Every day we gets requests for help from people with different types and degrees of need, people we know, people we don’t know. We often make the choice about whether or not to help, and how much help to give, impulsively; rather than as an expression of our values. Social justice is not external to Judaism but is pervasive throughout the laws and ethics of Jewish tradition.

Social justice in Judaism is built on the sanctity of all human life and its inalienable dignity.  Every person is unique and as such, no-one is superior to anyone else. We are called on to affirm the dignity of all; and we are required to pay special attention to those who are marginalized – the poor, the foreigner, the widow and the orphan. Included in the moral principles set out in the commandments in the Torah and in the later literature are rules about justice, equality before the law, loving-kindness, social welfare, and the ideals of peace and political freedom.  “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19.17)

The golden rule of Judaism

Rabbi Hillel the Elder (c.60 BCE-c.10CE) was once asked by a man, “Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Rabbi Hillel responded: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.  This is the entire Torah and the rest is commentary. Now go learn.”

When we seek justice, we know that we are engaged in life’s most important work—work that takes us beyond ourselves and into something much larger.  It is in the possibility of taking part in something larger, something better than our present broken reality offers that Jewish life sets as its goal.

The concepts of justice, righteousness and freedom come together in the vision of an ideal world. This is expressed in the idea that each of us can make our contribution to making the world a better place: Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World). It is often evidenced by a strong Jewish involvement in advancing social justice and in protecting the rights of other minority groups. “Do not join your hand with the wicked to be a malicious witness. Do not follow a crowd to do evil; neither shall you testify in court to side with a multitude to pervert justice; neither shall you favour a poor man in his cause if it is not just.”(Exodus 23; 4-13)

Tzedakah is generally translated as “charity”. However in Hebrew the meaning is closer to righteousness and fairness. The Hebrew root of the word ‘tzedakah’ is tzedek, which means ‘justice’. In Judaism, giving to those in need is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and the right thing to do.

As Hillel used to say: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? Yet, if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Judaism and Human Rights

Judaism is built on the history and laws set out in the Torah. It emphasises ethical behaviour and prescribes a way of life, telling us how to behave, work, rest, eat, celebrate and much more. We put particular emphasis on the belief that through social or environmental action, we are partners with God in creating the world as it should be.

It is significant that when the United Nations drafted a declaration of human rights they emphasised that it was to be a Universal Declaration.  Human rights were proclaimed to be universally applicable and universally derived. It follows that no religion or group of religions can claim any exclusive virtue when it comes to human rights. The international code in effect recognises that all religious and cultural groups have a common understanding of those essential rights which they are united in proclaiming. It is an approach which is reflected in the Jewish attitude that no religion has a monopoly of truth, and that each reflects its own culturally appropriate path to an understanding of the Divine, and the relevance of that understanding to human affairs. Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.

Non-discrimination is a cross-cutting principle in international human rights law. The principle is present in all the major human rights treaties and provides the central theme of some of international human rights conventions: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” At least on paper… In reality, too many people are marginalised because of religion, race, gender or sexual orientation.

SACRED’s mission is:

We aim to provide a progressive voice on relevant social, moral, ethical and religious issues in South Africa.  We aim to counteract religious discrimination in all its forms; to advance freedom of religion and to promote fundamental rights and freedoms.

Our role as progressive Jews

Progressive Jews believe that the Torah comes to us from God, but it is our task to apply its teachings to our times. Halachah (Jewish law), is not a static set of decisions made by past rabbis, but a vital process requiring continuing engagement with our core beliefs in the context of our current world.

Individuals are responsible for developing a personal understanding of what God wants of them. This means progressive Judaism emphasises education, requiring each person to engage with Jewish texts and traditions.

Each human being is responsible for the choices he or she makes. For a Jew, this responsibility entails an awareness and reflective consideration of the Jewish values and principles that emerge from Torah. It is not enough to learn what Jewish texts or traditions say; we are also bound to critique what we learn with our God-given reason and act accordingly.

All human beings are created in the image of God so should be treated with equal respect and dignity. Men and women have equal rights and responsibilities in progressive Judaism, the foundation for an egalitarian approach that is sensitive to other differences, including different expressions of Judaism, different sexual orientation and the differences between Jews and non-Jews.

The Torah is a living tradition that we need to bring to the most urgent social issues of our time. “We make religion irrelevant when we lock it up in the house of prayer – when we keep religion away from the streets. If we want Judaism to matter in today’s world, we must respond deeply to society’s call.” (Rabbi Joshua Yuter)