The following story was related to me by a friend. An orthodox Jew, Meir Goldfarb, complete with black hat, beard, and sidelocks, was hurriedly on his way to a Bris in upstate New York. He was running late, and doing 75 in a 55 mph zone. After passing a billboard, he sees behind him the flashing blue and red lights, and is promptly pulled over by a NY State trooper.
A big, burly, blond haired 6’3” trooper steps out and asks Mr. Goldfarb; “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
Mr. Goldfarb replies, “Yes officer, I know I was driving a little fast, but let me explain. You see, I am on my way to a mitzvah, a Jewish obligation called a Bris, and I am running late. To miss this holy event would be a grave sin before God and so I know that you would understand that…”
The cop leans in the window, takes off his glasses and tells Meir “Dina dimalchuta dina.”
Goldfarb quietly hands his license and registration to the officer, in complete and utter shock. The Trooper walks back to his car and fills out the ticket on his steering wheel. When he returns, Meir, thinking perhaps the trooper is Jewish, looks to his badge: ‘Christopher Mulrooney’. Meir is even more confused. He asks the officer “Excuse me officer, but I was wondering if you are perhaps Jewish?” Mulrooney replies “Nope. Irish Catholic.” Meir is really confused. He says “Can I ask you how you knew this line from the Talmud?”
“A few years ago, I was in traffic court, waiting to testify in a case. The judge was hearing a case with a defendant dressed and appearing just like you: black hat, long beard, long curly sideburns. The man was pleading to the judge that, yes, he ‘ran a red light, but you see your honor, I am a religious Jew and I was on my way home for Shabbat, a day on which a religious Jew does not drive a car because it lights a fire, and I was afraid that…’ The judge, a guy named Alfred Cohen, cut him off, looked at the man and said ‘Dina De Malchuta Dina’. And he stopped talking and accepted his ticket. Mr. Goldfarb I don’t have a clue what Dina de malchuta dina means. Alls I know is, it shuts you people up.
Dina de malchuta dina means ‘the law of the land is the law’; it is a Talmudic maxim from the 5th century that exemplifies one of Judaism’s most cherished and important ideals; and that is, the importance, even centrality, of justice in our religion.
Like the apocryphal story of the Eskimo people having 50 words for ‘snow’, the Jewish religion has more words than seem necessary for ‘justice’, indicating Judaism’s emphasis on justice. Tzedek is one, like in the word Tzedakah. We typically think of that word meaning ‘donation’ or ‘charity’, but it directly translates as ‘justice’.
The word din can also mean justice, and figures prominently in the High Holy days, as the phrase ‘Yom HaDin’, ‘Day of Justice’, is one of the names for Rosh Hashanah. It can also mean ‘judgment’, as we say in Rosh Hashanah ‘V’tichtov et gazar dinam’ ‘and write your decree of judgment’.
The word ‘mishpat’ can also means justice, although it more specifically means law or adjudication. So can ‘yosher’, which more poetically is derived from ‘following the straight path’, like when you ask for directions in Israel and they say ‘Yashar yashar, smolah v yeminah v t’shol od pam’ ‘ go straight straight, left, right, and ask somebody else.’
Modern healthy societies place a high degree of importance on justice, and to this point, Judaism more than agrees - it goes further still. Judaism as a religion places justice and law above all else. In the Jewish religion, our most central book is a system of laws given to us on high by God Godself. Moreover, the Jewish religion is significantly different from Christianity and Islam because it is not predicated on a system of your beliefs and thoughts, but instead is based on behaviors. You are the sum total of your actions, whether they be just or unjust. The details, though, of what constitutes justice, is the proverbial $64,000 question that divides individuals on two sides in the courtroom, separates nations in tense negotiations, and separates religions and political parties in battles over the ethical decisions of a society.
It has especially taken a front row seat in the news this past summer. Fergeson, Missouri, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens, the strikes for a $15 an hour wage for fast food workers, and the war between Gaza and Israel have all asked sincere questions regarding the essential nature of what it is to act justly. When is a police officer justified in using his or her weapon? What is the fair punishment by both the legal system and by ones own employer for beating one’s spouse or children? Does an employer have a responsibility to pay their employees enough to feed, house, and clothe themselves and their families? Does a country have a right to defend itself, even if in its own defense, innocent civilians will be killed? We ask these questions because different societies, different religious traditions, and different individuals will come to different conclusions.
