Pursuing Justice: Society and Economy in Jewish Sources

Pursuing Justice: Society and Economy in Jewish Sources

In Jewish sources, the Torah, the Talmudic sages, and halakhic decisors enacted many complex laws related to social justice. However, when it comes to socioeconomic theory, a systematic Jewish philosophy of distributive justice never emerged.

Pursuing Justice explores the foundations of the socioeconomic theory (or theories) that are revealed in a wide range of Jewish writings with different perspectives.

Social justice has been a challenge for humankind since the earliest of times, and distributive justice is one of the most enduring social questions. Not only is it an issue in the political arena, but it is also an object of study for thinkers in diverse fields, including philosophy, law, political science, sociology, psychology, and history. In Jewish sources, the Torah, the Talmudic sages, and halakhic decisors enacted many complex laws related to social justice. However, when it comes to socioeconomic theory, a systematic Jewish philosophy of distributive justice never emerged. Edited by Prof. Hanoch Dagan and Dr. Benny Porat, Pursuing Justice explores the foundations of the socioeconomic theory (or theories) that are revealed in a wide-range of Jewish writings with different perspectives. With over 30 articles, it examines halakhic issues from domains that include social rights, property law, and commercial law, and explores discussions of the philosophy of halakha, theology, and more. Contributors to this volume include rabbis, thinkers and researchers, jurists and philosophers, historians, economists, and psychologists. It presents the best articles on this subject that have been published  in the last hundred years, as well as a number of new articles written especially for this volume. 

Introduction: Hanoch Dagan and Benny Porat

Part I: The Foundations
• A.D. Gordon
• Moshe Hess
• Seth Schwartz
• Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook
• Nachman Syrkin
• David Heyd

Part II: The Socioeconomic System
• Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel
• Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy
• Milton Friedman
• Moshe Hellinger
• Einat Ramon
• Asaf Yedidya
• Theodor Herzl
• Zev Javits

Part III: Social Rights and Welfare Policy
• Moshe Weinfeld
• Zev Jabotinsky
• Benjamin Porat
• Yitzhak Twersky
• Jonathan Sachs
• Michael Walzer
• Yael Wilfand
• Adi Libson

Part IV: Private Property
• Joseph Singer
• Hanoch Dagan
• Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz
• Fania Oz-Salzberger

Part V: The Market, Commerce, and Credit
• Yakov Rosenberg and Avi Weiss
• Asher Meir
• Ido Rechnitz
• Shlomo Naeh and Uzi Segal 

Listen to Me, you who pursue justice, you who seek the Lord. – Isaiah 51:1 (NJPS)
Social justice has posed a test for the human race since the dawn of time. This challenge rears its head every time a group of people is forced to make do with limited goods and resources that are not enough to satisfy all the desires of all its members, in other words, in every society that has ever existed. Indeed, the proper way to allocate a society’s resources—or, to use the philosophical terminology, the problem of “distributive justice”—is one of the most vexing social questions of all. The question is not merely political; it is rather the object of serious investigation by scholars in a variety of fields, including philosophy, law, political science, sociology, psychology, and history.

The revolution that the Bible produced in the ancient Middle East was manifested inter alia in the sphere of distributive justice. It stipulated a formal legal requirement for society as a whole to concern itself with the predicament of the poor, the alien, the widow, and the orphan. It is the cornerstone of the post-biblical halakhic literature—the Talmud, the commentaries and codes of the Middle Ages, and modern responsa—that employ halakhic tools to address intricate social and economic questions. Examples are not limited to the famous biblical precepts of the sabbatical year and the jubilee, or even the laws of charity, but extend to halakhic topics that are less obviously identified with distributive justice, such as the financing of public schools, the assessment and collection of community taxes, property law, and the limits of the free market. However, though the Talmudic sages and later decisors dealt extensively with the halakhic aspects of distributive justice and promulgated detailed laws that are relevant to it, Jewish tradition has never developed a systematic socioeconomic theory.

But the mere fact that the rabbis did not formulate a socioeconomic theory does not mean that it is not implicit in their writings. This anthology, Pursuing Justice, analyzes the foundations of the socioeconomic theories that can be extracted from a wide range of Jewish writings and diverse viewpoints. It addresses halakhic issues in a variety of fields, including social rights, property law, and commercial law, and examines the philosophy of halakha, theology, and more. The contributors include rabbis, scholars, and academics, jurists and philosophers, historians, economists, and psychologists. In this volume, we have collected the best writing on this subject published in the past hundred years as well as articles written especially for it.

