Torah Study > Chapter 1: The Call to Action

The primary blessing of the modern world is freedom. And with that freedom we can—more than any other generation in history—remake ourselves every day. Once upon a time, our identity was sealed at birth. We were Jew or Catholic; French or Chinese; rich or poor; free or slave; cobbler or farmer; male or female; red-headed or blonde; healthy or sick.

But today, things are different. We are free (at least in theory) to shape not only our thoughts, speech and action, but our identity as well. And, as almost always is the case with choice, once we have the option to choose, we also have the obligation to choose.

One of the hardest tasks we confront, then, is to respond to this obligation of choice. We must choose which group, which culture, and which identity will be ours, and what we will do in response to that choice. We cannot choose “none of the above” for we can no more be “just human” than we can speak “just language.” To talk, we must speak a particular language, with a particular vocabulary and a particular structure which grows out of a particular culture. We develop a special relationship with our language and our culture, and to the others who were likewise raised in it. As it is with language, so it is with identity.

As Jews in America, we have two primary “languages,” two identities, two cultures: Jewish and American. Often these cultures overlap and reinforce each other. Other times they don’t. The question for us is: how do we negotiate this bi lingualism? Given a world of choice, why should we continue to choose to be Jews? And when? If Jewish and American values either clash or are motivated by different impulses, how shall we choose between them? As Jews, how should we negotiate the tug of particularism with the demand of universalism? In the world of social action and social justice that we will be exploring together, the questions become even more nuanced.

The framing exercise and five texts presented below explore social action as a core Jewish imperative.


Text 1: To Work and to Tend (Genesis, Ch. 2)
introduces the biblical understanding of the purpose of humanity , a profound idea which serves as a foundational pillar of Jewish ethical teachings.

Text 2: Behold My Works! (Kohelet Rabbah) further develops the concept of humanity's responsibility to care for and preserve the world.

Text 3: Being for Myself (Mishna, Avot 1:13) highlights the tension between the global responsibility--looking outward beyond oneself--and the need for individuals to focus also on their own personal situation.

Texts 4 & 5: The Poor in Your Land (Deuteronomy 15:11, Maimonides "Laws of the Gifts to the Poor" 7:13) addresses one of the practical challenges of responding to obligations and suggest a hierarchy of responsibilities to which individuals can respond.

Text 6: Creation as Perfect and Imperfect (Alon Goshen-Gotteschien) challenges us to assimilate two perspectives of the world which are somewhat in tension and to let each view inspire us and drive us toward action.


Share the previous paragraph with students and have them reflect on the following questions.

> When in your life do you feel a sense of obligation? To whom are you obligated? What do you feel obligated to do? What makes you feel obligated in general?

Introduce students to the phrase, "universe of obligation"--referring to the idea of considering , all at once, our varied obligations and all of the people or groups to whome we feel obligated.

> How do you prioritize the categories which exist in this "universe?" Are all of your obligations equally important or equally demanding? What are the principles by which you rank your obligations?

> Do you have an obligation to engage in social action? If so, what is the source of your obligation? Where does it come from? If not, why might you choose to engage in social action?

> Either way, who are you when you act? Which culture(s) and which value(s) are motivating you to act?

> Do you (or should you) act as a Jew engaged in social action or as American? What is the difference? Can you be both?

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Hillel

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