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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Social Justice– Mandate or Mixed Message?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on August 5, 2016)
Topics: Halakha & Modernity, Tzedakah & Social Justice

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Many Jews champion social justice as a Torah mandate of tikkun olam.  This term contains two notions – one, a universalist ethos, a care for the world at large, and not just the Jewish community.  And two, it is a call to address the deep, systemic problems within society – to get at the root causes of injustice and inequality, and not just focus on addressing its symptoms,  such as helping individuals who are without food, or health care, or education.

Others are skeptical about such a mandate.  From their perspective, the mitzvot of the Torah focus on our obligations within the Jewish community, and not towards the world at large.  In addition, the mitzvot of the Torah are about direct service – giving tzedakkah to the poor, lending money, saving a life that is in danger visiting the sick, and the like – and they do not focus on society as a whole.


We look here at these two issues – (a) Social Justice or Direct Service? And (b) Universalism or Particularism?  The question of balancing the competing demands of particularism and universalism will be left for another lecture.


Social Justice or Direct Service?

Does the Torah only command acts of direct service?  Look at the verses from Devarim {source ‎1}.  The Torah is talking about setting up a just society when we enter into Israel.  What are some potential injustices that the Torah is trying to prevent?  Are these still issues in today’s society?

Do you think it is appropriate to translate this mandate to self-governing Jewish communities outside of the Land of Israel, such as were present in the Middle Ages?  Do you think it can be extended to a mandate relating to the world at larger?  What would be the differences between the two cases?

What other mitzvot in the Torah can you think of that relate to creating a more just society, particularly in the land of Israel?  Think both in terms of the legal system and equal treatment under the law, and also in terms of the economic system and the potential for large economic inequality. Did the Torah conceive of a capitalist or socialist society, or something different altogether?

  1. Deutoronomy 16:18-20  | דברים פרק טז:י”ח-כ
(יח) שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת הָעָם מִשְׁפַּט צֶדֶק:

(יט) לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים וְלֹא תִקַּח שֹׁחַד כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם:

(כ) צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

18. Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, throughout your tribes; and they shall judge the people with just judgment.

19. You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous.

20. Justice, only justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.


Take a look at the following passage from Devarim {source ‎2}.  What system does the Torah set up to address issues of economic inequality?  What problems does the Torah anticipate with this system? Is this realistic in a capitalist and secular society?  What would be some ways in which this idea could be incorporated today?

Also note that the Torah emphasizes our obligation to loan money to the poor, and not to give an outright gift.  Why do you think is?  How might this be better for the poor, and also for society as a whole?  How does this combine with the Torah’s mitzvah to not charge interest (Shemot 22:24) to create a society with less economic inequality?  Is such a thing feasible in today’s society?  Do you see ways in which some elements of it could be implemented?

Finally, pay attention to the scope of this mandate.  Is it directed towards all people, or just towards one’s own?  How do you explain this?  Would this work on a universalist scale?

2. Devarim. 15:1-2, 7-11   |   דברים פרק טו

(א) מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה שְׁמִטָּה:

(ב) וְזֶה דְּבַר הַשְּׁמִטָּה שָׁמוֹט כָּל בַּעַל מַשֵּׁה יָדוֹ אֲשֶׁר יַשֶּׁה בְּרֵעֵהוּ לֹא יִגֹּשׂ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאֶת אָחִיו כִּי קָרָא שְׁמִטָּה לַה’…

(ז) כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן:

(ח) כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ:

(ט) הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן יִהְיֶה דָבָר עִם לְבָבְךָ בְלִיַּעַל לֵאמֹר קָרְבָה שְׁנַת הַשֶּׁבַע שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה וְרָעָה עֵינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן וְלֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ וְקָרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל ה’ וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא:

(י) נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹא יֵרַע לְבָבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ כִּי בִּגְלַל הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָרֶכְךָ ה’ א-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ:

(יא) כִּי לֹא יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַעֲנִיֶּךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ בְּאַרְצֶךָ

1. At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release.

2. And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lends anything unto his neighbor shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbor, or of his brother; because it is called the Lord’s release…

7. If there is among you a poor man of one of your brothers inside 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 poor brother;

8. But you shall open your hand wide to him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he lacks.

9. Beware that there be not a thought in your wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing; and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin to you.

10. You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; because for this thing the Lord your God shall bless you in all your works, and in all that you put your hand to.

11. For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying, You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy, in your land.


