This week's reading finds us deep into the final book of the Five Books of Moses, the Book of D'varim (literally, "words"). It has been called a "second telling" of the history and law; hence its English name, taken from the Greek (Deuteronomy).
This particular parasha, Shoftim ("judges"), focuses on the appointment of judges needed to create a society with high moral standards, based on honesty, truth, and most importantly, on justice.
In Chapter 16, verse 20, we come across a most elegant expression of this goal: "Justice, justice you shall pursue that you may live and inherit the land which Adonai your God gives to you." This famous phrase (in Hebrew: tzedek, tzedek tirdof) is a challenge to create a just society. But given the importance that the Jewish tradition places on "justice," it is somewhat surprising to learn that a single definition of "justice" does not exist within the tradition. How are we to define it?
The Biblical Hebrew word seems to mean something like absolute fairness: giving people precisely what they deserve, or making sure that the punishment fits the crime. It may also infer impartiality, favoring neither rich nor poor, the powerful nor the weak. In other words, the tradition seems to say that justice does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is a function of human society, inspired by God's teaching. Justice depends on the circumstances and conditions in which human beings find themselves.
According to traditional Biblical interpretation, when a word is repeated, it is to imply either emphasis or the fact that word may be construed in alternative ways. One traditional translation (repeating the word "justice") means "Listen closely! You are to pursue JUSTICE, in capital letters!" But if we infer that the repetition is designed to suggest a different shade of meaning, perhaps we translate the phrase as "Seek Justice, but think of each party to the dispute; there is justice for one, and justice for another." With this interpretation, when we can find a middle ground so that both sides can willingly accept a result, justice prevails.
Seeking a middle ground is our way of seeking to create a more civil society - the theme of this year's Summit. For those who attended and participated, it was a rich opportunity to explore ways in which the modern university can contribute to a more civil society. And in this week's reading, we have examples of how the Jewish tradition encourages and supports the creation and enhancement of civil societies.
The Jewish ideal of justice is based on respect for the inalienable rights of every human being. Because we are all created in God's image, our tradition requires that every human being is to be accorded respect. The Hebrew word for justice (tzedek) is almost identical to tzedakah (giving to, or providing for, others). When we help another person who is less fortunate, we are not "giving charity"; rather, we are participants in a struggle for justice.
Justice demands that we consider all other human beings as worthy of respect. This important ethical principle is a foundation for all interpersonal relationships: within families, in universities, in communities, and in nations. When we respect our fellow human beings by pursuing justice, we are recognizing God’s existence in the world and in our daily lives.
Prepared by Gary Simms, director for administration at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Shoftim at MyJewishLearning.com.