I have talked about the problem of translating “justice” (Hebrew is mishpat) previously in essays such as My Sojourn with the Social Justice Warriors, The Really Hard Part, and Oppressed-a-non. I want to revisit this topic in more depth as a starting place for this series of essays because we tend to turn the meaning of mishpat on its head. The familiar words of Amos 5:24 offer an example. The translation of record of mainstream Protestantism, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) reads, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This translation makes it sound like Amos is offering a hopeful vision of the future, a glimpse of the Kingdom.
But this is not what Amos has in mind. The King James Version (KJV, translated long before our modern sensibilities of social justice) says that “judgment” (not “justice”) will roll down. In case we are confused by the meaning of judgment and who will be judged, Amos continues by describing its nature: “Therefore I will cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus” (v. 27).
Another word found frequently alongside mishpat is tzedakah, translated “righteousness” above in v. 24. When mishpat is rendered as “justice” rather than “judgment,” righteousness can also be misleading. The word is similar to mishpat, but again our contemporary usage of “justice” will too easily get in the way of understanding what’s going on. Rabbi Joseph Teluskin says,
From Judaism’s perspective, therefore, one who gives tzedaka is acting justly; one who doesn’t, unjustly. And Jewish law views this lack of justice as not only mean-spirited but also illegal. Thus, throughout history, whenever Jewish communities were self-governing, Jews were assessed tzedaka just as everyone today is assessed taxes.
Teluskin goes on to quote Maimonides,
There are eight degrees of tzedaka, each one superior to the other. The highest degree … is one who upholds the hand of a Jew reduced to poverty by handing him a gift or a loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding work for him, in order to strengthen his hand, so that he will have no need to beg from other people.
What Teluskin describes is something quite different than what comes to mind when we say righteousness will flow down. The English word that comes far closer to this sensibility is “mercy.” In fact the same word tzedakah is one of those multi-purpose Hebrew words that is so rich in variation that there is no good single English equivalent. It certainly means righteousness, but not in the Calvinistic sense of something that only God has the ability to give, rather it is a description of the moral life. When your children ask you in times to come, “What is the meaning of [the Torah]? … Then you say … If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right (tzedek)” (Deut. 6:20, 25). The Talmud (Bava Bathra 9b) says: “Tzedakah [and the Bava Bathra seems to have mercy or charity in mind] is equal to all the other commandments combined.”
What is striking is that neither Hebrew word actually includes the idea that we should fix the root problem of poverty (the current conception of social justice). Alms-giving and the righteousness that grows out of that lies at the heart of both the Old Testament and Talmudic system. This is not surprising when we put the words mishpat and tzedakah into a political context. The nearly universal form of government in the ancient near east was monarchy. This is also the context of the New Testament which was written within the borders of the Roman Empire. There were exceptions (and Teluskin describes “self-governing Jewish communities” as an example), but for most of history, fixing the system was not an option; you either helped the poor by giving them food or money (tzedakah) or you got involved in a plot to overthrow the King or Queen (mishpat).
The equation seems rather different today. Most of us in the Western world live in a country with some variant of a representative democracy. Switzerland is the only country I’m aware of that is close to a true democracy, but most of the rest of us have at least some say indirectly through our representatives. This new political environment was not envisioned by the writers of scripture. Political theology today recognizes there is a third way beyond the traditional meanings of mishpat and tzedakah; we can work to change the system to be more friendly to the poor and oppressed. Our newer understanding of “justice” reflects this, and I suspect that this is why the word mishpat is now almost universally translated into English as “justice” rather than “judgment” and tzedakah as “righteousness” rather than “mercy” (although the latter remains a bit curious).
Unfortunately, this hope that we can fix the system, while a nice theory, has not worked very well. While the poor and oppressed are incomparably better off today than they were in the first century, the systemic problems of poverty and oppression persist. Sadly, three centuries or more of enlightened governance has changed few of these realities. For those in power there is always a loophole. Furthermore, the rich and powerful continue to appear to be ignorant and unresponsive to the fundamental needs of society. Here in the United States tzedakah as “righteousness” is not, nor has it ever been the righteous system that supports everyone, rhetoric of the City shining on a hill notwithstanding, rather tzedakah as “mercy” or “alms” remains the only practical way forward as we seek to become a righteous people of God.
Although the Talmud does not speak to this issue to my knowledge, I have one more observation about social righteousness: It is tempting to try to fix others or fix the system in place of fixing myself. There are at least two reasons for this. First, fixing others is a necessarily public action and we receive praise and increase our stature for such public actions. Fixing myself is (or should be) a private affair that should remain between God, me, and my confessor. It’s harder to get excited about something for which we don’t receive praise. Second, fixing myself is an extremely difficult task. Even though actual progress can be made on fixing myself and even though there is little historical evidence that fixing others is or ever has been an effective strategy, we tend to follow the path that leads to little resistance and lots of praise, while ignoring the historical evidence.
Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.