Parshat Vayera by David Kasher

 Just ‘Justice’?

All this talk about ‘Social Justice.’  It has really become a buzz-phrase in the Jewish community.   I work for Hillel, and there are entire positions in our organization responsible for social justice coordination alone.   And there are countless Jewish organizations devoted wholly to Social Justice work.  Uri l’Tzedek, of course, has done terrific work bringing that emphasis on Social Justice into the orthodox community in particular.  In so doing, Orthodoxy joins in the larger communal passion for Social Justice, a phenomenon which is prominent across the Jewish spectrum.  Indeed, many Jews see their primary identification with Judaism through the centrality of Social Justice in Jewish tradition.


And yet, the phrase “Social Justice” does not actually appear in Jewish tradition.  Indeed, the term was coined in the 1800’s by a Jesuit scholar, based on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, and has since then been an important term in Catholic community discourse.  The language of Social Justice then gained currency in a broader context, in part through the work of political theorist John Rawls, in his classic work, “A Theory of Justice.”  How, though, did the phrase come to be adopted with such passion by the Jewish community?


Now of course, the precise phrasing, ‘Social Justice’ is not found in traditional sources, but the word ‘Justice,’Tzedek or Mishpat, certainly is all over them.  So what we’re really asking is, “why social?”  Is Social Justice different from just ‘Justice’?  What is it about this qualifier that is so important that we are more likely to see it than not?  We do not often hear of Jewish ‘justice organizations’, after all.  What does the extra word do for us?


One answer is that if may help distinguish Social Justice work from the official workings of a state Justice system.  Perhaps speaking of ‘justice’ alone most readily evokes the structural workings of legislation, courts, and policing.  In fact, the most well know use of “tzedek” in the Torah appears in precisely such a context:


“Put judges and police at all your gates that the Lord your God will give you for your tribes and they shall judge the people with just laws.  Do not bend the law; do not show partiality; do not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.  Justice, justice, shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Dev. 16:18-20)

When we want to speak of regular citizens, organizing themselves around a common concern for principles of justice, but outside of the institutions of justice, we add the word ‘social.’


Perhaps.  That may well be a distinction that has become practically useful.  Yet I tend to doubt that this is the reason for our community’s embracing of the term in the first place. In this usage, after all, the word social would refer to those active in Social Justice work.  That is, this is a justice which is done by those in society, not those in charge of society.   That, I suspect, is not the reference we assume the word ‘social’ to have in the phrase.  Rather, social refers to the causes we want justice to be addressing – issues of injustice in the society around us.  But again, wouldn’t the word “Justice” suffice for these concerns?  (i.e., we would say, ‘I want workers to have a fair wage because it is just‘, not ‘because it is socially just.’)


I would like to suggest, then, that one of the motivating reasons for the popularity of the term Social Justice is that it allows us to distinguish this kind of work from any notions of Divine Justice.  More to the point, it allows us to speak of Justice without having to invoke God.  And this is why the phrase has gained such momentum in the Jewish community.  There are many people who are inspired to do good work and would like to link that work to Judaism, but are uncomfortable with religion.  Instead, they would prefer to extract the ideals of justice from the religious context in which they emerge.


That is, of course, perfectly fine.  Any reason to do good work is a good reason.


But let us not forget that, in their origin, Jewish notions of justice are deeply intertwined with notions of a God who calls upon us to practice it, and who can be called upon to deliver it.  This week’s parsha, Vayera, provides the paradigmatic example of the latter:


“Abraham came forward and said, ‘Will You sweep away the righteous along with the wicked?  What if there are fifty righteous people within the city;  will You then wipe out the place and forgive it for the sake of the righteous fifty who are in it?  Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous and the wicked together, so that the righteous and the wicked are the same!  Far be it from you!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?!” (Ber. 18:23-25)

The Judge of all the earth, who must deal justly.  In this passage we see not only that Abraham sees God as the source of, and the authority for, justice, but that in our quest for justice here on earth, our first recourse is to the Divine.  Abraham is often – and rightfully – cast as a social justice advocate; but he clearly sees that advocacy as inherently bound up in his spirituality. It is an important reminder that to the extent that Social Justice becomes a replacement for religion, instead of inspired by it, to that extent it loses a part of its Jewish legacy.


It seems to me that the Uri L’Tzedek community is in a unique position to reacquaint the Jewish Social Justice movement with its spiritual foundations.  Of course, one major contribution that Uri L’Tzedek has already been providing is an attempt to reinvigorate the traditional community around Social Justice, an area that is often overlooked in the Orthodox community, in the midst of our passion for the more ritualistic aspects of Torah and Mitzvot.  But that exchange can go both ways, and Uri L’Tzedek can also offer outward, to the broader community, a view of Social Justice work that is deeply imbued with a divine charge.  Not only is religion compatible with Social Justice, but more: a profound relationship with God is precisely the force that can move us to call for justice in our society.