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A Jewish perspective on justice, for Rosh Hashanah

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A poetic prayer (piyyut) recited on the Jewish New Year declares Rosh Hashanah (which is celebrated today) to be “awesome and terrible,” because “Your kingship is exalted upon it / Your throne is established in mercy / You are enthroned upon it in truth / In truth You are the judge.” But does the divine Judge have a standard of social justice that applies to economic affairs and the distribution of wealth?

Curt Biren, who has studied the Hebrew Bible and rabbinical commentaries for many years, discusses this issue in a new essay on the Acton Institute’s Religion & Liberty Transatlantic website. Some present their objections to certain economic outcomes – effective tax rates, economic inequality, etc. – as a violation of the Torah. However, the commandments deal with human behavior, not their result, Biren writes:

The broad conception of justice inevitably focuses on states of affairs, such as lackluster wage growth, a shrinking middle class, or growing income inequality, as distinct from individual actions for which one can be held accountable. …

One might ask, “Is there nothing on justice in the Hebrew Bible that’s related to economic goals and outcomes?” Not really. There’s nothing on wage growth, nothing on the size of the middle class, nothing on income inequality. Rather, the Bible implicitly assumes the primacy of economic liberty, of entrepreneurial freedom, of the free and voluntary exchange of products and services – subject, of course, to the laws of justice. In this sense, our biblical tradition entails no broad consequentialist framework nor utilitarian calculations.

Biren’s far-reaching essay proceeds to analyze arguments for economic interventionism based on the biblical Year of Jubilee, the traditional and modern definitions of the term tikkun olam, and the distinction between tzedek and mishpat.

You can read his full article here.

To those celebrating, shanah tovah.

Further resources from the Acton Institute on Judaism and economics:

Judaism, Law & the Free Market: An Analysis by Joseph Isaac Lifshitz

Judaism, Markets, and Capitalism: Separating Myth from Reality by Corinne Sauer and Robert M. Sauer

(Photo credit: Lawrie Cate. CC BY 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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