Day 1: Is Social Justice the Soul of Judaism?

It's Martin Luther King Day, and as American Jews pause with the rest of the country to reflect on the civil rights struggle, we also take pride in our own community's role in it. The legendary image of the bearded … Read More

By / January 15, 2007

It's Martin Luther King Day, and as American Jews pause with the rest of the country to reflect on the civil rights struggle, we also take pride in our own community's role in it. The legendary image of the bearded rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel marching together with King in Selma, Alabama in 1965 epitomizes the passion for justice that seems so much a part of the Jewish tradition. Why, just look at any issue of Tikkun, and you'll see it a thousand times over: Tikkun olam! Pikuach nefesh!

But is the quest for social justice truly intrinsic to Judaism? Or is this just the wishful thinking of liberal Jews distorting an archaic and illiberal tradition?

Steven I. Weiss is the bile-spewing iconoclast behind the Canonist blog. Daniel "Mobius" Sieradski is the eccentric true believer behind Jewschool. In this week's Big Question these two deans of the Jewish blogosphere debate the question "Is social justice the soul of Judaism?"

From: Steven I. Weiss To: Daniel ‘Mobius’ Sieradski Subject: Is Social Justice the Soul of Judaism?


"Justice, justice shall you pursue." I recently saw a Jewish hipster wearing a t-shirt with that quotation of the famous Biblical passage. I don’t doubt for a second that the guy wearing the t-shirt assumed that the quote advocated social justice. Since it’s straight from the Bible, and seems to advocate social justice, perhaps we can just leave the dialogue there.

Of course, that Biblical passage had nothing to do with social justice—not when it was written, and not as it was interpreted throughout at least 90% of subsequent Jewish history. According to every one of the dozens of citations I found, from the Talmud through medieval commentaries, this quote refers to the types of judges one should use when engaging in litigation. The passage before it tells judges to engage in “judgements of justice,” and then our passage tells the rest of the Jews “justice, justice shall you pursue.”

People fond of quoting this verse might be surprised to learn that it has little relevance to the pursuit of social justice. They shouldn’t be. Social justice as a broad, Aristotelian concept only came into existence many centuries after the verse was written. And only more recently—millenia after the Biblical passage was authored—did “social justice” acquire its modern association with the political left.

We could get into tons of definitions of social justice (I’m looking at the size of the Wikipedia entry on this), but for now let’s just say that two core concepts are equality and redistribution of wealth.

The Jewish tradition clearly doesn’t regard equality as highly as we do. Throughout almost all of its history, it’s been biased against lefties, gays, women, converts, ba’alei teshuva, hermaphrodites, those with ejaculatory problems, wives who’ve widowed three husbands, and those who didn’t observe the commandments or belong to specific communities. Oh, yeah: it’s also biased against everyone in the world other than the Jews.

Nor does it encourage much redistribution of wealth. When Jews were last running the show in the Holy Land, they were required to give some of their earnings to priests and leave some for the poor; they also were expected to give charity, make Temple contributions, and other such things. But from the perspective of America’s current progressive tax system, the notion that ancient Israel engaged in any substantial redistribution of wealth is a transparent joke. And things didn’t change much between then and the modern period.

If these elements of social justice were the “soul of Judaism,” you’d think they’d at least show up at some point.

But “almost all of its history” isn’t the entirety of the Jewish story. There’s the past couple hundred years, after all, which saw the birth of denominational and secular Judaism. Orthodoxy more or less continued the path that Judaism had crafted before it, but Conservative and Reform Judaism went off in substantially new directions.

Conservative Judaism has done a lot to make women equal; give it another ten or fifteen years, and the movement might look pretty well balanced from top to bottom. Gays and lesbians don’t have that equality. Though their status has improved, they’re still not equal; in any case, since their progress comes so long after the left po
litical establishment started pushing for it, we can see that social justice is not “the soul” of Conservative Judaism (though that’s not to say it might not be a part).

Reform Judaism is more likely to have social justice as its “soul,” bound as the movement so often is to the liberal political agenda in America. But here, too, gays and lesbians aren’t fully equal in the sense that they are in, say, Massachusetts.

Those are just the simplest examples of bias in a series of denominations rife with them. And that’s before we even begin to talk about how they treat non-Jews.

What about secular Judaism? Well, it comes with almost nothing by way of mandatory ideology or actions, so saying that anything specific is at its “soul” is a stretch. And yet it still seems to go very much against the grain of equality: for some reason it puts special value on Jewish culture and on marrying other Jews.

As for redistribution of wealth, not a whole lot has changed in the past couple hundred years. People in all denominations discuss tithing and giving charity—and they may at turns advocate for various tax policies and social welfare programs in America—but all of them celebrate the multi-millionaires (and occasionally billionaires) in their midst.

Those who assert that a social justice agenda is fundamentally Jewish tend to ignore all this. Instead, they point to Biblical verses and lines of the Talmud that seem to imply that social justice has been there all along.

But most often haven’t they simply misunderstood those verses and lines just as they have “justice, justice shall you pursue”? And if social justice is the soul of Judaism, how come no one figured it out until recently? How come Jewish history and contemporary Judaism don’t look very socially just?


Tuesday: Dan Sieradski asks whether conscience is a Jewish invention.

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