What are your thoughts on the word ‘mishphat’ (social justice)?
My church is currently undergoing a ‘replant’ with a new emphasis on community growth and ‘social justice’. However, Glenn Beck said to be wary when you hear ‘social justice’ in the church.
I know that ‘social justice’ is a term created by the far left in the 1800s(?). However, the term is now found in the Bible and is now considered mainstream and embraced by churches.
In addition, I recently came back from a trip to Israel with an Old Testament scholar. He said the real meaning of ‘mishphat’ is ‘a shared experience’.
Can you clarify?
We’d like to let two famous authors start off our answer to your question. In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott said, “I like good strong words that mean something…,” while Roald Dahl said in The BFG, “Don’t gobblefunk around with words.” Our thoughts exactly!
We generally distrust any terms that insert the word social in front. For instance, studies are good, but social studies? Media we get but social media? Justice is good, but social justice? What does that even mean? In general, the word social in front means that the thing is undefined. One thing is for sure and that is that ‘social justice’ is not the meaning of the Hebrew word mishpat.
Today in England, if you suggest tabling a motion it means bringing it up for discussion or vote. In the United States, those same words mean putting the motion aside and postponing discussion. Words that meant one thing in the 1800s may mean something very different today. Unless you are attending an academic convocation on the evolution of language, it is rather irrelevant what the phrase ‘social justice’ meant in the 18th or 19th century. It is very relevant to ask exactly, in precise and detailed language, it means to the elders of your church.
As Glenn Beck suggests, today it usually means a far-left radical agenda. When you say, “…it is now found in the Bible…” we don’t know what you mean. Our Bible is exactly the same, word for word, as the one given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It is exactly the same one that Joshua and all the kings of Israel kept with them at all times. It is exactly the same one that Jewish communities from Morocco to Poland have used for centuries and still use today. If you are saying that the English translation changes, then we can’t comment on that. The Hebrew is eternal and cannot be ‘adjusted’ to fit current political trends.
The word ‘mishpat’ first appears in Genesis 18:19, when God says that he will tell Abraham about the impending destruction of Sodom because He knows that Abraham will instruct his descendants to do ‘tzedakah and mishpat.’ Those two Hebrew words do not actually translate precisely into any language because they embrace a cultural understanding. Mishpat appears many, many times in Scripture and to get a full understanding one would need to look at each of those instances, along with the accompanying ancient Jewish wisdom. One can’t pick and choose among verses that seem to support one’s views.
We have no idea what your Bible scholar meant by the phrase ‘shared experience.’ However, we would caution you not to allow anyone (even us) to lead you down a path without doing your own hard work of asking whether what you are being told fits your understanding of God’s vision. That vision should mature as you learn more, but no catch-phrase, certainly not one that seems to conveniently fit an agenda that is often anti-Godly, should compel you to behave against your own conscience and understanding.
We aren’t certain what the technical definition of ‘gobblefunk’ is, but just in case it applies in this situation, we suggest asking your church leadership to define clearly what ‘social justice’ means to them.
“Death and life are in the hands of language” (Proverbs 18:21),
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin