Balancing Activism and the Cosmic
by Arik Ascherman
The death of my father last April caused me to reflect anew on where we agreed and where we disagreed. When I was a college student, we would debate capitalism and socialism. Over the years I came to realize that people would be much better off under the capitalist system he envisioned than under any of the capitalist or socialist realities today. Our generation has seen the atrocities that capitalism, socialism, and every other existing "ism" can lead to.
As a rabbinic student (and later as a young rabbi), I would comb Jewish sources for the ultimate texts affirming my Jewish commitment to social justice. I still enjoy discovering a text. However, I eventually realized that what we most need to know can be found in the first verses of the Book of Genesis: First, God created the heavens and earth (Genesis 1:1). As important as we humans are, there is something above and beyond us to which we are beholden. And second, human beings are created in God's Image (1:27). The Torah does not teach that only Jews or only the wealthy are created in God's Image, and it makes a point of emphasizing that both men and women are so created.
The key determining whether various systems will succeed in improving the human condition or increase human suffering is whether those implementing the system internalize and act upon these principles. I also learned at Harvard that intellectual endeavor divorced from truly honoring God's Image will not bring about tikkun olam. We nevertheless need the tools that our religious traditions, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology, and other disciplines provide us because there are situations in which people who genuinely wish to honor God's Image disagree about how to do so.
So, how do we accomplish tikkun olam? With all of my years of experience, and even some modest accomplishments, I should have more strategic insights than I do. I still believe in "shooting in all directions." We still have a long ways to go to a repair and sanctify the world. I am comforted by the knowledge that many people's lives have been concretely improved as a result of my work and the work of others. I know that each of us has a thread to add to the warp and woof of history. As many have heard me say, on those days when I feel like I am beating my head against the wall, I find inspiration in the talmudic teaching that we must look at life on both the personal and cosmic scales as two perfectly balanced scales (Kedushin 40b). We never know whether the act that seems insignificant, pointless, and ineffective at the time will be the act that tips the scales one way or the other. To some this no doubt feels like a terrible responsibility and burden. For others, it is a relieving message of hope. In fact, it is both. May we have the wisdom, the courage, and the faith to tip the scales in the right direction.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the general secretary of Rabbis for Human Rights.
Source Citation: Ascherman, Arik. 2011. Balancing Activism and the Cosmic. Tikkun 26(1): 31