Gershom Gorenberg, “Avoiding Sodom: Its About Policy Not Charity,” The Daily Beast

To understand what’s wrong with the voluntary model, I suggest reading the recent book Justice in the City by the scholar and activist Aryeh Cohen. Reading the Talmud and later rabbinic writing, Cohen shows that they obligate society to feed and clothe the hungry, and to provide homes for the homeless. The obligation must be carried out through political institutions, which both represent the people who live in a particular place and require, even coerce, them to pay what is needed. That is, a just society collects taxes to meet its duties to every person in its realm—which are also its duties to God.

Yehudah Mirsky, “Doing Social Justice,” on Jewish Ideas Daily

Aryeh Cohen’s slim but powerful Justice in the City provides a philosophical [basis for social justice].  A professor at the American Jewish University’s rabbinical school, Cohen draws not only on his scholarship but on his activist background, working with the homeless, juvenile offenders, and non-unionized workers on the streets of Los Angeles.

Cohen looks past “rote and often meaningless” invocations of tikkun olam (the phrase, he notes, is absent from his own book), instead offering careful readings of talmudic and medieval discussions of such matters as the duty to protest … and the rights of laborers and artisans, distilling from the texts a framework of individual and collective obligation, applicable to both Israel and the Diaspora.  When we talk about social justice, he writes, we are trying to get at that which goes beyond interpersonal ethics to the ethics of life in common, where we engage both friends and strangers.  He argues from talmudic discussions of the city that “a just city should be a community of obligation . . . toward others who are not always in view. These ‘others’ include workers, the poor, and the homeless.”

Alana Suskin, “Justice in the City—A how-to?” on

I am not really the kind of person who recommends books. I periodically review them, but that’s different. They get on the queue, I read them, I eventually get around to writing them up, but I don’t usually go around suggesting books to friends. But this book is different.

So, let me begin by saying that I have recommended this book to just about anyone who might have the slightest reason at all to read it. First, I recommended it to all my colleagues at Occupy Faith DC, because, while few of them are Jewish, this book is an incredible map to creating justice in the kinds of urban settings that Occupy has dwelt in. Then, I recommended it to several people who work in specific social justice fields – not necessarily economic justice, although that too, but across the spectrum.

This book is different than any of the -now an entire genre- books ofJewish social justice. I have to admit – I’ve pretty much stopped reading them. I read a few at the beginning. I read one for review purposes not too long ago. I can get through most of them, and for people who like reading that sort of thing, that’s just the sort of thing they’ll like, and I recommend it. There are lots of good reasons for Jews to read these books, sometimes because it will pull them in to understand their Judaism better. More rarely, because I think it will make Jews who are already well-embedded in Judaism be better at thinking about justice. But few books in this genre are worth reading by people because they lay out a game plan for genuine social change that Jews can be part of, and even fewer would I suggest that non-Jews read.

But this book is different.

Jonathan Crane, “Humane Urbanism Rabbinically Conceived,” on H-Judaic/H-Net Reviews

It is always refreshing to read a book that renders the ancient Judaic textual tradition relevant to the complexities of modern living. Aryeh Cohen’s Justice in the City delves into the Babylonian Talmud and finds there ample ethical, philosophical, and legal sources that paint “a compelling picture of what a just city should be” (p. 9). A just city is not just any city in which residents go about their daily routines with mind-numbing hedonism. Rather, it is to be a “community of obligation” in which those “who are not always in view”–such as the homeless, poor, and working class–are nonetheless attended to and cared for (p. 9). Lest one worry that Cohen’s is an argument for each individual citizen to take on the burdens of caring for all the marginalized in a city and do nothing else, he stresses that it is the city’s responsibility as well to notice and attend to them. In this way a just city is precisely that: a city as a whole that is just (not just the individuals therein).


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