One way in which the Torah provides for the poor is through the agricultural gifts of leket, shikicha, and peah, the dropped gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, and the unharvested corner (think Book of Ruth).  But how were these institutions perpetuated outside of the land of Israel.  Look at mishna from the end of Tractate Peah – the tractate devoted to these agriculatural gifts {source ‎3}.  Are the obligations described here private obligations or communal ones?  In what way do these parallel the agricultural gifts and in what way do they differ from them?  Does this structure get to systemic issues, or is it ultimately another form of direct service? What parallel institutions exist in the larger society today?

3. Mishnah Peah, 8:7  |   משנה מסכת פאה פרק ח משנה ז

אין פוחתין לעני העובר ממקום למקום מככר בפונדיון מארבע סאין בסלע לן נותנין לו פרנסת לינה שבת נותנין לו מזון שלש סעודות

מי שיש לו מזון שתי סעודות לא יטול מן התמחוי מזון ארבע עשרה סעודות לא יטול מן הקופה

והקופה נגבית בשנים ומתחלקת בשלשה:

One must not give the wandering poor man less than a loaf worth a pondion at a time when four se’ahs [of wheat cost] one sela’.   If he spends the night [at a place], one must give him the cost of what he needs for a night.  If he stays over the Sabbath he is given food for three meals.  

He who has the means for two meals, must not accept anything from the charity dish; and if he has for fourteen meals, he may not accept any support from the communal fund.

The communal fund is collected by two and distributed by three people.


Universalism or Particularism?

We now turn to the question of universalism versus particularism within Judaism.  This is, of course, a large topic, and here we confine ourselves to a small selection of sources to get a sense of the shape of the issue.


Take a look at the following passage from Sifra Kedoshim{source ‎4‎3}.  What expression of particularism stands out in this passage?    What is debate between R. Akiva and Ben Azai?  Why does Ben Azai think his principle is the greater one?  What is the message implicit in “The book of the generaitons of man”?  Those who emphasize a universalist message often make reference to the concept from the Torah’s narrative of creation of tzelem E-lohim, that all humans beings were created in the image of God.  How does that concept differ from Ben Azai’s?

Now take a look at the parallel passage in Brieshit Rabbha {source ‎5}.  From this source, it seems that Ben Azai is not stressing a universalist message, but a different point.  What is that point?   How might this point be connected to a universalist message?

4. Sifra Kedoshim, Parsha 2:12   |   ספרא קדושים פרשה ב

(יב) לא תקום ולא תטור את בני עמך, נוקם אתה ונוטר לאחרים

ואהבת לרעך כמוך, רבי עקיבא אומר זה כלל גדול בתורה, בן עזאי אומר זה ספר תולדות אדם, זה כלל גדול מזה.

“You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against the children of your people” (Vayirka 19:18) – but you may take revenge and bear a grudge against others.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (ibid.) – Rabbi Akiva says, ‘This is a great principle in the Torah.’ Ben Azai say, “This is the book of the generations of man” (Breishit 5:1) is a greater principle than that,

5. Breishit Rabbath, Chapter 24  |   בראשית רבה פ’ כ”ד ד”ה ז ר’ תנחומא

בן עזאי אומר זה ספר תולדות אדם (בראשית ה)  זה כלל גדול בתורה… שלא תאמר הואיל ונתבזיתי יתבזה חבירי עמי הואיל ונתקללתי יתקלל חבירי עמי, א”ר תנחומא אם עשית כן דע למי אתה מבזה, בדמות אלהים עשה אותו.Ben Azai says “This is the book of the  generations of Adam” is a great principle in the Torah [greater than “Love thy neighbor as theyself”]… that you should not say, “Since I have been degraded, my friend can be degraded along with me; since I have been cursed, let my friend be cursed with me.” Says R. Tanchuma: If you act in this way, know whom you are degrading, “In the image of God He made him.” (Breishit. 5:1).


In Devarim, the Torah commands us to lend money, and commands against taking interest {sources ‎6-‎7}.  The Torah states that these mitzvot apply to “our brother”.  What in these verses makes it clear that this term is not generic and that this obligation does not extend to those who are not “our brother”?  Is the preferencing of “our brother” appropriate here?  Should these obligations extend to everyone?  Is there a reason practically to prioritize our own?  Can this be morally justified?

Also note how these verses emphasize “in the land”?  How might the issue of particularism play out differently when the frame of reference is one of a country and the people in the land, as opposed to a religion and its adherents?

