How to be human

Ethics & social issues By Matt Plen 16th Nov 2017

I’m currently completing a PhD thesis on the topic of Jewish social justice education. I was fascinated by the proliferation of social justice campaigning and educational work all over the Jewish world, and by the surprising absence of any theoretical or academic writing on the subject. The outcome is that while lots of people are trying to do Jewish social justice work, no-one has a clearly defined sense of exactly what this means.

For example, what do we mean by social justice – what is our vision for a just society and how does this inform our critique of existing political and economic arrangements? Are we concerned about human rights, the environment, poverty, the breakdown of community, international development issues, all or none of the above?

What is specifically Jewish about this vision? Does it derive fromhalacha, Biblical values, Jewish history, modern Jewish political movements – or is it enough to have a universal vision which happens to be pursued by Jews? Either way, is there anything specifically Jewish about thewayin which we pursue justice? Can social action itself be recognisably Jewish and what might this mean? If we can’t answer these latter questions, perhaps it would be better to recognise social justice as a universal, political pursuit and throw our lot in with broad-based, secular campaigns and organisations.

My research has focused on interviews with 15 UK-based Jewish social justice educators, including the head of informal education at JCoSS, a freelance educator doing feminist education around gender within Orthodox schools, the directors of Yachad and the New Israel Fund, Citizens UK’s Jewish community organiser, a modern-Orthodox rabbi who specialises in interfaith work, the Reform founder of Tzelem – a rabbinic voice for social justice, our own senior rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, educators from human rights NGO RenĂ© Cassin and the Jewish LGBT organisation Keshet, and Maurice Glasman, a Labour peer, community organiser and inventor of ‘Blue Labour’.

Despite the diversity of this group, they are united in their understanding that discrimination, exclusion and inequality oppress people by denying them their humanity. The remedy is the opposite of this: enabling all human beings to realise their human potential. But what does it actually mean to be fully human? Different people answer this question in different ways, but it boils down to three key ingredients. First, being human means being involved in critical thinking and action in the world – what philosophers callpraxis. This is what distinguishes human beings from all other animals. Second, it means being involved with spiritual concerns – not necessarily God, but non-materialist questions of meaning and values. Finally, it means being in community and relationship.

But even this final idea raises more questions, as there exist radically different concepts of community and relationship, each of which has a different kind of humanising impact on its members. I’ve been exploring alternative versions of this idea as put forward by two seminal 20th century thinkers – the philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, and the political theorist Hannah Arendt.

In his classic bookI and Thou,Buber teaches that human beings relate to each other in two different ways. Most of the time we deal with other people as parties to a transaction or as means to some end we’re trying to achieve. This is most obvious in the case of bus drivers, shop keepers or our tax accountants, but can also be true in the case of intimate relationships: we often use friends and partners to meet our own emotional needs. While human society could not exist without this way of interacting, it also leads us to objectivise other people and can be alienating and ultimately dehumanising. But Buber also holds up the possibility of an alternative way of relating to other people not as ‘It’ but as ‘You’. When we see someone as ‘You’, we refuse to instrumentalise them but instead encounter them genuinely in all their unique individuality. This is the true meaning of relationship.

Buber writes that the evolution of modern, industrial, mass society has made relational encounters more and more difficult to achieve. As a result, we have become progressively less authentically human. His solution is to rebuild society as a network of independent, organic communities, within which genuine relationships can take place and people can reclaim their humanity. It’s no surprise that Buber was among the early supporters of the kibbutz movement and always argued that kibbutzim should remain as small, intimate, community groups.

If Buber believes that being human is the ability to engage in genuine, intimate, one-on-one relationships, Hannah Arendt proposes a very different model of relational, community life. She harks back to classical Greece, where she claims there was a clear division between the private and public spheres. The private sphere or the family was not only the location for intimate relationships but was also the basic unit of economic production and social stability, ruled over in an autocratic style by the head of the household. The public sphere, in contrast, emerged at the point where material wellbeing had been assured and took the form of democratic politics: a process of deliberation among active citizens about the important matters that affected the community.

Arendt’s view of community is summed up by the cut and thrust of deliberation, debate and the exchange of views, through which participants realise their freedom and bring their innate uniqueness as human beings into the world. In this light, Buber is guilty of transplanting the private sphere (family-style, intimate relationships) into the public arena, thereby endangering the autonomy and agency of the participants. Against this, Buber would argue that Arendt’s model of political community risks seeing other people as tools for one’s own self-advancement, thereby destroying any chance of genuine relationships.

For Arendt, humanisation means nurturing the potential within each individual human being. Community is a means to this end. Buber believes that being human means encountering the Other: for him, community and relationships are therefore ends in themselves.

Want to find out more about my research? Please contact me at [email protected]

Matt Plen is Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism

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