Judaism's Pursuit of Justice

By Rosenthal, Gilbert S. | Midstream, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Judaism's Pursuit of Justice


Rosenthal, Gilbert S., Midstream


I've been teaching Judaism to adults and teenagers for over fifty years. I invariably challenge them with this opening question: "What do you think is the most significant teaching of Judaism?" Invariably, the response is, "Monotheism." And what," I continue, "do you consider to be the second most important teaching of Judaism?" And just as invariably, the reply is, "Justice." Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has hanging in her Supreme Court Chambers an inscription from Deuteronomy 16:20, "Justice, justice shall you pursue." When asked the reason for this, she replied: "I am a judge, born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs throughout the Jewish tradition."

Is this so? And if it is true, what does that imply, and what lessons might the Jewish understanding of the significance of justice hold for us today?

Perhaps we might begin our inquiry by reflecting on the meaning of justice. We discover a variety of definitions of the concept. The English word derives from the Latin, justitia, which means the quality of being just, righteousness, equitableness. Plato defined justice in his The Republic as social harmony which is achieved when everyone does what his or her station in society requires--be they free men, women, slaves, masters, foreigners, etc. Aristotle, writing in his Nichomachean Ethics, suggested that "The just is the lawful and the fair." Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed described justice as "the granting to everyone who has a right to something that which he has a right to, and giving to every being that which corresponds to his merit." For more modern definitions, I turn to Harvard philosopher John Rawls, who in his study, A Theory of Justice, simply defined justice as "fairness" which implies equal liberty and equality of opportunity. And Israel's eminent former Supreme Court Justice and brilliant philosopher of jurisprudence, Menahem Elon, suggested that justice means above all else equal status before the law--rich and poor, noble and commoner.

Judaism is often described as a religion of justice and righteousness and the Hebrew terms tzedek or tzedakah, and mishpat (the legal process or judgment) are the most commonly used words to describe those ideals. Interestingly, Christianity downgraded justice while extolling love; it denigrated Judaism as a religion of cruel justice ("an eye for an eye") whereas Christianity attained a higher moral level in extolling the quality of love above all (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). But let us not forget that Judaism was the faith that enjoined on us all to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18)--the commandment described by Rabbi Akiva, no less, as the "great and encompassing principle of the Torah." However, Judaism realized early on that love is quixotic and very difficult to achieve. As Dostoevsky observed, "It is easier to love mankind in general than the neighbor next door!" Judaism was more realistic in evaluating human nature, insisting if one cannot love one's next-door neighbor, one can at least deal justly and fairly with that neighbor.

How does Judaism define justice? In truth, it does not define the terms tzedek, tzedakah, mishpat. Rather, it pragmatically lays down the various ways in which we apply these principles to specific cases or situations. In the Bible, tzedek or tzedakah refers to the winner in a lawsuit. From this root meaning, the terms assumed a more general meaning of "righteousness." Mishpat refers to the legal proceedings or judgment. The nouns are often linked together, and in fact, the Bible joins them 60 times or so. It was only in rabbinic times that the noun, tzedakah, often came to mean, "charity," presumably because justice and righteousness demand charitable actions. A person of righteousness is a tzaddik, and Noah was described as such. Likewise, Abraham was singled out by God because He knew that Abraham would "keep the ways of the Lord and command his children to do righteousness and justice" (Genesis 18:19). …

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