Undoubtedly, the greatest contribution that the Jewish people have made to civilization is their belief in a Creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the personal God known as Father to Christians, and honored for his transcendence within the Islamic world. But, while God must always be central to revelation, the Jewish community made another very significant impact on world religions by linking belief in God with the need for social justice.
The ancient pagan world certainly had their gods and goddesses and they had their temples, rituals and priests as well. But the ancient societies never made the dramatic connection between God in heaven and man on earth that the Jewish world came gradually and powerfully to appreciate. The pagan gods and goddesses were thought to be aloof, disinterested, and even indifferent to the plight of mankind on earth. The gods and goddesses had heavenly interests of their own that kept them quite busy as ancient mythologies well testify. Jupiter and Juno, Apollo and Aphrodite had other things on their minds. Ancient pagan rituals testify to the detachment of the gods by their lengthy prayers, elaborate ceremonies and bizarre cacophony. The ancients thought such commotion was necessary to attract the attention of the remote gods and get their petitions heard. The interest of the gods and the needs of man were manifestly distinct.
By the time of Moses the Jewish nation had developed a keen sense of social justice. Guided by the Spirit of God and deepened by their own experience of community in the wilderness, the Jews came to understand that there was a direct connection between the Creator and his creation, between the fatherly God and his human sons and daughters, between the benign King of the universe and the history of mankind. Most telling are the Ten Commandments as handed by God to Moses at Sinai. Religion for the Jews did not involve simply the worship, reverence and respect for God as the pagan world at that time professed. The first three Commandments (honor God, honor his Name, honor his day) would never have been enough to express the fullness of Jewish belief. The second seven Commandments (respect for family, life, marriage, property and reputation) were absolutely necessary to convey the Jewish conviction that love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor. Worship of God is not authentic if it does imply justice for man. Divine Liturgy cannot be separated from human life. Faith without works is a cheat and a disappointment.
The strong connection between religious belief and social justice in the Jewish world was an inevitable prelude to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament understood that love of God demanded love of man. Honoring the Creator implies honoring his creatures as well. In Jesus Christ, creator and creature are met. Divinity and humanity coalesce. Eternity and time, heaven and earth, God and man are one in Christ.
Jewish social justice anticipated the oneness of God with man in Christ. Christian social justice flows from the oneness of God with man in Christ. Jesus taught clearly that the two great commandments of the law are one: “You shall love the Lord your God…And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor.” Jesus made fraternal charity the hallmark of his new community: “By this all men shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” But even more tellingly, Jesus understood the loving embrace of the least members of society to be the distinctive hallmark of the authentic Christian: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
The Christian community has continued the unique contribution of its Jewish ancestors in the faith. Caring for orphans and widows in the ancient world, revolutionizing education and agriculture in the medieval world, and defending the quality of life in the modern world are all a consequence of the close link between the Creator and his creatures, between God and man.