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Jewish Teachings on Social Justice

This posting is chapter 3 of the 2nd edition of my book, “Judaism and Global Survival.” The entire  book can be freely read at www.JewishVeg.org/schwartz

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Justice, justice shall you pursue. (Deuteronomy 16: 20)

The pursuit of a just society is one of the most fundamental concepts of Judaism. The prevalence of injustice in today’s world makes all the more urgent Judaism’s emphasis on the importance of actively seeking a just society.

Note two things about the Torah verse above, which is a keynote of Jewish social values:

1. Words are seldom repeated in the Torah. When they are, it is generally to teach us something new. In this case, it is to stress the supreme importance of applying even-handed justice to all. Rabbenu Bachya ben Asher, a 13th Century Torah commentator, stresses, “justice whether to your profit or loss, whether in word or action, whether to Jew or non-Jew.”[i]

2. We are told to pursue justice. Hence we are not to wait for the right opportunity to come along, the right time and place, but instead we are to be actively seek opportunities to practice justice.

Many other statements in the Jewish tradition emphasize the great importance placed on working for justice:

The book of Proverbs asserts: “To do righteousness and justice is preferred by God above sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3). The psalmist exhorts:  “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (Psalms 82:3).

The prophets constantly stress the importance of applying justice:

“Learn to do well–seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow…. Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they who return to her with righteousness.”   (Isaiah 1:17, 27)

“The Lord of Hosts shall be exalted in justice, The Holy God shows Himself holy in righteousness.” (Isaiah 5:16)

To practice justice is considered among the highest demands of prophetic religion:

“It has been told you, O human being, what is good

And what the Lord requires of you:

Only to do justly, love chesed (mercy, kindness)

And walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

The prophet Amos warns the people that without the practice of justice, God is repelled by their worship:

“Take away from Me the noise of your songs

and let Me not hear the melody of your stringed instruments,

but let justice well up as waters,

and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:23, 24)

The practice of justice is even part of the symbolic betrothal between the Jewish people and God:

“And I will betroth you unto Me forever; And, I will betroth you unto Me in righteousness, justice, loving kindness, and compassion.  And I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:21-22)

The prophets of Israel were the greatest champions of social justice in world history. Jeremiah (5:28) rebukes the Jewish people when they fail to plead the cause of the orphan or help the needy. He castigates an entire generation, for “in your skirts is found the blood of the souls of the innocent poor” (2.34). Ezekiel rebukes the whole nation for “using oppression, robbing, defrauding the poor and the needy, and extorting from the stranger” (22.29). Isaiah (5:8) and Micah (2:2) criticize wealthy Jews who built up large holdings of property at the expense of their neighbors. The prophetic books are replete with such moral reproof.

The patriarch Abraham even challenges God to practice justice: “That be far from You to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked… shall the Judge of all the earth not do justly?” (Genesis 18:25)

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former President of Bar Ilan University, points out that Judaism teaches a special kind of justice, an “empathic justice,” which seeks to make people identify themselves with each other — with each other’s needs, with each other’s hopes and aspirations, with each other’s defeats and frustrations. Because Jews have known the distress of slaves and the loneliness of strangers, we are to project ourselves into their souls and make their plight our own.[ii]

This concept is reinforced by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz, the Bostoner Rebbe:

“The fact that the Jewish people had to experience 400 years of Egyptian exile, including 210 years of actual slavery, was critical in molding our national personality into one of compassion and concern for our fellow man, informed by the realization that we have a vital role to play in the world…. For this reason, God begins the Ten Commandments with a reminder that “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). We must constantly remember that we were slaves in order to always appreciate the ideal of freedom, not only for ourselves but also for others. We must do what we can to help others to live free of the bondage of the evil spirit, free of the bondage of cruelty, of abuse and lack of caring.”[iii]

Based on these teachings, Jews have regarded the practice of justice and the seeking of a just society as Divine imperatives. This has inspired many Jews throughout history to be leaders in struggles for better social conditions. The teachings of the Torah, prophets, and sages have been the most powerful inspiration for justice in the history of the world.