The notion that there exists some kind of objective and absolute justice that human beings can institute is a false hope. In Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s book, entitled ‘Justice’, he enumerates a variety of systems of justice, from utilitarianism to libertarianism, Immanuel Kant’s imperative moral intent vs. John Rawls case for equality above all else. Aristotle’s notion of justice was purely teleological, meaning it was based on the purpose of the social practice in question. Sandel gives the hypothetical example of an auction for a Stradivarius violin, in which a wealthy collector outbids renowned virtuoso Itzaak Pearlman. Pearlman wants to perform with it. The collector intends to hang the violin in his bathroom. “Wouldn’t we regard this as a loss” sandel says “not because we think the auction is unfair, but because the outcome is unfitting, since after all, a violin is meant to be played, not displayed.” A Libertarian, however, would argue this violin rightfully and justly belongs to the highest bidder. And John Rawls would likely object to the centralization of wealth to that one collector who had acquired it in the first place.
But I am not an expert on comparative moral philosophy. I’m not here to plead Aristotle’s case. My argument for the ideal model of justice is Torah. The Five books of Moses and the rabbinic exegesis and legal system that develops from it gives us a standard of justice to aspire to. I would argue that Judaism’s system of justice is the standard by which we continue to live our lives because it has stood the test of time from the ancient Israelites to the Talmudic rabbis and to modern Jews today. It is our standard because it is flexible and has changed through time, and those changes are enshrined in a system that allows for the versatility and creativity of human ingenuity while maintaining the moral core of our tradition. It is the standard, finally, because all of these things in their totality create a system that is Divine.
One of the reasons that we know Judaism’s principles of justice are so trustworthy is simply because our religion places such a serious emphasis justice itself. In one of the most stirring stories in the Hebrew bible, God informs Abraham of a society that is completely wicked, and so God intends to wipe these cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, off the face of the earth. Abraham, who in the very same Torah portion of VaYera, only four chapters later, will be meek and obliging when God asks him to kill his only son, roars before God:
HaAf tispeh tzaddik im rasha?
Hashofet kol haAretz lo yaAseh mispat?
Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
Will not the judge of all the earth do justly?
Not even God is above reproach when it comes to justice. The standard by which Jewish justice is measured involves honestly confronting every situation of moral decision-making with the sincere belief that it should be challenged. Even if God Godself says it is to be so- question its justice.
An even stronger illustration of our tradition’s love for justice comes as the rabbinic answer to a mysterious question regarding the obliteration of Sodom and Gomorrah. What was their sin? The text itself does not say for sure, so the rabbis invent a series of midrashim, stories, that fill in the gaps.
In the rabbinic imagination, Sodom and Gomorrah are not just evil because all of the people therein are evil. No, Sodom and Gomorrah are pure evil because they even use a perverse version of ‘law’ in order to carry out evil acts, meaning, they concoct a justice system that is willfully and consistently unjust at every turn. In one story, the judges of Sodom see a man who has punched out the wife of his friend. The judges rule that the friend must give the wife to the assaulter, that he may impregnate her as compensation. Another story tells of a man who came before the judges complaining that his fellow had cut off the ear of his donkey; the judges rule that the donkey should be confiscated and given to the man that wounded it until the ear grows back.
And a third story tells of the time when Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, came to Sodom. There he met a man who hit him in the head with a rock, and Eliezer bled. Eliezer went to a judge of Sodom seeking justice, but instead his attacker demands Eliezercompensate him, complaining that the man had done Eliezer a service by providing him with a bloodletting. For those of you who either remember medieval history or a specific Saturday Night Live skit starring Steve Martin, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray, bloodletting was believed to have had various medical benefits. The bloodletter here simply wanted his payment for services rendered, and the judge of Sodom agrees and demands payment. Eliezer cleverly picks up a rock and throws it at the judge, hitting him in the head, and demands payment as well.
In all three of these stories, the central point is this: Sodom has created a justice system that encourages assault, theft, and rape. In essence, a society with a corrupt legal system is regarded by Torah as a society not fit to exist. This is the anti-Judaism; a world where the home of justice, which is law, is twisted to be unjust itself.
