Sometimes we forget that, on a good day, Jews constitute only 2 percent of the American population. No matter how strong our institutions and activism, we cannot advance our public policy agenda without seeking common cause with other groups to amplify our voices. And when we are profoundly concerned with growing antisemitism, by also condemning rising attacks on immigrants, increasing Islamophobia, and racially-motivated violence, we join with others without diluting our specific concerns. We may stand shoulder-to-shoulder in coalition on many issues (e.g., joining with the interfaith community on civil rights and affordable housing) or we may partner on one specific issue (such as fighting an anti- circumcision initiative in San Francisco).
In honoring Hillel’s second of three clauses, “If I am only for myself…,” we cannot abandon the first: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That clause requires us to select our allies wisely. Can we work with a group on a specific issue even when we have passionate disagreements on other issues? Absolutely. Every day, mainstream Jewish groups work with liberal Protestant groups on social issues — groups that have deeply disappointed and hurt our community with their support of divestment from Israel. We join with the Catholic Church in fighting poverty, yet on reproductive choice we are on opposite sides. What are the redlines? There are groups on the far left and far right whose extremism poses a genuine threat to Jews and whom we cannot work with. But, our energies are best spent looking for how to expand our 2 percent, also knowing that, when we stand with others, they are more likely to stand with us.
I thank Rabbi Kahn for giving me a new, and worthy, perspective on Hillel’s admonition, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Placing the shoe on the other foot — as his words inspire me to do — should give us Jews a newfound appreciation for evangelical Christians’ unflagging and generous support for the state of Israel. Based on their belief in the eternity of the divine covenant with the Jewish people, these Christians travel to Israel, advocate on its behalf, and, at least in the U.S., pressure politicians to pursue pro-Israel policies. Moreover, Rabbi Kahn’s stress on the building of alliances is an important reminder in the face of approaching battles for religious liberty, adumbrated by the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, in which the state of Colorado tried to punish a religious baker for declining to design a cake for a same-sex wedding. American Jews will only succeed in maintaining their freedom by seeing, for instance, the struggle of a Sikh soldier to wear his turban while on duty as their own. Doing so will require setting aside deeply held prejudices in order to work closely with conservative Catholics, evangelical Christians, and Muslims.
Yet I don’t think Hillel had Jewish political strategies in mind when he uttered those words. Rather, he was writing about the personal quest for moral perfection. If I am only for myself, I am worthless. Judaism has never prized a focus on self-cultivation over helping, caring for, and teaching others.
I stood in awe watching Melanie, a life-long Brooklynite woman of color. She was speaking beautifully about why young Jewish adults should volunteer in her community of Crown Heights. Listening to Melanie, I heard so clearly Hillel’s aphorism, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Why does Melanie, someone with a strong and deep faith that isn’t Judaism, work with young Jewish adults who are trying to figure out the meaning of serving others, and are taking a year to do so? Because, she knows, life is not only about meeting one’s own needs but also about seeing beyond oneself.
In this era, when everything is urgent and we recognize the need to look beyond “If I am not for myself,” we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with a cross-section of communities. But how? How can we show up daily — and not only at rallies and marches? One way to show up is by serving alongside members of communities that are negatively impacted by the policies we are fighting to change. We need to build relationships with our neighbors by listening to the voices within those communities. This, in turn, can better inform the change we are advocating for. How can we possibly know what to advocate for if we are not actively in relationship with and listening to those who will be most affected by the change?