“For Justice is God’s,” The Difference between Justice and Catharsis

By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel, Lebanon                                                                                        

The biggest philosophical development over the last fifteen years is the trend to approach situations with a keen awareness of multiple realities, rather than one objective truth.

I’ve spoken broadly about this phenomenon - the pivot from Greek Aristotelian logic (one truth) to multiple relative truths, whereby “a person’s perspective is their reality.” As we have seen with the Derek Chauvin case over the last few months, any rendered judgement will negotiate between two or more competing realities - succinctly in this case, he was guilty, he was innocent, he was anything in between. That legal determination will be interpreted in the eyes of the public, consistent with the multiple realities of the many diverse Americans, and we will likely have to contend with the ire of unsatisfied citizens.

Our Jewish tradition, with phrases like “shivi’im panim laTorah,” or “The seventy faces of Torah,” and “Ilu v’ilu devarim Elohim chayim,” or “These and these are the words of your living God,” endorses a dialectic approach to halakhic religious law, allowing for tolerable deviation in the practice of religion.

Yet how we Jews enforce religious law and how America enforces civil law are far from each other. If someone chooses to rob, lie, steal, cheat, or breach uncontroversial ethics, there are legal consequences - often requiring police, courts, and judgement. These consequences are often accompanied by the threat of violence (especially) if the transgressor remains recalcitrant.

Jewish ritual law is, again, vastly different. If I choose to wear tefillin on Shabbat (a breach in halakha) no one will arrest me - yet the ritual committee and I will definitely have a sit-down. If I deviate too far from normative Rabbinic Judaism, I’ll lose my job, I’ll lose the ability to be counted as a synagogue member, I may even be put in a cherem (a “ban”) like the famous Dutch Jewish atheist Barukh Spinoza. The difference between the social soft power of coercive religions and the absolute hard power of a militarized state is a question most appropriately answered while handcuffed from inside a jail cell.

That is because American law is built off of legal precedents, constitutional authority, unalienable rights of the individual, and most importantly, the ability to enforce those laws. If a law cannot be enforced, no matter how idealistic it is, at best it will be enforced unfairly, or at worst, it won’t be enforced at all. There are only so many cell blocks to lock people up in. Think about the effects of The Prohibition, or the more modern effects of the War on Drugs. Each one has shown that equal users of drugs are not prosecuted criminally at the same rate.

We read in Mishna Avot 3:2, that “Rabbi Hanina, the vice-high priest said: pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.” We also read (Avot 2:3) only a chapter earlier, “Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs.”

It is most clear that the Sages did not have the highest respect for the Roman court system, and that the Romans could not be trusted to adjudicate law fairly and honestly. From a managerial standpoint, if every encounter with law enforcement produced rioting and vandalism, the best course of action would be to not police those specific areas, or to police them with such a heavy handed persecution it quells any such uprising. This is the process of militarization we in America find ourselves in.

As clearly as the difference between safe and dangerous neighborhoods, there are reasons why police officers are armed. There are reasons why the police force has militarized. There are reasons why the reality of law enforcement is violent. As Jewish people, we only need to look at the rising terrorism that threatens our places of worship to justify the training law officers get.

And yet, that training is insufficient. We also need to empathize with the disenfranchised communities of America that for so long have not had their voices heard. We need to advocate for compassion, because when it comes to exercising empathy, it is oftentimes related to the question of race. As conscientious Jews, we need to fill the gaping void of silence with ritual.

When I say ritual, I don’t mean seeing elected officials wearing Kente clothing and taking a knee on the Senate floor. I don’t mean seeing a Shabbat service that is co-led with a Black church (although these types of rituals help us heal and mend and are very important).

I mean seeing a balanced police force with people from all backgrounds. People trained in ways to de-escalate violence, and with knowledge of mental health issues like dementia or bipolar disorder. I mean seeing our society think creatively about the ways in which we can economically empower locally owned businesses, and promote home ownership.

Abraham Maslow said, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” That can be applied to the way law enforcement works. Right now there are vast swaths of neighborhoods filled with people who are hungry, destitute, and often compromised with drugs. How are our civic and public rituals reaching them?

Also, equally as important, we need to understand that police officers are able to (and should) use force to enforce laws. It shouldn’t be the police force’s only means of maintaining order, but the police mission “to serve and protect” sanctions the use of physical force. People who break the law should be scared of the power of the police, who should keep those transgressors in line. If someone is doing something illegal, they are culpable, even if the situation seems beyond their understanding, maturity, or grasp.

Ultimately, as Deuteronomy 1:17 says, “Justice is God’s,” and we will spend our whole lives pursuing it. In hindsight we can look back and attribute the hand of God in one way or another, but while we live through it, it will feel exactly as it has been feeling: a gnawing and painful reminder that America is a long way away from a lasting peace.

Justice isn’t the unfair death of one innocent soul, or the condemnation of one guilty officer. Justice is the realization that all people, regardless of race, deserve dignity and that all people, regardless of their station in life, must live by a higher code.

Any religious person will tell you that there are consequences when someone falls beneath God’s ethical code, in this world or the next. If there’s one way out of this fragmented populace, it's with compassion, patience, and conscientious listening, not with hot-headed reactionary impulses from people too eager to jump the gun or tear down society’s walls. We must build rituals to link people together in the bonds of empathy and appreciation, anything less will further inflame God’s wrath and do a disservice to God’s justice.