Torah Reading for Week of September 1-7, 2019
“What is Justice?”
By Cantor Jonathan Friedmann, PhD, ’10, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Music History
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
Deuteronomy 16:20 is among the most popular and perpetually relevant Torah verses: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Early in its history of interpretation, the meaning of the verse was expanded beyond its particularistic trappings. Diaspora realities and a growing universalist current within Judaism gave emphasis to the first part, while downplaying the second part. In practice, the verse was shortened to three words, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (“Justice, justice you shall pursue”). This tendency is encapsulated in a midrash attributed to R. Tanhuma bar Abba, a fourth-century amora who engaged in religious disputations with non-Jews: “Why is the word justice written twice? To teach us that we must practice justice at all times-whether it be for you or against you, and towards all people-towards Jews and non-Jews alike.”
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof is unusual for two reasons. First, it departs from conventional sentence structure. Ordinarily in Hebrew, the verb precedes the noun. For example, Psalm 34:14-15: “Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech. Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” Following this pattern, we would expect to see tirdof tzedek-“pursue justice.” But justice must be understood and internalized before it can be pursued. Second, tzedek is written twice. Such repetition is rare in the Torah, which is known for its economy of words. More than mere redundancy, the “double tzedek” suggests a twofold command: justice must be embraced as an ideal (the first tzedek) and relentlessly pursued (the second tzedek).
Grammar and repetition stress the importance of justice. But what, exactly, is meant by justice? In its original context, the verse deals with magistrates and officials of the Israelite tribes, who are appointed to govern with “just judgment” (mishpat-tzedek). Specifically, they are to be impartial and refuse bribes (Deut. 16:18-19).
Interpreters have broadened the meaning by looking at other instances of tzedek, a term that occurs 118 times in the Tanakh. Most influential are those appearing in prophetic books, where tzedek joins tzedakah, a closely related word, to articulate a specific type of social justice.
The prophets most passionately decry injustices done to the poor and powerless-the majority of the people-at the hands of the rich and powerful. The oft-quoted declaration of Amos, “Let justice (tzedakah) roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24), is directed at those who exploit low-paid and unpaid labor, rig the scales and currencies, and enlarge their wealth and land holdings at the expense of the less fortunate. Justice means the opposite: those with power conducting themselves honestly, respecting the dignity of all people, and extending generosity to the poor.
Unfortunately, the coexistence of power and oppression was not isolated to biblical times. Before and since, the test of justice in a society is how the weakest are treated. Jeremiah praised King Josiah for doing “justice and righteousness” (mishpat u-tzedakah) and upholding “the rights of the poor and needy” (Jer. 22:15-16). This sense is embedded in Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.