GIVING CHARITY (TZEDAKAH)

To help the poor and hungry and to support communal purposes and institutions, Judaism places great stress on the giving of money as an act of righteousness (tzedakah). In the Jewish tradition, tzedakah is not an act of condescension from one person to another who is in need. It is the fulfillment of a mitzvah, a commandment, to a fellow human being, who has equal status before God.  Although Jewish tradition recognizes that the sharing of our resources is also an act of love (as the Torah states, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)), it emphasizes that this act of sharing is an act of justice.  This is to teach us that Jews are obligated to provide people who are in need with our love and concern. They are human beings created in the Divine image, who have a place and a purpose within God’s creation.

In the Jewish tradition, failure to give charity is equivalent to idolatry.[iv] Perhaps this is because a selfish person forgets the One Who created and provides for us all, and in becoming preoccupied with personal material needs, makes himself or herself into an idol. The giving of charity by Jews is so widespread that Maimonides was able to say: “Never have I seen or heard of a Jewish community that did not have a charity fund.”[v]

Charity even takes priority over the building of the Temple. King Solomon was prohibited from using the silver and gold that David, his father, had accumulated for the building of the Temple, because that wealth should have been used to feed the poor during the three years of famine in King David’s reign (I Kings 7:51).

Judaism mandates lending to the needy, to help them become economically self-sufficient:

“And if your brother becomes impoverished, and his means fail in your proximity; then you shall strengthen him;… Take no interest of him or increase… You shall not give him your money upon interest…”  Leviticus 25:35-37

Every third year of the sabbatical cycle, the needy are to receive the tithe for the poor (one tenth of one’s income) (Deuteronomy 14:28, 26:12).

The following Torah verse indicates the general Jewish view about helping the poor:

“If there shall be among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand unto him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wants.”

Deuteronomy 15:7-8

Jewish tradition views tzedakah as not only an act of love, but also as an act of justice; in fact, the word “tzedakah” comes from the word “tzedek” (justice). According to the Torah, the governing institutions of the Jewish community are responsible to help needy people.

Maimonides writes in his code of Jewish law that the highest form of tzedakah is to help a needy individual through “a gift or a loan, or by forming a business partnership with him, or by providing him with a job, until he is no longer dependent on the generosity of others”.[vi] This concept is based on the following Talmudic teaching:

“It is better to lend to a poor person than to give him alms, and best of all is to provide him with capital for business.” [vii]

Hence Jews should provide immediate help for poor people while also working for a just society in which there is no poverty. In Judaism, tzedakah is intertwined with the pursuit of social justice.

An entire lengthy section of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan Arukh), Yoreh De’ah 247-259, is devoted to the many aspects of giving charity. Some of the more important concepts are given below:

247:1. It is a positive religious obligation for a person to give as much charity as he can afford.  (A tithe of ten percent of one’s income is incumbent upon every Jew.)

247:33: God has compassion on whoever has compassion on the poor. A person should think that, just as he asks of God all the time to sustain him and as he entreats God to hear his cry, so he should hear the cry of the poor.

248: 1: Every person is obliged to give charity. Even a poor person who is supported by charity is obliged to give from that which he receives.

249:3: A man should give charity cheerfully and out of the goodness of his heart. He should anticipate in the grief of the poor man and speak words of comfort to him. But if he gives in an angry and unwilling spirit, he loses any merit there is in giving.

250:1: How much should be given to a poor man? “Sufficient for his need in that which he requires” (Deuteronomy 15:8). This means that if he is hungry, he should be fed; if he has no clothes, he should be given clothes; if he has no furniture, furniture should be brought for him. (This is to be dispensed by the person in charge of community charity funds.)

