In Jewish thought, justice isn"t merely about how things work, yet how they need to be.

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ByRabbi Toba Spitzer


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Jewish tradition has numerous words to convey the idea of justice. In the Hebrew Bible, the indigenous tzedek, mishpat and also din indicate righteousness, judgment, and abiding by the law. In some ways, these concepts are no various than any society’s guidelines for achieving fairness and obedience to the legal system. However there are deeper and an ext profound principles that underlie Jewish principles of justice, rooted in our oldest teachings.At the structure of the biblical idea of righteousness is the concept of covenant. In the an excellent narrative that the Exodus, the freed Israelite servants arrive at mountain Sinai wherein they enter into a commitment with the godly power that liberated them. This covenant—brit in Hebrew—entails duties that the Israelites have both to God and also to one another. In return, God bring away on obligations in regards come God’s people.

In the time, this was fairly a radical idea: the a group of human beings might enter right into a covenantal connection with the Creator of the universe. Part of that relationship had actually to do with ritual responsibilities to it is in undertaken through the Israelites: divine festivals, a mechanism of pet sacrifice, the establishment of a priesthood.

But simply as important, the commitment included certain provisions for human relations, including establishing fair courts, protecting the breakable (the non-Israelite, the widow, the orphan, and the poor), lending to the needy without interest, treating wage laborers fairly, and also much more.


In this context, justice intended observing the rules of the covenant, only some that which could be enforced in a court that law. As soon as the biblical prophets refer God’s anger at the people for doing injustice, the failure to uphold this laws worrying the poor and also the breakable is regularly at the core of your critique.

In his article in the Encyclopedia Judaica top top justice, Rabbi Steven S. Schwarzschild contrasts the Jewish strategy to justice with dominant Western definitions, which are generally retributive or distributive — the is, equipment for how to carry out things. In contrast, Jewish righteousness is a substantive vision that what person life should be. “The substantive see of justice is came to with the full improvement of human and, above all, social life,” Schwarzschild wrote. “Thus it suffuses all person relations and social institutions.”

This is the messianic impulse in Judaism: the looking forward to a time when culture will be ordered follow to principles grounded in caring because that one’s neighbor and the stranger. It is a vision that a society where the haves know their obligations — both to the have-nots and to the neighborhood as a whole. The is a society in i beg your pardon citizens not only obey the law, however understand the must go over and past the regulation in order to develop a important covenantal society order.

There space two powerful metaphors because that justice in the biblical imagination. One is the image of water. Divine justice is regularly expressed as a flow, and also to do what is best is to it is in aligned through that flow. Once the commitment is upheld, the rains fall in their season and the floor enjoys blessing (Deuteronomy 11). As soon as the world do justice, then they room “watered” favor a garden (Isaiah 58). In a verse from the publication of Amos made famous by Dr. Young name Luther King, Jr., the prophet obstacles the people: “Let justice well up prefer water, and righteousness choose a flow stream” (Amos 5:24).

Water is both nourishing and powerful. The can produce canyons and also sweep far cities, or irrigate fields and also gardens. Together a metaphor for God’s power, the biblical authors supplied water imagery come convey the id of justice together a natural component of the universe, comparable to gravity. It is miscellaneous which us humans have the right to either block by our unjust actions, or channel in confident ways.

Another metaphor is rest. Together with rules guiding human being relations, the Ten Commandments include the instruction to keep a weekly Sabbath. Every 7 days, everyone in every Israelite household— also the job-related animals—gets a complete day the rest. Given that the weekend didn’t end up being law in the U.S. Till the 20th century, this to be pretty gradual for its time.

Along through the weekly job of remainder was miscellaneous even much more radical. Every 7 years, the whole Israelite economic climate was come rest, with no planting or harvesting. Every one of the agricultural workers acquired a year off. During this time, anyone might come into a ar owned by anyone and also take what they needed to eat. In addition, debts to be released and also indentured servants to be freed in the sabbatical year.

Then, every 50th year — seven times seven sabbatical years — a vast redistribution of riches occurred. Every human got earlier their original household holding. Families that had actually lost your land since of poverty or ago luck would have it returned. It to be a periodic reboot that the economy, correcting because that the inevitable over-concentration of wide range in the hand of a few.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow to write of this system: “In this biblical outlook, what now we contact ‘social justice’ was treated as one facet of rest, society repose, if girlfriend will. ‘Work’ to be not just physical labor but the scaffolding of institutional structures of domination and control …he structures themselves, not just the physical initiatives that they lug on, need to be periodically liquified in order because that a true Shabbat come happen.”

Covenantal commitment, a flowing stream, society-wide remainder — these Jewish understandings of righteousness inspire us to not only critique the civilization as that is, yet to align ourselves v that which is godly in the universe, working in the direction of the day once all people are nurtured, respected, and also able to be their complete selves.

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Toba Spitzer is the senior rabbi in ~ Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, Massachusetts.