Tzedakah, the word we are most likely to translate as “charity,” is actually derived from a Hebrew root meaning “righteous” or “justice.”
Judaism gives us many ways to perform tzedakah — correct acts, or acts of integrity — whether the simple donation of money or direct service to the needy.
Where Justice Dwells is, as the subtitle explains, Rabbi Jill Jacobs’s “Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights, paper, $24.99). Jacobs is the director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (named one of Newsweek’s most influential rabbis). This, her second book, is a practical manual and textbook for doing the right things, and gives us the opportunity to explore our motivation for our actions.
The book could be used for a class or book discussion group, as each chapter concludes with a list of discussion questions. In three sections, Jacobs explores what makes social justice Jewish, integrating Jewish life and social justice (including some text study) and how to take action, along with additional resources for action and further reading.
One of the more interesting questions Jacobs asks, accompanied by a bit of Talmud, is what constitutes your community, and which is the community to which you are required to give? Is your obligation to your neighborhood or to Israel? To your school or to your synagogue? To your people or to your country? Our lives have become a complex web of charitable opportunity both within and without the Jewish community and this book will either propel you to action or enhance what you do already.
What is more righteous than raising a happily Jewish child? In Raising Kids to Love Being Jewish (K’hal, paper, $15.99), Doron Kornbluth sets out a clear-cut recipe for achieving just that. Kornbluth’s opening chapter offers the most important advice, “Practice Joyful Judaism,” followed by the second chapter’s “Be a Role Model.” There’s little reason to follow the rest of the usual advice — send kids to a Jewish preschool or day school, or at least to Hebrew school, send them to camp, observe the holidays, belong to a synagogue, explore your genealogy and get grandparents involved — if you aren’t going to do it with a positive attitude and demonstrate that you enjoy it yourself. (Raise your hand if you were told you had to go to Hebrew school, but were treated to a litany of complaints about religion when you got home.)
Despite Kornbluth’s upbeat writing peppered with interesting personal anecdotes, there is a dark side to all this: It doesn’t always work, as parents know, despite all efforts. I recently met a woman whose parents had followed most of these principles, including Jewish summer camp, which many experts regard as the top Jewish retention tool. Yet this woman found her camping comrades so cliquish and arrogant it turned her off her religion forever.
There are no pat answers for something this complex, but I would add to Kornbluth’s list to keep an open dialogue between you and your kids, be receptive to hard questions, and don’t pretend that you — or anyone — has all the answers.
Readers can enjoy entertaining stories of good deeds in Tales of the Righteous, retold by Simcha Raz and translated by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins (Gefen, cloth, $24.95). The author has rendered these Chassidic tales into a format easily appreciated by a modern audience. As Elie Wiesel notes in his foreword, “[Raz] presents us with the fair, literary, and humane countenance of Chassidism.” These short stories are grouped by category, alphabetized from “Anger” to “Prayer” to “Wisdom” (plus a separate section on “This World and the Next” at the end).
Certainly another great righteousness act is to help women who suffer from post-partum depression, as husband-wife team Rabbi Baruch and Michal Finkelstein do in Delivery from Darkness (Feldheim, paper, $19.99). Feldheim publishers has a mission of producing books on “essential, worldly topics, written with sensitivity toward the Torah-observant Jew.” While the authors assume their readers are observant, there’s plenty of good information here from which any reader can pick and choose. The authors explain the physiology and psychology of this fairly common disorder, and take pains to assure the reader that no one should be blamed for having it. Because of the religious angle, the authors are able to add a spiritual dimension to the multi-pronged approach — medical, nutrition and mental health — they propose.