In this week's Torah portion, Shof'tim, we find one of the most powerful verses in all Jewish text.
Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof - Justice, justice you shall pursue.
We in the Reform Movement repeat this phrase over and over. It is our battle cry whenever we go out into the world to do social justice work. It is part of the bedrock of our sense of purpose and responsibility as Jews.
This verse is given to us in the context of laws concerning the justice system. We are told that we must appoint magistrates to govern fairly, show no partiality, and refuse bribes. We are to pursue justice when we establish ourselves in a new land and in our new society. But we are also to realize that, due to the way the command is structured, justice is always something we will pursue, and not necessarily something that is possible to achieve. Our understanding of justice changes over time; it is not a fixed entity.
The portion itself is a perfect example. Mixed in with laws concerning fairness and needing multiple witnesses to convict someone of a crime, we have the details of what some of the crimes were at the time.
"If there is found among you, in one of the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, a person who has affronted the Eternal your God and transgressed God's covenant-turning to the worship of other gods and bowing down to them…you shall make a formal inquiry. If it is true, the fact is established, that an abhorrent thing was perpetrated in Israel, you shall take the person who did that wicked thing out to the public place, and you shall stone them... to death." (Deuteronomy 17:2-5)
Worshiping other gods was a crime considered evil enough to warrant the death penalty in the time that Deuteronomy was written. In our context, this is no longer something we would consider a matter of justice. Worshiping something other than God is not a capital offense. Over the course of time, we've learned that. We've weighed the significance of this action versus other crimes and have deemed that this does not rise to the level of punishment that it once warranted. People convert to other religions. People choose to be observant or not. We do not call for them to be stoned. Our understanding of justice has changed.
For instance, there was a time when an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was considered justice. That is biblical law. When we look at rabbinic literature, people begin to argue that we should not be taking someone's eye even if they caused the destruction of someone else's, rather, there should be monetary compensation for the loss of an eye by the hand of another. Ultimately, you cannot attain justice by taking my eye because I destroyed yours. You did nothing to lose your eye, while the loss of my eye was a punishment for taking yours. You don't gain anything through the loss of my eye. But, if I compensate you, then at least there is some gain on your end. As time passes, we learn more about what justice could look like, thus the system we set up to support our new understanding and insight must reflect that change. Grounded in our values of compassion and kindness, we must pursue what we understand justice to be.
We also find that, once we create new laws based on changing situations, there are things we never considered. We can make it illegal, for instance, to not hire someone based on their gender, race, or disability. Once we draw that line in the justice sand, however, we realize that there are other major factors that need to be considered. Things like implicit bias still affect the way we do things. But we might not have realized the implications of that bias until we made conscious bias illegal. We learn from the positive steps we take toward justice because, until we take those steps, it is hard to know what other factors are getting in the way.
There is no state of perfect justice because we are always learning new things, seeing
different subtleties, and the world and circumstances are always changing. We might not be able to establish a perfectly just society, instead, we must establish ourselves as a society that pursues justice, adjusts as necessary, and continues to be flexible with situations as the world around us changes. If we think we have perfect justice, then we didn't set our ideals high enough. Whatever we imagine will be limited by our experiences as human beings, even with the collective knowledge of generations past. May we, as a society, continually strive toward justice by enforcing the pursuit of justice.
Justice, justice we shall pursue.