According to the prophet Ezekiel, failure to help the needy led to the destruction of Sodom:

“Behold this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom; pride, fullness of bread, and careless ease … neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy … therefore I removed them when I saw it….” (Ezekiel 16:49, 50)

A relationship between personal misfortune and a failure to help the poor  is indicated in Proverbs 17:5, 21:13, and 28:27. For example, Proverbs 21:13 states: “The person who fails to hear the cry of the poor will later also cry, but will not be answered.”

ACTS OF LOVING KINDNESS

As important as tzedakah is, the Jewish tradition states that even greater is gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness):

“One who gives a coin to a poor man is rewarded with six blessings, but he who encourages him with kind words is rewarded with eleven blessings”.[viii]

Of course, providing both charity and kind words is best of all.

The sages interpret “acts of loving kindness” to include many types of gracious action, such as hospitality to travelers, providing for poor brides,  visiting the sick, welcoming guests, burying the dead, and comforting mourners.

Gemilut chasadim is deemed superior to acts of charity in several ways:

No gift is needed for it but the giving of oneself; it may be done to the rich as well as to the poor; and it may be done not only to the living, but also to the dead (through burial).[ix]

The purpose of the entire Torah is to teach gemilut chasadim. It starts and ends with an act of loving kindness.

For in the third chapter of Genesis, the verse reads: “The Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21), and the last book of the Torah reports: “and He buried him (Moses) in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:6).[x]

JEWISH VIEWS ON POVERTY

Judaism places emphasis on justice and charity and kindness to the poor because of the great difficulties poor people face:

“If all afflictions in the world were assembled on one side of the scale and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.” [xi]

Judaism believes that poverty is destructive to the human personality and negatively shapes a person’s life experiences: “The ruin of the poor is their poverty” (Proverbs 10:15). “Where there is no sustenance, there is no learning.”[xii] “The world is darkened for him who has to look to others for sustenance.”[xiii] “The sufferings of poverty cause a person to disregard his own sense (of right) and that of his Maker.”[xiv]

Judaism generally does not encourage an ascetic life. Insufficiency of basic necessities does not ease the path toward holiness, except perhaps for very spiritual individuals. In many cases the opposite is true; poverty can lead to the breaking of a person’s spirit. This is one reason that holiness is linked to justice.

Many Torah laws are designed to aid the poor: the produce of corners of the field are to be left uncut for the poor to take (Leviticus 19:9); the gleanings of the wheat harvest and fallen fruit are to be left for the needy (Leviticus 19:10); during the sabbatical year, the land is to be left fallow so and the poor (as well as animals) may eat of whatever grows freely (Leviticus 25:2-7).

Failure to treat the poor properly is a desecration of God: “The person who mocks the poor blasphemes his Maker” (Proverbs 17:5). Abraham, the founder of Judaism, always went out of his way to aid the poor. He set up inns which were open in all four directions on the highways so that the poor and the wayfarer would have access to food and drink when in need.[xv]

The Jewish tradition sees God as siding with the poor and oppressed. He intervened in Egypt on behalf of poor, oppressed slaves. His prophets constantly castigated those who oppressed the needy. Two proverbs reinforce this message. A negative formulation is in Proverbs 14:31: “He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker.” Proverbs 19:17 puts it more positively: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord.” Hence helping a needy person is like providing a loan to the Creator of the universe.

COMPASSION

The Talmud teaches that “Jews are rachmanim b’nei rachmanim (compassionate children of compassionate parents), and one who shows no pity for fellow creatures is assuredly not of the seed of Abraham, our father.”[xvi] The rabbis considered Jews to be distinguished by three characteristics: compassion, modesty, and benevolence.[xvii] As indicated previously, we are instructed to feel empathy for strangers, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). The birkat ha-mazon (grace recited after meals) speaks of God compassionately feeding the whole world.

We are not only to have compassion for Jews, but for all who are in need.

“Have we not all one Father?

Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes very eloquently about the importance of compassion:

Do not suppress this compassion, this sympathy especially with the sufferings of your fellowman. It is the warning voice of duty, which points out to you your brother in every sufferer, and your own sufferings in his, and awakens the love which tells you that you belong to him and his sufferings with all the powers that you have. Do not suppress it!…  See in it the admonition of God that you are to have no joy so long as a brother suffers by your side.[xviii]

Rabbi Samuel Dresner states that “Compassion is the way God enters our life in terms of man’s relation to his fellowman.”[xix]

The Jewish stress on compassion finds expression in many groups and activities. Jewish communities generally have most if not all of the following: a Bikur Cholim Society to provide medical expenses for the sick, and to visit them and bring them comfort and cheer; a Malbish Arumim Society to provide clothing for the poor; a Hachnasat Kalah Society to provide for needy brides; a Bet Yetomin Society to aid orphans; a Talmud Torah Organization to support a free school for poor children; a Gemilat Chesed Society to lend money at no interest to those in need; an Ozer Dalim Society to dispense charity to the poor; a Hachnasat Orchim Society to provide shelter for homeless travelers; a Chevrah Kaddishah Society to attend to the proper burial of the dead; and Essen Teg Institutions to provide food and shelter for poor students who attend schools in the community.[xx]

Judaism also stresses compassion for animals. There are many laws in the Torah which mandate kindness to animals. A farmer is commanded not to muzzle his ox when he threshes corn (Deuteronomy 25:4) and not to plow with an ox and an ass together (Deuteronomy 22:10), since the weaker animal would not be able to keep up with the stronger one. Animals must be allowed to rest on the Sabbath Day (Exodus 20:10, 23:12), a teaching so important that it is part of the Ten Commandments. A person is commanded to feed his animals before sitting down to his own meal.[xxi] These concepts are summarized in the Hebrew phrase tsa’ar ba’alei chayim –– the mandate not to cause “pain to any living creature.”

The Psalmist emphasizes God’s concern for animals, for “His tender mercies are over all His creatures” (Psalm 145:9). He pictures God as “satisfying the desire of every living creature (Psalm 145:16) and “providing food for the beasts and birds” (Psalm 147:9). Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is epitomized by the statement in Proverbs “The righteous person regards the life of his or her animal” (Proverb 12:10). In Judaism, one who does not treat animals with compassion cannot be considered a righteous individual.[xxii]

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522 – 1570) indicates the importance Judaism places on the proper treatment of animals, as well as people:

“[One should] respect all creatures, recognizing in them the greatness of the Creator who formed man with wisdom, and whose wisdom is contained in all creatures. He should realize hat they greatly deserve to be honored, since the One Who Forms All Things, the Wise One Who is exalted above all, cared to create them. If one despises them, God forbid, it reflects on the honor of their Creator…. It is evil in the sight of the Holy One, Blessed be He, if any of His creatures are despised”.[xxiii]

Consistent with this precept, the Jewish sages teach, “Whoever shows mercy to God’s creatures is granted mercy from Heaven.”[xxiv]

JUDAISM AND BUSINESS ETHICS

The Torah provides instruction in honest business practices:

“You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length, of weight, or in quantity. Just balances, just weights, a just ephah [the standard dry measure] and a just hin [a measure for liquids], shall you have. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19: 35, 36).

The rabbis of the Talmud give concrete expression to the many Torah and prophetic teachings regarding justice and righteousness. They indicate in detail what is proper when conducting business. Rabbinic literature translates prophetic ideals into the language of the marketplace in terms of duties of employers to employees and of workers to their employers, fair prices, the avoidance of false weights and measures, proper business contracts, and fair methods of competition.

Rava, a fourth-century Babylonian teacher, taught the wealthy merchants of his town the importance of scrupulous honesty in business dealings. He stated that on Judgment Day the first question God asks a person is “Were you reliable in your business dealings?”[xxv] The rabbis stress that a person’s word is a sacred bond that should not be broken. The Mishnah states that God will exact punishment for those who do not abide by their promises.[xxvi] Cheating a Gentile is considered even worse than cheating a Jew, for “besides being a violation of the moral law, it brings Israel’s religion into contempt, and desecrates the name of Israel’s God.”[xxvii]

The sages are very critical of attempts to take away a person’s livelihood by unfair competition.[xxviii] Their overall view of business ethics can be summarized by the verses “And you shall do that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:18), and “better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice” (Proverbs 16:8).

