Who Stole My Religion?

pile of assorted varieties of vegetables

Photo by Mark Stebnicki on Pexels.com

By Richard H. Schwartz 

For many years I have believed that my religion, Judaism, has been stolen. Why? Because Judaism has powerful messages on peace, justice, compassion, sharing, and environmental sustainability that can help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. Yet, most Orthodox Jews are in denial about climate change and other environmental threats and are increasingly supporting politicians who promote benefits for the wealthiest Americans and highly profitable corporations, at the expense of average Americans.

I was a member of a modern Orthodox synagogue for 48 years, prior to moving to Israel on August 3, 2016. I found that members of the synagogue excel in acts of kindness, charity, and learning. Their dedication to Judaism is outstanding. However, while a strong majority of Jews support progressive policies, a similar majority of Orthodox Jews is conservative and hawkish. In the 2020 elections,, while about 75% of all US Jews voted for Joe Biden, about 75% of US Orthodox Jews voted for President Trump.

While Orthodox Jews generally know far more about Judaism than less religious and secular Jews, they are generally far less involved in applying Jewish values to today’s critical threats, at a time when this involvement is very much needed. Also, Orthodox Jews, like most Jews, are ignoring or downplaying Jewish teachings on veganism, the proper treatment of animals, and environmental stewardship. For these reasons and others, I think my religion has been stolen and primarily by the Orthodox Jewish community. I make this criticism reluctantly because so many Orthodox Jews are doing wonderful things in their communities, but feel that I must do so because the future of Judaism and humanity is at stake.

Because I think it is urgent to get this message out, I wrote, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, (written with Rabbi Yonassan Gershom and Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz), and it was published in August 2016 by Ktav/Urim Publications.

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In the book, I argue that Judaism is a radical religion, in the best sense of the word, and that Judaism’s progressive teachings should be applied to help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. Among the Jewish teachings that I discuss are the following:

  • Justice, justice shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20);
  • Seek peace and pursue it (Psalms 34:14);
  • Be kind to the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (this verse in various forms occurs 36 times in the Jewish scriptures, more than any other teaching; because of this, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former chancellor at Bar Ilan University argued that Judaism teaches a special kind of justice – empathic justice, which considers the conditions and needs of others);
  • Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18);
  • You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2);
  • Jews are to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6).

My book is meant to be a wake-up call, the strongest that I could make, to the need for Jews to apply Judaism’s splendid teachings in response to current threats. However, “denial is not just a river in Egypt,” and, like most others, many Jews are in denial, in effect, ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while the world heads toward a giant iceberg.” I want my book to ring out like a shofer, to awaken people to the urgency of applying Judaism’s wonderful values in response to current crises.

Among the key points in the book are:

  1. Jews should be vegetarians, and preferably vegans, to be most consistent with Jewish teachings on compassion, health, environmental sustainability, resource conservation, justice, reducing poverty, and other issues, and to help reduce the current epidemic of diseases in the Jewish and other communities and to reduce climate change and other environmental threats to humanity;
  2. Jews should be advocates for an end to current widespread abuses of animals;
  3. Jews should be environmental activists, leading efforts to avert a climate catastrophe and other environmental disasters;
  4. There should be a global Marshall-type plan, in which the U.S. and other developed nations devote a small percent of their income to efforts to significantly reduce poverty, hunger, Illiteracy, illness, pollution, and other societal ills. This would help improve the image of the U.S. and other countries that joined the effort, including Israel, and thereby help reduce the potential for terrorism and other violence.
  5. Israel needs a comprehensive, sustainable, just resolution of her conflict with the Palestinians, in order to avert continued and possibly increased violence and increased diplomatic criticism and isolation, respond effectively to her economic, environmental, and other domestic problems, and remain both a Jewish and a democratic state. This is also the view of many Israeli strategic and military experts. While most Orthodox Jews support or condone the occupation, it is essential that it soon end because the widespread mistreatment of Palestinians violates many of the Jewish values mentioned above,  damages Israel’s image worldwide, increases antisemitism, alienates many idealistic Jews, and makes it harder for Jews  to form alliances that would help produce a more compassionate, just, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable world.
  6. While most people look at the world in terms of good versus evil and us versus them, demonize opponents, and listen almost exclusively to arguments that reinforce their views, it is essential to find common ground and solutions to current problems.
  7. It is essential that Jews actively apply Jewish values to current critical problems. Jews must be God’s loyal opposition to injustice, greed, and immorality, rousing the conscience of humanity. We must shout “no” when others are whispering “yes” to injustice. We must involve Judaism in the universal task of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” We must act as befits “descendants of the prophets,” reminding the world that there exists a God of justice, compassion, and kindness. Nothing less than global survival is at stake.

The afternoon service for Yom Kippur includes the prophetic reading of the book of Jonah, who was sent by God to the city of Nineveh to urge the people to repent and change their evil ways in order to avoid their destruction. The people of Nineveh listened and changed their actions – but will we? Today the whole world is like Nineveh, in danger of annihilation and in need of repentance and redemption. Each one of us must be a Jonah, with a mission to warn the world that it must turn from greed, injustice, and materialism, in order that we may avoid global catastrophe.

Anyone interested in working to help spread the Jewish progressive messages in my book should please contact me at VeggieRich@gmail.com.

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4 thoughts on “Who Stole My Religion?

  1. Richard, shalom. You are so right on. It is easy for me to be a vegetarian, as I was raised as one, but my love for cheese and eggs defeats me. At least I buy only free-range eggs. It’s the small things, I tell myself.

    Judaism is all about social justice, but also about scholarship and critical thinking (“And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day, And that would be the sweetest thing of all” –Reb Tevye (my license plates at one time). Sadly, too few got the memo. Happily, the Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives communities call our from the mountain tops for shalom. (I once heard a jazz trombonist play the shofar. My response, shofar, show good.)

    I am a composer. I am a Jew and a Unitarian Universalist (my mother was the daughter of a Unitarian minister and was influenced and inspired by the pacifist Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes. My father Abraham was a conscientious objector and took the justice tenets of Judaism seriously. He devoted his life to the pursuit of peace and social justice.

    For sixteen years I was cantor in a Catholic church, where my father regarded the radical priest Fr. Bill O’Donnell as his rabbi. I swear he came to mass more than he ever did to temple.

    And so the mass I composed came to be called Missa Cantata Tikkun Olam and may be heard here:

    Peace and blessings, Daniel

  2. To further the messages in my article, I will be happy to email PDFs of the complete text and the cover picture of my latest book, VEGAN REVOLUTION: SAVING OUR WORLD, REVITALIZING JUDAISM, to all who email me at VeggieRich@gmail.com and put, “Please send PDFs” in the subject line.

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