If, in fact, Jewish authors through the ages did not pay attention to the social and economic theories that underlie the precepts, what spawned these analyses in the modern period, and in such a quantity? It was not a result of purely theoretical or intellectual urges, but was produced, to a large extent, by the appearance on the scene of the Zionist movement. The earliest Zionist thinkers pondered the nature of the model society to be built in Palestine. It was clear to them that their vision must be based on the lost legacy of Jewish thought. Moses Hess and Theodor Herzl, Nachman Sirkin and A.D. Gordon, Zeev Jabotinsky and Berl Katznelson—each in his own way—tried to consolidate an economic and social philosophy grounded in the Jewish classics. This is why the articles in this collection include a selection from the writings of these Zionist theorists, who considered the problem of distributive justice through the lens of the Jewish sources.

Not all the issues we might want to address receive their due attention here. These include labor law and employee-employer relations as defined by Jewish law, which certainly deserve deep theoretical attention to the socioeconomic philosophy they reflect. Another example is the parameters of community taxation, as expounded in Tractate Bava Batra. A critical sociological examination of these legal doctrines might well reveal a bias in favor of those with means and failure to evince sensitivity to or assist the weaker classes, which runs counter to the qualities of mercy and social justice on which the Sages laid such heavy emphasis in the laws of charity. These are just examples of some complex issues are still waiting for a proper scholarly analysis.


The discussion of “Jewish social justice” could easily be reduced to the banal. It is all too easy to take headlines from yesterday’s papers about the most recent social protest and season them with fiery verses from the prophet Amos, who denounced “You cows of Bashan on the hill of Samaria—who defraud the poor, who rob the needy” (Amos 4:1, NJPS) or with excerpts from Maimonides’ Code: “We are obligated to be careful with regard to the mitzvah of charity to a greater extent than all [other] positive commandments, because charity is an identifying mark for a righteous person, a descendant of Abraham. … The throne of Israel will not be established, nor will the true faith stand except through charity.” Doing so would create the impression of a socially conscious discourse drawn from the Jewish classics. But that is not our intention here. Our sources do not consist solely of expressions of empathy for the poor and kindly gestures towards them. First and foremost, they focus on the problem of justice and the appropriate allocation of goods and resources within a society. We have endeavored to display the social and economic positions in their full complexity and multiple hues, thereby providing an opportunity to hear their unique voice, not bound in advance by the familiar modern modes of thought but in fact challenging them with original ideas.

All the same, a theoretical scrutiny of traditional Jewish texts that address social justice may still encounter an embarrassing difficulty: these texts can readily be cited in support of a variety of contradictory theories. Readers right and left alike will find in them precisely what they are looking for. Some see the Jewish classics as an ancient foreshadowing of ideas that lead to collectivist notions of an egalitarian redistribution of wealth; others read them as supporting the principles of the free market and private property. And there are, of course, middle-ground interpretations that can be located at different points on the continuum between the two extremes. Is everything in the eye of the beholder? Do the biblical and rabbinic texts have any real value if they can mean everything? And if they really do permit such a broad gamut of positions, what makes them “Jewish”?

This duality exists not only in Jewish thought but also in Jewish history. As Milton Friedman noted, “There are few people in the world who have benefited as much from capitalism and free enterprise as the Jews. And yet on the other side … the Jews have been among those who have contributed much to undermine the intellectual foundations of capitalism.”

What, then, is the socioeconomic thrust of the various categories and periods of Jewish texts? And what is the social and economic significance of Jewish history?

These were the questions that accompanied us as we collected the material for this anthology. There seem to be two ways to think about them. One way of cutting through the thicket lies on the level of a substantive discourse, but on a more complex level that releases the Jewish classics from the dichotomous trap produced by the attempt to read them in light of modern philosophies of both left and right. Instead of this, one might propose distilling the original perspectives that these Jewish texts offer in the field of social and economic theories, which are not necessarily either “left” or “right.” One proposal developed in this book is to see the concept of “fraternity” as an organizing principle that explains how the seemingly contradictory leftist and rightist readings of the sources can coexist.