The fear of an unjust society was no idle story only about non-Jewish societies, though. The prophet Amos in his time witnessed a kingdom of Israel rife with corruption, bribery, and the ignoring of the suffering of the poor. He condemned - “Ye who turn judgment to wormwood, and cast righteousness to the ground.(5:7) I will not pardon them any more (8:2), those that buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. (8:6)” Amos heard God call to him, and the call was loud and clear; I see your unjust society, and I am not pleased.
The Jewish tradition calls us on Yom Kippur to examine our own deeds with a fine-toothed comb and determine our errors, repent them, and strive in the new year not to repeat them again. However, Judaism calls us as a people to stand guard against all of societies ills each and every day, lest we become lazy and complacent, and stand idly by while an injustice occurs and is left to fester.
The Torah in Deuteronomy 16 instructs us
tzedek tzedek tirdof
“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” As the Torah is typically a terse book without repetition, the rabbinic commentators have much to ponder in the meaning of the unnecessary doubling of the word ‘justice’. They variously decide that is must mean that we should be scrupulous towards our judges, or that our courts themselves must be extremely just. They argue that justice requires that the process be above reproach, that in matters of justice, the ends DO NOT justify the means- rather the means themselves must always be just. Rich or poor, mighty or powerless, Israelite or foreigner, all must be treated equally before the law.
One 18th century commentator known as the Nefesh Yehudah notes that the repetition of Tzedek tzedek tirdof justice justice shall you pursue, alludes to another repeated maxim of the rabbis; mitzvah goreret mitzvah, the doing of a commandment leads to another commandment. That is, a society that upholds justice in one instance will be driven to do justly again and again. It is in this light that we Jews must fervently pursue justice at all times.
We see injustices in our society everyday. And I call upon us this day to not stand idly by, but to speak up as the children of Abraham against those acts of injustice.
To speak up against injustice by police in Fergeson, Missouri, who shot an unarmed man in the back six times, but have yet to place the officer who committed the murder under arrest. I don’t presume to know whether the officer would be guilty or not. I do know that if any one of you had shot someone six times in the back, we’d be in a jail cell right now. Equal justice for mighty and weak.
To speak up against injustice by the National Football League. If you have watched a Broncos game this season, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you choose to follow a sport and consume its product, then you have in your power the ability to hold that business accountable for its actions. Just like you have the right to complain to the manager if the waiter is rude to you, you have not only a right but an obligation to press the NFL hold players like Adrian Peterson, and Ray Rice and Ray McDonald accountable for domestic violence and begins to seriously and systematically address the problem. The problem extends to those that broadcast the NFL. ESPN the other day had a pre-game warmup show in which it discussed the problem of how men treat women with violence. The round table discussion included 11 commentators, all men. What is wrong with this picture? If you love sports, and believe me, I do, then you as the consumer are responsible to make that sport reflect the values you believe in.
We too must speak up against economic injustice in our society. How is it right that Walmart’s can earn $14 billion in net profit in 2013, yet the average full-time employee at Walmart makes just $8.81, or $18,325 a year? How is it right that cities around the nation have spent lavishly on road and infrastructure improvements to lure Walmarts to their communities, and yet Walmart cost US taxpayers $6.2 billion last year in public assistance payments to its workers for things like food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid? By the way, if you think I’m singling out Walmart, you’re right; Walmart employees account for a whopping 18% of all employees nationwide on food stamps.
This problem of corporations earning huge profits, paying meager wages, and forcing you to use your tax dollars to cover the gap with food stamps is especially egregious in the fast food industry. 52% of fast food workers receive public assistance, costing taxpayers $7 billion a year. McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendys earned $6 billion in profit last year. Personally when I read these numbers, I feel like a clown in a yellow suit threw a rock at my head, then charged me $3.99 for the bloodletting I received.
Now it just so happens that I can’t eat hardly anything at McDonalds, except the milkshakes, since I keep kosher. But refraining for purchasing a product is not enough to say you did your part. God expects more of us on this day and everyday. God expects us to speak out, to speak up, to protest, and advocate.
