The Social Justice Torah Commentary
- ISBN: 9780881233834
- Published By: CCAR Press
- Published: April 2021
The Social Justice Torah Commentary truly lives up to its title. This collection of essays, edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block, aligns a parashah (or weekly Torah portion) with a social justice or injustice topic plaguing our communities. The content primarily discusses contemporary issues in American and Israeli contexts, broaching topics from white supremacy and racism to marriage equality and economic privilege. Midrashim are sewn into the fabric of the commentary, which begins with a disclaimer that it is not intended to be “all-inclusive of the social justice challenges facing the world today (xxi).” The volume seeks to bridge a gap between firmly held theological beliefs and communal practices aimed at justice. As the authors wrote their essays at the height of the pandemic, the collection is timely and covers recent injustices, from the death of George Floyd to the disproportionate impacts of Covid-19 on Black, brown, and disenfranchised communities. Highlighting varying perspectives on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reproductive justice, this work is adaptable to many religious and social contexts.
Reviewing this from a Protestant Christian perspective, I found that background knowledge is constructive. This is a Torah commentary with Hebrew used throughout the book, but there is a handy glossary in the back for assistance and a brief biography of each author. In addition to Hebrew, some awareness of Jewish traditions and customs is useful. Keeping a copy of the Tanakh nearby is helpful as well. Such knowledge and resources are beneficial but not required. Many engaged and intentional readers will find valuable lessons and calls to action in this work without any additional knowledge or resources. Many poignant statements within the volume require no additional context to tug at the reader’s spirit. “Parashat Tazria,” for example, states that “it is only when we recognize the potential of the infinite that we can refuse to accept the finite world as it is, instead working to remake the world into what it can be, for all people” (164).
Additionally, the volume features data (such as on the horrific recidivism rates in America) to advance its arguments. The “Acharei Mot” portion of the volume analyzes a Miami-Dade County program that has successfully diverted individuals with mental illnesses to community services rather than jail. The program decreased recidivism from 75 to 20 percent and saved the county $12 million annually (174).
The volume has some organizational shortcomings. Some terms and names used in particular essays are only defined in later sections. I attribute this to the book being an edited volume and not the work of one author. The glossary, a good search engine, and a little patience help smooth out the reading experience. Also helpful are the essays with quick explanations, such as those done in Va’eira for “Rashi, the preeminent medieval Torah commentator” (84). In other essays, though it does not render the social justice arguments any less valid, there are moments of the commentary that lose sight of the Torah portion it is meant to reflect. While reading, it is important to remember that this commentary is intended to inform our lives as a community and as people seeking a just world.
The introduction states that a 2020 commentary edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life (CCAR Press), focuses on the internal work each of us must do, which might appear to make this volume seem “divergent.” However, The Social Justice Torah Commentary argues that our internal work impacts how we engage in the world, making this book sequential and not divergent (xxvi). I am inclined to agree. This commentary features thought-provoking questions and calls to action for each of us in the area of social justice.
Tiffanie Lanelle Mackey is an independent scholar and social justice advocate.Tiffanie MackeyDate Of Review:April 15, 2023