The very high ethical standards of the Talmudic sages are exemplified by the following story:

“Reb Saphra had wine to sell. A certain customer came in to buy wine at a time when Reb Saphra was saying the Sh’ma prayer (which cannot be interrupted by speaking). The customer said, ‘Will you sell me the wine for such an amount?” When Reb Saphra did not respond, the customer thought he was not satisfied with the price and raised his bid. When Reb Saphra had finished his prayer, he said, “I decided in my heart to sell the wine to you at the first price you mentioned; therefore I cannot accept your higher bid.” [xxix]              

It is essential that Jews work to establish systems and conditions consistent with the basic Jewish values of justice, compassion, kindness, the sacredness of every life, the imitation of God’s attributes, love of neighbors, consideration of the stranger, compassion for animals, and the highest of business ethics.


End Notes 

[i] Quoted in J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs , London: Soncino, 1957, 820. Rabbi Hertz also offers a Chassidic rebbe’s interpretation of this Biblical verse: “Do not use unjust means to secure the victory of justice” (p. 820).

[ii]  Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, “Torah Concept of Empathic Justice Can Bring Peace,” The Jewish Week, April 3, 1977, 19.

[iii] Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz, the Bostoner Rebbe, “And You Shall tell Your Son,” Young Israel Viewpoint, Spring, 1997. Quoted by  David Sears, Compassion for  Humanity in the Jewish Tradition. Northvale, New Jersey/ Jerusalem: Jason Aronson, 1998, 22.

[iv]  Ketubot  68a.

[v]  Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Zeraim, Gifts to the Poor, 10:7

[vi]   Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor: 10:7.

[vii]  Shabbat  63a.

[viii]  Baba Batra  88b.

[ix]  Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avadim 9:8.

[x]  Sotah 14a.

[xi]  Midrash Exodus Rabbah, Mishpatim 31:14.

[xii]  Pirke Avot 3:21.

[xiii]  Betza  32a.

[xiv]  Eruvin  41.

[xv]  Genesis 18:2; Abot de Rabbi Nathan 7:17a,b.

[xvi]  Betzah  32b.

[xvii] Yebamot 79a.

[xviii]  Samson R. Hirsch, Horeb, trans. Dayan Dr. I Grunfeld, London: Soncino, 1962, vol. 1, chapter 17, 54-55.

[xix]  Samuel Dresner, Prayer, Humility, Compassion, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1953, p. 183.

[xx]  In Judaism, there are just two limits to compassion. The first is that a judge must apply the law equally, without regard to whether a person is rich or poor. Only the strict rules of justice must apply. Second, one need not show compassion to those who lack compassion and practice cruelty. A Talmudic sage taught: “He who is compassionate to the cruel will, in the end, be cruel to the compassionate” (Yalkut, Samuel 121).

[xxi]  Gittin 62a; Berachot 40a.

[xxii]   For a detailed study of the Jewish tradition on compassion for animals, see Noah J. Cohen, Tsaar Ba’alei Chayim: The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Its Basis, Development, and Legislation in Hebrew Literature , New York: Feldheim, 1976;. Also see The Vision of Eden, an unpublished manuscript by Rabbi David Sears.

[xxiii] Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Tomer Devorah, Chapter 2, Quoted by  David Sears, Compassion for  Humanity in the Jewish Tradition., Northvale, New Jersey/ Jerusalem: Jason Aronson, 1998, 3.
[xxiv]  Shabbat 151b.

[xxv] Shabbat 31a.

[xxvi]  Baba Metzia  4:2.

[xxvii]  Baba Kamma, 113b.

[xxviii] Sanhedrin  81a.

[xxix]  She’iltot, Parshat VaYechi.
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