Ear­li­er this week, Rab­bi Shmu­ly Yan­klowitz wrote about prayer and activism. This week, the Ama­zon Kin­dle ver­sion of his book Jew­ish Ethics & Social Jus­tice is only $1.99!

In Jew­ish law, we are told that it is unjust to be biased and be swayed by pover­ty, to favor the case of the poor over the rich in a dis­pute. With­in the realm of a for­mal court’s judg­ment this is cru­cial (Exo­dus 23: 3, 6). How­ev­er, does this notion still apply today, where the dis­par­i­ty of wealth between the poor and the rich has become so large that the poor often can no longer prop­er­ly advo­cate for themselves?

This notion of equal­i­ty before the law is most­ly a fal­la­cy today in Amer­i­ca, since the poor have such a seri­ous dis­ad­van­tage in the court­room. The New York Times report­ed that more than 90% of crim­i­nal cas­es are nev­er tried before a jury; most peo­ple charged with crimes just plead guilty, for­feit­ing their con­sti­tu­tion­al rights. The pros­e­cu­tion usu­al­ly promis­es to give a deal to those who plead guilty and go all-out against any­one who tries to go to tri­al. It is sim­ply cheap­er to plead guilty than to try to pay for legal counsel.

Every indi­vid­ual should have the same fair oppor­tu­ni­ty before the law, because we must be com­mit­ted to truth and jus­tice. But this is not the real­i­ty today. Even if it were true, Judaism teach­es that we must go over and above the law (lifn­im mishu­rat hadin) to sup­port those more vul­ner­a­ble (Bava Met­zia 83a). Fur­ther­more, we learn that G‑d cre­at­ed and destroyed many worlds that were built upon the foun­da­tion of din (judg­ment), and then G‑d final­ly cre­at­ed this world built upon rachamim (mer­cy) (Rashi to Gen­e­sis 1:1). Our world can’t exist on pure judg­ment, rather, as fal­li­ble beings we rely upon the grace, empa­thy, and kind­ness of G‑d and man.

We must be moved toward mer­cy for those who are suf­fer­ing, and this must affect how we build soci­ety. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma explained the impor­tance of empa­thy in jurispru­dence when choos­ing Supreme Court jus­tices: I will seek some­one who under­stands that jus­tice isn’t about some abstract legal the­o­ry or foot­note in a case­book; it is also about how our laws affect the dai­ly real­i­ties of people’s lives. I view the qual­i­ty of empa­thy, of under­stand­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing with people’s hopes and strug­gles as an essen­tial ingre­di­ent for arriv­ing at just deci­sions and out­comes.” Law is not only about prin­ci­ple, it is also about life.

This is all the more true out­side of the court­room. With­in the realm of Jew­ish grass­roots activism, we learn that our pri­ma­ry respon­si­bil­i­ty is not equal­i­ty, but to pri­or­i­tize our sup­port for the vulnerable.

Numer­ous Jew­ish teach­ings remind us that our pri­ma­ry respon­si­bil­i­ty is to pro­tect and pri­or­i­tize the most vul­ner­a­ble indi­vid­u­als and par­ties: G‑d takes the side of the aggriev­ed and the vic­tim” (Eccle­si­astes 3:15). When there is con­flict, G‑d sim­ply can­not with­hold sup­port for the one suffering.

Rav Ahron Solove­ichik writes: A Jew should always iden­ti­fy with the cause of defend­ing the aggriev­ed, whoso­ev­er the aggriev­ed may be, just as the con­cept of tzedek is to be applied uni­form­ly to all humans regard­less of race or creed” (Log­ic of the Heart, Log­ic of the Mind, 67).

This is what it means to be Jew­ish, to pri­or­i­tize the suf­fer­ing in conflict.

This point is made time and time again by the rab­bis. The Tal­mud, based on the verse jus­tice, jus­tice, you shall pur­sue” (Deuteron­o­my 16:20), teach­es that the dis­ad­van­taged should be giv­en pref­er­ence when all else is equal. The Ram­bam teach­es that even if the dis­ad­van­taged arrive lat­er than oth­er peo­ple, they should be giv­en prece­dence (San­hedrin 21:6, Shul­han Arukh CM 15:2).

Thus, in a court of law, all par­ties are ide­al­ly treat­ed equal­ly, as we are guid­ed by the Jew­ish val­ue of din (judg­ment); today, how­ev­er, jus­tice does not pre­vail. Fur­ther, in activism we must favor the vul­ner­a­ble, since we are guid­ed by the Jew­ish val­ue of chesed (empa­thy, lov­ing kind­ness). In life, we must learn to bal­ance all of our val­ues: love, jus­tice, mer­cy, etc. In jus­tice, we do not just choose one guid­ing prin­ci­ple: As Isa­iah Berlin teach­es, moral life con­sists of embrac­ing a plu­ral­i­ty of values.

We must always be absolute­ly com­mit­ted to the truth and be sure that our jus­tice sys­tem is fair for all par­ties. Yet we also, as change­mak­ers, have a spe­cial and holy role to give voice to the voice­less and to sup­port the unsup­port­ed in soci­ety. This is the role of Jew­ish activism. The rab­bis teach that Even if a right­eous per­son attacks a wicked per­son, G‑d still sides with the vic­tim” (Yalkut Shi­moni). All peo­ple deserve our love and care but we must fol­low the path of G‑d and make our alle­giances clear: with the des­ti­tute, oppressed, alien­at­ed, and suffering.

You can now pur­chase Rav Shmuly’s book Jew­ish Ethics & Social Jus­tice: A Guide for the 21st Cen­tu­ry.

Rab­bi Shmu­ly Yan­klowitz is an author and activist. He is the Pres­i­dent and Dean of the Val­ley Beit Midrash col­lab­o­ra­tive adult edu­ca­tion pro­gram, Founder & Pres­i­dent of Uri L’Tzedek, the Ortho­dox Social Jus­tice Move­ment, and Founder & CEO of The Shamay­im V’Aretz Insti­tute. His work has pub­lished in the New York Times, the Wall Street Jour­nal, The Atlantic and the Huff­in­g­ton Post, as well as many sec­u­lar and reli­gious pub­li­ca­tions. Rab­bi Shum­ly is the author of sev­er­al books on Jew­ish spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, social jus­tice and ethics. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.