The ideal society envisioned by the Torah is intended to be the institutional embodiment of the principles of justice, the pursuit of which is demanded of Israel as the very justification for its collective existence as a distinct nation. The biblical imperative in this regard is explicit and unequivocal: Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee (Deut. 16:20). Possession of the national patrimony is thus made contingent on the collective pursuit of justice. The overriding importance of Judaism’s concern for justice was later brought down to the individual level by one of the sages of the talmudic period. “Every judge who judges with complete fairness even for a single hour, the Writ gives him credit as though he had become a partner to the Holy One, blessed be He, in the creation.” 1
But, and herein lies the nub of the problem, how does one know what is just? Is justice presumed to be self-evident, or are its basic principles stipulated or merely implied by the precepts and teachings of the Torah? Since Judaism generally encourages man to guide his conduct in accordance with the principle of imitatio Dei, the emulation of God, is it intended that we define and apply our concepts of justice by reference to how the manifestations of divine justice are presented in Scripture?
However, as one ponders the idea of justice within the context of traditional Judaic thought, it readily becomes apparent that certain fundamental and possibly unbridgeable distinctions must be drawn between the concepts of divine and human justice. That the two are not necessarily commensurate or even compatible becomes rather evident as one considers the implications of the biblical narratives about the Deluge and about the destruction of the societies of Sodom and Gomorrah.