Thursday, 18 October 2012

Justice is Always Social: Jewish Texts and Social Justice

"Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof": "Justice, Justice, Shall You Pursue." Deuteronomy 16:20



(Note: this is the text of an oral presentation that I recently gave at a non-academic and general-audience multi-faith panel under the heading 'Does Scripture Help or Hinder Social Justice Work.' For that reason, it is not as thoroughly sourced as I might like--if you would like further information regarding source materials used in the piece, please feel free to post your requests in the comments and I will respond as quickly as possible.)

When B kindly invited me to participate in this conversation and present from a Jewish perspective, the first thing I wanted to do was define the two parts of the question--in other words, what is 'Jewish Scripture,' and what is 'social justice'? In the Jewish tradition, what one might call ‘scripture,’ Torah, is made up of two parts—the Oral Torah or Law (known as the Tanakh in Hebrew) that is composed of the ‘Five Books of Moses,” Prophets, and Writings, and the Written Torah or Law, which is the Talmud, an enormous and extensive commentary and commentary on commentaries concerning the Oral Law. The Talmud is made up of both law (specific proscriptions or requirements determined from the analysis of the Tanakh) and stories (haggadah) which demonstrate and describe our relationship to these laws. You cannot talk about 'Jewish scripture' without the Talmud.  The second term, 'social justice,' was quite difficult for me to define, but I decided finally (if provisionally) that the only way to define social justice in the Jewish tradition is as the responsibility that individuals have to one another, to their communities, and to other communities in the world. But in another sense, perhaps even more important, it is a redundant term: justice, in Judaism, is always social.
The first story of interpersonal responsibility that we are given is from Genesis, and is the well-known account of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain kills his brother, and when Gd interrogates Cain as to the whereabouts of Abels, Cain famously responds, "Am I my brother's keeper?" The answer, at least in the Jewish tradition, is an unequivocal and resounding "YES!"


In the Jewish tradition, our responsibility to one another is not simply a moral feeling, or even simply necessary for the attainment of spiritual advancement—it is a legal requirement. Cain’s violation of his brother, and his subsequent abandonment of him, does not simply make him a bad person and specifically does not result in any punishment that he will suffer after death—his punishment is immediate, strong, and utterly this-worldy. The fact that this responsibility to others is a legal requirement--and why--becomes clearer when we look at the relationship in Judaism between the interrelated concepts of justice, “charity”--I’ll explain those quote marks in a moment--and idolatry. 
The Hebrew word for Justice is tzedek—the word first appear in Genesis 6:9, as an adjective which describes Noah as a ‘righteous man” or aish tzaddik. A tzaddik, or one who is righteous, is one whose conduct Gd finds to be irreproachable—he embodies, in his whole being, the virtues of righteousness and fairness. 
The term which is commonly translated as ‘charity,’ tzedakah, is in fact a variation on exactly this word for justice—it might be better translated as righteousness or even fairness. and while it shares some characteristics with a sort of spontaneous giving based on ones personal sense of responsibility for others who are in need, it is very importantly difference. Tzedakah is not an option, and not a choice—it does not come from empathy, or sympathy, or any other feeling. It is an obligation and an action. As such, to give to one in need does not require that one wants to give, and in fact one who gives stingily and with an unwilling heart gets full credit for having fulfilled the commandment to give. The Talmud elucidates the various levels of charity that can be found in the Torah. From the lowest to the highest, these levels are:
The first levels of charity involve face-to-face giving.
  1. To give begrudgingly to another when they ask you directly, and to give less than is needed. 
  2. To give less than you should to one who asks, but to give it cheerfully.
  3. To give after being asked, but to give cheerfully and plenty.
  4. To give copiously and cheerfully before being asked
[These are the four most basic levels of charity, the ones where you are confronted on the street by someone in need. The Jewish tradition states that, even when you are unable to give anything material, you must, at the very least, acknowledge the existence of the begger. So when we pass someone on the street, if we actually do not have any cash or change or truly cannot afford it, at the very least we may not pass by as though they are invisible—even an ‘I’m sorry’ as you pass is better than nothing.]

  1. To give when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  2. To give when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
  3. To give when neither party knows the others' identity
[The importance of this anonymity cannot be over-stated. The Talmud, when speaking of tzedakah, ofter speaks of a man named Mar Ukva as the ideal giver. Mar Ukva was in the habit of giving a small amount of money to a poor man in his neighborhood by slipping the money under the man's door whenever he was absent. After some time, the poor man decided that he need to know who this invisible beneficiary was! The next time Mar Ukva came to drop off the money (this time accompanied by his wife) the man was hiding, waited until Mar Ukva bent down to slip the money under the door, and jumped out to surprise him! Mar Ukva and his wife ran off, chased by the man through the streets, careful at every turn not to reveal their faces. Eventually Mar Ukva and his wife slipped through a side door and hid inside an oven, and while the oven was off it was still hot—Mar Ukva and his wife remained still and silent until the pauper passed, even as their feet blistered and burned, all to maintain the dignity of the pauper. (Talmud, Tractate Ketuvot 67b)]

