Justice is paramount

When a leader demonstrates the pursuit of justice, fairness and peace, the people will respond.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
DURING THE months my grandfather was suffering from liver cancer, he tried to say goodbye to as many people as possible. He talked to his visitors about his life, his career as a judge and instinct for those found guilty who would respond to a lenient sentence and opportunity for rehabilitation.
One day I told him there was a Jewish tradition of ethical wills, summarizing for your descendants what you think they should consider important. He sniffed a bit at this concept but an hour later suddenly said, “Always treat others as you would wish them to treat you, and never lose your sense of humor.”
Deuteronomy is Moses’ last message to his people and is longer and more detailed than my grandfather’s to us. Deuteronomy is his last chance to persuade the people to keep on keeping what he has taught them when he will no longer be there to remind them. Some themes recur from earlier in the Torah – “Don’t worship idols” (Ex.
20:4), “When you judge, judge fairly” (Lev. 19:15). Some we hear about first in Deuteronomy – “Don’t destroy fruit trees when waging war” (Deut. 20.19) from which Judaism derived a general prohibition against wasteful destruction, a wonderfully environmental Torah verse now that in the UK we are officially implored to Reduce, Recycle, Reuse.
Judaism teaches us how to behave to God and to other people. Deuteronomy includes both themes: Moses tells the people to love God seven times (Deut. 6:5, 10:12, 11:1, 11:13, 11:22, 19:9, 30:6) and that they will find God if they seek God with all their heart and soul (Deut. 4:29), words beautifully set to music in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.”
But much of Deuteronomy is devoted to how we treat those around us.
The main focus of the chapters read in synagogue this week in parashat Shoftim, is creating a society where justice is paramount. We are told to judge with justice in Exodus and Leviticus. Only here we are also told “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” There are many things we are told to do in the Bible but there aren’t many things we are told to pursue, with all the extra emphasis that implies. “Seek peace and pursue it,” says Psalm 34:15 and Proverbs links the pursuit of justice and lovingkindness (21:21). Centuries later, Rabbi Hillel repeated that peace, like justice, must be pursued; he commanded us “to be disciples of Aaron, to love peace, pursue peace, to love other people and bring them close to Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:12). If Aaron is the poster boy for pursuing peace, his brother Moses here pursues, or pushes us to pursue, justice.
The fundamental importance of being able to rely on law courts as unbiased is clear. The Torah says, “Don’t take bribes; they blind the wise and pervert the words of the righteous” (Ex. 23:8 and Deut. 16:19).
The possibility of someone nobbling judge or jury will rob a judicial system of trust, but the Torah also warns that justice may be perverted by ideology as well as backhanders.
In Leviticus 19:15 we are told, “Do nothing crooked in judgement; do not favor the poor or the great.” Setting up law courts is included in the Talmud’s version of the seven Noahide commandments to be kept by the righteous of all nations (BT Sanhedrin 56b).
Hebrew uses the same root tzedek/tzedaka for justice, righteousness and giving to the poor; Deuteronomy says, “Pursue justice so that you may live.” My grandfather pursued the use of the judicial system to help criminals who wanted to reform, thus improving their lives and their communities. An interesting recent book “The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone” by the eminent medical researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett shows that those societies in which people are relatively equal, with a just distribution of wealth, of health and educational provision, really “live” as a result; people are healthier, have lower rates of mental illness, there is less child abuse, less environmental damage and more stable economies. Unfortunately the trend in many Western countries at present seems to be toward ever more polarized income levels with consequent social stress.
Moses tells those who succeed him in the roles of prophet, judge and king to perform their roles justly, appreciating the importance of the behavior of society’s leaders to fulfil this commandment. Here, commentators on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the longest in English history, have praised the contributions made by her personal modesty, sense of justice and service. Jewish tradition, from the prophet Samuel on, has often criticized rulers. But the wider message is clear: When a leader demonstrates the pursuit of justice, fairness and peace, the people will respond.
Rachel Montagu studied at Leo Baeck College London and Machon Pardes, Jerusalem. She lives in London and teaches Biblical Hebrew and Jewish Studies.