Rabbi Michael Graetz

Rabbi Tzvi Graetz


[Published in “Walking with Justice” by the Ziegler Rabbinical School]


The roots of social justice in Israeli society today begin with the Bible.  What captured the imagination and the intellect of most of those who became members of the Zionist movement was their grounding in the Bible as the defining document of Jewish existence:


“The conception of social justice in ancient Israel and near east was expressed by means of an hendiadys, [a figure of speech in which two words connected by a conjunction are used to express a single notion].  The most common and widespread in the Bible is ‘mishpat u-tzedakah’, ‘justice and righteousness’…it is based on the idea that God imparts to rulers, and, indeed, to all humans, a sense of justice, and this helps the ruler to judge the people and the poor fairly.” [1]


In the Bible, social justice is extended from being an obligation of the rulers to being a general obligation of every person in society. Thus, it is no surprise that social justice as expressed in the Bible, both as applied to the obligation of government and that of individuals, was a central feature of Zionist ideology. The framers of Zionist thought could not conceive of a Jewish society in an independent state without a strong central pillar of social justice as set out in the Bible. This was true of all of the Zionist thinkers, whether they were left wing socialists or more right wing capitalists. While they may have disagreed on how to interpret specific laws of the Bible – some wishing to connect those laws to socialist, and others to capitalist, ideas – they all agreed on the basic premise of social justice as indispensable for a Zionist society.


The centrality of social justice is clearly borne out by “Megillat ha-Atzmaut”, Israel’s “scroll of independence”, which is the equivalent of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. The scroll begins with an opening statement which fixes the central and eternal relationship of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. It makes the connection between Jewish history on the land and the development of Jewish civilization, in particular the Bible.  And the Bible, in its turn, has left its imprint upon the final document.


Let us take a closer look at this critical paragraph:


THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.


The ideal described here is a modern rendering of mishpat u’tzedakah.  The common good – “the benefit of all its inhabitants” – is the central goal of the activities of government and individual citizens.  There is an explicit Biblical reference in the phrase, “it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel”.  Finally, the idea of justice in the Bible is closely connected with the idea of equality before the law. The phrase, “it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” is a throwback to the Torah rule found in Leviticus 24:22: “You shall have one standard (“mishpat ehad”) for stranger and citizen alike: for I, Adonai, am your God.” [2]  These qualities of society make up a clear definition of the ideal of social justice to be achieved in the Zionist conception of the State of Israel.

Let us now focus on two aspects of social justice currently relevant in the state of Israel.  Both these issues have generated considerable controversy.  They are: the right of women to vote and to be elected to office, and the question of standards of justice in some aspects of the Israel army, the IDF.


Women: voting and election to office


As we have seen, the Scroll of Independence promises “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”. However, in Jewish tradition, both legal (in halakhah) and by custom, women did not hold office in Jewish communities, nor were they empowered to be counted among those who chose or validated the communal officers. If the traditional approach is upheld, it is clear that the promise of the new state cannot be met.


For example, when Maimonides comes to codify the requirements of Deuteronomy 17:15: “‘You shall set a king over you”, he writes:


One does not place a woman on the throne, as it says ‘a king over you’ – not a queen. Similarly, for all offices in Israel, only a man may be appointed. (Mishneh Torah, Melakhim 1.5).


This position retained its force from the time it was codified, and was recognized as being correct.  Furthermore, in most countries of the Western world women did not have the power to vote or run for office until after the First World War. In the US and Canada these rights were achieved only between 1910-1917.


In the Zionist movement, which had begun to form governmental institutions in Israel from the first decade of the 20th century, there was a heated debate among rabbis about this issue. Most rabbis at the time upheld the classical halakhic position that women should not be allowed to vote, and certainly they had no right to be elected to office. Some held that women could vote, but could not hold office, and another group felt that nothing in Jewish law forbid women from all forms of participation, both voting and serving in office.

Among those in the first group (who denied all political rights to women) were some of the most important and central leaders of the Zionist religious establishment. Foremost among them was Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel from 1921 to 1935.


Rabbi Kook insisted that the Zionist society remain true to the principle of Jewish law that public service is only open to men, and not to women. He also utilized a frequently cited phrase in halakha which shows concern regarding sexual modesty, “kol kevodah bat melekh p’nimah” –  “the honor of the princess is staying inside” (Psalms 45:14), and assumed that such modesty would be inherently compromised by a mingling of the sexes in public life. Rabbi Kook also expressed the idea that such loyalty to Jewish tradition would be viewed favorably by many nations.  He did express a notion of an “ideal status of woman”, in which he leaves open the possibility of women having more participation in public matters, but he insisted that this was something that might come in the future. Certainly in his day, most of the world had not reached that idea.


