On what social issues were the rabbis (Chazal and rishonim) ahead of their times? That is, which social/political matters subject to wide agreement today were shared by Chazal before these views became widely held by non-Jewish populations?

For example, marital rape is absolutely forbidden by Chazal and strongly condemned by rishonim as well. See some sources here: http://www.jsafe.org/pdfs/pdf_032206_2.pdf

In contrast, marital rape was not illegal in Western countries until the 20th century, and is still legal in numerous non-Western countries: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marital_rape.

What are other examples? Knowing about such examples is important because it provides evidence against the notion -- often found among apostates from traditional Judaism, from the 19th century to the present -- that modern values and norms are superior to those of traditional Judaism.

  • 1
    hasagas gevul and unfair competition?
    – rosends
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 13:42
  • 2
    Not quite duplicate since you are specifically asking about social issues.
    – Mike
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 1:54
  • 3
    Do you have reason to think there are other examples?
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 8:26
  • 5
    Please provide clear rules for determining what is considered socially acceptable at a given time. Must everyone believe it? Some percentage of the population? Is being enshrined in secular legal codes relevant?
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 8:27
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    That's not to say Judaism has to match modern values to be legitimate. But if there are certain things (restricting the death penalty, banning marital rape, stopping human sacrifice, recognizing the dignity of each individual, outlawing corruption) that Judaism did far before anyone else, this will legitimize Judaism in the minds of many people.
    – Kordovero
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 17:13

4 Answers 4


In Mishnah Makkot 1:10 there is a famous passage where, after discussing the laws of witnesses, the Rabbis debate how often the Sanhedrin should order the capital punishment.

A Sanhedrin that would execute somebody once every seven years would be considered a violent Beit Din. Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah says: "Once every 70 years." Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said: "If we were on the Sanhedrin we would never have killed anyone!" Rabban Shim'on Ben Gamliel said: "They would have increased violence in Israel."

As you can see, there was disagreement on how often the death penalty should be imposed with some of the Rabbis pushing for little to no use and one dissenting voice warning that that such a "dovish" interpretation would increase violence rather than reduce it. This debate occurred about 1900 years ago and is similar to debates we have today. This website lists what years various countries outlawed or de-facto abolished the death penalty. You can see that countries that outlawed it usually did so in the last 100 years.

I think that it is safe to say that no other civilization 1900 years ago was putting severe limits on capital punishment and so the Rabbis were clearly ahead of their times on this social issue. If anyone can supply another example of a civilization limiting capital punishment at such an early date, I would be interested to hear of it.

  • Good point! So true...compared to say, the Romans, who would execute people for almost any ridiculous reason at all..carrying a coin w/Augustus' image into a public privy, etc.
    – Gary
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 5:50
  • Excellent point. Halacha's precise requirements for witnesses seem to be parallel to, and exceed, the detailed procedural protections provided by American law (which only came about in the last few decades).
    – Kordovero
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 13:59
  • I see nothing in your quotation of Makos that recommends less capital punishment, only statement of what happened or would have.
    – msh210
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 2:45
  • why is it safe to say?
    – michael
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 12:16

R Ken Spiro has a wonderful book on this topic: Worldperfect, the Jewish impact on civilization (a similar book by a non-Jewish author is The gifts of the Jews: how a tribe of desert nomads changed the way everyone thinks and feels by Thomas Cahill).

In Worldperfect, R Spiro brings dozens of examples or counter-examples of how the Jews were significantly ahead of their times in advancing social issues:

  • Respect for human life: laws against infanticide (widely practiced in Rome and Greece), human sacrifices and slaves (with full right of life and death over them)
  • Peace and harmony: offensive wars and grabbing as much territory from neighbors killing and raping as you go, burning those who disagree with you
  • Justice and equality: women protection laws (e.g., protection in case of rape or divorce), not withholding wages, loving strangers
  • Education: education for all kids incl. girls

  • Social responsibility: taking care of the poor and those unable to provide for themselves

  • Is this list from Chazal or the Torah?
    – robev
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 2:42

Chazal set up a publicly funded school system around the first century of the common era (Bava Basra 21:1). They strongly condemned any city that did not fund a school for its children (Eicha Rabba Petichta 2). Publicly funded schools were not set up in any major culture till the eighteenth century. Many countries did not have public education through the start of the twentieth century.

  • But were they available at all in the ancient world / classical antiquity?
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 4:21
  • 2
    @mevaqesh “Publicly funded schools were not set up in any major culture till the eighteenth century”
    – LN6595
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 13:17

The Torah forbids parents from killing their children. Parental infanticide was widely practiced in ancient times.

Source: Wikipedia Infanticide

  • Where does the Torah prohibit infanticide?
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 4:22
  • Numbers (31:17): וְעַתָּ֕ה הִרְג֥וּ כָל־זָכָ֖ר בַּטָּ֑ף . I Samuel (15:3): וְלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ל עָלָ֑יו וְהֵמַתָּ֞ה מֵאִ֣ישׁ עַד־אִשָּׁ֗ה מֵֽעֹלֵל֙ וְעַד־יוֹנֵ֔ק
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 2:50
  • @mevaqesh You’re out of context. But I’ll edit for clarity anyways.
    – LN6595
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 15:52
  • So murdering babies is only sometimes okay. This doesn't seem like a very good example of being progressive. Even if others were even more murderous. Also, consider editing in a source for the Torah prohibiting parents killing children. Also consider demonstrating that at the time when someone thought it was bad, that no one else did. That some people were regressive doesn't show that anyone was ahead of the times
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 16:17
  • It should be noted that the Didache a first or second century Christian text bans abortion.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 23:29

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