Mordechai Silverstein

Justice Above and Beyond the Truth

The opening verses of Parshat Shoftim illustrate the Torah’s commitment to Tzedek – justice. No verse is more emblematic of this than the following verse:

Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live and take hold of the land that the lord is about to give you. (Deuteronomy 16:20)

Justice which is fair is justice based on truth (emet). The rabbinic tradition takes this idea one step further with the assertion that not just truth is important but even more so, “emet l‘amito”, literally, “truth to its truth”. In a midrashic addendum to the last Mishnah in Masekhet (Tractate) Peah, above famous verse is seen as a prooftext for this rabbinic concept:

‘Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and the Lord is his trust’ (Jeremiah 17:7) So, too, every judge who judges a judgement of truth (emet l’amito)…, as it says: Justice, justice shall you pursue’. (Mishnah Peah 8:9)

The following hyperbolic statement indicates how strongly the rabbinic tradition felt about this concept:

Every judge who judges a judgement of truth (emet l’amito) even for a single hour, Scripture accounts him as is he had become a partner to the Holy One, blessed be He, in the creation. (Shabbat 10a)

So, then, all said, what exactly is “emet l’amito”? The Tosafot (Shabbat 10a), define it as “justice which is not deceptive”, namely, judges need to seek out justice so as to ensure that their decisions are true and not false.

Without exhausting the various interpretations of this term, I offer two interesting and significant interpretations of this term.

Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gaon from Vilna (18th century) attempted to flesh out the Tosafot’s definition:

Judges need to be experts also about the nature of the world so that their judgements will not be false or deceptive, for if they are not expert in these matters, but only in the laws of Torah, their decisions will not be emet l’amito, that is, even though the judgement may be legally right, it will not be fair… therefore, a judge must be expert in both… that is to say, wise in matter of Torah and wise in matters of the world. (Commentary on Proverbs 6:4)

The Gaon asserts that law making is not a purely objective matter where legal data is tallied and a “true” answer derived. The judge must be aware of the world in which he/she live and take into account subjective elements in order to carry out justice properly.

Rabbi Ephraim Yitzhak of Przemysl (Lithuania 17-18th century) understood this term to mean:

Since [it is possible for] a judge to refrain from judgement, claiming that even though it appears to him that he has made a judgement of truth, he still might have a concern that if this case were to come before a higher court, it might appear that he erred; if [this attitude prevailed], then no one would judge lest he err; that is why its say: “l’amito – according to his truth”, for no judge has other than his own truth, which will keep him from something he knows to be patently false. So, if the judge is sure that his judgement is true, he should not be concerned, for even if he erred, it is not his fault, since he assessed thoroughly [the law] as he saw it. (Commentary Mishnah Rishonah to Mishnah Peah 6:9, Vilna ed.)

This interpretation asserts that judges must be fearless in their honesty to carry out what they assess to be the truth.

The idea that justice without “emet l’amito” is not true justice is a Jewish imperative. Justice must involve not only a search for uninhibited truth; it must also show an abiding concern for that which extends beyond “the law books”, namely, the real life circumstances and consequences involved in judgement – justice that extends beyond the truth.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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