I’m not much interested in theological debate. But I think it’s beyond question that social justice is central to Judaism, as expressed consistently through the Old Testament. Benjamin Scolnic, a long-serving Conservative Judaism rabbi from Connecticut, wrote a helpful article on this subject: The Prophets and Social Justice. Feel free to discover your own sources. Scolnic’s method is pretty straightforward. Beginning with Moses, he tracks what the prophets had to say about social conditions in their own time, and it’s a consistent message that God is displeased when the rich take too much from the poor or impose unnecessary hardships on their labor.
You’re not allowed to make this point in Florida’s public schools. Under the leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis, textbooks are combed for verboten terms. One of those verboten terms is “social justice.”
Meanwhile, another social studies textbook intended for grades 6-8 was forced by the department to alter a reference to the Hebrew Bible in order to meet state standards. According to state documents, the book’s original version included a question for students reading, “What social justice issues are included in the Hebrew Bible?”
That was altered to an approved version that replaced the phrase “social justice issues” with the term “key principles.” The state’s rationale for the change was that the original phrasing used “Politically charged language when referencing the Hebrew Bible.”
As Scolnic demonstrates in his section on the prophet Amos, the “social justice issues…included in the Hebrew Bible” can be pretty detailed and explicit. Here he cites Amos 2:6-8.
This is what The Holy One has said:
For three transgressions of Israel,
For four, I will not call back the punishment:
Because they have sold the righteous for silver
And the poor for a pair of sandals.
They trample the heads of the poor
Into the dust of the earth
And pervert the course of the humble!
Father and son both go to the same girl,
So as to profane My holy name.
They lie perversely by every altar
On garments they took in pledge,
And in the House of their God
They drink wine bought with their fines.
Scolnic concludes his essay by emphasizing that God’s social justice demands are so consistent in the Bible as to border on the monotonous.
One can read through the prophetic books and think that the admonitions to be ethical are monotonous and boring. But the truth is that ethical behavior requires constant reminders and reinforcement. And so the prophets exhort the people to be charitable and merciful to the poor and to help those who were defenseless and needy, widows and orphans, oppressed people, strangers and those without legal rights. They stipulate impartiality in justice, and fairness. They insist on respecting the property of others. They demand respect for every human life.
Florida’s Republican leadership insists that students see these exhortations to social justice as nothing more than “key principles,” mainly because they decided to make “social justice” a pejorative term in their own minds. Moses led his people out of an inequitable system of slavery in Egypt, but teaching that the Bible disapproves of such systems might lead students to question Florida’s glorious history of slavery and Jim Crow.
It’s interesting that a conservative Christian political movement is responsible for this censorship. After all, Jesus of Nazareth was very much a Jewish prophet in the same mold as the ones that preceded him, especially in challenging the religious and political leaders of his time for their greed and cruelty to the poor. It’s important to remember, too, that his ministry took place during Roman occupation of Jewish lands.
The 19th-Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche categorized the Judeo-Christian ethic as a slave morality, mainly because he saw it as a sensible survival mechanism for the weak (the slave in Egypt, the Roman subjects in Jerusalem) that would make no sense to strong and commanding cultures. Perhaps there is something to that, and it might help explain why the Settler mentality of White Nationalists has so much trouble embracing the social justice message of both the Old and New Testaments. They came to this continent from Europe with overwhelming power, and their successes suggested that God was on their side. But just as in the old Jewish kingdoms, even flourishing societies fall prey to massive social and economic iniquities. As Scolnic says,
The Book of Amos brings us back to a wonderful period in the history of the northern kingdom. It is one thing to denounce a kingdom that is doing poorly and to criticize it for its failures. It is quite another to denounce a nation that is rich, successful and mighty.
One might ask how we have a Book of Amos at all. Why weren’t the rulers who were condemned by the prophets able to censor the books out of existence? It’s a good question because many religious books have been obliterated from the historical record, and others have only resurfaced in recent years (the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example) after centuries underground. Whatever the explanation, these books are best examined in religious settings rather than in K-12 public schools. There is too much argument about what the texts mean, whether they’re literally true, and how to teach them in a pluralistic and ecumenical society that values a separation of Church and State. But there are certain parts of the Holy Scriptures that we should be able to teach without contention or controversy, and one of those parts is the importance of social justice in the Old Testament.
It doesn’t surprise me that the White Christian Nationalists find that teaching objectionable. Those whose ancestors “sold the righteous for silver” and “trample[d] the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth,” are now threatened by the message of the prophets they profess to revere. They have no time for the morality of slaves, whether of Egypt or Tallahassee, because they see themselves as the rightful masters of our society. Don’t tell them to tax the rich. They’re more interested in “drink[ing] wine bought with their fines.”