The opposite view – that women must participate as voters and elected officials – was stated most clearly by Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, chief Sephardi rabbi of the Land of Israel from 1939. Before him, Rabbi Haim Hirshensohn (1857-1935) had also taken that stance, as part of his overall work dedicated to defining a modern democratic state that would be valid according to Jewish law. Rabbi Hirshensohn fully utilized his prodigious knowledge of halakha to argue for full equality for women, but in addition he fixed some general rules that he declared to be basic principles that one learns from the halakha. Among those rules was the idea that Jewish law has a teleological goal to be in tune with prevalent conceptions of justice and righteousness of the times. Those developed with human history and knowledge, and halakha strove to adapt to what was right by its own principles in human culture at any given point in history. Once halakha had recognized the correctness of a general cultural value, it would not go back and deny it.[3]


Rabbi Uziel, in his own ruling, acknowledges his debt to Rabbi Hirshensohn.  He writes that there is no clear-cut halakhic tradition which prohibits women voting or being elected.  As to Maimonides’ stand, Uziel interprets that as applying only to appointments by the Sanhedrin, but in the absence of a Sanhedrin, it has no relevance.  Furthermore, Uziel, following Hirshensohn, describes the important power of acceptance by the community as a factor in fixing the halakha. If a community elects a woman, and accepts her leadership, then it is a true act, and even Maimonides would admit that this would be legitimate.

As to the issue of public welfare and modesty, Rabbi Uziel seems once again to follow Hirshensohn.  He argues that since any serious discussion has no aspect of licentiousness, and women and men working together for the public good has no aspect of frivolity, it follows that women can and should be elected to public office.


The application of these approaches, which see an overriding standard of justice and righteousness as being formative of halakhic practice, led to the acceptance of Rabbi Uziel’s position, and equal political rights for women became a basic principle in Israeli law.


However, there is an ongoing tension between religious leaders who object to what they consider to be violations of Jewish law in Israeli society, and those who believe in a developing law which is open to change. In 1988 the case of Leah Shakdiel v. the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Local Authority of Yerucham was brought before the Israel Supreme Court. Mrs. Shakdiel was elected to the local religious council in the town of Yerucham, but the rabbis refused to let her take up her seat because she was a woman. The Court held that Mrs. Shakdiel could not be disqualified from serving on the local religious affairs authority merely on the basis of her being a woman, and that the attempt to exclude her from office was unlawful discrimination, contrary to the Women’s Equal Rights Law. The court’s ruling was written by Justice Menahem Elon, who is an orthodox Jew, and Professor of Jewish Law at the Hebrew University. Elon is one of Israel’s greatest experts on halakha and he writes specifically: “It pains us that the decision [of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel] was not in favor of the petitioner, even though a decision in her favor would have the sanction of the halakha, according to the opinion of prominent authorities”.[4]


Still, the State Rabbinate did everything it could to prevent Mrs. Shakdiel from taking up her position. This case was a reminder that such issues are by no means settled, and that the struggle for equality for women in Israeli society continues.


Standards of justice in the Israeli army


An army always creates particular problems within any society that values justice and righteousness. By its definition, an army contains elements which test the boundaries of these notions. The more these concepts are important to the society, the greater the test and tension created by keeping a standard army.


In 1994, a special commission established by the IDF published “The Ethical Code of the Israel Defense Forces.” The document is also known as “The spirit of the Israel Defense Forces” (Ruah Tzahal). The commission included senior commanders of the IDF, and Professor Asa Kasher, who is a professor of Philosophy, well known in Israel for his work in ethics. He is also a bereaved parent, having lost a son during an action of the IDF.


Ruah Tzahal was intended to give guidance to soldiers in the IDF as well as to reflect the values which underlie the uniqueness of the IDF as an army. In its introduction, we find the following:


The IDF is different from other armies. The basic function of this document is to concretize a common language and standard of evaluation for values and norms. Its very existence creates a motivation to operate by its standards.


Some of the main points of Ruah Tzahal are:


  1. A soldier must always be aware of human life, and will endanger himself or another person only to the extent necessary to fulfill the mission.


  1. A soldier will use his weapons to defeat the enemy, to the extent necessary to accomplish that, and will show restraint by preventing harm to human life, honor or property, when force is not necessary.


  1. A soldier will fight and make an effort, to his utter limit, even though endangering his life, not to surrender to the enemy, but to overcome the enemy….


  1. A soldier will always go to help a comrade in need….no matter the danger, including self sacrifice. The soldier will do all that is necessary, even endangering his own life, in order to help his comrades in order not to leave wounded soldiers in the battle-field.


