Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue"

The subject of this blog entry is taken from Deuteronomy 16:20, the fifth book of the Torah, or Hebrew Bible.  Though I am not a deeply religious person (for those who don't know, I am mixed-race/mixed-religion, but brought up Jewish from my dad's side, the Rosenbloominators), this concept resonated with me the past couple weeks as Jews worldwide commemorated the High Holidays of Rosh Hashannah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

Perhaps I have been more given to contemplation this year as we are gaining ground with The Toa Nafasi Project, going into Year Three of the program with a view to expansion; or maybe it's because I'm turning the big 4-0 this coming April (and my mother, who is my best friend, just hit 70....though she looks 45); or possibly, it's just that I served my first jury duty in Manhattan County Court in about ten years.  Who knows?  At any rate, weighty issues are on the brain, among them this pursuit of justice, and the related notion of tikkun olam, or "repairing the world," a more personal rendering of pursuing justice which my dad likes to reference when talking about my development work.

I did not attend services this new year; my longtime idol Derek Jeter's last few baseball games before retirement -- another milestone, "another turning point, a fork stuck in the road" -- precluded this and, as I said, I am not hugely, there's no baseball in Tanz, so I was owed.  But I did find time for reading and reflection, and I stumbled across this interesting blog entry by Ron Kronish, Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, from The Huffington Post.  Though it ran in July of last year, I found it to still be relevant and I thought I would share a few of Mr. Kronish's ruminations on the pursuit of justice and the reparation of the world:


One of the most central tenets of Judaism is to pursue justice.  We are reminded of this over and over again in the Bible, especially in the book of Deuteronomy, which we Jews began reading in our synagogues in Israel and around the world in recent weeks, and in the prophetic readings from Isaiah, which we read as supplementary to our Torah text for the next seven weeks, and on the morning of Yom Kippur.  Indeed, ours is a religion which emphasizes social justice, both in our foundational texts and in our liturgy.

What is justice?  Is the law always just?  Is the law always moral?  What happens when our morality dictates to our conscience to be civilly disobedient to an unjust law, as in the famous examples of Reverend Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mahatma Gandhi -- some of the great religious leaders of the twentieth century, who were motivated by deeply held religious views of justice, based on their sacred texts and moral world-view?

And, what about economic justice?  About the cruel inequalities between rich and poor in so many Western liberal democracies?  Why should the top one percent of American or Israeli society live in such affluence and abundance when there are so many disfranchised poor people in these societies?  What should be done to tax the rich more fairly so that distributive justice becomes a reality and not just a philosophical idea?

Pursuing justice is a complicated and difficult process, involving many and varied philosophies, institutions, and personalities.  This is evident in many American Supreme Court cases, in which the personal proclivities of the judges are sometimes as important as their liberal or conservative political/legal philosophies.  An innate sense of justice often prevails over all the theoretical trappings.

When it comes to the issue of human rights -- especially via a vis immigrants or asylum seekers, narrow definitions of "national interests" often prevail over basic concepts of justice, fairness or equality.  Often human rights simply get in the way or are forgotten or trampled upon.  Despite the inspiring language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, so many Western liberal democracies, including the one I live in, fall drastically short in the implementation of these ideals in the daily lives which affect human beings so negatively in so many places around the world.  Indeed, I am often shocked by the sheer hypocrisy of so many so-called Western democracies which are in fact entirely hypocritical when it comes to human rights, except for those of the prevailing elites. 

Indeed, developing and maintaining a just society is an ideal goal towards which we should aspire.  But doing so systematically and sensitively is far from easy.  And the Rule of Law, while it keeps order in society, does not always lead to equal justice for all of its citizens.

So what is to be done?

The Biblical verse reminds us: "Justice, justice you shall pursue!"  According to Rabbi Harold Kushner, "This implies more than merely respecting or following justice; we must actively pursue it."  Kushner learns this from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great preachers and practitioners of social justice among American rabbis in the last century.  I would add that the repetition of the word "justice" in this verse emphasizes the centrality of this value in our religious consciousness and behavior, both traditionally and today.

Each of us can contribute in our own way to striving for justice, whether as lawyers or judges, or rabbis or ministers, or educators, or just as citizens of the state.  Even if our system of justice often seems to be incomplete, or sometimes even unfair, each of us must do our part to bring the ideal closer to reality.

Methodologically, when discussion of serious complicated and controversial issues is done in a carefully facilitated way which engenders genuine trust and deep mutual respect and admiration for the other, an intellectual experience can become a deeply spiritual one which can have lasting effects on those participating in the process.


I think I'll close here by noting that 2014 marks the first time in 33 years that major holidays for both Jews and Muslims were marked on the same weekend.  The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur is when devout Jews ask God to forgive them for their transgressions and refrain from eating and drinking, attending intense prayer services in synagogues.  The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim -- or Abraham as he is known in the Bible -- to sacrifice his son in accordance with God's will (though in the end God provides him a sheep to sacrifice instead), and Muslims slaughter sheep, cattle and other livestock, and give part of the meat to the poor.  I hope everyone celebrated in the spirits of peace and love, amani na upendo, with which these holidays were meant to be passed.

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