Liberal Jews have invented the myth that Judaism is a synonym for the pursuit of “social justice.”
On Internet search engines, the combination of the terms “Judaism” and “social justice” yields a considerably greater number of web-page hits than a search for “Judaism” and “kosher” or “Judaism” and “Passover,” and nearly all of these are Internet sites proclaiming the quest for “social justice” as the essence of Jewish ethics. Many of the websites are, unsurprisingly, associated with Reform and Conservative synagogues or organizations.
But is social justice really the essence of Judaism? It would be an exaggeration, but only a small one, to say that nothing in Judaism directs us to the pursuit of social (as opposed to judicial) justice. It is therefore an absurdity to claim that social justice is somehow synonymous with Judaism and even the essence thereof.
Like those old advertisements about Levy’s rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to pursue social justice. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and atheists are just as capable of caring about social justice and pursuing it as are Jews. Moreover, pursuing social-action fads is hardly the same thing as pursuing justice.
Murder is considered wrong by all religious traditions and in all strands of secularist humanist philosophy. So who needs Judaism to teach us that murder is unjust? And if Judaism is simply a quest for social justice, would not a gentile who pursues it be practicing the essence of Judaism? In that case, intermarriage between a Jew and a socially concerned gentile would not be intermarriage at all, since in essence they practice the same religion.
As it turns out, the Torah clearly decrees capital punishment for murderers. Yet to the extent that the issue is addressed at all by Jewish practitioners of social justice fetishism, one would think Judaism unambiguously condemns capital punishment. One would be hard pressed to find a single synagogue social action committee promoting the death penalty.
A major problem with social action fetishism is that it refuses to acknowledge the tradeoffs involved in real-world choices over issues of social justice. In the name of social justice, should Jews be siding with the Ossetians against the Georgians or with the Georgians against the Russians? Or if subsidizing ethanol reduces American import dependence on carbon fuels but causes grain and food prices to rise, is the subsidization socially just or socially unjust?
Practitioners of social justice fetishism do not want to be bothered with such complications; they seek instant moral gratification, effortless armchair recreational compassion. Studying cost-benefit analysis would be such a distraction.
The Torah does, of course, attach considerable importance to justice – court justice. In fact, the requirement to operate a functional legal and judicial system is one of the commandments to Noah according to Jewish understanding and so obligates all gentile societies.
But social justice generally concerns the relationships between groups of people in society and concentrates on collective economic well-being and power. In this narrow sense, Jewish ethical teaching has little if anything to say about group social justice. Indeed, the proper understanding of tikkun olam, that mantra recited senselessly and obsessively by all Jewish practitioners of social justice fetishism, has nothing at all to do with social justice.
The only mention of tikkun olam in traditional Jewish prayer has to do with the eradication of pagan idolatry from the world. More generally, one can squeeze under the notional umbrella of tikkun olam the demand that courts do their work properly.
This point cannot be stressed enough. Justice in Judaism, be it social or not, means mainly that courts function well and fairly. But courts only function well when they ignore group social considerations altogether. The Torah explicitly warns judges against favoring a poor individual over a rich one out of any sense of misplaced compassion.
And while judges are commanded to protect orphans and widows, they are instructed to do so by applying the laws to them without bias. Poor people do not get to dodge their legal obligations – paying debts, restoring property, etc. – because of some affirmative action-type preference on their behalf.
As for economic “discrimination” and income disparities, under Judaism these are none of the court’s business. The Torah deals with income disparity by requiring the giving of tzedakah, or charity, and the economic inequities that concern Judaism are internal Jewish ones. Jews are required by Judaism to look after other Jews living in hardship. Jews of course are not prohibited from helping out non-Jews in economic distress, but they are not religiously obligated to do so.
I suppose one could argue that there is socially utilitarian merit to the charity-related commandments – i.e., giving charity contributes to a more harmonious society by reducing resentment and jealousy. But that is a modern sociological gloss. Charity is obligatory because it is the good thing to do. True wealth, the Talmud tells us, is being satisfied with your lot in life and not coveting your neighbor’s Porsche.
As for group entitlements in the name of social justice, according to the Torah the primary groups entitled to collective allotments and wealth-sharing are the Levites and the priests. Converts to Judaism are often mentioned as a group deserving compassionate treatment and consideration, but specifically as it concerns their feeding themselves (alongside the poor or destitute) from fields owned by Jews and being treated fairly in courts of law.
One can just imagine how Moses would react were he to hear modern practitioners of social justice fetishism touting as “Jewish social justice” affirmative action programs that discriminate against Jews through quotas and reduced standards.
And since Moses was known to have a sharp temper, I do not suggest anyone try going back in time to ask him his thoughts on gay marriage.
Steven Plaut, a professor at Haifa University, is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.