Jewish Values

by Ron Fox


What do we mean when we talk about the moral and ethical principles, values and laws found in Jewish teachings and writings.  Some, like Rabbi Joseph Telushkin refer to them as the essence of Judaism and some view them as the basis for the belief that Judaism is a “beacon unto the nations”   


Here are some that we have compiled from various sources





This chapter provides the foundation for the theme of our efforts best expressed by the words of the prophet Isaiah summarizing the 613 commandments of the Torah in two principles “Do justice and carry out acts of righteousness.”  Isaiah 56:1


“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you:

Only to do justice,

To love goodness,

And to walk modestly with your God.”

Micah 6:8


“ ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18 - this is the major principle of the Torah.” Rabbi Akiva


“The Jewish nation is distinguished by three characteristics; they are merciful, they are modest, and they perform acts of loving-kindness.” Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 79a


“The world endures because of three activities: Torah study, worship of God, and deeds of loving-kindness.”

Ethics of the fathers 1:2


Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sabbath 2:3 “The purpose of the laws of the Torah … is to bring mercy, loving-kindness and peace upon the world.”


From the Torah


Exodus 22:20-21 - You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”


From Hillel


Hillel - “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?


Hillel – The definition of Judaism “What is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor”



From Albert Vorspan


Perhaps now we can resume our historic role as the social justice conscience of the nation, by paying more attention to tikkun olam, to civil rights, ecology, economic decency, and social compassion across the board.”


From the National Jewish Community Relations Council


“The fundamental premise of the field of Jewish community relations is to foster conditions conducive to Jewish security and creative Jewish living in a free society. Such conditions require a society committed to equal rights, justice and opportunity.


From the Torah Deuteronomy XVI, 18:20


“Justice, Justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” And


From the footnotes to Deutoronomy XVI, 18:20 in the Hertz edition


The duplication of the word “justice” brings out with the greatest possible emphasis the supreme duty of even-handed justice to all. “Justice, whether to your profit or loss, whether in word or in action, whether to Jew or non-Jew” (Bachya ben Asher).


“Justice, justice shalt thou follow.”  These passionate words may be taken as the keynote of humane legislation of the Torah, and of the demand for social righteousness by Israel’s Prophets, Psalmists and Sages. “Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream,” is the cry of Amos.  Justice is not the only ethical quality in God or man, nor is it the highest quality; but it is the basis for all the others.  …. To understand the idea of justice in Israel we must bear in mind the Biblical teaching that man is created in the image of God; that in every human being there is a Divine spark; and that each human life is sacred, and of infinite worth.  In …every human being is the possessor of the right to life, honour, and the fruits of his labour.  Justice is the awe-inspired respect for the personality of others and their inalienable rights; even as injustice is the most flagrant manifestation of disrespect for the personality of others. Judaism requires that human personality be respected in every human being – in the female heathen prisoner of war, in the delinquent, even in the criminal condemned to death.  ….


In brief, where there is no justice, no proper and practical appreciation of the human rights of every human being as sons of the one and only God of righteousness – there we have a negation of religion.  The oppressor, the man who tramples on others, and especially on those like the orphan and the stranger who are too weak to defend themselves, is throughout Scripture held forth as the enemy of God and man.  The final disappearance of injustice and oppression is represented in the New Year Amidah as the goal of human history, and as synonymous with the realization of God’s Kingdom on earth.


However, justice is more than mere abstention from injuring our fellow-men. “the work of justice is peace; and the effect thereof quietness and confidence forever (Isaiah XXXII, 17). It is a positive conception and includes charity, philanthropy, and every endeavor to bring out what is highest and best in others..  Just as “truth” is usually preceded in Scripture by “loving-kindness”, to remind us that the truth must be spoken in love; even so is justice often accompanied by some synonym of “loving-kindness” to teach that strict justice must in its execution, be mitigated by pity and humanity. “To do justly and to love mercy” is the Prophet’s summing up of human duty towards our fellow-men.  The world could not exist if it were governed by strict justice alone – say the Rabbis; therefore, God judges His human children by justice tempered with mercy.  Such being the Jewish understanding of justice, it is but natural that in later Hebrew that same word came to denote charity exclusively.


Nor is justice limited to relation between individuals. It extends to the relation between group and group, and it asserts the claim of the poor upon the rich, of the helpless upon them who possess the means to help.  And even as there is social justice, prescribing the duties of class to class,  so there is international justice, which demands respect for the personality of every national group, and proclaims that no people can of right be robbed of its national life or territory, its language or spiritual heritage. It is this wider recognition of justice that has called into existence the League of Nations. “I do not know whether you are aware that the League of Nations was first of all the vision of a great Jew almost 3000 years ago – the prophet Isaiah” (J.C. Smuts); see Isaiah II, 1-4.


“The world owes its conception of justice to the Jew,” says an American jurist. “God gave him to see, through the things that are ever changing, the things that never change.  Compared with the meaning and majesty of this achievement, every other triumph of every other people sinks into insignificance.


The pure administration of justice is thus one of the conditions of Israel’s existence as a nation. Our teachers, from the first of them to the last, brand the perversion of the course of justice as the most alarming sign of national decay.



©CJA 2006

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