top of page

Why Has Social Justice been Written out of the Torah?

We are faced with a religious leadership that is largely indifferent to the economic gaps that have opened up in Israel, or the neo-liberal capitalism that holds sway.

Judaism is a religion for whom the quest for a good and just society is absolutely central. The Torah commands us to "Love our fellow person as ourselves" but also gives practical suggestions of how to do this: it mandates periodic land reform and debt relief, forbids taking interest, warns of dire consequences to the nation and the world if the poor and marginalized are oppressed, and puts a cap on the profit a middleman can make selling necessary goods—actually forbidding middlemen when it comes to "ochel nephesh"—the basic foods that make up our daily diet. The resounding statement made in sefer vayikra justifying the radical land reform mandated by the jubilee could serve as a coda for the Torah's take on private property and the accumulation of wealth: "For mine is the entire earth, for you are strangers and sojourners together with me."

During the many centuries in which Jews were not autonomous, many of the discussions of economic life in the halachik literature remained theoretical. Practical adjustments were made, for better or for worse, to prevailing conditions, most famously (or notoriously) in the Middle Ages with the heter iska that elegantly circumvented the Torah's ban on interest. In the early modern and modern period, rabbinic figures, from the Kzotz Hachoshen to the Chatam Sofer to Rav Yisroel Salanter and Samson Refael Hirsch and others continued to interpret the Torah and Talmud within their contemporary context in ways that sided with and protected workers and the poor during capitalism's ascent. Many other rabbinic figures were less involved with theoretical ideas about social justice, but deeply identified, on a daily basis, with their impoverished flocks—Rabbi Chaim Soloveichick, who refused to sleep in his home after a fire burnt down the poorest neighborhood in the town of Brisk, comes to mind.

In the period leading up to the founding of the State of Israel, there was a burst of rabbinic passion and energy devoted to envisioning the creation of a progressive society guided by the spirit, if not the halacha, of Judaism. The prospect and opportunity of Jewish governance, as well as the prevailing winds of socialist thought that emanated from and penetrated Jewish society inspired figures such as Yehuda Ashlag, perhaps the preeminent Kabbalist of the 20th century, Shimon Federbush, President of Hapoel Hamizrachi and Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. Even Rav Avraham Isaac haKohen Kook, more renowned for other aspects of his thought, stated in no uncertain terms that that tzedaka was a stopgap measure appropriate for the exile while a Jewish government's role would be to prevent poverty altogether. "I don’t know which economic system would be the right according to Judaism—but one thing is sure—it would not be capitalism", Kook wrote.

Why then, 60 years after the founding of the State, are we faced with a religious leadership, with some exceptions, seemingly indifferent to the social gaps that have opened up in Israel, and to the neo-liberal economic policies that have governed Israel under both Likud and Labor governments over the past two decades?

The historical reasons for the rabbinic disengagement from social issues are too numerous to fully argue, but I will try to do them partial justice in a list, before turning to the deeper, meta issues.

*The shock of the holocaust, as well as the challenge of assimilation into modernity, refocused religious Judaism on issues of identity and survival as a people. This is doubly true of Haredi leaders who found themselves so decimated after World War II and so challenged by the success of the secular Jewish state that all their energies were (and still are) focused on their own particular flocks. Their approach gradually penetrated "mizrachi" circles as well.

*A pervasive sense that Communism, particularly the Soviet version, targeted religion, contained deep layers of anti-Semitism, and betrayed humanity with brutal purges and abrogation of human rights.

*Deep identification on the part of religious Zionist leaders with the leadership of the secular state, which resulted in the relegation of "general" social issues to this leadership, in exchange for religious autonomy in the school system, control over marriage, divorce and kashrut.

*Identification with the United States, Israel's "big power" supporter, and alienation from leftist political movements increasingly perceived as anti-Israel.

*Reliance on the support of wealthy American Jews to fund religious institutions in Israel amidst the postwar economic success of American Jews created an unconscious bias towards American style capitalism.

*Communal energies and passions of Religious Zionists became focused on the settlement movement and "Land of Israel" politics, from the early 70's and beyond, to the exclusion of broader social and political questions.

