Judaism, Human Rights, and Social Justice

Posted on Dec 07, 2020

There can’t be many syllabuses like the one for this fall’s course on Judaism, Human Rights, and Social Justice. On its long reading list, Aristotle and Locke share real estate with the Shulhan Arukh, and liberal philosopher John Rawls sits adjacent to several tractates of the Talmud. Mixed in are Genesis, Leviticus, Maimonides, Hannah Arendt, Ezekial Emanuel, Ta’Nehisi Coates, and many more.

Assistant Professor Yonatan Brafman created the class—or actually recreated it from one he taught a few years ago—in part to serve as a core course for students in JTS’s new Certificate in Jewish Ethics and Justice program.  He was also inspired by the crises he saw roiling the country last summer: Covid-19 and inequities in American health care as well as mass protests against systemic racism.

Dr. Brafman thinks some students arrived thinking he would tell them “what Judaism says” about justice. That’s the last thing he wants to do. “There are a lot of claims about what Judaism supports, and what I want to do is teach people how to think about these questions rather than tell them Judaism supports this or that,” he explains.

In a similar vein, he said some students want to know the “authentic” Jewish view on issues they care about. The problem, Dr. Brafman explains, is that authenticity assumes there’s a true Jewish view that’s been carried forward through time, “like a handoff in football.” Instead, he hopes students come to value “integrity,” by which he means knowing how to find and read the gamut of Jewish sources on an issue and make a valid argument from them. For instance, when students confront conflicting opinions, such as those of two contemporary Jewish thinkers on euthanasia, he wants them to ask about the writers, “How do they read the sources? Do they give a good account of them that also results in something we should do?”

The course’s eclectic reading list is designed to give students a theoretical foundation in philosophical approaches to social justice and human rights—secular and Jewish, contemporary and historic. Dr. Brafman has structured the first part of the course around the thinking, and critics, of John Rawls, the 20th-century political philosopher. “All discussions of social justice need to reckon with him,” Dr. Brafman explains. 

Students later study theories of human rights through reading contemporary philosophers, including some who’ve looked at human rights from a Jewish perspective, as well as ideas about human rights as understood in various rabbinic texts.

As Dr. Brafman envisioned last summer, the course culminates with an examination of racism in the U.S. and the question of reparations. 

He hopes students come away from the class understanding that one can rarely find in Judaism simple pronouncements on complex moral issues. He wants them to see, too, that there has been and continues to be a constructive dialogue between cutting-edge philosophy and the Jewish tradition—and that it’s important to wrestle with the texts that contain them. “These texts make claims about what it is to be a human being, to create a just society,” he explains, “and thinking Jews should be reading them and exploring their answers to these very important questions.”

View the syllabus for Dr. Brafman’s course