Marla Feldman’s activism, which began in her youth, has informed her role as a pioneering female rabbi and a brave and bold leader.
Tikkun olam means repairing the world, and Rabbi Marla Feldman calls for Jews and everyone who cares about the world to engage in social justice.
Feldman is executive director of New York City-based Women of Reform Judaism. Look at the group’s website and see the God-embedded actions of tikkun olam — from American race relations to poverty to women’s reproductive rights and genocide and to the creation of Israel and the peace process with Palestinians.
Feldman’s activism, which began in her youth, has informed her role as a pioneering female rabbi and a brave and bold leader. She had to weather wage inequality. She was rejected by some synagogues because she was a woman. Nonetheless, she has evolved into an effective leader who has cared for her congregations and worked on struggles like combating genocide in Bosnia and Darfur and rescuing Ethiopian Jews.
She worked as assistant director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit from 1996-2002 and taught Holocaust Studies at the University of Detroit-Mercy from 1998-2001.
Feldman is devoted to Reform Judaism and its basic covenant: Jews are obligated to partner with God and each other to make the world a better place. We are all made in the image of God, and thus everyone is valuable. For Feldman’s flock, this means including all types of people like those with different gender identities, those from different backgrounds, women and people of color.
“There needs to be space for everyone where anyone can walk in the door,” she said.
The scourge of genocide in the world is one area where Feldman has passionate beliefs. Overcoming the unthinkable practice of mass murder is a momentous task, but God and humans have a role in repairing the overwhelming damage, Feldman said. Moreover, because of the Holocaust, she said she and fellow Jews understand the gravity of the wretched crime, and thus, are especially poised to mend it.
Feldman said caring humans and their emotional relationship with God can end atrocity and restore humane morality. As she helped with Bosnia and Darfur, humans can protest genocides by placing it on the public radar and urging the world to intervene. When the evil ends, people can rebuild human relations. Feldman explains how genocide is about dehumanizing others. Thus, seeing each other as equally human can mitigate genocides from ever happening again.
Helping the Needy
Helping the poor is a paramount purpose in Judaism. Feldman said the Torah tells Jews they have a duty to help the poor. She went on to say that Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and sincere thinker, delineated what this means for Jews. As they partner with God, generous givers need to partner with the poor. The giver’s success is linked to the poor person’s success. Their relationship means that the poor can escape poverty and keep what they earned so they can be self-sufficient.
Feldman refers to a passage from Isaiah that is often told on Yom Kippur, “And if you draw your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall your light to a rise in darkness … And then Lord shall guide you continually and satisfy your soul.”
Feldman has mixed views on the social safety net. She thinks it has gaps that must be addressed to help the needy. One example is wage inequality for women. For sure, as women head many families, they face poverty and cannot provide for their families when they are underpaid, Feldman said.
Nonetheless, she said Americans can be proud of the heroic progress they have made dealing with poverty. Feldman agrees that policies for women like Women Infants and Children (WIC), a nutrition program, and President Biden’s child tax credit, which will reduce child poverty by a half, are good and sensible policies. Moreover, she said the fortification of Medicare and Medicaid is good for all Americans.
Race in America is another area that Feldman cares about. Because Jews were enslaved in Egypt and were treated like pariahs, they can identify and have solidarity with African Americans and their privation.
Feldman rues the structural racism in America. When asked why it matters, she said: “The simple one-word answer is: justice. If we live in a society that is just then we need to treat people equally and fairly.”
She discussed policy challenges that must be addressed in the criminal justice system. She said the overincarceration of African American men and the school-to-prison pipeline are particularly deleterious. Feldman believes that Americans must have a deep conversation about the roots of racism in America. “This discussion, I believe, can give Americans of all races and religions hope for racial reconciliation.
“The suffering in the world needs good care and a momentous love to mend it. Tikkun olam teaches us how to effect such change. With God’s help, we can heal the sick and clothe the naked; we can nurture goodness and tolerance; we can free innocents and we can save lives in a turbulent world,” she said.
Feldman added: “It’s not going to happen with one person or one community. It’s going to require people of good will who share common values coming together to live those values.”