*Recognition of the rise in life expectancy and other momentous improvements in material life that came about during the capitalist period, through medicine, science and technology, and a failure to distinguish between these advances and particular economic policies that coincided with, but did not necessarily cause, these changes.

*Embrace of scientific expertise, especially, as mentioned above, concerning its direct applications to the improvement of human life through medicine and technology, and thus susceptibility to the portrayal by neo-liberal economists of economics as a mathematically based "science" that could be understood only be experts and in which ethical considerations were irrelevant.


Despite all the historical conditions that have pushed rabbinical leaders away from activism on social justice issues, when specific questions have been asked of the great "poskei halacha"--authorities on Jewish law-- over the last 40 years, often as not, they have taken strong stands. Rav Shlomo Goren, for example, ruled that the State is ultimately responsible for providing health care to its citizens; Rav Ovadiah Yosef and a number of other "poskim" strongly affirmed the right of workers to unionize; Reb Moshe Feinstein upheld the Talmudic principle of "hasagat gvul" or unregulated competition—ruling against the right to free market competition when this competition will destroy the established livelihood of others.

Why then did halachic decisions like these and others fail to become platforms for activism? Part of the reason may lie in the lack of points of contact between the rabbinic leadership and poor populations—as well as a change in the rabbinic role. Most rabbis today in Israel work either as government appointed community rabbis or as educators employed by institutions. For the most part, rabbis do not serve communities as they once did—as leaders who represent the needs of their flock to the authorities in power. Yeshivot and seminaries depend and heads—the spiritual and intellectual elite of the religious world—depend on wealthy donors for their continued existence, a fact that also infects and affects subconscious choices of focus.

Extreme forms of poverty are to a large extent invisible today—outsourced to developing countries—whereas in Eastern Europe or the Islamic countries, rabbis came in contact with dire poverty, Jewish and non-Jewish, on a daily basis, today that has changed. Poverty is confined to countries and neighborhoods where many rabbis never ventures. The exception are rabbis from Shas, who for political reasons find it expedient to gain access to funds earmarked for their own, increasingly dependent, core followers.

But I believe that there are deeper reasons for the rabbinic reluctance to struggle for the changes that would create a more equitable world—and part of it has to do, I think, with fear. In Poland, before the war, one of the Hasidic dynasties had an unusual practice. During the Torah reading on Shabbat, they would regularly call up their deceased and beloved rebbe, father of their current rebbe, from his abode in the Garden of Eden for the sixth aliya (considered the choicest among aliyot in the Hasidic world). They would wait for a few moments, as if listening to his blessing, before the reader continued chanting the parsha. The Gerrer rebbe at the time, who was known for his trenchant and sometimes acerbic comments, heard about the custom and remarked: "It would be a lot more impressive if they gave him Hagba (the honor of actually lifting the Torah—which everyone would be able to witness.)."

Like the Hasidic dynasty of the story, Judaism, and especially Orthodox Judaism, has succeeded in creating an intense but subjective world of faith. In their yeshivot and synagogues, in the depth of their learning and the passion of their faith, they have conjured up a refuge within modernity in which another kind of sensibility, another vision of what it means to be a human being, can be preserved. But they have been reluctant to try to do "hagba"—to break out of their subjective world and decisively engage and "lift up" the objective world in which all of us are embedded—the world where economics and politics intersect.

In the one area in which some religious leaders have been enormously effective as activists---in creating and populating Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza—their success has been in projecting their subjective narrative onto reality. To take a stand in pressing for justice in the economic order is something else entirely. To do so means to translate the language and ideas of the Torah, which hold so much nuance, association and poetry within it, into the logical structures and abstractions of the "seventy languages of the nations". This means first understanding these languages—the vocabularies of economics, development, politics, and social-philosophical ideas. This is necessary both in order to understand what is at stake and also to be able to influence contemporary discourse. On an existential level, there is a great need to focus in on reality, to see it in far higher resolution. Without getting to know the daily lives and struggles of the marginalized people in Israel and throughout the world, the Torah, despite its deep and consistent stand on behalf of the poor, will remain suspended in its own virtual reality. .