Another direction involves forgoing the substantive option: in other words, accepting the claim that there is no social or economic theory with an inherently “Jewish” content and replacing it with a procedural (rather than substantive) organizing principle. In this view, what makes social and economic ideas “Jewish” is that they expound the ancient Jewish sources and conduct their debates using the language and logic of halakha. This allows one to see the entire range of alternatives proposed by the Jewish classics in their full complexity and richness. It rejects the possibility of enlisting these texts in support of a particular theory and demonstrates how Jewish thinkers produced a fruitful cultural tradition that embraces diverse hues and philosophies.


Life in Israel seems to proceed from conflict to conflict. The formula of “a Jewish and democratic state” is nourished by the internal contradiction we live; at the same time, it proposes to resolve the contradiction by means of the conjunctive “and.” This “and” is often explained as the fulcrum on which two distinct principles—the Jewish and the democratic—are balanced: a sort of average value that may sometimes seem more like the lowest common denominator (neither wholly Jewish nor wholly democratic). But there is another possibility: “and” as a joint cultural project that builds on both Jewish and democratic efforts. Taken in this sense, Israeli society could crystallize a series of visions for a model society woven of strands from both Judaism and modernity. One of these visions—perhaps the most important one—could be a portrait of the shape and nature of an Israeli model society that realizes the Jewish vision of social justice. It could help transform the Israeli reality from the decree of fate to life with a purpose. It could liberate the public discourse from the binary oppositions and stereotypes—the future of the territories, peace and security, religion and state—in which Israeli society is mired, or that suck up the public debate like a black hole, and steer it into new channels in which the social stereotypes and dichotomies vanish. Developing a theory or theories of social justice that draw on Jewish sources is important not only for achieving a better comprehension of Jewish history, but also for laying a better foundation for Israel’s future.

Establishing a model Israeli society that realizes a Jewish vision of social justice is a complex challenge without parallel, because turning the Jewish texts that address social and economic questions into influential factors in modern Israeli discourse demands a close consideration at complicated questions that call for nonstandard answers. This anthology may stimulate such questions, but it certainly cannot claim to answer them exhaustively.

To take one example: the attempt to interpret halakhic texts in the light of the modern discourse of distributive justice, by comparing and contrasting them with a variety of contemporary theories, leads to a broader consideration of the symbiotic links between the circles of dialogue within the Jewish world and the outside world—that is, Judaism and humanism. Is it better to think about Jewish social justice as a voice crying out in the wilderness—in other words, in isolation from the modern discourse that surrounds us—and perhaps also disconnected from the ancient context in which it was forged? Perhaps it is better understood if we take it as a domain whose unique voice is best heard as part of a conversation between traditions and cultures, in which it simultaneously gives and receives?

This tension between the internal and external aspects of this discourse is linked to the relations between Jews and non-Jews in Israel. Needless to say, in order to turn the Jewish texts that address social and economic questions into influential factors in the modern Israeli discourse, the discussion must move from the religious to the civic sphere. In other words, religious principles and practices that originally applied solely to one’s Jewish “brother” must now be examined in terms of their potential impact on the whole of Israeli society, which includes both Jews and non-Jews. This could open the door to the deeper integration of non-Jewish groups into the Israeli milieu—not only as passive beneficiaries of the Jewish-Israeli vision of social justice, but also as active participants in shaping and drafting it, contributing their own cultural heritage and traditions to the public forum.

But the profound questions raised by the discourse on Jewish social justice are no less present in the intra-Jewish sphere—and perhaps even more so. This arena summons religious and non-religious Jews to conduct a joint study of the biblical and halakhic texts. Can religious thought engage in a fruitful dialogue with non-religious interpretations of Jewish notions of social justice that, though not pretending to issue halakhic rulings, do aim to be involved in the shaping of the Israeli public space? And can a discussion of Jewish social justice have intrinsic religious value even when the discussants do not accept the idea of the Sinaitic Revelation?

In one of his prophecies, Isaiah urges, “Listen to Me, you who pursue justice, you who seek the Lord” (Isa. 51:1, NJPS). The parallel clauses raise the question of the relationship between pursuing justice and seeking the Lord. Does it mean that those who seek the Lord are by nature pursuers of justice? Or should the verse be read back to front, to yield the more astonishing notion that those who pursue justice are by nature seekers of the Lord?[i] Can we learn from this verse that the pursuit of justice is one of the most profound ways of seeking the Lord? A modern Israeli engagement with Jewish theories of social justice could open a window on complex thinking about the significance of Jewish religious observance in the modern world. 

Prof. Hanoch Dagan is a Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and is the Stewart and Judy Colton Professor of Legal Innovation and Theory at Tel-Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. 

Dr. Benny Porat is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.