by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
Note: This is the fifth of a series of personal essays on the beginnings of Kehilla. Each article shares the origins of one or more of the ideals and/or values that motivated me to start Kehilla. The essays are adapted from the manuscript of the book I am in the process of completing, tentatively titled There is Only One Love: The Ba’al Shem Tov in the Modern World.
My passion for social justice came from my mother, Gert Jacobson. As the chairwoman of the Anti-Defamation League in Cleveland during World War II, she tried to awaken the Jewish community to the Nazi atrocities in Europe. When our family moved to Texas in 1947, Gert became the chairwoman of the Anti-Defamation League in San Antonio. In that capacity she worked with teachers in the public schools, instructing them on how to promote racial, ethnic and religious tolerance in their classrooms.
My mother’s commitment to social justice stemmed from her father, Ruby Goldberg. My grandfather, who was born in Romania, was a women’s tailor. A secular Yiddish-speaking Jew, he was strongly drawn to socialism. He became a negotiator for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union in New York. My mother remembered him coming home from the negotiations, infuriated by the tightfisted attitudes of the factory owners. He would go to the kitchen, pick up a carving knife and bang it repeatedly on the counter. “Those G… d…. bosses, those G… d…. bosses, they won’t give us a nickel! They won’t give us a nickel!
I did not hear that story until I was an adult, but I learned about the biblical prophets as a young student in the religious school of Temple Beth El in San Antonio. I came to admire the commitment of the Reform movement to social justice.
Yet, I did not study the words of the biblical prophets until I entered rabbinical school. In 1961, as a second-year student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a seminar with Abraham Joshua Heschel on the prophets. By this time, Heschel was well on his way to becoming the most well-known Jewish religious thinker in the United States.
Heschel had completed his dissertation on the prophets in the late 1930s in Germany, just as the Nazi regime had come into power. In the late 1950s he decided to rewrite the book in English. The members of our seminar were privileged to read the galley proofs of The Prophets with him.
In the book’s introduction, Heschel wrote:
The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world. There is no society to which Amos’ words would not apply.
Listen to this, you merchants who crush the poor,and trample on the needy! You who are thinking,“When will this New Moon festival finally be over so that we can sell our grain, and this Sabbath day, so we can market our wheat? Then we will tamper with the scales, making the bushel-measure smaller and the shekel-weight bigger. And then we can make slaves of the poor, buying them for their debt of a piece of silver or a pair of sandals, and we will even get paid for moldy wheat.”YHWH, the Pride of Israel, has sworn: ‘’I will never forget what you have done!’ Amos 8:4-7
Indeed, [Heschel continued] the sort of crimes and even the amount delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us, a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets, it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.
Heschel’s prose was incandescent. I found his ability to enter the consciousness of the prophets utterly remarkable. As a result, the voices of the prophets have both stirred and haunted me throughout my life.
In the following years I found myself especially drawn to Amos, the first of the literary prophets, who focused almost exclusively on the necessity for social justice. Amos seemed totally relevant to the political climate of the late 1960s. Indeed, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who became Heschel’s friend and colleague, often cited Amos’ words. The day before he was assassinated in 1968, King delivered a speech in support of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, in which he said:
“Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he must tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, who said, “When God speaks, who can but prophesy?” Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In the late 1960s I taught classes about Amos and his message to both high school students and adults. I emphasized the prophet’s fiery denunciations of corruption, wealth, luxury, perversion of justice and superficial religion.
As I thought about starting a synagogue in the early 1980s, the fierce voice of Amos called out to me. I felt that this radical prophet of justice simply had to be given a platform in a city like Berkeley, which had been strongly identified with rapid social change, civic unrest, and political upheaval in the 1960s and ‘70s. The political Left was still robust and there were moral/political issues— the Israel-Palestine conflict, nuclear weapons, central American refugees—that cried out to be dealt with from a prophetic religious perspective.