Torah | Everyone has a part to play inpursuit of justice


Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

Isaiah 51:12–52:12

I was once asked, on the spot, to give the religious invocation at a labor rally. I was told they usually had a priest or minister give a blessing, but since a rabbi was present, they would be honored to have a Jewish voice this time. I quickly racked my brain for something to say.

What would fit the spirit of the event, but also express a deeply Jewish value? The phrase that occurred to me comes from this week’s Torah reading (Deuteronomy 16:20): “Justice, justice — shall you pursue!”

The crowd loved it. Its poetic rhythm created a kind of chant, a call to workers everywhere to rise up, fight for their rights and build a better world. People cheered and were inspired. “Nice job, rabbi!”

It was only after I stepped offstage that I realized the phrase, in its original context, has nothing to do with workers at all. It is a very specific warning, given to judges, to deliberate carefully over their cases. This message is good and necessary, no doubt. But it hardly has to do with the empowerment of the working class.

In fact, if anything, the institution of the Jewish court system puts the average citizen in a place of less power.

We are told to bring all of our most difficult conflicts before the judges, and then to submit completely to their verdict. The language of the Torah is fairly straightforward: “Do not deviate from what they tell you, right or left” (Deuteronomy 17:11).

If that weren’t demanding enough, the famous Torah commentator Rashi takes judicial authority a step further. He wants to know why there is this extra phrase, “right or left,” and his answer is rather astonishing.

“Do not deviate from what they tell you, right or left — that is, even if he says to you that right is left and left is right. How much more so when he tells you that right is right and left is left.”

Rashi suggests these judges don’t just have the authority to tell you what the law is. They actually have the authority to overrule reality as you know it. If they say that right is left, that blue is red, that day is night — then that’s what it is, and you have to accept their ruling, even if it contradicts what you know to be true.

This seems deeply problematic. We are being asked to put aside our own moral instincts in favor of absolute judicial authority. But it also potentially contradicts the Torah’s own desire that judges pursue and carry out justice. For what happens when their rulings lead to injustice? Do we really submit to their authority anyway, simply because they hold this special title?

Perhaps that’s why, when the Torah uses the phrase “right or left” again, just nine verses later, it is directed toward the king, the most powerful authority figure of all. To check that power, the king must keep a copy of the Torah with him at all times. Why?

“Lest he become arrogant in his rule over his kinsman, and deviate from its command, right or left” (Deuteronomy 17:20).

Here’s the question of “right or left” again. But now it is upon the authority figure to be careful. Why are we so worried that he might “deviate”? Because he can easily become arrogant — power-hungry, megalomaniacal and dangerous.

Authority is based on trust. Our leaders do not earn this through their titles alone. We also expect them to adhere to a standard of ethics established by the Torah itself. We have as much access to that Torah as our judges do, and kings are as bound by it as we are.

The Torah does indeed assign positions of authority, to establish a social order and resolve conflicts. But just as we are told to not to deviate from their rulings, right or left, so are they obligated not to overstep their authority, right or left.

So it must also be true that just as our judges are told to pursue justice in considering our cases, so are we meant to pursue justice, watching our leaders carefully to make sure they stay on course.

Perhaps that is why the famous phrase begins with an echoing “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” — as if to remind us that the pursuit of justice always runs both ways.

Rabbi David Kasher is the senior rabbinic educator at Berkeley-based Kevah. Follow his blog on the weekly Torah portion at