Our Responsibility to Pursue Justice

Pnina Omer is the Director of Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Agunot

The portion of Shoftim opens with the words “Judges and officers shall you appoint for you in all your gates… and they shall judge the people with righteous judgement.”  The section ends with the timeless expression, “Justice, justice shall you pursue!”

The term “justice” represents an action or a judgement that is performed in accordance with standards of integrity, truthfulness and morality.  However, this is a very subjective definition.  What one person considers to be an act of justice may be regarded by another as an injustice. These discrepancies do not only stem from personal worldviews, but from cultural differences as well.  

I am particularly fond of the definition given by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who claimed that one who acts justly, is one who abides by the social contract of the society in which s/he lives.  By defining the exercise of justice in this manner, Hobbes takes out the concept of justice from the private realm; purifies the discourse, as it were, from all individual biases, and ultimately contends that “the majority decides.”  

Immanuel Kant claimed that one of the prerequisites for establishing social laws is that such laws should be able to exist universally. Kant expands the definition of “the majority” to include humanity in its entirety.  

In the aforementioned verses there is a distinction between the opening verse – which addresses the entire nation, tasking the people with the appointment of judges – and the verse which follows it, which elaborates upon the ethical code and addresses the judges.  In contrast to both, the verse “Justice, justice shall you pursue” is somewhat enigmatic in this sequence of verses, leaving us wondering as to whether it is a continuation of the ethical code explicated right before, or whether it is part of the earlier tasks with which the entire nation is charged.  

Our Sages in the tractate of Sanhedrin (32:2), offer a few commentaries on the words “Justice, justice shall you pursue”.

Reish Lakish and Rav Ashi claim that this is a direct instruction to the judges. Reish Lakish believes that the verse is an instruction the judges to follow their “good reason,” so much so that they should think “outside of the box of law” in order to ensure that the case in question does not involve some form of deception or misuse of the law.  Sometimes, by using halakhic/legal reasoning one might come to legitimize a deed which is morally unjust, much like the case of a “naval birshut haTorah” – a degenerate within the framework of the Torah.  

Rav Ashi claims that any ruling which is based on Midat HaDin, strict justice, may end up hurting both parties; he therefore urges the judges to find a compromise. In a sense, Ravi Ashi erases the supposed exclamation mark after the words “Justice, justice(!)” with the aim of toning down the commandment somewhat.  Thus, the repetition of the word – “Justice, justice” – creates a softer tone, much like the expression “slowly, slowly.” It may happen that in our fight for justice, we land up creating injustices. It is the role of the judge to ensure that the justice that is served is also just.  

This is actually reminiscent of Restorative Justice, which is currently exercised in criminal law, and which places greater emphasis on meeting the needs of both the victims as well as the offenders, instead of applying the law in its most literal and harshest sense. Rather, Restorative Justice recognizes the fact that the victim, as well as his/her family and community are also involved parties in the case, and are, therefore, impacted by the process and its outcomes. Consequently, it attempts to find a solution which would be beneficial to all the stakeholders.

Both Reish Lakish and Rav Ashi are of the opinion that the verse is a special instruction to the judge. The Mishnaic scholars, on the other hand, explain that this is a directive to the disputed parties, who have an obligation to do all in their power to make sure justice is served, even if this means travelling far to find a judge who is able to give a just ruling.

This is how the Talmud puts it:

“Our Sages explain: Justice, justice shall you pursue – go and seek a good Beit Din.  Follow Rabi Eliezer to Lod; follow Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai to Bror Hayil…. follow Rabi Yehoshua to the Diaspora; follow Rabi to Beit She’arim; follow the Sages to Lishkat HaGazit (“Hall of Hewn Stone” where the Sanhedrin convened).”  

The notion of wandering between Rabbinical Courts until such a one is found that will serve justice is not an unfamiliar one at Yad La’isha.  We are often compelled to go from one Rabbinical Court to another with the aim of ultimately finding one which will free agunot from the chains of marriage.  

The Ramban combines both approaches and claims that the verse addresses both the judges and the litigating parties, hence the “double language.”  I think the Ramban’s approach is the golden mean – everybody should seek justice. At all times. We must never expect somebody else – be it a friend/rabbinical judge/lawyer/spouse – to do the job for us.  No matter what position we are in, or what role we may play, the commandment to pursue justice is incumbent on all Jews, and we do not have the prerogative to evade it.

I began by quoting the verse “Judges and officers shall you appoint for you in all your gates” in its most literal sense.  It is known that in ancient times the city gate was a hub of activity – the city’s administrative, financial and even religious center.  It was the place where the judges themselves convened.  The commandment is straightforward: one must appoint judges in every single city so that they judge the people in accordance with the law; and one must appoint officers to enforce the rulings of these judges.  

But the appointment of these officials, which is carried out by the entire community, is referred to, quite surprisingly, in the singular form – Shoftim ve’shotrim titen lecha [the singular “you” in Hebrew] – even though it is a decision taken by the public.  

This particular choice of words is surprising, and connects to the question raised earlier, who is God turning to when He commands us to pursue justice? Here too, one might ask: Who is God instructing to appoint judges and officers?  Is it possible that this is not only an instruction relating to the city’s gates?

In his book Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, who was one of the Slonimer Rebbes, offers a Hassidic interpretation to the commandment in question:

“A person has numerous “gates”: the gate of hearing; the gate of smell; the gate of speech and the gate of touch.  And every person must appoint himself as judge of all his affairs and keep his eyes open. For this reason, it is written “titen lecha in the singular form – to instruct each and every one of Israel to put up safeguards around all of his personal gates…” (Netivot Olam, Parshat Shoftim, Discussion 1).

In other words, beyond the commandment to society in general, the literal phrasing of the verse hints to the fact that every individual must appoint judges and officers to guard his “personal gates.”  Rabbi Berezovsky speaks of human weaknesses stemming from our senses, as well as temptations and lusts. 

I would add two more “gates” to the list: the gate of the heart and the gate of the mind. It seems that the “double wording” implies that we must set uniform standards on two spheres rather than one – the personal and the public.  

The philosopher John Locke claimed that there are two types of human needs, both of which are filled by two separate institutions – the family (personal) and the state (public).  However, this distinction seems to me to be somewhat superficial.  I wish to use the phrase coined by the radical feminist, Carol Hanisch – “The personal is political” – which refutes the notion that the private and public spheres must exist separately, and proposes that life be viewed holistically, meaning that everything is affected as much as it affects.  

Connecting all this to the portion of Shoftim, I would like to suggest that we shouldn’t expect our public figures and position holders to live up to behavioral codes and standards that are not in keeping with our own code of behavior.  

Yes, it is the obligation of the judge and the dayan to “pursue justice”; however, it is our obligation no less.  Personal responsibility is the leverage to a moral society – “so that you may live and conquer the Land which the Lord your God gives to you.”

Shabbat Shalom!



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