Jewish tradition has many words to convey the idea of justice. In the Hebrew Bible, the words tzedek, mishpat and din indicate righteousness, judgment, and abiding by the law. In some ways, these concepts are no different than any society’s guidelines for achieving fairness and obedience to the legal system. Yet there are deeper and more profound ideas that underlie Jewish concepts of justice, rooted in our oldest teachings.
At the foundation of the biblical idea of justice is the concept of covenant. In the great narrative of the Exodus, the freed Israelite slaves arrive at Mount Sinai where they enter into a covenant with the godly power that liberated them. This covenant—brit in Hebrew—entails obligations that the Israelites have both to God and to one another. In return, God takes on obligations in regards to God’s people.
In its time, this was quite a radical idea: that a group of human beings could enter into a covenantal relationship with the Creator of the universe. Part of that relationship had to do with ritual obligations to be undertaken by the Israelites: holy festivals, a system of animal sacrifice, the establishment of a priesthood.
But just as important, the covenant included specific provisions for human relations, including establishing fair courts, protecting the vulnerable (the non-Israelite, the widow, the orphan, and the poor), lending to the needy without interest, treating wage laborers fairly, and much more.
In this context, justice meant observing the rules of the covenant, only some of which could be enforced in a court of law. When the biblical prophets express God’s anger at the people for doing injustice, the failure to uphold these laws concerning the poor and the vulnerable is often at the core of their critique.
In his article in the Encyclopedia Judaica on justice, Rabbi Steven S. Schwarzschild contrasts the Jewish approach to justice with dominant Western definitions, which are primarily retributive or distributive — that is, systems for how to do things. In contrast, Jewish justice is a substantive vision of what human life should be. “The substantive view of justice is concerned with the full enhancement of human and, above all, social life,” Schwarzschild wrote. “Thus it suffuses all human relations and social institutions.”
This is the messianic impulse in Judaism: the looking forward to a time when society will be ordered according to principles grounded in caring for one’s neighbor and the stranger. It is a vision of a society where the haves understand their obligations — both to the have-nots and to the community as a whole. It is a society in which citizens not only obey the law, but understand the need to go above and beyond the law in order to create a truly covenantal social order.
There are two powerful metaphors for justice in the biblical imagination. One is the image of water. Divine justice is often expressed as a flow, and to do what is right is to be aligned with that flow. When the covenant is upheld, the rains fall in their season and the land enjoys blessing (Deuteronomy 11). When the people do justice, then they are “watered” like a garden (Isaiah 58). In a verse from the book of Amos made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the prophet challenges the people: “Let justice well up like water, and righteousness like a flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
Water is both nourishing and powerful. It can create canyons and sweep away cities, or irrigate fields and gardens. As a metaphor for God’s power, the biblical authors used water imagery to convey the notion of justice as a natural part of the universe, similar to gravity. It is something which we humans can either block by our unjust actions, or channel in positive ways.
Another metaphor is rest. Along with rules guiding human relations, the Ten Commandments include the instruction to keep a weekly Sabbath. Every seven days, everyone in each Israelite household— even the work animals—gets a full day of rest. Given that the weekend didn’t become law in the U.S. until the 20th century, this was pretty progressive for its time.
Along with the weekly day of rest was something even more radical. Every seven years, the entire Israelite economy was to rest, with no planting or harvesting. All of the agricultural workers got a year off. During this time, anyone could come into a field owned by anyone and take what they needed to eat. In addition, debts were released and indentured servants were freed in the sabbatical year.
Then, every 50th year — seven times seven sabbatical years — a huge redistribution of wealth occurred. Every person got back their original family holding. Families that had lost their land because of poverty or back luck would have it returned. It was a periodic reboot of the economy, correcting for the inevitable over-concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes of this system: “In this biblical outlook, what today we call ‘social justice’ was treated as one aspect of rest, social repose, if you will. ‘Work’ was not just physical labor but the scaffolding of institutional structures of domination and control …[T]he structures themselves, not merely the physical efforts that they carry on, must be periodically dissolved in order for a true Shabbat to happen.”
Covenantal commitment, a flowing stream, society-wide rest — these Jewish understandings of justice inspire us to not only critique the world as it is, but to align ourselves with that which is godly in the universe, working towards the day when all human beings are nurtured, respected, and able to be their full selves.
Toba Spitzer is the senior rabbi at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, Massachusetts.