Judaism on Justice and Injustice

A tradition organized around the idea of God’s law for humankind, Judaism has a long history of reflection on justice in social and political affairs. The Hebrew scriptures emphasize again and again that God seeks justice and is himself just. Rulers are to be held to a high standard, as when Nathan the prophet rebukes King David for a glaring ethical lapse (2 Samuel 12). The 613 mitzvoth (commandments) given in the Torah encompass both religious rituals and binding ethical norms for a just society. After the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), rabbinic reflection in the Diaspora on the law as a guide to human affairs continued in the Talmudic tradition. Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) acknowledged established teachings about limits on state power but posited greater discretion for rulers. With the transition to modernity it becomes more difficult to identify particular Jewish approaches to social and political justice; a tremendous diversity of religious, social, and political views proliferates under headings including assimilationist reformist, conservative, orthodox, religious Zionist, and non-religious Zionist. Common to most all is an embrace of democracy and human rights growing out of the historical idea of a covenant that binds rulers and ruled through fundamental norms of justice. Today, debate ranges inside and outside Israel on what constitutes just treatment of its Palestinian citizens and those living in the occupied territories.
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