Often, our opinions are shaped by the trends around us, and from time to time, these opinions will motivate us to action. But what does it look like to be motivated by a sacred calling rather than trendy impulse?
Setting Aside Trendy Impulse in Favor of Covenantal Faithfulness
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, or CCAR, is the Reform rabbinic association. When CCAR members gathered in 1964, their annual conference started like any other. But soon, an urgent telegram had been received and was read to the entire assembly. In it, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appealed to the gathered rabbis to join him in St. Augustine, Florida – a stronghold of segregation and a battleground in Dr. King’s movement of non-violent resistance.
The next day, sixteen rabbis and one lay activist boarded a plane to answer Dr. King’s call. Among them was Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz—may his memory be for a blessing—perhaps the greatest Jewish philosopher of the past fifty years. Not long after their arrival in Florida, all seventeen Jewish leaders sat in jail, having dared to pray alongside fellow citizens who were black.
It was from that jail cell that Rabbi Borowitz composed the most famous letter of his career, entitled “Why We Came.” In it, he wrote:
We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us. … We came … as ones who, perhaps quixotically, thought we could add a bit to the healing process of America. …
These words convey the classic Reform Jewish commitment to social justice and repairing the world. Our movement has taught us that Jewish life is actualized when we dedicate ourselves to the betterment of others.
But further along, Dr. Borowitz’ letter adopts a slightly different tone. He writes:
These hours [in jail] have been filled with a sense of surprise and discovery, of fear and affirmation, of self-doubt and belief in God. …
We believe in man’s ability to fulfill God’s commands with God’s help. … In obeying [God], we become ourselves; in following [God’s] will, we fulfill ourselves. [God] has guided, sustained, and strengthened us in a way we could not manage on our own.
For many Reform Jews, this language about obeying God’s command sounds foreign. For some of us, such God language sounds Orthodox or perhaps even Christian. Indeed, Dr. Borowitz’ words may as well have been written by Dr. King himself, who wrote just a year earlier from his own jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama: “We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men [and women] willing to be coworkers with God...”
We’re all familiar with the inspiring rhetoric of Dr. King and the deep and profound piety that drove him to dedicate his life to the pursuit of civil rights and social justice. A sincere depth of conviction undergirds Dr. King’s advocacy, and we wonder: can Reform Jews, too, be motivated by a sincere faith in God?
In short, the answer is yes. God doesn’t belong only to conservative religious movements. For proof, we need look no further than to Eugene Borowitz, aptly considered the father of postmodern liberal Jewish theology.
Rabbi Borowitz was ordained in 1948 and starting in 1962 served as a member of the faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Movement’s seminary. From that position, Dr. Borowitz instructed three generations of rabbis, instilling in them his innovative philosophical system known as Covenant Theology.
Covenant Theology seeks to describe a deep and meaningful approach to Jewish life in a post-Holocaust world disillusioned with the siren’s call of modernity. Forsaking the Enlightenment’s exaltation of the individual self, Covenant Theology instead turns our attention beyond our own personal experiences to forces much greater than ourselves.
The post-modern Jew, Borowitz teaches, lives in the intersection of three covenants: the covenant with oneself; the covenant with other Jews, past, present and future; and the covenant with God. Each of these covenants deserves a sermon unto itself – and indeed, I hope to dedicate sermons to these very topics in the months ahead. For now, suffice it to say that robust and meaningful Jewish life must come with an acceptance that we are not the only masters of our own lives. Others—namely, God and the Jewish people—have a real and substantive claim on our lives.
Only from this perspective can we make sense of the decision of Dr. Borowitz and his colleagues to fly to St. Augustine, Florida to get arrested in somebody else’s behalf. None of them was motivated by self-interest alone; rather, they responded to a higher calling that demanded sacrifice of them in service of the greater cause of justice.
The task of Jews, now as always, is to build a world consistent with a Jewish view of what is good and just. Such ideals cannot spring fully formed from our own minds but must, at some level, emerge from an eternal—and, to some extent, external—source of moral authority. Human mastery leads to human slavery; only in accepting divine rule can we truly be free.
