Medieval Jewish social welfare institutions
Widroff, Jerome S.
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This study addresses the question: Is social justice a Jewish value? Evidence was presented of a widespread belief that the answer to the question is positive.;However, some recent studies have questioned this long-standing belief. By examining the context in which the term social justice was used and claimed as a Jewish value by a number of writers from a broad spectrum of Jewish life, the following operational definition of the question was developed: Social justice can be properly termed a Jewish value if it is central to Jewish self definition and if Jewish institutions have been organized and structured to encourage altruism, generosity towards strangers and between social groups.;The answer was sought in the beliefs and practices of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe during the late medieval period, for that was the last span of time in which the Jewish community remained united in undiluted commitment to its religious heritage.;We found that the practice of social justice was central to the sacred beliefs of this religious community.;People were characterized and evaluated by their fidelity to the ideal of social justice. Acts of social justice are frequent themes on monuments and in memorial books, indicating that these are what people wanted to be remembered for. They were also found to be strongly associated with other principle values of the society, particularly with Torah and with Palestine.;It was also found that social justice was carried out by the community in a manner that corresponds with the "institutional" rather than with the "residual" conception of social welfare. A variety of services was provided, not only through the formal system, but through each of the major institutions of society--the family, fraternal organizations, the educational system and the economic system. Acts of social justice accompanied life's milestones, as well as the major ceremonies. Concern for the status, the dignity and the future prospects of the recipient of assistance was expressed and institutionalized.;Therefore, social justice is a Jewish value and it was, indeed, central to Jewish self-definition.