A Sense Of Justice


Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat candles: 7:40 p.m.

Torah reading: Deut. 16:18-21:9

Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12


This past Tuesday, the season of repentance arrived with the start of the month of Elul, a month of preparation for the oncoming Days of Awe. It is a time when the fragility of the human condition becomes fully exposed. As these final weeks of the old year crescendo into Rosh HaShanah we confront our weaknesses and their attendant misdeeds in the abiding hope of personal repair.

Bringing out our best selves is not easy work, but as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suggested throughout his scholarly corpus, the halacha speaks directly to the ever cascading and often contradictory impulses within man. Pinchas Peli, who edited Rabbi Soloveitchik’s published lectures on repentance, noted that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s view of the essential power of man is his unceasing challenge to “determine and decide.” Being bound to Torah grants man the ability to negotiate in favor of his better nature among the competing forces in his spirit.

This week’s Torah portion of Shoftim (Judges), is specifically concerned with human decision making. As such, it offers us guidance vis-à-vis Elul when our most important issue is how and what we decide for our personal present and future. Parashat Shoftim provides much of the primary source material for the rabbinic framing of juridical principles debated in Talmudic tractates Sanhedrin and Makkot.

The third verse of the parsha concretizes how the halacha systemically deals with the vagaries of facing conflict and making choices. The repetition of the word tzedek (justice), in the verse [Deuteronomy 16:20] “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice you shall pursue”) is taken by a Talmudic sage to refer both to din, the strict letter of the law representing absolute justice, and pesharah, subjectively arbitrated compromise based on the all too human needs of a particular case. Justice is twice repeated because it has two faces [B.T. Talmud Sanhedrin 32b].

In practically implementing this Talmudic interpretation, the Shulchan Aruch, the central code of Jewish law, declares that a judge is obligated to offer litigants at the beginning of legal proceedings a human-centered compromise outside the strict parameters of unwavering Torah judgment. Furthermore, any court that practices pesharah is praiseworthy [Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat Part One, 12:2]  

This biblical and rabbinic discussion of stringency versus compromise operates within the halachic universe of civil law. It is bein adam l’chavero, a matter between human beings. Jewish law leaves wide discretion to the court in deciding civil matters. In the realm of bein adam l’makom, covering our ritual obligations to God, such as kashrut, we are operating within a more precisely defined regulatory environment. In this arena there is only din, the virtue of strict heavenly evaluation of our actions, which we pray is mediated by the virtue of divine mercy. 

In essence, we are supposed to be easier on each other than God needs to be on us. God may or may not choose to act upon his fatherly compassion. He has the right to determine what is right in each instance: parental discipline or a softer compromise. We have no such Divine right. When involved in a dispute, we are asked by the law to open ourselves to compromise at the very initiation of proceedings with a disputant. 

As we delve into Elul and thoughts of repentance, there is more going on in deciphering this biblical clause than only a lesson in human relations. There is something existentially fundamental articulated here about the inner life of the individual. 

As Rabbi Soloveitchik described, a human being is a bundle of contradictions. No man or woman, even among the most pious, is truly perfect and linear in his or her passions and behavior. The human personality is too big for absolute consistency. But living with that tension makes our lives increasingly delicate. There is a loneliness in recognizing our own individually peculiar unresolved contradictions and trying to move forward regardless.  

If one refracts the halachic ideal of pesharah down to the level of the self, the lesson is clear. Through the application of the principle of compromise to our hearts and minds, we may thereby become able to accept, and even compromise, with our own weaknesses. This does not mean we behave in accordance with our lesser selves. It simply means we acknowledge our multifaceted characters. Through that inner recognition we can move beyond our frailties. After all, as the cliché goes, knowledge is power.

A clarity of understanding and acceptance of what it really means to be human compels us to make more positively grounded and defined decisions about our futures. This possibility is our unique human talent as creatures infused with Divinity. 

These are the days during which we begin working things out deep within. From the public arena of bein adam l’chavero, between man and the world, we are led organically to explore the private dimension of bein adam l’atzmo, between man and himself. This, after all, is the most awesome process of all: to do justice to our souls. 

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Unger is professor of government and politics, and director of urban programs at Wagner College in Staten Island, where he also serves as campus rabbi.