl in the middle of the room will have a conversation through their eyes and through the eyes of the text, and then they plan to open it up to the rest of the room so that all of us can be holy friends in learning together.

The first text we're going to look at comes from Tosefta, an early rabbinic text from the 2nd or 3rd century of the Common Era. Tosefta is case law: "if x, then y." It's terse, Jacobs warns us; not a lot of storytelling. (The text is Tosefta Bava Metzia 11:33-37.)

"In the case of a well that belongs to the people of the city: [in a choice between them and others,] they come before the others. The others and the animals [of the people of the city], the life of the others come before the animals [of the people of the city]. Rabbi Yosi says that the animals of the people of the city come before the life of others. Their animals and the animals of others; their animals come before the animals of others. Others and the laundry of the people of the city; the life of others comes before the laundry [ of the people of the city]. Rabbi Yosi says that the laundry of the people of the city comes before the life of others.

So if people from another city need drinking water, they trump the animals of the people of the first city. Though R' Yosi says that the animals of the people of the city trump the strangers who need drinking water, and also says that the laundry of the people of the city trumps the lives of others. "It sounds like there's the Brent city and the Rachel city," interprets Rabbi Brent Spodek, and something happens, and there's tension between our cities over water. The anonymous voice says that if there's a question of life, the people who have a life-need take precedence, whereas Rabbi Yosi is saying, it's not that life takes precedence, it's that ownership rights take precedence. "If it's my well, in my city, the Brent-ites own it, we get first crack at it, even if we need it for our laundry and the Rachelites are dying of thirst."

Rabbi Goldenberg asks: is laundry here a symbol of something essential? Or is it inessential? Rabbi Jacobs asks: what if they wanted to water their lawns in the summer -- in that case, are they entitled to the water? But Rabbi Spodek reads laundry as a dismissive thing; "if Rabbi Yosi could have imagined a swimming pool, or a kid playing in the sprinkler, he would have," he argues. The text seems to him to be moving in descending order, from thirst, to animals' thirst, to laundry -- and if it could have gone all the way to kids wanting a slip-n-slide, he thinks it would have. (In other words: Rabbi Yosi seems to be saying that it's more important that "we" get our water, even if it's for something frivolous, than that "they" get the water, even if they are dying of thirst.)

Rabbi Jacobs asks: does it matter why the city is out of water? It could be because there's a drought; it could be that you wasted it; it could be that you were lazy. Rabbi Goldenberg notes the switch from talking about wells to talking about life -- she sees this as a text about genuine need for water, and notes that we can move beyond the question of water into a question of abstract resources in general. To whom do we pay attention? In the resources of our community, where do we put those resources?

There's a tension between the voices which say, this well is mine, it's for me and people like me; and the voices which say, people need water, I'm going to share water with people everywhere who need it. And then there are voices which say, why are we giving our resources to Pakistan and Haiti when there are needs right here?

"What would happen if all American Jews said, let's give our money to the people who are the poorest -- which would mean, sending all of it to the poorest places in the world," asks Rabbi Jacobs. "It would become pretty difficult to live here" if we weren't supporting the needy here in our own community -- that's one way of reading the laundry example in our first text. But Rabbi Spodek pushes back: this text, he says, doesn't collapse distance in that way. It seems to imply a question of geographic proximity. The text is talking about a well, not money which is fungible. "Water is a difficult thing to bring across the world," notes Rabbi Jacobs (though a voice from behind me calls out "Fiji water," which is just what I was thinking -- the story of Fiji water is pretty fascinating on this front.)

At this point, we move to a second text, this time from Gemara. (Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 81a) This text is a bit dense (and too long for me to transcribe on the fly), but Rabbi Spodek translates the Gemara text into modern idiom as "My right to my iPod takes precedence over your need for drinking water!"

And then he explains, "'If I didn't have the iPod to energize me to exercise in the morning, then I wouldn't be able to come with full vigor to do my social justice work. So in this way, we learn that the iPod is essential for my justice work.' -- the reasoning is ridiculous!" Rabbi Goldenberg jumps on to his metaphor: "You can come up with a convoluted reasoning for why my iPod is essential to me, but I see this convoluted commentary to be saying, it's really a distraction; it's just that I want an excuse to focus on my own needs. Or I just don't want to deal with it [other people's suffering]. I'd rather prioritize the thing I am most afraid of, e.g. antisemitism, than get involve with those other people and their problems.'"