If we are motivated by deep conviction and enduring values—what Eugene Borowitz called “Covenantal faithfulness”—if we are called to action by the urgency of our prophetic tradition, then our capacity for social justice knows no bounds. We, just like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eugene Borowitz before us, can harness the divine power of moral authority and turn it towards bending the arc of history toward justice.
However, in today’s hyper-connected society, rarely does our activism emerge from such principled inspiration. Instead, much of the time, we respond to what Dr. Borowitz called “trendy impulse.”
Persuaded by pundits and peers, we express outrage against or proclaim allegiance for one policy or another without assessing fundamental questions of morality. We react to the latest sensation with the rapid response demanded by the 24-hour news cycle without first considering the deeper truths imbedded in a story. Our attention drifts from one online petition to the next, swimming in a sea of causes we assume are just because people we like post about them on Facebook.
Of course, many of these causes are just. And there’s nothing wrong with signing online petitions. But I fear that a system of activism comprised only of impulsive expressions of affinity or disgust, a system that fails to demand anything serious or lasting from us, is doomed to flatten under the ponderous bulk of the status quo. When we are driven by “trendy impulse” rather than “covenantal faithfulness,” we fail to reach our full potential as Jews who can make a difference in the world.
What does “trendy impulse” look like? Take as one example our nation’s current debate about immigration. By and large, Republicans today seek less immigration to the United States and stronger enforcement of standing immigration laws, precipitating potentially millions of deportations. And by and large, Democrats have resisted these efforts, in particular stressing the cruelty of unnecessarily deporting hard-working friends and neighbors.
Surely many Americans have sustained a thoughtful position on immigration for years on end. But I suspect that many more are simply towing their party’s line. Democrats seem often to ignore the unprecedented volume of deportations ordered by the Obama administration over the past eight years, and Republicans likewise have closed their eyes to their own party’s exploration in years past of compassionate efforts to reform the system. On this issue as with so many others, we often take our cues from pundits and politicians without engaging first in an accounting of our personal and religious responsibilities.
And just one more example is the range of executive authority enjoyed by the President of the United States. Steadily over the past decades, Congress has willingly—even eagerly—increased the power of the Executive Branch. Republicans hailed and Democrats assaulted George W. Bush’s use of executive orders such as his ban on stem cell research; and the roles were reversed for Barack Obama’s executive orders such as his establishing a minimum wage for federal contractors. But behind the partisan politics lies a critical question of how much power any president should have. If we can clear our minds of “trendy impulse,” we may be able to address higher-order concerns more directly.
So what does “covenantal faithfulness” look like? I believe that deep engagement with the values of our tradition can motivate sustained action in any number of areas. There are many issues on which reasonable people can disagree, yet I also believe that there are some moral stances that Judaism unambiguously demands of us. One such Jewish value is the imperative to care for the stranger, and I believe we have a Jewish obligation to enact this value through supporting refugees resettled in the United States. Another is our commitment to the principle that every human being is created in the image of God, compelling us to defend the civil rights of every individual in America. And, of course, there are many more. Regardless of the issue that captures our attention, our tradition urges us:
סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב; בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.
Turn from evil and do what is good; seek peace and pursue it (Ps. 34:15).
As we enter this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, and as we near Eugene Borowitz’ first yartzeit only nine days from today, let us turn to our own deepest convictions to inspire us to faithful action. Let us delve into our tradition and lift from it those most exalting principles of truth and justice that enliven us and drive us to make the world a better place. And may we merit the honor to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors who have charged us to bring closer the day when “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).
 Cf. http://blogs.rj.org/rac/2014/10/27/channeling-abraham-as-we-fight-for-civil-rights/.
 Available in Eugene Borowitz’ Studies in the Meaning of Judaism, Chapter 8.
 Letter from Birmingham City Jail (April 16, 1963), p. 9. Available: http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/letter-birmingham-city-jail-0.
 Renewing the Coven,ant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew (1991), p. 292.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”