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Their way is not our way: A perspective on justice in Judaism

This upcoming week’s Sidra, Mishpatim, affords us the first in-depth exploration into the Jewish concept of justice. Several more will follow in the Torah, notably in the sidra of Kedoshim in Sefer Vayyikra and in the sidrot of Shoftim and Ki Teitsei in Sefer Devarim.

The principle of equality of status for all classes in society – master and servant, rich and poor, man and woman, born Jew and convert, parented and orphaned, wife and widow – suffuses our parasha. Indeed, the concept of reverse-discrimination, such a feature of our modern thinking, is actually an invention of the Torah! If only one pillow is available, the servant must have it and not the master (Tosafot, Kiddushin 20a).  Ransoming female captives is given precedence over male captives (Horayot 3:7). It is an especial mitsva to love and care for the ger/gioret  (convert) over and above born Jews as s/he is singled out several times in the Torah (e.g. Exod 23:9,  Lev 19:34). Only the economically-disadvantaged strata of society are allowed unrestricted access to reap the corners of our fields, the gleanings, the forgotten sheaves and the fallen fruits of our vineyards and olive-groves; and they also have primary rights even over the owners in the sabbatical year (Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-21; Exod 23:10-11).

In dispensing justice, no distinction must be made between rich and poor, powerful and powerless.  This principle is spelt out for the first time in this week’s sidra.  “Do not pervert the judgement of the destitute person in your midst” (Exod 23:6).

Inasmuch as in most societies the poor and the powerless are more likely to be the victims of injustice than those with good connections, the Torah here emphatically denounces the oppression of the poor (or poorly connected) by the rich (or well-connected).

However, this is not the only example given in the Torah.  In Kedoshim we read the following: “Do not commit a perversion of justice, either by favouring the powerless or by placing the powerful on a pedestal” (Lev. 19:15).

A judge must weigh up a case purely on the facts.  He must not let himself become corrupted by the punch wielded by the famous, the titled, the aristocratic, the highly esteemed and the well-connected.

But a judge might also be driven not by corruption at the hands of the rich and famous but by compassion for the downtrodden. He may think: That man (or woman) is poor/ friendless/powerless./vulnerable.  He (or she) needs money/vindication/a break. I shall decide in favour of this person and I will be helping him (or her) in an honourable fashion  (Sifra).  Therefore, the Torah declares: “do not, when judging, show special consideration to the poor, any more than the rich!”.

In general, judges must be governed by their intellect, not by their emotions.  They must be dispassionate. As Rambam seminally declares: a judge “must not let loose his (even righteous) indignation, nor allow himself to be overcome by strong feelings, for all such feelings … must be guarded against as far as it is within man’s power to do so” (Moereh Nevuchim 1:54).

Indeed, throughout Parshat Mishpatim, uniquely, the word used for judge is elohim – the very same word as that used for G-D in His midat ha-din, in his aspect of Supreme dispenser of justice. The implication is clear.  A judge, in the Torah view, is expected to be Godlike in his balance and his impartiality. Nothing less will do!     

Inasmuch as we are all called upon to make judgement-calls in everyday life, the Rambam we cited as well as the verse from Kedoshim quoted above which inspired it and the use of the word elohim for “judge” in our Sidra all serve as yardsticks with which to critically examine values and attitudes within Western contemporary society.

There is an insidious doctrine adopted and adapted by the political far-Left which has made its sneaky way into 21st-century mainstream thinking. Known as “intersectionality”, it has spawned, as an article of ‘faith’, a dogmatic, emotion-driven assumption that all “powerless” people(s) or groups are linked by victimisation or victimhood and are therefore by definition incapable of doing bad or culpable things, while all “powerful” people or groups are linked by their abuses of power and are therefore by definition incapable of doing good.

This has led inexorably to the phenomena of peremptory “cancel culture”, “mob justice” and what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zl (in his book Morality, published shortly before his passing) laments as “the return of public shaming …the kind of rough ‘justice’ that occurred before the modern age”. Its return has been aided and abetted by the ubiquitous agglomeration of mass social media outlets – or at least their unacceptable face.

News stories of this ilk are sensationalised.  Typically they will have a ‘perpetrator’ and a ‘victim’. Each is seen in terms of black and white (although “political-correctness” might deem it egregious even to use these terms in this context) rather than in nuanced shades of grey appropriate to the story in question.  The self-righteous crusaders among the public tweet their rage and pronounce guilt and innocence before any court of law has had the opportunity to judge the case based on the facts rather than the groundswell of raw emotion generated on social media, a techno-age throwback to the worst features of medievalism.

This is not the way of the Torah. Yes, the voice of the oppressed must be heard and heeded. Abuse must under no circumstances be tolerated and must be weeded out.

But it is not for the self-appointed, third-hand juries of weighted media opinion to presume degrees of innocence or guilt based on doctrinal but distorted, hard-wired yet emotion-driven notions of irredeemably wicked “perpetrators” and snow-white “victims” and no nuance.

That is why we have a judicial system and qualified, dispassionate, rectitudinous judges, regulated juries and proper trials on a case-by-case basis. (That at least is the ideal!)

The Torah tells us in Parshat Shoftim: vedarashta hetieiv, “investigate thoroughly” before jumping to conclusions (Deut 17:4) A few verses earlier, the Torah famously proclaims tsedek tdedk tirdof which R’ Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (1765-1827) understands to mean “pursue justice in just ways!”  Pursued in unjust ways, justice is corrupted and descends to vigilantism.

Many are extremely concerned at the recent rise of anti-Semitism. However, I believe the most cancerous form of anti-Semitism extant today is the contempt the ‘new world order’ has for Torah values and the Torah way of justice.

We as 21st-century Jews dare not adopt this foreign value system in the grievously mistaken belief that it is enlightened. That would be the ultimate abnegation and betrayal of our Jewish heritage.  After all, let us remember that we are, at root, 58th-century Jews – as old as the Torah itself!  And our heritage, as well as being 3,333 years old, is precious, unique, and engraved with a Divine hallmark!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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