Jewish theology has abundant philosophical and ethical principles pertaining to society, culture, economics, and human interaction. The Hebrew Scriptures, and other Jewish sacred writings, offer a myriad of teachings aimed at ordering society according to justice and mercy.
On a personal note, having formally studied both Catholic Social Teaching and Jewish theology and social ethics, I can say that there is tremendous overlap. Both traditions share a similar set of principles, operate from similar foundations, and reach overlapping conclusions. There are certainly differences in nuance – but both traditions benefit from engaging the other.
If I had to draw out some nuances of the Jewish vision of social justice they would start with the strictness and immediacy – the commanding nature – of the Jewish tradition. There is an immediacy and a strong sense that every Jew MUST obey these commandments. Granted, Jews are imperfect like all human beings, and thus often fail to achieve even their own ideals. Additionally, and sadly, our culture works to erode the urgency and necessity of the Jewish vision of social justice. Yet at the end of the day, we can argue over whether government need be involved, who delivers the food, who pays for it – but our hungry brother and sister MUST be fed, or we fail as Jews and human beings.
Another nuance to draw attention to – most Jews, although certainly not all, tend to locate themselves on the left side of the political spectrum. Jews in America have a rich set of connections to progressive causes. Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Conservative, and even Modern Orthodoxy (to some extent) – the majority movements in Judaism – fully accept women’s equality (women can be rabbis, equal pay for equal work, etc.), racial equality (voting rights, non-discrimination, equality under law), LGBT acceptance (same sex marriage, LGBT rabbis, and welcoming LGBT individuals and couples to our communities), and a general willingness to harness government to achieve social justice ends.
PRINCIPLES OF JEWISH SOCIAL JUSTICE
Human Dignity/Dignity of All Creatures (Kavod habriyot) – Human beings share in the Divine image as persons capable of love and creativity and all creatures possess an inherent dignity that derives from their nature and the fact of their existence. Accordingly, the proper response to this dignity is love, respect, and justice.
Loving Kindness (Chesed) – the general attitude of wanting the good for others, the acts that are inspired by such, along with a willingness to cultivate openness, generosity, and hospitality toward all of good will – shorthand for affirming human dignity at all times.
Justice (Tzedakah) – the concept of justice in Judaism also includes the concept of charity – giving to another his or her due includes ensuring that everyone have the basic needs met. It is therefore properly a matter of justice, and not kindness or charity, to help the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the marginalized, or the needy. Seeking and pursuing justice for all people in all circumstances is a primary Jewish directive – and a requirement of affirming human dignity.
You Shall Not Stand Idly By (Lo Taamod) – passivity or inaction in the face of evil or need is not permitted. One may not stand idly by when another’s blood is being shed, or when another is being abused, or when another is in need.
Love your neighbor as yourself (v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha) – we are commanded to affirm and work for the good of all, to love others as we love ourself, to refrain doing to others what we would not want done to ourselves, and to predispose ourselves to the service of others.
Love the Stranger (Ahavat Ger) – it is somewhat easy to love those closest to us and those who love us in return. It is also somewhat easy to love those like ourselves. Torah commands us more than 30 times to love the stranger as well – to love those unlike ourselves. Implicit in this command is the prohibition of turning people into “others” or marginalizing people. To the degree that we reinforce unjust marginalization is to the degree we sin against love.
The Way of Peace (Darchei Shalom) – violence is to be avoided at all costs, except for self-defense. Peace among people and among nations is highly cherished in Judaism as with all people of goodwill.
JEWISH ECONOMIC ISSUES
The Dual Nature of Property & Material Goods – Genesis, and later texts in Tanakh, as well as Talmud, lay out the dual nature of property – that human creativity and labor may allow one to justly claim private ownership of some property or good, but that this ownership carries with it responsibilities toward the common good – and, more importantly, that rights of private ownership aren’t absolute or unlimited. All of creation is intended for the human family and all living creatures, therefore, all property has a universal destination which permits the taking/utilization of property through taxation and other legitimate means for the sake of the common good, and imposes strict obligations on sharing from surplus wealth with the needy.
The Biblical concept of the Jubilee year and seven year cycles of debt forgiveness are connected to this understanding of property and land. At regular intervals, debts should be forgiven and land returned to it’s original state – a resetting of economic equilibrium – allowing for a leveling of the economic playing field. While such actions may be impractical in today’s economic realities – the underlying intent is to maintain a level and fair economic playing field and allow maximum participation in the creative sector for all. Further, debts should be handled with mercy.
Gleaning – The Hebrew scriptures command that farmers not harvest all of their crops, leaving some behind near the edges and corners of the property for the poor and hungry. Harvesting all of one’s crop is therefore a sin against the poor. The implications of this commandment in modern business and economics is profound, although sadly neglected.
Humane Wages – Torah repeats several times – the worker is due their wages. And those wages are to be in accord with human dignity and afford the worker the ability to care for and feed his or her family.
Honesty in Business – Torah is filled with references to accurate scales, honest measuring devices, and just weights. The implication here is the strict need for honesty in business dealings.
Helping the Needy – Torah contains abundant references to the requirements of generosity, mandates to approach the poor with an open hand, the scandal of letting a neighbor go without basic needs, and the value of helping others attain self sufficiency.
