Every May, Jewish American Heritage Month offers all of us the opportunity to more deeply engage with the three and a half centuries of Jewish life in the United States. It invites us to take stock of the religious, cultural, political and social currents that have shaped and been shaped by American Jewry.
This year, thanks to our talented and committed partners at The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives (AJA), we have been able to revisit a pivotal moment both in the history of the Religious Action Center, and of Jews in America. The Archives contains a copy of an address by Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, the RAC’s first director, formally dedicating our building in November 1962. This document was donated to the AJA along with the RAC’s records by Rabbi David Saperstein in 2008. In it, Rabbi Hirsch frames the Jewish imperative for social justice and lays out his vision for the RAC. As he does this, he makes two points that stick out to me about how Jewish values inform our engagement with the world around us.
The first is a search for wholeness. Rabbi Hirsch opens his dedication by quoting Genesis 17:1: “Walk before Me and be wholehearted.” He goes on to lament that the RAC’s founding comes at a time when “Our contemporary society is a bifurcated[,] rather than a ‘wholehearted’ society.” Social action and public policy work, according to Rabbi Hirsch, are essential tools for building a world that is defined by wholeness rather than by disparity. More than that, though, Rabbi Hirsch urges that Jews look at the whole picture of social justice, rather than focus solely on issues that directly affect Jews. As he writes, “our covenantal obligations require us to be conscientiously and zealously attuned to all the channels of social concern.”
Rabbi Hirsch also calls for a form of social justice advocacy that makes Jewish values relevant to the real world. Referencing the moment that we will soon celebrate during Shavuot, he reminds us that “Our forefathers did not rest with the issuance of general pronouncements from the detached heights of Mt. Sinai. They descended into the valley of reality.” To honor this mandate, according to Rabbi Hirsch, is to be active in the mundane process of policymaking – from bill introductions to Supreme Court rulings. Indeed, Rabbi Hirsch argues, refraining from engaging would be negligence: “To demand the right to preach to society without becoming involved in the society to whom we preach is to act irresponsibly.”
Both of Rabbi Hirsch’s teachings seem essential to the story of Jews in the United States. A quest for wholeness has characterized much of American Jewish history, as many Jews came here with the goal of being a full member of American society, worked tirelessly to experience that wholeness and, through the work of social justice, extended that wholeness to others. Making the lofty values enshrined in our Torah relevant is also an enduring feature of American Jewish life, as we seek to wed our deeply-held Jewish beliefs to our daily lives and our pursuit of social justice.
Rabbi Hirsch’s speech contains many more powerful ideas, and I encourage you to read it in full, as it hearkens back to a moment that resonates with us more than 50 years later and calls upon us to reflect on our Movement’s work for tikkun olam. As we look back on Jewish American History Month and look forward to Shavuot, how will we rededicate ourselves to Rabbi Hirsch’s teachings? How will we build a world that is more whole, and how will we carry our values from Mt. Sinai into the valley of reality?
You can learn more about the RAC’s history on our website and by researching the organizations records at the AJA. You can also learn more about Jewish American Heritage Month at JewishHeritageMonth.gov and the American Jewish Archives at AmericanJewishArchives.org.