Jewish Studies Economic Justice in the Talmud
by
Aryeh Cohen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0236

Introduction

“Economic justice” is a relatively modern term which is not internal to Talmud. This does not mean that the ideas and concepts that are usually categorized under economic justice—labor relations, fairness in wages, homelessness, markets—are not found in Talmud. The opposite is true. One implication of this is that there are broadly two approaches to economic justice in Talmud. The first is analytical, or a history of ideas approach, which answers the question: What did the sages represented in Talmud, or the anonymous editor(s) of the Talmud, think about (for example) poverty and poverty relief? This approach is descriptive and not prescriptive, which is at odds with the phrase “economic justice,” which implies that there are more and less just economic arrangements. On the other hand, there is the prescriptive approach, which, at its best, analyzes the Talmudic texts using the available scholarly tools and then draws ethical conclusions to contemporary problems from the Talmudic texts. Oftentimes these works start with the Talmud and then incorporate medieval and modern Jewish and non-Jewish sources in their discussions. A classic of the first type is Urbach 1969 (cited under Overviews and Introductions), which is an overview of the conceptual and religious world of the sages. Urbach discusses justice issues within this broader context. A classic of the latter type is Dorff 2002 (cited under Overviews and Introductions), whose goal is to articulate a Jewish approach to social ethics using, amongst other sources, the Talmud. I have also included two traditional legal responses (“responsa”) about labor issues since they cover much of the same ground in terms of Talmudic texts, but have a distinct normative goal (Uzziel 1938; Jacobs 2008, both cited under Labor). Many of the contemporary works cited here also cite responsa as primary texts when discussing issues of economic justice.

Overviews and Introductions

In this section, there are several theoretical or methodological essays that engage with the problem of using a classical text to discuss modern or contemporary issues. The challenges of using classical texts in contemporary discussions center on the hermeneutic methodology that needs be employed to be fair to the sources and not translate willy-nilly from the Sassanid Empire to contemporary North America, while at the same time addressing a problem that the sources could not necessarily conceive of. On the most general level, Urbach 1969 is an introduction to rabbinic Judaism. Focusing on the whole on questions of theology, Urbach 1969 presents one model for asking contemporary questions of these ancient texts. Reines 1979 presents a different model. It sits on the border of traditional and academic scholarship and uses the modern categories of egoism and altruism to investigate Biblical and rabbinic ethics. The Novick 2019 chapter is a good survey both of the current state of methodological approaches to the issue of social justice and of the substantive question of support for the poor and abuse of the vulnerable. Dorff 2002 is an important Jewish ethicist’s analysis of social ethics. Cohen 2012 and Jacobs 2009 both have introductions where they wrestle with the question of how to bring rabbinic texts into the discussion of contemporary ethics. Blidstein 2009 approaches the same question from a different angle. Saiman 2016 introduces a novel approach to this question, importing the traditional Lithuanian Yeshivah approach to Talmud study to discuss wage-payment issues. A special issue of the Journal of Textual Reasoning, Halberstam, et al. 2018, lays out four different approaches to utilizing rabbinic texts in discussions of contemporary ethical issues. Another issue which comes up in discussions of Jewish social justice is the use of the term tikkun olam. Blidstein 1995, appearing in a Modern Orthodox journal, offers one approach. Seidenberg 2021 traces the development of tikkun olam through an exhaustive compendium of texts and an analysis of those.

  • Blidstein, Gerald S. “Tikkun Olam.” Tradition 29.2 (Winter 1995): 5–43.

    Blidstein discusses, within the parameters of the Modern Orthodox world, the scope of responsibility of the contemporary Jewish community under the banner of tikkun olam, and how that has changed in light of the contemporary political and national realities of Jewish communities in the United States and Israel.

  • Blidstein, Gerald S. “Talmudic Ethics and Contemporary Problematics.” Review of Rabbinic Judaism 12.2 (2009): 204–217.

    DOI: 10.1163/157007009789926947

    Blidstein discusses a problem articulated by the philosopher Amartya Sen that has a parallel formulation in Talmud in order to show the similarities and differences between the two approaches.

  • Cohen, Aryeh. Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2012.

    Cohen’s introductory chapter argues for an approach which uses a philosophical framing (drawn from the 20th-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas) for Talmudic discussions of contemporary issues such as homelessness and poverty.

  • Dorff, Elliot N. To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002.

    Dorff’s approach to a range of social ethics issues utilizes Talmudic (and other rabbinic) texts as the foundation for philosophical work. His reading of the Talmudic texts is somewhat hermeneutically naïve. His ethical discussion is sophisticated.

  • Halberstam, Chaya, Randi Rashkover, and Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, eds. Special Issue: Rabbinic Texts, and Contemporary Ethics. Journal of Textual Reasoning 10.1 (December 2018).

    Four essays by four different scholars and a response by the editors wrestle with the issues spelled out in the title from different angles: analyzing the ethics of the texts; reading ethics out of texts that are, on their face, foreign and ethically problematic; attempting to redeem problematic texts; using rabbinic stories as moral exemplars.

  • Jacobs, Jill. There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law & Tradition. Hardcover ed. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2009.

    In chapter 1, “A Vision of Economic Justice,” Jacobs argues for a redistributive vision of economic justice based in her reading of Biblical and rabbinic texts. Jacobs also argues for the centrality of social justice in Judaism.

  • Novick, Tzvi. “Social Justice in Rabbinic Judaism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Law. Edited by Pamela Barmash, 537–552. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    This is a survey of social justice in rabbinic Judaism. The first section concerns financial support for the poor, and the second, protections against abuse of the vulnerable. The volume’s center of interest lies in law in the Biblical period, and the discussion in this chapter focuses on early (Tannaitic) interpretation of Scripture, and especially questions of law and legal theory that arise in this context. Novick prefaces the discussion with some reflections on methodology and the existing scholarship.

  • Reines, Chaim W. Ethics and Life: Studies in Biblical and Rabbinic Ethics. Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1979.

    Sitting on the border of traditional and academic scholarship, Reines’ book is an introduction to ethics (and economic justice) grounded in the notions of egotism and altruism. In Hebrew.

  • Saiman, Chaim N. “Talmud Study, Ethics and Social Policy: A Case Study in the Laws of Wage-Payment as an Argument for Neo-Lamdanut.” Villanova University School of Law, Public Law and Legal Theory, Working Paper No. 2016-1024.

    Saiman’s monograph uses the case of wage-payment to discuss an approach to reading Talmud which he calls “Neo-Lamdanut,” based as it is, in part, on theories developed in the great Lithuanian Yeshivahs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

  • Seidenberg, David Mevorach. “History and Evolution of Tikkun Olam, According to the Textual Sources.” Journal of Jewish Ethics 7.1–2 (2021): 129–163.

    DOI: 10.5325/jjewiethi.7.1-2.0129

    This relatively exhaustive compendium of texts traces the development of several different interpretations of tikkun olam through Jewish intellectual history. The author aims to demonstrate conclusively through these texts that the roots of the social justice interpretation of tikkun olam are older than those of the Kabbalistic interpretation, going back to the 10th-century expression of religious humanism. Furthermore, liberal Judaism’s understanding of tikkun olam is shown to be sourced in Eastern European religious humanism going back to the seventeenth century, and transmitted in large part via Zionist thought in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

  • Urbach, Efraim Elimelech. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1969.

    Urbach’s classic provides one very important frame for how to engage with rabbinic texts and ask contemporary theological and ethical questions.

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