The Parameters of Justice

a hand hovers over a Torah scroll
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By Rabbi Jon Cutler

Parshat Shoftim

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (judges), offers an introduction to Jewish jurisprudence and offers important lessons about how a just society functions. Moses in his final discourses to the Israelites instructs them to build a just and moral society in the Promised Land they are poised to enter.

The most famous verse from this parsha states “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof” – “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:18)

The obvious question is as follows: Why did the word tzedek (justice) need to be repeated? Would it not have been sufficient to state “Justice shall you pursue?” The rabbis answered that the repetition of the word justice is to teach us that justice needs to be achieved through just means. For example, even if one’s cause is just, one must not influence the court with tainted evidence, bribery or other forms of corruption.

In Jewish law, the ends do not justify the means. We need to be careful in administering justice with equity.

Jewish law demands that we must never favor the rich over the poor. But neither may the poor be favored over the rich. Each case must be judged by its own merits, not by the social, economic or racial background of the litigants. If we can judge with true impartiality, then we are well on the way to achieving true justice.

Whose obligation is it to make sure that there is a just legal system operating for the people?

The Torah opens with a solemn injunction: “Place for yourself, in all your gates … judges and officials, so that they will judge the people in righteousness.” (Deut. 16:18) The text continues to emphasize how important justice and righteousness is for “Place for yourself,” says the verse. The verse is phrased as a direct address to the individual. The authority wielded by judges and other officers of society ultimately derives from their mission as messengers of each of us.

We are personally commanded to pursue justice. Part of our obligation is purely personal, of course — to act justly and treat each other fairly and without prejudice or violence. But another part of our personal obligation is to create social structures that extend beyond the capacities of any one person, to ensure that justice applies everywhere, to everyone.

But while many of us are quite confident in our own moral uprightness, we are forced to confront, on a daily basis, how flawed our justice system is on a social scale. The command to pursue justice on a societal scale is a very difficult obligation to undertake.
For example:

“If one is found slain … Lying in the field and it is not known who has slain him … The elders of the city nearest the slain man shall wash their hands and say our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it …” (Deut. 21:1, 7)

If a man is found slain in the field, and it is not known who has slain him, a just society assures the safety of all in its midst. Life matters even when the identity of the victim is unknown. To pursue justice is not solely justice for the residents of the community or for its privileged members. The pursuit of justice demands embracing the underprivileged, the stranger, the “other.” It’s an ongoing task requiring commitment and determination. Society is to be proactive in establishing and maintaining the highest standards of righteousness and integrity.

If an apparent victim of violence is found in the field and not within the boundaries of any community, it’s easy to dismiss it as another unsolved crime, but not so in this instance. Here all the elders of the city closest to where the body is found must gather at the nearest “mighty stream” with a year-old heifer and engage in a profound rite. They are to break its neck and then washing their hands in the brook proclaim their innocence by reciting, “Our hands not shed this blood.”

The Talmud notes it is inconceivable that the elders committed this crime. Why then this profession of innocence? This was to proclaim that this stranger did not enter their city only to be denied hospitality and departed without provisions and an escort to guide and protect him on his way. The elders speaking for their community were affirming that the stranger’s life was of consequence. Life matters. All life matters — even that of the stranger. The pursuit of justice demands we be concerned about the welfare and safety of the outsider and “other.”

This rite is rooted in the biblical and rabbinic teachings that the stance of “live and let live” is contrary to the obligation to be proactive in the pursuit of justice. We are mandated to assume responsibility for the safety of others and that basic needs of food, shelter and security are assured to all. l

Rabbi Jon Cutler is the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County and the co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Philadelphia. The board is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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