Our final text is from Talmud Yerushalmi, Shvi'it 8:5. This is a text from the Jerusalem Talmud rather than the Babylonian Talmud, speaking to the same Tosefta text. "Yehuda of Hutzi went and hid himself in a cave for three days, trying to understand the reason that the lives of the people of this city should take precedence over the lives of peope of another city..." After reading the text, the rabbis in the fishbowl open it up to the whole room, inviting us to explore the question of how these texts might or might not illuminate questions of human rights for us.

One person interprets our original text to mean that Rabbi Yosi is saying that the local people have an absolute right to the water, no matter what the needs of others' may be; and he notes that the first opinion (that the lives of others take precedence over our own laundry) is anonymous which means that it's the dominant interpretation and the opinion of Rabbi Yosi is the dissenting interpretation.

Another person notes that the first question is, "what is essential for you to live?" Our first text starts out with the well, and there's no argument: people need water to live. When laundry becomes essential, that's a question, but basic needs like water and food are without argument. Maybe the first qeustion we should ask is, "What do we need to live?" We don't need all that we have. If we can do that prioritizing first, then there's something left over, and there are choices to be made about what we do.

Rabbi Spodek inteprets her comment in a new way: imagine that I make $1000 a year and I need $800 to live, then I have $200 for tzedakah, and the question is where do I put that $200. Or, another paradigm: everything that I have belongs to God. God has made me temporary caretaker of $1000. And I have needs, and so do the people in the next town over, and so do the people in another country; from a religious perspective, how much can I give and to whom? This ("all that I have belongs to God") is difficult language for us to use, but it may be valuable.

Another person in the room notes that water is a desperately precious and scarce resource. "For the rabbis of the Talmud, the real question may be: do I sacrifice somebody else's life in order to save mine? Do I have a right to ignore or destroy somebody else's life in order to save my own? I think that's part of the text too."

Rabbi Jeff Marker suggests that the text is saying that there are priorities, and to a certain extent, you're entitled to take care of yourself and your own family first. The question is how much resources can we devote to that, especially if there are other people elsewhere in need? In the Middle East, he notes, you're living in an area which deals with water resources differently than someone like Rashi, who lived in France where water was a flowing river rather than a well. Where we live will impact how we interpret texts like this one.

Someone else suggests that we can read the text this way: the city is an activist who has $1000. Someone who's used to living in self-sacrifice can live on $500; but most people are accustomed to living on $800, or may not want to eat only lentils, or may not be self-sacrificers in certain ways. "I've been in more than one environment where there are revolutionaries of various stripes telling me that if I don't live on $500/month, then I'm against the revolution," she quips. "That's what I hear in this story: that your laundry is not my laundry."

The conversation goes in a variety of other directions, among them the importance of recognizing our privilege, the need for not only bread but also roses too, and what happened after 9/11 when civil liberties seemed to become non-essential (like the laundry in this text) rather than fundamental (like the water.) Someone notes that the text creates a dichotomy between our needs and the needs of others, not considering the interconnectedness between "us" and "them."

Rabbi Spodek invites us to look at this question in a different way: imagine that you're the synagogue rabbi, and your budget includes your own salary, the education program, the boiler in the basement -- and then someone comes to you and asks you to give your Kol Nidre appeal about the poor people in [insert global place of suffering here]. Where's the bread and where's the roses? Which of these is the "people of your own city," and which is the "people of the other city," and how do you decide where to apportion your resources? These are the kinds of questions this text pushes us to ask.

Rabbi Oren Postrel notes that these texts represent the difference between a culture of paucity and a culture of plenty. How we view what we have, and whether or not it feels like "enough," makes a difference here. Rabbi Jacob notes that it's important that there are characters in these stories who remove themselves to be solitary in a cave, and points out that you don't solve important communal problems by recusing yourself to be by yourself somewhere.

Ultimately, the message I'm taking away from this text study is this: Jewish tradition is cognizant of the tensions which arise in a situation with limited resources. There are sources which argue that we need to save our resources for ourselves, and other sources which argue that we need to share our resources with others, and each of us has to grapple (especially in community / in conversation) with questions of how we allocate our resources, because the tradition isn't going to offer a simple answer.