Being the Hands of God: The Jewish Call to Social Justice

Third Annual Prophetic Voices in the American Churches Lecture

Rabbi David Saperstein
Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Date: March 23, 2004

Event Recap

Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and one of the most influential religious lobbyists in Washington, delivered the 3rd annual Prophetic Voices in American religion lecture on the evening of March 23rd. The topic of his lecture was social mission in the American Jewish tradition.

Saperstein argued that prophetic mission is a definitive characteristic of the Jewish people and pointed to evidence that although American Jews are only 2.5% of the population, they comprise a noticeably higher proportion of progressive activists, are elected to public office at a higher rate than their proportion in the population, and vote at a rate of 80-90%. He argued that this sense of participation and social justice comes directly from the Prophets, in particular, passages of Isaiah which claim the infinite value of all human people.

The Jewish tradition, he claimed, calls for the belief in the perfectibility of people, society, and humanity which called into being the first system of universal education. The structure of Jewish law and thinking focuses on responsibilities rather than rights. It also calls for the sword to enter where justice is denied and a belief that what is right is also just.

On the role of the prophetic voice, Saperstein stated that the role of religion is to be a prophetic voice to government. He pointed to the rising influence of religion in public debates, giving as examples the role that religious communities played in calling for a nuclear freeze, the introduction of Just War theory into political debates since the first Gulf War, and the humanitarian motivations for sending Americans into Somalia.

Saperstein ended his lecture on an exhortatory note to the assembled students. “This is the first generation in which we can make real everything the Prophets dreamed of,” he said, calling upon students to be the prophetic voices of their generation.

About the Speaker

Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., a professor of religion and law at Georgetown University, and the author most recently of Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time. His lecture—the third in a series sponsored by the Boisi Center on the prophetic voice of the Church in different religious traditions—deals with the origin of that prophetic tradition in Jewish thought and its role in Jewish history. He discusses how those ideals are applied through tikkun olam, “perfecting the world,” the active pursuit of peace and justice.