Justice in the City: The Babylonian Talmud and Los Angeles Zoning

I recently read “Justice in the City“, a book that mines the Babylonian Talmud, the cornerstone text of Rabbinic Judaism, for ideas related to urban social justice issues. The book addresses issues of homelessness, labor, and criminal justice. In each of these sections, the Talmud has principles and examples that can be applied to the topic. Disclosure: the author is a friend.

Poverty and homelessness

The book cites Talmudic sources on tenants’ rights and the responsibility of a city to care for its residents. There are sections describing a landlord’s timelines to give notice prior to eviction, which are longer in the rainy season and in large cities where the housing market is assumed to be tighter. There is an obligation to provide a traveller with a bed and bedding for the night, and an an obligation for city residents to pay regular assessments to feed and shelter the poor.

The book extends these concepts to current conditions where there are large numbers of homeless all the time; specifically calls out cities including LA that invest more in criminalizing outdoor sleeping than providing shelter; and infers an obligation for city residents to seek solutions. In a political culture where libertarian ideas denying civic obligations have an insidious hold, it is refreshing to read sources that consider in a nuanced fashion the obligations to those who need support.

Economic justice and zoning

The book’s first chapter examines a Talmudic case where the building of a gate house for a housing compound is criticized if it prevents the residents from hearing the voices of the poor. The author generalizes the principle, “we can set up our living spaces – our houses, or neighborhoods, and ultimately our cities – so that we are open to the demand of the Stranger.”

Yet, when the book talks about house cleaning and child care work, it refers to “those who care for your children and clean your house.” The readership of the book, in this sentence, is assumed to be middle class or wealthy people who can afford childcare and house cleaning services. The book advocates for the obligation to hear the voices of those in need, and in favor of justice for people who live across town in differing circumstances.

But why do the poor live far away from the middle class and the wealthy? The examples in the book focus on the author’s community of Los Angeles. Like many areas in the US, Los Angeles has a high degree of income segregation, which has been reinforced at a deep level by land use policies that separate uses and regulate density levels, keeping larger, more expensive single family homes away from less expensive multi-family units. These zoning codes separate the wealthy from the poor as effectively as explicit discrimination.

Legally mandated development patterns where houses, schools, workplaces and stores are far away from each other and reachable only by car, impose disproportionate costs on lower income people. In recent years, Los Angeles has increased investments in transit, started to improve pedestrian infrastructure, and is increasing infill development. Justice in the City puts zoning and land use policy in the context of traditional Jewish ethics.

Restorative Justice

The book has an interesting chapter on Restorative Justice, drawing on material from the Jewish tradition in which crimes that cause damages, including theft and assault, are handled with restitution rather than with punishment. The biblical text “an eye for an eye”, is definitively understood in the rabbinic tradition as referring to monetary compensation. Not only that, traditional sources grapple with the problem that quantifying damages has the potential to be undignified for the victim whose worth is calculated.

The practice of “restorative justice” is a potentially promising alternative to our punishment-focused criminal “justice” system. The author not only discusses the subject in theory, but has been active as a mediator in a restorative justice practice.

The obligation to protest

The least satisfying section of the book is the section in Chapter 2 which discusses the obligation to protest injustice. The book cites powerful classic stories about the obligation to protest the unjust actions of the powerful, even in cases where victory is unlikely.

But the author frames the choice to protest as a binary; should one only protest if one expects success, or should one protest even when one believes that protesting will have no effect? Yes, there are cases where one should certainly protest injustice even when there is no hope of change in the near term. But most political situations are not that stark.

Perhaps in a hierarchical community where there is a single authority figure, advocacy consists of making an appeal to the authority that is approved or denied. But in contemporary democracies, an activist participates in a range of situations; some where victory is nearer to hand, and others where longterm groundwork is needed before change can happen.

The book is not arguing in favor of political martyrdom. Paraphrasing Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the author urges that utility should have a vote, not a veto. Whether to emphasize this point depends on the context of the the issue and the community. Where the issue is very difficult and the community passive, this is an important point to make.

However, there are a wide range of issues where this focus can be misleading. I fear that the book may valorize the pattern where an activist stands up to object to a wrong; the protest is not heard, and the advocate goes home, disappointed but self-satisfied in being in the right. Sometimes this pattern indicates that the activist has not done the necessary groundwork in building support, educating decision-makers, and influencing public opinion in order to have a good chance of winning.

The first choice is whether to protest, but it is usually as important to consider how to protest. I know from experience outside the book that the author has a history of practical advocacy that has made a difference on difficult issues. But in this section the book, protest is not treated with the same level of nuance as other topics in the book, nor the level of nuance that the author presumably utilizes in his own activism.

Labor and the role of tradition

The book cites Talmudic sources about the responsibilities of employers to employees, including obligations to pay a prevailing wage in the community and to follow local work practices. The book also observes the difference between pre-modern employer/employee relations, and modern practices in the age of labor unions. Since the emergence of corporate employers and labor unions, rabbis and scholars have extrapolated to modern conditions and support collective bargaining for wages and benefits.

The application of traditional principles to modern conditions raises important questions about the role of traditional ethical disciplines and practice in democratic societies. One of the Rabbis cited on the validity of labor unions was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, a country in which an Orthodox Rabbinate is granted a monopoly on certain aspects of family and ritual law, with various problematic ethical consequences.

For those who agree that theocracy is a bad idea, there needs to be an alternative understanding of the role of applying and extending ethical traditions, in the broader context of a democracy. This implies a competitive market for ideas, a political framework of organizing and persuasion, and a role that is advisory rather than authoritative.

How does the book work for a broader audience?

The readers of the book are not assumed to have any faith commitment. The readers are assumed to have some familiarity with the tradition of western philosophical ethics; the book quotes sources including Rawls, MacIntyre, Searle and others.

The book definitely comes from a liberal political perspective, and I have no complaint with that. There are ancient Jewish communal traditions assuming that communities have shared responsibility to pay for education, and to care for the poor. The classic Jewish texts do not assume that people are poor because they are undeserving, nor that hunger is the appropriate and impersonal result of a free market.

Overall, I appreciate the attempt to use Jewish sources for perspective on contemporary ethical issues. However, as someone with a fair amount of Jewish background who shares many of the author’s political beliefs, it is hard for me to predict how this book will come across to people with different backgrounds. I would be interested to learn how the book reads to people who are interested in social justice and ethics but come from other ethical traditions.

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