Jewish Journal

Exposed Roots: The Importance of Faith-Rooted Spiritual Activism

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

June 12, 2012 | 5:24 am

The extraordinary Tree that Inspired Faith-Rooted Activism (Sherbourne Drive, Los Angeles)

The other day my wife and I walked passed a massive tree and marveled at how its roots were exposed above ground. These roots can still fulfill their function to absorb water, store nutrients, support the tree, and prevent erosion of the soil, but the tree seemed exposed, perhaps even naked.

Similarly, our roots are private. We share our branches and leaves with the world, even our trunks, but our roots remain underground to be clandestinely nourished and protected.

Upon reflection, I realized that this tree was strong and beautiful enough that it could expose its roots to the world. There was no shame. Too often, we leave our deepest selves below ground, so no one can see. When we hide our depths from those close to us, we often hide from ourselves as well. To be sure, most private things are appropriately shared privately; this is modesty. But what would a world look like if everyone kept the holy and meaningful below ground? Conversely, what would a world look like if we all put some of our roots above ground to share our sources of nourishment and empowerment?

Most of our roots stay below ground due to insecurity and the fear of exposing our deepest longings, dreams, fears and weaknesses. Here there is a clash between aspects of our modesty (keeping things private) and our humility (willingness to show our weaknesses). But perhaps even more, we leave our roots below ground because we ourselves question whether or not they are good. On some level, perhaps we disbelieve in the goodness of our own souls and belief systems.

To create change today, we must move from a faith-based activism to a faith-rooted activism. In faith-based activism, we as Jews merely act together based upon our collective cultural values, but in faith-rooted activism we bring our deep spiritual and emotional wisdom to the surface. Our faith informs not just why but how we engage with the world. We bring our roots to the surface to share, discuss, inspire and mobilize.

Most Jewish social justice activism remains comfortable on the faith-based level leaving spiritual depth below ground. Today, we must return to faith-rooted activism. We must not enter Capitol Hill as cultural Jews but as representatives of G-d, Torah and our tradition. It takes soul power to keep the flame of social change alive and thus we must not keep our deepest roots below the earth.

Teaching about social change, Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israel, taught the importance of “bringing up the sparks” to make all holy. 

The general conception of striving for equality, which is the basis of kindness and the pure love of people, is seen in the mystical interpretation as bringing up the sparks that are scattered among the husks of unrefined existence, and in the great vision of transforming everything to full and absolute holiness, in a gradual increasing of love, peace, justice, truth, and compassion (Orot HaKodesh 2, 322).

It is the “husks of unrefined existence” where we can find the sparks to transform the world. Rav Kook continues that if we neglect our spiritual roots keeping them hidden from the surface of reality, while dealing with material justice issues, then we merely act like children unaware of our very existence.

Should a man want to build a completely structured cosmology without the aid of any spiritual emanation, by the calculation of material necessities, we may watch this child’s game in perfect ease, since it builds a shell of life without knowing how to build life itself, whereas we can draw closer and be strengthened more in the bond of the inner light of holiness (Igrot HaReayah 1, 45).

Faith is not merely our motivation for acting, as the word of G-d must do more than just awaken our conscience. The role of religion is to agitate us to courageously go deeper into our spiritual and emotional existence and to bring those deep truths to the public sphere. Only when we share our roots can we truly change the fabric of our society and the depths of our world.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel,  and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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