The Role of Government – in general, the above responsibilities apply primarily to individuals and local communities, implying a sense of subsidiarity and solidarity as necessary social principles. Torah treats political power with suspicion and warns the Jewish people repeatedly about excessive trust or reliance on government. This is not to say that government has no role in creating a just and humane society, rather it is simply a reminder of priorities as well as the dangers inherent in political power turning oppressive.
A CULTURE OF LIFE
Torah, and other Jewish texts, cast a vision of what a humane culture looks like – it’s just, merciful, hospitable, loving, compassionate, attends to the needy, values all life, cares for the environment, treats all animals humanely, and promotes peace.
Jewish tradition understands that such a vision remains an ideal in our imperfect world. It is the responsibility of every Jew to engage in Tikkun Olam – the healing of the world – to help all attain this vision of a world redeemed.
Jewish realism recognizes that too often we engender a culture of what might be called, the imperial self, where ego driven behavior is rewarded, honored, and glorified. In a world lacking attunement to spiritual values, the individual ego (defined as the selfish will to power) is free to run amok without much restraint.The Jewish metaphor for such a culture is Egypt – Mitzrayim – the place of narrowness, restriction, and bondage – the primary symbol of the culture of the imperial self.
What was Egypt all about that made it so terrible? Why is Egypt the biblical archetype for slavery, death, and oppression? Political, economic, and social structures emerge based on the five primary traits of the imperial egoist culture as portrayed in Torah (hat tip, John Dominic Crossan):
Materialism/Consumerism is dysfunctional thinking that equates a good life with having more things. This mindset leads to constant accumulation of material goods as a means to happiness. Within a consumerist culture, all other human goods eventually become subjugated to the pursuit of material gain. As the dysfunction spreads, even the mechanisms of consumerism itself begin to fray – work loses its dignity, wages grow stagnant as the owner-elite skim ever deeper from the gains of productivity. Plutocracy, wealth inequality, cultural bifurcation, and the loss of meaningful creative opportunity tear the social fabric.
Slavery in its actual form is rare in developed nations. Yet its actual practice continues in many parts of the world and more subtle forms of slavery exist even in the developed countries. A fundamental precept of justice is that a worker is due their wage and the benefit of their labor. Obviously, others may also benefit from such labor, but only in a system of free and fair cooperative agreements. Many of the industrialized economies are now witnessing deteriorating terms and conditions for workers, exploitation, and ownership and upper management unfairly benefiting from the work of those deemed below them.
Patriarchy (understood as abusive sex and sexuality) is the result of complex attitudes, practices, and biases that allow men to exercise undue control over women (or the strong over the weak), preventing their full participation across society, as well as the oppression of many sexual minorities who serve no interest to the male sexual power elites. The dignity of the individual person is lost as they are treated as an object of sexual gratification, a means to an end of ego sexual fulfillment. The Ego Imperial culture promotes hyper-sexualization. Often, exploitive sexual practices are favored and furthered – including promiscuity, pornography, abusive fetishes, prostitution (the commodification of sex) and subtle (and not so subtle) forms of sexual abuse and control. Marriage, committed relationships, and family life suffer as a result.
Elitism is a fundamental preference for the powerful, the wealthy, and those who sit atop the hierarchies of social and cultural control. Driven by the dictates of rampant, uncontrolled egoism, the elite use those below them to further their own ends. In this sense, the elite become social parasites and create abusive structures that denigrate the poor, the marginalized, the misfits, the elderly, the young, the ill, the undereducated, and those who do not demonstrate social “utility.” Elitist culture treats those below it as disposable means to the ends of self-aggrandizement.
Violence is the natural result of the glorification of the imperial ego. Tensions, divisions, and hostilities are fostered and even manufactured on all societal levels as a way of furthering the control of the political and economic elite. Violence is seen as an acceptable means to social control and permeates all aspects of the culture. On the level of geopolitics, war is used a tool of empire building and for exploiting weaker and poorer nations.
The Culture of Life and Love
Judaism is rooted in an alternative cultural and social vision – one based on the channeling of ego’s drives toward cooperation, the promotion of justice, compassion, equality, and service.
The fundamental “program” of Torah is the mastery of self so one may find fulfillment and a sense of proper place in the cosmos through kenotic love.
The Jewish vision of dignity and good news has been called a culture of life, a program that has animated the better aspects of Western culture for thousands of years.
The social vision of the Hebrew scriptures is fundamentally subversive to that of the vision of the culture of the imperial self.
Simplicity is not the denial of the goodness of the material world, rather it is the refusal to equate the quantity and quality of material goods with a life of value and purpose.
Freedom is the primary experience of the Exodus and therefore a core Jewish value. Many things compete for our attention and devotion, and therefore our freedom. We are only free to the degree that we choose to give ourselves to things that deserve our dignity.
Gender Equality is the opposite of patriarchy and the result of a deep appreciation for diversity. It is also a fundamental stance against all forms of sexual abuse and degradation. Sexuality is intended for intimacy, love, and pleasure – not manipulation, debasement, or an expression of violence.
Egalitarianism is the antidote to elitism and the skewing of power to the few.
Peace is the radical opposite vision to violence.
The basic thrust of Torah properly understood is toward a culture that embodies simplicity, freedom, gender equality, egalitarianism, and peace. May this vision be realized soon and in our time.
There is so much more within Jewish tradition concerning social justice and a humane culture of life. Unfortunately, I can’t cover every issue in this blog post. I welcome your comments, objections, thoughts, and insights.