A Democrat and A Republican Walk Into a Bar: Judaism’s Elusive Pursuit of Justice – Parshat Shoftim 5769
In four weeks we will all stand together for the first day of Rosh Hashanah so in the spirit of the season of honesty, repentance and truthfulness I must come clean with you today, I cannot hide any longer. I am a card carrying member of the Democratic Party - hard to believe right? However, as the joke goes one of my dearest friends is a Republican, not a sort of moderate Jewish American Republican who might perhaps be conservative on a few particular issues like Israel and taxes but a really born and bread staunch Republican who believes passionately in a hands-off type of government. Often we wonder and are even asked how this friendship works when our political views are so distinct from one another. There is a very clear explanation to our ability to be so profoundly close and yet hold such vastly distinct views and it is an understanding which reflects a fundamental Jewish value foundational to how the Torah would like us to construct our communities. Perhaps, I can explain. I imagine she, my Republican friend feels much the same way I do about her strongly held beliefs. Most of the time, if I am honest I want to think of myself and what I believe as the right way, the correct answer – that the other side is plainly wrong or incorrect. It is not hard to imagine this is true for most of us – personally, politically and even sometimes religiously we sit on a high horse assuming our world view is the right one. This is often true and profoundly dangerous in religious life. Religions are often known, both to their most loyal followers and to their staunchest critics, as purporting the One True Way to live. In fact this is clearly a logical deduction, because there is One God there must be one way of fulfilling that God’s wishes, or at least one best way. To the one who is a believer this makes things very simple and clear - easy we might say. However this myopic view is at the heart of the problem for the critic.
Judaism in general and especially the Book of Deuteronomy, sees the Oneness of God as a core truth. It is possible then to understand Judaism as a tradition which adheres to this view – because we have this fundamental belief there must in Judaism, be one single path to God, to doing what God wants of us. However, what we lack and perhaps what makes Judaism so compelling and complex is diversity regarding finding a way to best accomplish what God wants of us. Disputes will arise, debates will ensue with human beings at the helm certainly there is no uniform way to reach God, to follow God’s ways and so because of this the opening lines of this week’s Torah portion are on the surface rather simple but truly are simply profound, “Judges and officers you shall appoint in all of your gates [that is, cities] which Adonai gives you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with a] judgment of justice. (Devarim 16:18). But why do we need that extra clause, “for your tribes?” Who else but the residents of the city, who are members of tribes, will be judged? The phrase seems superfluous. Rashi, the great medieval commentator is illuminating on this point. He sees the phrase as referring back to the initial command regarding appointment: have judges for each tribe, and in each city. Each community, then, has judges who understand their unique practices, and each city has courts for disputes between communities. Other commentators see this as a system of appellate courts. In any event, a picture emerges of appointed judges, not hereditary, who get their jobs based partly on this first qualification: ability to judge with justice. The subsequent qualifications in the Torah text are in line with this first one.
In either interpretation, there is recognition that even in a system that puts forward a Divine lawgiver and judges obligated not merely to judge, but to do so with tzedek, justice, there can be disputes, and thus a justice system is needed for peaceful resolution. The underlying message of this law then is what? Good, qualified people can disagree about what is right, what is just, and what God wants of us. There is no monopoly on Truth. With the knowledge of this, to live together in a society, we still need to settle divisive disputes one way or another, but we do so humbly, and only with the help of different voices registering their views of justice. It is only with this that we can fulfill the command two verses on: Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof, Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.
However, this idea is not new to Deuteronomy In Parashat Mishpatim in the book of Exodus the Torah already speaks of bringing civil disputes to a court for resolution. It indicates that instead of each person simply using force and might to make right, the litigants must bring their dispute to elokim, which in context refers to an ad-hoc court of some sort. In contrast, our parsha does not speak of the court as being exclusively reactive. In the land of Israel where the Jewish people will be sovereign and exist on a national level, it is not simply the amelioration of injustice that is sought, but the proactive prevention of exploitation and problems from arising – that is creating a just society from the outset not simply repairing future injustices. The establishment of a vast network of courts insures that justice can be sought and achieved quickly and professionally without great lags in time and expense to the litigants.
It is no accident that the section that deals with the national institutions of the Jewish people opens with the establishment of the court system to ensure that everyone in Israel, including the King, the generals of the army, and any other elites in the society, is subservient to nothing less then a communal effort towards justice through the expression of these differing views of justice. A social discourse which leads community’s towards a law which all can subscribe to even amidst distinct views.
So how do we do this? With so many distinct opinions about right and wrong, with divergent views on what the rule of Jewish law or what constitutes a justice and equitable society how can we possibly build this “ideal” Torah society? Exactly by hearing these distinct voices, struggling together in conversation, social discourse, respectfully and humbly can we build this imagined world the Torah draws the blueprint for hence the line tzedek tzedek tirdof –it is a pursuit, an effort for us to live out and practice the understanding in Judaism that there is no monopoly on truth – it forces us to hear each other, to listen to discordant voices to ensure the world of Aleinu - tikkun olam be-malkhut shadai – a world repaired under God’s watchful Kingship. The meaning of this lesson in Judaism is that truth is in the pursuit of justice, amongst human beings, it dwells in the struggle with each other, the struggle with multiple truths. That is why my friend and I work so well together – we understand that our relationships rests on our ability to humbly and respectfully struggle to find the ways to reach holiness and wholeness by putting forth what we believe, listening and moving towards a common understand of fundamental values – Judaism does not ask us to believe one thing or find one right path simply that we travel together, engaged in disputes respectfully and humbly seeking that elusive justice – that is why it sets up a system of courts and judges, ensuring our community’s have methods and structure in reaching towards the justice the Torah demands from us. Perhaps if we did so our communities would be a bit closer, our discourse more respectful and productive, bringing us closer to a society which is truly tikkun olam b’malchut shaddai – a repaired world under God’s watchful eyes. Shabbat Shalom!