But breaking out of the closed system in which the Torah is now contained is scary. Rabbinic leaders, I suspect, fear that the precarious balance, which, with all its faults, has allowed Jews to immerse themselves in the modern world, making use of its advanced technologies and its market systems while keeping the Torah intact in our minds and hearts, may come undone. Will the Torah, held up to the harsh light of reality, still seem as beautiful to us? Are the economic modes it suggests really viable? Could the radical solutions the Torah proposes and the prophetic anger against the elites it contains release potentially destructive energies?

There is no sure or tested answer to these questions—they are good ones. The path ahead is indeed unclear. But there are two, seemingly opposite qualities or attitudes, delicate but definite movements of the soul that together can help point the way to a breakthrough. The first is confidence—trust in our legacy, in the depth and sophistication of the Torah as seen through the lens of Jewish interpretation and thought that has developed over thousands of years. We must believe that the testimony we have carried with us over so many generations—the belief that human beings, created in the image of God, have a mandate to create a society in which the prevention of poverty and oppression is a holy charge. We must believe that Judaism's unique conception of the ultimate goodness of creation (And G-d saw everything that He had created and behold, it was very good") and faith in the possible redemption of the bodily and physical realm offer an important and necessary contribution to the discourse on the human future.

We also need to have confidence in ourselves as carriers and interpreters of that tradition. William Butler Yeats wrote in his poem "The Second Coming, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity"—can we allow this to continue to be true? Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen, a Hasidic master who died in 1900, wrote that "The oral Torah of every generation is the souls of Israel living in that generation"—in other words, that the Torah is refracted through us, through our sensibility and knowledge and moral sense. Whether we like it or not, our very lives and thoughts and practices are the living embodiment of the Torah in our generation. We cannot escape this responsibility by holding onto the arenas of interpretation and conduct that were formed in earlier eras during a period in which we have been liberated from constraints on our power and freedom that existed in previous generations.

The other movement of the soul that is a necessity, if we are to dare to fully engage the Torah in contemporary reality, is humility. In this context, humility means the ability to listen to other voices, ideas and traditions. It’s the desire to learn from the truth—and honor its multiple sources-- wherever it is to be found. Humility also means seeking precise knowledge of the conditions and causes of poverty and the cultivation of empathy and identification with the struggle of poor communities. This knowledge and empathy is what the psalmist had in mind when he wrote ashrei maskil el dal. Knowledge and empathy can only be gained by being involved in the struggles of the poor—by feeling that the world, the one world we all inhabit, is somehow at stake in the quest of the impoverished for food, medicine, shelter, clean water, and education, and also the quest simply to be heard. In order to challenge the elites that now hold power, and our unconscious identification with them and thus their policies, we must learn to feel that our own lives are at stake in the ongoing stories of the poor, so often poised on the brink of dislocation, breakdown, tragedy.

Last but not least, what is needed if a breakthrough is to occur, is a sense of moral urgency emanating from an awareness of the momentousness of globalization. Over the past two decades, the world has become linked in ties of trade, labor, technology and culture to a previously unimaginable degree. We have learned how deeply the economic ideas and practices adopted by the West affect the lives of the poor in villages and cities across the world. We have learned as well now fragile our world is, and how dependent we are on each other in the effort to preserve all of life on earth. We have learned that whatever each of us does, individually and collectively, influences the entire world. This holds true not only in terms of the quantity of carbon we burn, but also in the quality and focus of our ethical discourse. The Jewish prophets were the first to put forth a vision of humanity united in justice and equity, and we have been carrying this vision with us through our long and tortuous journey through history. "If I am not for myself, who will be for me," deserves our continued affirmation. But so does the continuation. "If I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?"

Recent Posts

See All

Power to the People

Torah' for Israel's Jubilee May 1998 (first published Jerusalem Report) For 50 years, Israelis have allowed the state to shape their identities. Now it's time to reverse the roles. Micha Odenheimer II


bottom of page