Shoftim: Infinite Justice

As Hurricane Dorian batters the Bahamas and the East Coast with some of the greatest winds ever recorded in the Atlantic, there are many different kinds of questions that come up. We can ask questions about climate change and what it might mean for us in the long term. We can ask about God and where God, if at all, plays a role in natural disasters.  We can ask about how we treat each other in the aftermath of the storm and what the right course of action to take is. These are questions of science, questions of theology, and questions of justice.

In the past, I’ve written before about faith and science, and about God too.  For now, I’d like to focus on the third category – justice. 

Once the storm is over, and all that is left are broken people and broken things, how are we to treat each other? In the Western philosophical tradition, notions of justice are divided generally between two camps. In one camp, you can follow the ancient philosophers that say that justice is a matter of what you deserve.  (Aristotle) Think of it this way. There is a really large pie that is baked not with cherries or apples, but with virtue and with goodness. According to this school of thought, you get more or less pie based on what you deserve as a person in society. If you get what you deserve, that is justice. If you get less, that is injustice.   

Justice is virtue. 

In the second camp, you can follow the modern philosophers who say that there are actually multiple pies, each one different, but all good. (Kant and Rawls, et al) The purpose of justice is to allow you to choose which pie you want to eat. According to this school of thought, if you have the ability to choose what is best for yourself, that is justice, and if not, that is injustice. 

Justice is freedom.  

When it comes to powerful effects of storms, I know that they bring out the best and the worst in people.  My first experience with a mega hurricane was Hurricane Katrina. I was working as a student rabbi in Mississippi for Congregation Beth Israel.  In my time there, I heard stories of families helping each other, but  also of abusing each other in the wake of the storm. Not only did individuals travel for miles to rescue survivors and organize trips to help rebuild, but at the same time some took the opportunity to take advantage of the weak and feeble with insurance scams, land grabs and price gouging.  The hurricane turns life’s volume all the way up to eleven. 

So what is to be done? What is justice after the storm? As for the case of price gouging — Is it right to raise the price of drinking water when no other water is available?  Is it right to raise the price of gasoline or heating oil? The store owner is free to do what he or she wishes, but there is still a need to judge these situations and decide what is right in the light of what is good.  Price gouging is considered wrong because among other things, to have pity on a victim is a virtue. When we think about justice, we also think about the best way to live.  

However, the truth is that neither of these justice traditions is sufficient. One limits too much our desire to be free and the other sails too far away from the shores of goodness. Neither virtue nor freedom can capture the whole of the human spirit nor can they grasp the sublimity of the soul.  Together they are less than the sum of their parts. 

Instead, I suggest that the worldview of the Bible, the thousand years of recordings that narrate our struggle with the ultimate questions of life.  There is no better starting place than this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim.  

“Justice, Justice shall you pursue…” (Deut. 16:20).  At the center of the Torah is the pursuit of justice.  For the commentators, the repetition of the noun justice has opened entire places of meaning.  My favorite is that of Rabbi Simcha of Bunim, the great Hasidic Master who says that the word ‘justice’ is repeated in the verse to mean, ‘to pursue justice justly.”  That is, all of the parties – the judge, the litigant, the witnesses, even the defendant, must themselves be just. 

Take a minute and reflect with me the on profundity of  this idea. Unlike the Western traditions that describe justice as a means to a good life, in the Hebraic tradition justice is itself an end.

The Torah is teaching that it’s not enough for justice to be a procedure or a mechanism to decide who goes free and who goes to jail.  It’s not enough for everyone to have a fair shake before the law. It’s not enough to use justice as a tool of oppression or liberation.  We all must be just. We have to live justly. Justice is not only about reward or punishment. It is not only the ground upon which freedom is to be found.   It is all of those and more.  

Justice is holiness.  

Justice is infinite. 

The Torah’s idea of justice asks more of us than any other.  Its ultimatums are unceasing. Just as you are made in God’s image, endowed with a soul of infinite worth, so too are God’s demands of you to fight for a world of infinite justice.  Your outer world must comport with your inner world and your life outside must be reflected by your inner life. When you see another in pain or hear another cry, an infinite soul makes its claim on you.  When you accuse another of a crime, and you do so out of a call for justice, the defendant’s soul still makes a claim upon you to treat them with dignity worthy of God. What the Torah cares about is your entire life – the good, the bad, embarrassing, and the celebrated. This is what makes justice sacred; that both the innocent and the guilty, the powerful and the powerless are all held up to God’s light.  The Torah was written for you, and what God wants for your life is to live in the light of justice. “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” forever and always. 

Shabbat Shalom  

Leave a Reply