Tzedek vs. Tzedakah: Justice vs. Charity

Both are about righting the wrongs that are all too pervasive in our world.

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Not so with the commandment to establish a just court system, which is addressed to an entire community, where there is no room for individual feelings of closeness or responsibility towards certain groups, be they family, neighbors, rich, or poor. To the contrary, Jewish sources emphasize that an unbiased court system is all that exists to protect the rights of the minority stranger against those of the judge's brother.

Unfortunately, most poor people today--four billion around the world--live outside the shelter of the law.  Participating in informal economies and vulnerable to abuse and oppression, they lack the legal rights and protection that would enable them to prosper.

For the marginalized poor, tzedek means more than making sure that judges are unbiased. It means making sure that courts are geographically accessible; that people are educated about their legal rights and how the justice system functions; and that those without financial means can secure legal representation.

A just court system is not only a crucial component of every fair society and necessary for protecting the rights of the underprivileged, but also critical to eradicating poverty in the long term. According to the United Nations, it is the right that "guarantees all others," creating the conditions that ensure the success of development initiatives. 

The establishment of fair judiciary systems in countries that lack them requires collaboration between local and national governments, international organizations such as the United Nations, regional bar associations, and local organizations that can monitor judicial processes and empower community members to understand their legal rights. Grassroots NGOs around the world are working to educate people about their legal rights and help them overcome violations of their rights in the courts.

Tzedek and tzedakah are clearly linked, and not only linguistically. At its essence, tzedakah is not about handouts to the poor compelled by pity or obligation; at its core, tzedek is not about deciding disputes in court. Both are about righting the wrongs that are all too pervasive in our world.

These words are about justice, tempered with a realistic acknowledgment of human reality. These practices should be mutually enriching: We should strive to extend the ideal of unbiased tzedek to our own personal practice of tzedakah; and in our pursuit of justice around the world we should embrace the ethics of personal responsibility embodied by the Jewish tradition of giving.

By combining the highest ideals of both practices in our pursuit of each, we pursue justice in its purest and most meaningful form.

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Adina Gerver

Adina Gerver, a freelance writer and editor, is studying at the Advanced Scholars Program of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She has served as assistant director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning and program officer at the Covenant Foundation.