by Rachel Kraft Elliott, ICJS Justice Leaders Fellow

An essay about justice and the rodef and some other things that are vitally important to saving the world because I am a self-righteous white lady and I’m not giving up.

When I was ten years old, I asked my mom, “What makes you Jewish?” And she told me, “I express my Judaism through Tikkun Olam and social justice.” This was the beginning of my lifelong personal and professional dedication to making the world better. In this little exchange, I learned everything I needed to know about what indelibly binds me to my Jewishness. It gave me a north star, pointing me towards a life of trying to be a good person.

What does that mean, Tikkun Olam? It translates to Healing the World, but what does it mean in application? How do I Heal the World; how does this become an identity? A responsibility? A personal mission? In Rabbi A.J. Heschel’s interpretation of Mishnah Bava Kamma 2.2, “To be human is to be accountable. In contrast to animals, the Mishnah teaches human beings are always held responsible for our actions.” Heschel goes on to say, “The meaning of human freedom is not that we can decide whether or not we are responsible for other humans; the meaning of human freedom is that we can decide whether or not to live up to that responsibility.”

According to Heschel’s logic, we are all bound by the primary driver of Tikkun Olam. We define ourselves — our humanness — by our actions; how we choose to take responsibility for the welfare of the world defines our humanity. Thus, it can be said that all of humankind is responsible for both breaking and fixing the world.

I learned in Sunday school that the way we do Tikkun Olam is to give tzedekah (charity), be nice to our grandparents, or maybe plant a tree in Israel. Often, Tikkun Olam is enacted as a reactive solution: helping the needy, saving the environment, feeding the poor, healing the victims. But this oversimplified interpretation does not take into account the pursuit of justice — only the response to injustice that has already occurred.

The word Tzedakah means so much more than charity. It comes from the same root word as Tzedek which means both justice and righteousness. In Deuteronomy 16:20, God tells the people Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof which translates as Justice Justice (or righteousness righteousness) you shall pursue L’man tikh’yeh v’yarash et ha-aretz asher hashem noten lakh for you to live and inherit the land that God has given you. This passage connects our commitment to Tikkun Olam/tzedakah to our continued existence. What is most important in this command is the repetition of the words Tzedek Tzedek. God is telling us that we shouldn’t just heal the world, give charity, but we should be in active pursuit of justice, and we must be righteous and just in our pursuit of justice.

To truly pursue justice, we need to move beyond simple reactive Tikkun Olam responses and move toward a proactive strategy addressing the root causes of injustice which are why there is so much in need of fixing.

During the ICJS Imagining Justice in Baltimore fellowship courses, we learned about a Talmudic discussion of the rodef, which literally translates to “pursuer”. The Talmud uses the term to represent the potential bad actor in a crime. In this discussion, it surprisingly doesn’t tell us to protect the victim from the rodef; rather, it tells us to protect the rodef from committing the crime. Why do we protect the rodef? We do it because they are considered to be a pursuer, but not yet a criminal. We center the conversation on the opportunity to turn them away from the crime, and to proactively prevent the rodef from following through.

To do the work of Tikkun Olam justly, we must address what brought us to the point of who we as a society deem a rodef. By calling a rodef a rodef, we are predetermining their guilt based on assumptions and biases that are interpreted as objective truths. Dissecting and understanding the past and the systems of oppression, structural racism and economic inequality that continue to create the despair and lack of opportunity that have led us to a culture of rodef versus not-rodef.

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof is a rallying cry for deep reflection of our roles in creating the systems of oppression and making a commitment to both sacrificing and fighting for a new, better, inclusive world. To save the rodef, the potential victim and even ourselves, we have to look forward, to destroy the broken systems by creating new ones: a new world based on the pursuit of justice, equality, inclusion, and the knowledge that we are all responsible for each other. We need to pursue justice justly because our lives and our humanity depend on it.

I embarked on this journey from a place of hope and comfort. I had the means and the privilege to be able to choose a life dedicated to creating a better world. Because of my color and privilege, I was never seen as a rodef, but as a well-meaning white Jewish woman who stepped up. As I continue my pursuit of justice, I am coming to see my hubris and understand that the access and voice that I have is a privilege that I was taking for granted. I am not turning away, and I am humbled constantly. I also am learning how to be a better ally and make a change in my own Jewish Community. I am forced to have my heart broken open, and it is making me a better rodef for justice.

I strive daily to imbue my work in community development in Baltimore City with a constant commitment to social justice and being a part of the breaking down and rebuilding of our city to make it the Greatest City in the World for all of us who live here. Being included in this cohort of activists, spiritual leaders, artists, and visionaries is truly a great honor. I am humbled and inspired, and I am seeing that there are places for me in the movement towards true justice in Baltimore City, the Baltimore Jewish Community and beyond.

Rachel Kraft Elliott is Chief of Staff and VP of Community Development at CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., and a  member of the 2018 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.