The Jewish people have a word for justice, mishpat.
The word, at its most basic, means to treat people equally.
It carries with it connotations of legal justice. If someone does someone wrong, they should be punished as the crime dictates, and their punishment or acquittal shouldn’t be influenced by their social status or race.
The word also implies the rights held by people. Not just punishment should be meted out, but also protection.
The Hebrew people specifically singled out four groups of people at risk of not being given due care, and reminding them that their duty to justice—to mishpat, was to take care of people without any social power: widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor.
These days, people talk of rectifying justice: punishing wrongdoers, and helping out the victims of unjust treatment. It’s more than just the law, though, it’s filling in where the law falls down. It’s the people calling for an inquiry into the missing and murdered women along the highway of tears when the government did nothing. It was the people fighting to see justice done when prostitutes went missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It’s working to eradicate the systematic discrimination enculturated in business organizations where women are required to do twice as much for half the pay.
There are powerful stories about enacting mishpat. About people and groups doing justice. Helping the helpless, treating the mistreated and abused with love and care.
But there is another word in Hebrew that can also be translated as justice: tzadeqah. This is what you might call primary justice, or, as it is frequently translated, righteousness, which means doing the right thing. It often is confused with the concept of charity, and while the two are related, tzadeqah goes far beyond merely just giving to the needy.
Indeed, the word signifies an obligation, whereas charity is a spontaneous act of goodwill. It is good, but it is optional. Tzadeqah, though, is something that you, as a member of society, have to do.
The other trouble with the word charity is it is seen merely as a financial practice. I gave at the office. In practice, though, it is far more than that.
The Jewish people have ritual act of tsadeqah: at weddings, Jewish brides and bridegrooms would traditionally give to charity to “symbolize the sacred character of the marriage”; at Passover, it is traditional to be welcoming towards hungry strangers, and feed them at the table; at Purim it is considered obligatory for every Jew to give food to one other person, and gifts to at least two poor people.
But even that fails to capture what this concept is about. It is not about ritual, it’s about “creating a culture of social justice,” as Tim Keller describes it.
And we can get so caught up in the mishpat—in insisting that we are treated right, ourselves, our friends, our culture—that we miss this second part.
It is about conducting all relationships, in family and society, with fairness, generosity and equity. It’s about treating everyone with fairness and respect.
Everyone, and not just people who are like you, but especially widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor. When was the last time you cried out for justice for the immigrants, and not lamented how they’re making more than someone on welfare (they’re not). Or fought for the rights of the widows on welfare, or for the orphans, and more importantly, did something other than post on Facebook about it?
Because if we live like this, where everyone treated everyone else with respect, fairness and generosity, there would be no need for mishpat, there would be only tsadeqah.
Errata: In last week’s photo feature from Quebec, I completely forgot to credit my daughter, Zoe Ernst, for taking the pictures.