"Tzedek, tzedek tirdof -- Justice, justice you shall pursue." It's one of the most famous – and precious – Jewish concepts. It derives from Moses's charge to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, urging the nascent nation to establish courts that show no partiality, that take no bribe. But what does it mean for us today? Just ask Jean and Jill Bratt, a mother-daughter duo taking Melton's Social Justice course online through Melton Kansas City, a Melton site sponsored by the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas.
Jill Bratt, who uses they/them pronouns and goes by 'Scout,' is no stranger to the world of social justice. They majored in Peace Studies and Philosophy in college, were an Avodah Justice Corps Member , and now serve as Outreach & Education Director at Chicago Women's Health Center, as well as teaching bystander training and Jewish sexual health education. When Scout speaks about Melton's Social Justice course, they share how rewarding it was to grapple with the multiple interpretations of "tzedek, tzedek" – interpretations based on centuries of study.
"Our teacher, Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, said, 'You all deserve space and time to think critically about Judaism's relationship to social justice – and to question it,'" says Scout. "So, though I was familiar with the concepts, she taught me to re-think what I'd written off as clear."
The topic was what gave Scout's mom, Jean Bratt, an Executive Assistant at Hyman Brand, the idea to spend more time with her daughter by inviting them to take the course with her. Jean had studied with Rabbi Amy years before and had then taken Melton classes on and off for 15 years. Like her daughter, she is no stranger to social justice. Currently, she organizes student trips on Civil Rights and heritage journeys through the American South and Poland and advocates for students' ongoing involvement in these issues, including joining them for door-to-door canvassing. She's fascinated by the course's connections between the Bible, the Talmud, and Social Justice, realizing, "It's there if we just pay attention."
Jean and Scout personify an ideal model of intergenerational love and respect. When Jean says she feels she doesn't do enough social justice work, Scout immediately jumps in and gives their mom encouragement: "You're a role model to all the kids! You're amazing!" At another point they add "And me – I'm your legacy!"
"I love you so much," responds Jean.
Of course, Jean and Scout don't see eye to eye on everything! But the course has given them a shared language to discuss disagreements more meaningfully. "[My mother and I] talk on the phone afterwards," Scout says. "The language gives us a shared point of connection. It's just a more equitable way to approach conversations that are deeply emotional and deserve facilitation."
Both feel that the class is inviting, and supportive. "This is a safe space for us to share our personal relationships and be whole people – no mention of 'you're not radical enough, or you're too radical'" says Scout. Jean echoes, "I've never heard 'no, that's not right'… it's always 'maybe there's another way to think about it.' That's a key to education. That's what's special about Melton."
Scout plans to build on the Melton learning they've done, incorporating it into their work in health education and with young people in Jewish communities. The wisdom and perspective they are gaining through the course, they say, "can't end with these sessions. Other communities deserve similar conversations – in explicitly Jewish contexts... I want to do [this work] and I have been supported in it by this class."
Jean is also moved by the course's range of sources -- from Biblical, to 300-year-old Chassidic philosophy, to contemporary women's voices. Scout picks up that point – that many generations of accrued wisdom are needed. They admire their older classmates who showed up to protest the Vietnam war, and now, are "modeling the priority of social justice [through a Jewish lens] well into their 70s."
It is this exploration of social justice through a Jewish lens that is so inspiring for Scout: "I have been in places with these conversations," they say. "But not WITH the core text. We need to bring Jews with different relationships with justice to the table together."
At Melton, "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof" is no mere inspirational slogan. It is a puzzle to be grappled with, a knife to slice through assumptions about what our responsibilities are as humans on this planet. It demands deeper understanding. It pushes us to ask uncomfortable but urgent questions about power and privilege. It means calling for more generations, more voices, more perspectives, more full people to have critical conversations across differences and bring the pursuit of social justice to life for our times.
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