  1. A soldier will act in such a manner that his personal opinions about public, social or ideological issues will not be involved in his military actions.


  1. A soldier will act fairly, properly restrained, informed and professionally in all contacts with civilians who live or are present in the areas which the IDF controls.


The mere publication of Ruah Tzahal caused a wide range of reactions, from praise to damnation. The official IDF stance was very positive about the effort to create a climate of moral awareness in the army. Critics, by contrast, felt that this document would not work, since reality was different from philosophy, or that it would confuse soldiers and be a detriment to their fulfilling their task at all. Some critics took the stance that war and morality were inherently incompatible, so the whole effort was dangerous.


It is interesting that many of the questions raised in Ruah Tzahal are also found in rabbinic halakhic discussions; these, in their turn, have their roots in rules and laws which are found in the Bible. For example, the codes of the IDF stress that there is a sanctity to life that must be respected, even as one is prepared to kill an enemy who wants to kill you, and that killing in war falls under the Talmudic dictum of Ha-ba lehorgekha hashkem le-horgo – “if a man comes to kill you, you should kill him first”.  This is taken to mean that killing in war is justified only if one is attacked.  Another example is that every soldier who had killed others or who had been in contact with the slain has to undergo ritual purification.[5]   The question of ritual purification is a general one in the Torah. In this case, it seems as if the taking part in a war and killing others, while justified by Divine command, is nevertheless viewed as “impure”.  That is, even though the command “you shall not kill” is being suspended for purposes of carrying out the war, it nevertheless is being transgressed. Thus, the soldier is obligated to go through the rituals of purity after being involved in a war.


Despite rulings and codes, there are cases where soldiers do not uphold the values of justice and righteousness. Israel’s courts, as in cases having to do with women, are constantly dealing with suits regarding potential violations of the principles of justice by IDF soldiers in specific situations. For example, in 2002 a group known as Physicians for Human Rights brought suit against the IDF for violating the traditional neutrality of medical personnel. Some physicians and medical aids had been wounded and even killed by IDF actions in Gaza. The IDF responded that even though they are bound to uphold the recognized rights of medical personnel, there are many cases where terrorists hide behind doctors, or in medical facilities. The court did not consider that it could rule on the particulars of this incident, but it did insist that the IDF had to: “… once again instruct the combat forces, down to the level of the lone soldier in the field, of this commitment by our forces based on law and morality—and, according to the state, even on utilitarian considerations—through concrete instructions which will prevent, to the extent possible, and even in severe situations, incidents which are inconsistent with the rules of humanitarian law.”[6]


There are numerous Israeli organizations which are dedicated to the struggle to preserve the basic commitment of Israeli society to justice and righteousness. There are those who see some of their causes as controversial. The reason is that the struggle to preserve the strong Jewish propensity for justice and equality runs into conflict with terrorist activity, which targets Jews indiscriminately. Some people fear that protecting the rights of Arabs by a Jewish group, and certainly by rabbis, might send a message of weakness to terrorists. Or, even worse, it might encourage terrorists who may feel that they will be protected by such groups. Thus, the struggle over the implementation of basic Jewish values in a highly charged and multifaceted reality is a continuous one.



The idea that “justice and righteousness” are the signs of being a member of the nation Israel is found at the very outset of the story of our peoplehood:


For I have chosen him [Abraham], that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:19)


From that time on this notion has been central to the ethos of the Jewish nation.  Thus, it is no surprise that the Zionist movement placed these values at the center of its vision of the renewed Jewish society in the land of Israel. The complexity of the reality of Israel being involved in a constant struggle for its own existence, coupled with the basic commitment to these ideals, creates a situation of a constant need for self-examination and for creating social and legal tools for dealing with the results of this reckoning of the soul. This very challenge is testimony to the fidelity of Zionist society to its most cherished ideals.




[1]  Professor Moshe Weinfeld, “Justice and Righteousness in Israel and the Nations, equality and freedom in ancient Israel in light of social justice in the ancient Near East”, [Hebrew],The Magnes Press,, Jerusalem, 1985, pp. 1


[2] The word translated as “standard” is the Hebrew “mishpat”, so that a better translation would be “one justice”

[3] cf. Malki ba-Kodesh, part 4, p. 8 exchange of letters with Rabbi Kook.


[4] Rulings of the Supreme Court of Israel, Shakdiel v. Minister of Religious Affairs, 42 (2) PD 221, 263–264; CA 294/91; CA 294/91

[5] compare Numbers 31:19

[6] HCJ 2936/02 Physicians for Human Rights v. The Commander of IDF Forces in the West Bank ….The Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice [April 8, 2002]