6. Devarim 15:7   |    

(ז) כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן:If there is among you a poor man of one of your brothers inside 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 poor brother

7. Devarim 23:20-21

(כ) לֹא תַשִּׁיךְ לְאָחִיךָ נֶשֶׁךְ כֶּסֶף נֶשֶׁךְ אֹכֶל נֶשֶׁךְ כָּל דָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִשָּׁךְ:

(כא) לַנָּכְרִי תַשִּׁיךְ וּלְאָחִיךָ לֹא תַשִּׁיךְ לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ עַל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר  אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:

20. You shall not lend upon interest to your brother; interest of money, interest of foodstuff, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest;

21. To a stranger you may lend upon interest; but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest; that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you set your hand to in the land where you are entering to possess.

As noted above, one way the poor were provided for in society was through the agricultural gifts.  In the Book of Ruth, when Ruth gleans the droppings from Boaz’s field, she is shocked by the special attention he gives her {source ‎8}.  It is reasonable to assume that not only would foreigners not generally receive special attention, but that they also would not be entitled to take these agricultural gifts intended for the poor Israelites.  Is this form of particularism understandable and defensible?  If it is, can the same logic then be extended to a religion- and people- based particularism?

8. Ruth 2:10   |   רות פרק ב פסוק י

וַתִּפֹּל עַל פָּנֶיהָ וַתִּשְׁתַּחוּ אָרְצָה וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַדּוּעַ מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ לְהַכִּירֵנִי וְאָנֹכִי נָכְרִיָּה:Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said to him, Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, seeing that I am a stranger?

Even before she adopted a full Israelite identity, Ruth was a stranger dwelling in the land, in other words, the ger of the Torah.  Look at the following selection of verses relating to our obligation to the ger {source ‎9-‎10}.  One way of understanding our obligation to the ger is to not oppress the disadvantaged and vulnerable among us.  But the verses from Vayikra suggest something else – a fundamental equality of treatment.  Does this speak to a general universalist ethos?  Why might the ger deserve equal treatment, when others – those who lived outside the land – would not?  How do these mitzvot situate our obligations on the continuum from narrow particularism to broad universalism?

9. Shemot 22:20; 23:9   |   שמות כב:כ’; כ”ג:ט’

[ כ”ב:כ’] וְגֵר לֹא תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:

[ כ”ג:ט’]  וְגֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

[22:20]  You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt

[23:9]  Also you shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

10.  Vayikra 19:33-34   |   ויקרא י”ט:ל”ג-ל”ד

(לג) וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר בְּאַרְצְכֶם לֹא תוֹנוּ אֹתוֹ:

(לד) כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם:

33. And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not afflict him.

34. But the stranger that dwells with you shall be unto you as a citizen among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.


Nehamia Leibowitz, in her introduction to Shemot points out that the mitzvot relating to the ger specifically mention the exile in Egypt.  She develops this point and then states that the entire reason for the exile in Egypt was to create a mandate to oppose slavery and humiliation of one human being at the hands of another {source ‎11}.  Do you think the evidence in the Torah points to a universalist mandate to oppose slavery and abuse wherever it might exist on the globe and to work to change it?  What does the immediate scope of the Torah’s mitzvot seem to be, and how might these work together with this moral and universalist calling?

11. Nehama Leibowitz, Introduction to Shemot

[T]he reason for the Egyptian exile, the persecution and the suffering of bondage accompanying the birth of the Jewish people prior to the giving of the Torah and their entering into the Promised Land, was, that they themselves should experience the taste of slavery and humiliation.  They were to be made to realize just what it felt like to be subjected to the violence and domination of man by man….  [T]he redemption from Egypt serve as a spur for a religious duty; that imposed upon every Jew to redeem his fellow-being from the slavery he had been reduced to for lack of means.  This duty too is motivated in the Torah by the Almight’s rescuing his people from Egypt:כי לי בני ישראל עבדים עבדי הם אשר הוצאתי אותם מארץ מצרים אני ה’ א-להיכם:, “For the Children of Israel are My slaves; My slaves they are, whom I brought out of the Land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Lev. 25, 55).


We have seen how the Torah does address itself to deeper, more systemic societal concerns, at least in the land of Israel.  We have also seen how some sources speak to a universalist ethos, while most underscore that our obligations are primarily to those “in our gates.”  Nevertheless, the mitzvot relating ot the ger point to a broader sense of obligation and responsibility.  We explore this further in our lecture on Circles of Responsibility.