  1. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant (added by Maimonides).
[In other words, to invest something of yourself in a long-term way in the success of another individual, by, for example, going in to business with them. This is NOT  the same as “teaching a man to fish”—it is more like buying a fishing vessel with him and working the seas together. ]

And while anonymity is laudable, the important thing is to give.
Several points about this scale of giving deserve emphasis: firstly, as I noted before, to give even in the most pathetic way possible is still giving, and is still laudable. Even aid which is insufficient is still aid. Secondly, in order to reach the higher levels of giving, there must be communal and social institutions in place—it is impossible to give in a way that maintains the anonymity of donor and recipient without an institutions, which can only be supported and survive in a society which has a norm of giving. Thirdly, in no case does the giving involve requiring anything of the recipient. In fact, this is one of the major reasons why the higher levels of giving involve some degree on anonymity—without that anonymity, the giver might be tempted to judge the recipients use of his or her gift and expect a certain response, and the recipient might likewise feel obligated. The rabbis say that the anonymity of the donor is important precisely because it avoids making the recipient feel, even unintentionally, that they must respond in a certain way. 

There is wonderful story that makes this point, and which reinforces the fact that giving is intended to preserve the dignity and life of the recipient without any expectation on the part of the donor. It also contrasts starkly with the notion that there are 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor, and again, the main actor of the story is our friend, Mar Ukva.
For years, on the night of Yom Kippur, the most holy of days in the Jewish calendar, Mar Ukva would give 400 zuzim to a pauper in his neighborhood. One year, he sent his son to deliver the money, but his son returned, still with the money, and told his father that the man did not need it anymore. Mar Ukva asked him why he thinks the man is no longer in need: his son replied that he looked in the window and “saw them aromatizing his house with aged wine.” Mar Ukva was shocked, and said, “Is he so pampered them? He must need more money than I have been sending him!” And so he doubled his gift to 800 zuzim. (Talmud, Tractate Ketuvot 67b)
The lesson of this story (or at least one of the lessons) is that it is not our place to judge what someone needs, and our obligation to respond to their need cannot be limited to what we think they ought to have.
At its core, in the Jewish tradition, justice must be a response to the needs of the other, a response to one who suffers—our goal must be to attempt to understand that suffering and alleviate it, not to judge whether that suffering is ‘real’ or not. Because if that is all we are doing, if all I do is look at someone on my own terms through the lens of what I think ‘poverty’ or ‘persecution’ is, then I am only talking to myself. And righteousness, justice, and fairness, requires us to look at the other person. 
Giving, and giving properly--which is to say, truly looking at and listening to other people--is not simply one aspect of the Jewish tradition, but one of the most basic building blocks of the tradition as a whole. The strongest prohibition in Judaism is against idolatry, avodah zarah, the worshipping of statues. It is the greatest sin a Jew can commit. Why? It turns out that the problem of idolatry is not idols, but idolators. 
Speaking of idols, Psalm 115 says: 
(5) They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see;
(6) they have ears, but cannot hear, nose, but cannot smell;
(7) they have hands, but cannot touch, feet, but cannot walk; they can make no sound in their throats;
(8) Those who make them shall be like them, and so shall all who trust in them.

Idolatry is isolating, while worship always involves
a relationship.
In Judaism the sin of idolatry is that the idol-worshipper becomes like the idol—he cannot see the blessings of the law or the need of his fellow man, he or she is cut off from the world around them, cut off from the community. They cannot make a statement that is true or respond to one that is false, and perhaps most of all, they cannot feel. That isolation, an isolation which we identify as stemming precisely from the worshiping of idols, is the condition of one who does not pursue justice, tzeddek,  of one who is incapable of knowing or responding to anything beyond that which is already in him.


R. Yehushua teaches in the Talmud (Bava Batra 10a, Ketubot 68a): “Anyone who averts their eyes from giving, it is as if he worships idols.”

Why is this? 

Giving is, in essence, a going out from oneself. It requires one to be aware of the world and to act in and upon that world. The first act of the first man, Adam, was itself an act of giving--the giving of names, and everything that people do in the world is in some way an act of giving, interacting, touching and forming the world in a way which is, ideally, more and more just. 

There is, in a sense, no such thing as ‘charity’ in the Jewish scriptures, insofar as charity means a form of giving that is looked upon with favor by the Divine. There is no division between giving and justice, because to be just and righteous is to give to your fellow man, to acknowledge that you must be involved in the world and take responsibility for the state of the world and your fellow human beings. And that justice is and must be a legally mandated and protected obligation and right.  
If the most basic prohibition of the law is a prohibition against idolatry, against cutting yourself off from your fellow man, then the laws that follow--laws concern obligations to neighbors and the poor, orphans, the requirement that you give away 10% of your income--are all oriented towards the maintenance of prohibition. Those acts of giving are the very acts that constitute our humanity, that make us other than deaf, blind, emotionless and inconsequential statues. 
We are required to give not because it makes us better people, but because it is what makes us people in the first place.