Why Judaism is all about justice

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What is it about human nature that causes us to judge others, often unfairly? This week’s parsha speaks about the importance of judging fairly on a societal level, and offers insight on a personal level as well.

In this week’s portion, Moses reviews the justice system for the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan, within sight of the Promised Land. Shoftim begins with the command to appoint judges and legal officials to carry out justice within the society. Regulations for choosing a king are presented along with the mandate that the ruler should faithfully follow the laws of Torah. Cities of refuge are to be set up to allow a safe place for those guilty of unintentional murder. The portion concludes with regulations to be observed during war, including concern for trees and ecological balance.


We read in this portion:

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:18-20).
The pursuit of justice is core to Jewish tradition. Imagine how revolutionary these ideas were 3,000 years ago, and how pertinent they still are today. Judges were appointed to sit at the entrances of their cities — highly visible and practical. We are commanded to use honest weights and measures in our business dealings and to decide justly when we have disputes among ourselves. We are not to show favoritism in our judgments. The prophet Isaiah proclaims “Seek justice, relieve the oppressed.” The book of Proverbs declares, “To do righteousness and justice is more desired by God than sacrifices.”

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Note that the Deuteronomy text stresses that these choices are “for you.” The Torah makes it clear that judgment is an intimate issue. We are all guilty of passing judgment and jumping to critical conclusions rather than favorable ones. The Talmud teaches, “Judge everyone favorably.” When we observe behavior in others that appears to be objectionable, we should pause and contemplate the possibility that there may be facts or circumstances that we are unaware of. What we see may not be exactly as it appears.

It takes practice to overcome the impulse to judge critically. Judaism teaches that we should interpret the actions of others in a balanced and favorable manner. If we assume that another’s behavior involves circumstances that we are unaware of, it can release us from negative energy in our relationships. If we consider unknown factors that could be involved, we are likely to be kinder in our judgment.  We certainly hope that others would do the same of us.


Questions for discussion:
There are many commentaries on why the word “justice” is repeated twice in Deuteronomy 16:20. Some say that it is for emphasis. Others say that it means that we are to pursue justice in a just way. What is your commentary?
Jewish tradition claims that without justice there can be no truth or peace in human society. Do you agree? Where in contemporary society in justice needed?
What are ways in which we might train ourselves and our children to judge others more generously?

Cantor Allen Leider is director of lifelong learning at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.

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