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Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue

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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.

It is for this reason that I was honored to participate in a unique seminar on "Justice and Society" with 25 judges, law professors, lawyers and educators, at the world-renowned Aspen Institute in scenic Aspen, Colorado this past week. It was an amazing experience, one of the intellectual and spiritual highlights of my adult life.

At the closing evening of the seminar, one of the participants referred to our group as a "beloved community." Indeed, we bonded as a group -- not only through our carefully and thoughtfully facilitated discussions, but also in our coffee breaks, our meals, our hiking together, and our strolls around the awe-inspiring grounds of the Aspen Meadows campus in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. This was an extraordinary group of caring and committed intellectuals and practitioners who genuinely and actively listened deeply to each other, but also spoke personally, professionally and passionately about fundamental issues involved with creating a just society which were clearly of central importance to all of us.

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 Rev. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, or Mahatma Gandhi -- some of the great reigious 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 disenfranchised 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?

And what about the free exercise of religion in a democracy? On this issue, it became eminently clear to me that the American model of separation of church and state is far superior to the one I live with in Israel in which religion constantly meddles into the life of the state and its citizens. Thomas Jefferson's idea about the free exercise of religion allowed religious groups of all kinds in America, including my own, to creatively thrive and flourish without unnecessary -- and I might add unjustified -- involvement of the state.

Pursuing justice, I learned, is a complicated and difficult process, involving many and varied philosophies, institutions, and personalities. This was evident in many of the American Supreme Court cases that we read, in which the personal proclivities of the judges were sometimes as important as their liberal or conservative political/ legal philosophies. I felt that an innate sense of justice often prevailed over all the theoretical trapping.

When it came to the issue of human rights -- especially via a vis immigrants or asylum seekers, I found that narrow definitions of "national interests" often prevailed over basic concepts of justice, fairness or equality. Often human rights simply get in the way or area 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?

As the Biblical verse reminds us: "Justice, justice you shall pursue!" (Deuteronomy 16:20). According to Rabbi Harold Kushner, editor of the Etz Hayim Torah Commentary ( of Conservative Judaism), "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.

One of the conclusions that I came away with from this stimulating and inspiring seminar was that 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.

One other lesson that I take away from this seminar is methodological. 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.