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date: 26 March 2023


The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion
Adele BerlinAdele Berlin, Maxine GrossmanMaxine Grossman

The concept of social justice is a major component of biblical ethics, in both Mosaic legislation and prophetic pronouncements, and has characterized Jewish thinking through the ages. The biblical ideal of social justice has also deeply influenced the ideas and behavior of Western civilization. From its earliest sources in the Torah, the law takes into account the needs of the less fortunate in society. The injunction to care for the “stranger, the orphan, and the widow” appears seventeen times in the Bible, eleven of these in the Torah. Provision is made in biblical law for the poor to have access to gleanings, to grain forgotten in the field, and to a corner of each field (...Traditional Jewish texts spell out the obligation to create a just society that cares for the poor and does not discriminate against people based on social or personal status. They also describe utopian visions of a society where debts are forgiven and nations coexist in peace. These obligations and visions undergird recent efforts to make social justice a defining aspect of Jewish life. Before the modern era, the commitment to create a just society existed primarily within the context of Jewish communities, as Jews had little power to effect change in the outside world. With the emancipation in Europe, Jews began to take their part as citizens of the world. Jewish leaders, especially those in the Reform movement, began to imagine the role of Jews as “a light unto the nations.” Inspired by the mandate of the ancient Prophets of Israel to seek and pursue justice these Reform rabbis made social justice central to their platform for Jewish life. These commitments saw their greatest expression in early twentieth-century American Jewish life. Reform synagogues instituted social action committees, where Jews could work on issues ranging from anti-lynching campaigns to supporting the movement for women’s suffrage. Jewish philanthropists provided financial support for groups working for the rights of African Americans. American Jews created organizations like the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee, which focused their efforts on combating ... ...

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