We are called to speak up for injustice done to Israel, when the nations of the world treat Israel unjustly and hold Israel to standards of behavior that are ridiculous and a faint mask for anti-semitism. It is intolerable for media outlets like the BBC and for countless European politicians to slander Israel as the aggressor in a conflict it did not create. It is absurd and unjust for anyone to claim that Zionism is simply a form of colonialism, when Europeans made it perfectly clear during the Holocaust that we were unwanted in their countries and would need to go elsewhere. And it is irrational and immoral to claim that a country could have nearly 2000 rockets fired at it, yet be expected to do nothing in response. In the light of justice, we must defend Israel in our conversations with friends and neighbors when it is portrayed unfairly or inaccurately.
Nonetheless, we the Jewish people hold ourselves to the highest standards of justice. Some people have considered all news coverage of the latest war between Israel and Gaza to be unfair to Israel; they say that Israel is held to standards far different and far higher than those of the Palestinians and Hamas. I say, GOOD. To me, the implicit message by the coverage in each of the three wars in Gaza since 2006 is this: we the Western nations of the world expect Hamas to behave like murderous animals, like the terrorists they are. But Israel, the nation of the Jews, a people with a tradition of justice and lawfulness, we expect you to conduct all your affairs, even your wars, in the light of righteousness.
And that is why we are also called on this day and everyday to question whether Israel’s actions are just. We must ask whether certain actions during the conflict, like returning fire towards a UN school packed with refugees, were just act. We must question Israel’s leaders and whether their leadership is just and strives to do the right thing. Just this past Wednesday, the Netanyahu government announced plans to build 2500 new homes in Palestinian Authority territory, in direct conflict with agreements and promises made at Oslo in 1994, and in negotiations with the Palestinians in 2002, 2006, and 2010. Is it just to make promises and then break them, while simultaneously putting the blame, rightly or not, on the other party? Is it security that motivates Israel to operate 387 checkpoints inside the West Bank, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tzelem? Or is it, as many people surmise, the desire to punish and inconvenience Palestinians, and to hold a plethora of checkpoints as potential bargaining chips for future negotiations?
We must also address the greater problem of the Palestinian autonomy and the stalled peace process. As Orthodox Rabbi Doniel Hartman explains, the current condition of the state of Israel is a reversal of Jewish history; for eons we were the oppressed, the downtrodden, the victim. But the creation of a state and the circumstances post-1967 have reversed this narrative. Today, the Jews are forced to be in the seat of power, which forces us to do things we do not want to do. We find ourselves as occupiers in the West Bank. We are a democratic nation that is forced to oversee a people who are not granted the same democratic rights as Israeli citizens. It is a situation that was expected to be temporary in 1967, yet here we are today, 47 years later, still maintaining an army in a land not our own. Even leaders of the settler movement, former Yesha council member, Ultra-Orthodox rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, has stated that this situation is untenable and unjust. Bin Nun comes to this conclusion as a man who has lived almost his entire life in West Bank settlements. He has lived with and alongside Palestinians, and knows that they want the same thing he wants- to raise their kids, have a good job, and live with their neighbors in peace.
Justice demands that Israel move steadily towards resolution of the Palestinian question, and Israel must engage in good-faith discussions with the Palestinians, no matter how difficult or painful or politically unpopular they are. Torah and Justice demands that Israel as a nation be held to the highest standards, by its citizens and by Jews worldwide.
You may not agree with me on some or many of these points about justice in law enforcement, or sports, or the economy, or Israel. But that, too, is nature of Jewish Justice. Only through sincere questioning and open dialogue do we ascertain true justice. As we saw with Abraham, even justice from God can be questioned. Each of us is not only justified, but commanded to pursue justice, to question and raise doubt in order to build a just world.
The Yom Kippur haftorah from Isaiah 58 asks the question ‘When do those who fast on Yom Kippur get spurned by God?’ The answer: because ignore the cry of poor and pay them no heed. Isaiah continues ‘This is the fast I desire, to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and let the oppressed go free. To share your bread with the hungry and take the wretched poor into your home.’ In the long litany of prayers we pronounce this day, the prophet Micah simplified matters greatly by saying this:
Mah Adonai doresh mimcha? Ki im Asot Mishpat v’ahavat chesed vehatzneah lechet im eloheicha.
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
I challenge you today to answer the call to justice that went out from Abraham, from Moses, from the prophets and the rabbis; to find some injustice in society this year and speak up against it, and to be righteous in the eyes of God.