Aryeh Cohen, Ph.D. is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at American Jewish University where he served as Chair of Jewish Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences from 1995-2000 and Chair of Rabbinic Studies in the Ziegler School from 2001-2005.
Q. Your book Justice in the City has recently been published. It seems very timely. What was the impetus for writing the book?
A. The book was the coming together of my academic life as a teacher of rabbinic literature with my life as a social justice activist.
Q. How did this happen?
A. While I was on the board and President of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), I realized that the Jewish Social Justice movement needed deeper analysis and theoretical grounding for Jewish social justice action and, at the same time, I was interested in making the argument that social justice was at the heart of the concerns of Jewish tradition, and not marginal to it. Almost a decade ago, I started a series of think tank meetings at PJA and wrote a position paper about what it means to have a "just city." I articulated the notion of a "community of obligation." The first half of my book, Justice in the City, spells out what that is.
Q. Can you spell it out for this interview?
A. The city as a "community of obligation" embodies the idea that on a basic level all residents of a city are obligated to each other. This implies that there is a web of relations even among people who do not know each other, but share the same city. These relationships have the potential to be, and ought to be, sites of justice and opportunities for just action.
The way to get from the current state of the city to the city as a community of obligation is by setting up the city such that one can hear and respond to the needs of "the other"— those who are marginalized, and who are often under our radar; such as homeless folks, etc. In a city like Los Angeles, it's not just the people with whom you come in contact that you have to care about. But also the people you don't see. That's the first plank.
Q. And the second plank?
A. The second plank is that there is a social responsibility to protest against injustice. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "In a democracy, some are guilty, all are responsible." And the third plank is that responsibility extends far beyond the geographical boundary of one's community. These three principles are the framework for a community of obligation.
Q. How do you see that happening?
A. When I became serious about writing the book, I began to think about how that framework plays out in different areas. Restorative justice was certainly the most obvious. In a community of obligation the aim of the criminal justice system would be to repair the tearing of the fabric of the community. Even though that might entail some form of punishment, the end of the process is to bring an offender and a victim together so that the community will be whole again. This is an idea deeply grounded in rabbinic tradition. That's one situation.
Q. You also write about labor relations.
A. Yes. In discussing labor relations, there are two important issues. One is that labor should not be viewed as a commodity. The employer is not buying labor from the worker; the employer is enabling the employee to live in dignity so that they will be able to work for the employer. Second, that within that relationship of people to people, the employer is a human being and the worker is a human being. The goal is to set up a community of obligation where labor relations are just and amicable. The question of the value of labor and the worth and dignity of the laborer is central to rabbinic discussions.
Q. And you address homelessness.
A. I see homelessness as undermining the very concept of the city. The reason for the existence of cities is comfort and security, for homeless people cities are no different than the wilderness. There can be no community of obligation in which there are homeless people.
Q. How does Justice in the City differ from any other book about social justice?
A. What's new about my book is that it is attempting to create a theory of the city with arguments rooted in rabbinic tradition, thus the subtitle An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism. It is a very text centered book. What I'm doing is reading and interpreting Talmudic text.
Q. What are you hoping this book will accomplish?
A. My intention is that the book will contribute to a higher level of discourse within the academic and activist communities about what is Jewish social justice, on the one hand, and on the other hand, contribute to the creation of communities of obligation with both political and religious priorities.