Ruth Messinger connects Judaism with social justice work

Ruth Messinger Gesticulating
Ruth Messinger spoke as part of the Faith, Hope, and Knowledge initiative. Photo by Jonathan Miller. 

By Hunter Seitz, Cornell Daily Sun

Ruth Messinger, global ambassador and former president of American Jewish World Service, posed the question of how Judaism and social justice movements are connected in a lecture on Tuesday.

“This commandment to social justice is inherently a part of Judaism … but that does not mean that it has some exclusive claim on work for social justice or on advocacy and activism,” Messinger said.

According to Messinger, in the Jewish faith, the Prophet Micah tells the Jewish people that God requires them “to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Messinger argues that this means to treat individuals equitably and with dignity, in all situations, no matter their race, gender, sexuality or other identity.

“It is the way in which, as individuals, as a society, as a country, as a world, we are directed to treat people equitably, and to create situations that fully respect each person’s dignity,” Messinger said.

However, justice should not simply be a lofty goal to pursue. Messinger argued that “justice must not only be the end goal, but it also must be the means by which the work is done.”

Far too often, she said, we do justice for others rather than with them. She gave the example of how the Ebola outbreak was handled in Liberia in 2014.

U.S. Marines were sent to create clinics so patients would not have to travel so far to seek treatment. However, because they did not dialogue with local authorities or village leaders, there was a spread of misinformation, Messinger said.

Messinger explained that villagers came to the belief that the clinics were spreading the virus, as everyone they knew who went to the clinics returned sick or died of the disease.

Many more died because they avoided treatment due to the misinformation surrounding these clinics. In this way, Messinger contended, the U.S. attempt to provide aid without properly investigating the situation and working with local leaders led to a tragic situation that harmed many people.

Messinger said that rather than try to solve individual issues, such as giving food to a homeless person, we should focus instead on dealing with structural issues that are causing many of the inequalities that social justice movements are attempting to address.

“In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty but all are responsible,” she said, quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who accompanied the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Selma-to-Montgomery civil-rights march.

In this way, she argued, the Jewish faith charges its followers to always challenge the structures in place that allow for terrible tragedies to occur.

Not all people cause the ills of society, but all are responsible for amending them, Messinger argued.

“We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it,” she said.

If we simply stand to the side, or try to deal with the individual events rather than the large structural issues, Messinger argued, we will continue to let these events occur.

Messinger quoted the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

“We must always take sides,” she said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”