Parashat Shoftim begins with one of the most famous declarations in all of Judaism:
צדק צדק תרדוף
“justice, justice you must pursue.” (Deut. 16.20)
It fits nicely on a placard if you’re participating in a protest; it’s a memorable tagline for your email signature; and once you dig into the Jewish commentary around this line, it becomes a constant support in these troubling times.
In the preserved commentaries of our people’s tradition we see clearly how Torah verses find their relevance in different contexts, different cultures, places and times. In our own day, as we consider how each of us is called to act justly, we add our own voices to the millennial conversation of our people.
Various Rabbis whose teachings were recorded in the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 32b (250-500 CE Israel and Babylon):
As it has been taught: “Justice, justice shalt thou follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20); the first [mention of justice] refers to a decision based on strict law; the second, to a compromise. How so? Where two boats sailing on a river meet; If both attempt to pass simultaneously, both will sink, whereas, if one makes way for the other, both can pass [without mishap]. Likewise, if two camels met each other while on the ascent to Beth-Horon; if they both ascend [at the same time] both may tumble down [into the valley]; but if [they ascend] after each other, both can go up [safely].
Law is abstract; fulfilling it requires common sense.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (philosopher, 1140, Tudela Spain):
“Justice, justice” Scripture addresses the litigants….The word appears twice: because one must pursue justice, whether it be to one’s gain, or to one’s loss; or the repetition denotes “time after time” — all the days of your life; or for emphasis.
One must do justice neutrally, regardless of the personal cost.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon aka Maimonides (1160, Cordoba Spain):
When you see that the truth is leaning towards one with whom you have a conflict, you should lean towards the truth and not stiffen your neck. This is the [meaning of the] verse (Deuteronomy 16:20), “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
Justice requires truth, even when it is uncomfortable.
In our own day interpretations of this ringing command continue to support those who act in ways that others find extreme.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (Letter from a Birmingham Jail 1963):
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
The social justice movements birthed by the Jewish experience of the United States began with the labor movement and extends unto Never Again Action. It also includes outsized participation in the struggle for civil rights led by the Movement for Black Lives, CAUSA for immigrants’ rights, CAIR for Muslim rights, Basic Rights Oregon, and many more.
Many Jews, significantly including those who are reaching adulthood now, see the call of social justice to be the most important aspect of their Jewish identity. When we gather in front of the ICE building here in Portland on an Erev Shabbat, some young Jew will always bring hallah to share – these Jews are not distanced from Judaism. It is the cautious politics of our organized Jewish institutions that turn them away, whether here in Portland Oregon or in Israel – and we should be proud of them for that. They are reminding us what Tikkun Olam takes: as our ancestors taught, common sense, and a willingness to engage with discomfort in pursuit of the truth that makes way for justice.
As you live this month of Elul, approaching with us the Days of Awe when we look at ourselves and our acts, consider this final thought from our tradition:
Who is wise? The one who learns from all people. (Pirke Avot 4.1)