Chasing Justice, Outside and In

Part of an ongoing series that explores Torah through an ethic of social justice and building a world worthy of the Divine.

Concerns about justice and rightness are top headlines nowadays – and should be.  We are called to channel justice and rightness everywhere they seem in short supply.

​And if we think deeply, we might discover that justice and rightness ask of us far more – and, in a sense, also somewhat less – than our initial instincts suggest.

This matter touches my core.  My secular career centers on our justice system: pursuing justice is my jam.  (With it come strict ethical limits on what I say and do publicly, to protect the reality and appearance that I’m fair.)

Justice is Judaism’s jam, too.  Ask a room of Jews for a Bible quote, and one is sure to be “Justice, justice you shall pursue” / צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף / tzedek tzedek tirdof (Deut. 16:20) – from this week’s Torah portion (Shoftim, Hebrew for “judges”).  The flame of social justice illuminating the Jewish soul shines with these words and inspires our collective call to repair this world.

“Justice,” however, is an elusive ideal because human knowledge and effort are imperfect.  That’s one classical understanding of why Torah repeats “justice, justice” (one “justice” for its ideal form, a second “justice” for its human approximation), and why Torah calls us to “pursue” justice (because it asks constant effort that humans can never perfectly vindicate).

For ancients, justice was so high and lofty that they elevated justice to a deity.  Egyptians 5,000 years ago had the justice god Maat, daughter of sun god Ra.  Babylonians had Shamash, their sun god also holding the justice portfolio.  Greeks had justice god Themis, second wife of Zeus, who gave the justice job to their daughter, Dike).  Romans had Justicia, who was demoted to a mere local god.

All of these ancient justice gods (besides in Babylon) were female.  Even Judaism, holding to an all-connecting and ultimate Oneness we call God, tends to feminize its ideals of justice in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Kabbalah (Binah and Gevurah).

There’s a reason why.  In Near East thought, “male” and “female” are clusters of qualities that might or might not align with physicality.  In this sense, “male” is a term of art for extending energy outward, and “female” is for internalizing energy inward.  Like the “gender” of certain tools and electrical connectors, no circuit is complete without both.

Justice is just that – discerning, receiving external reality fairly, taking it inward to rectify with wisdom, and then sending it out into the world for rectification to be done.

That’s also the call of this pivotal Jewish time lifting up to Rosh Hashanah.  It’s time to discern deeply and fairly the injustices we’ve caused and the injustices we’ve received – the first step in our annual teshuvah journey of return, rectification and repair.

Soon Jews worldwide will gather on Rosh Hashanah, looking deep within.

We will rouse to core truths of life, and evoke compassion for ourselves and others.  On that so-called Day of Judgment, we’ll come before the One we’ll call “Judge,” whose “judgment” will write itself into a Book that will read of itself the acts of our own hands.  In hopeful urgency, we’ll proclaim that teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (righteousness) – all feminine words in Hebrew – can transform.

To this day, modernity’s most recognizable symbol of justice is feminine. ​ Since ancient Greek days – and now at most every courthouse – Lady Justice has stood tall as both symbol and beacon.  The Lady Justice of modernity stands blindfolded, holding scales of justice in one hand and a downward-facing sword in the other.

But originally Lady Justice wasn’t blindfolded.  Only in the 1500s was a blindfold added, as a political knock against the injustices around her perpetrated in the false name of justice.  Only later was her blindfold reinterpreted to represent objectivity.

Jewishly speaking, however, a spiritual blindfold was there from the start – and it has a great deal to teach us about justice and the call of this season.  This week’s Torah portion teaches (Deut. 16:18-19):

שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָּל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ
אֲשֶׁ֨ר יהו”ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ
וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃
לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים
וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃
“Appoint judges and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that YHVH your God gives you, and they will govern the people with righteous justice.  Do not tilt justice: do not recognize faces or take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the plea of the just.”

“Do not recognize faces” – In doing justice, show no favor or disfavor to anyone – whether based on appearance, stature or popularity – and do not be “tilted” by them.  That means showing no favor or disfavor to ourselves, too: we mustn’t judge ourselves more or less kindly – we mustn’t be too easy or too hard on ourselves – just because we’re us.

These words are exquisitely difficult to live.  Their moral and practical difficulty is the reason for aphorisms like “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “Appearance is only skin deep.”  It’s why many traditions distinguish between illusions of appearance and deeper truths.  And these words apply to us, too.

We let ourselves off the hook by self justification.  We beat ourselves up believing that we’re small, even worthless.  All of us are prone to both.Our penchant to misperceive and lose ourselves to imbalance is why Torah warned, just weeks ago, about how easy it is to forget one’s moral compass and best self.  Torah warned that we need to hold onto something beyond ourselves (in Jewish ritual, the fringes of a tallit) to summon ourselves back from distraction and delusion (Num. 15:39):

וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ
וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹת יהו”ה
וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָתֻ֜רוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י
לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם
אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃
“This will be your [reminder], that you will see it
and remember all the commandments of YHVH
and do them, and not be turned after
[impulses of] your heart or after your eyes
​that you would be debased after them.”

Ask yourself: spiritually, what do you forget and why?  What deludes you?

What reminds you about what’s most real when you forget?  What reminds you that you need reminding (and maybe resist the reminder) when you’ve strayed?  These are the questions of this our for each of us individually, and all of us together.

There’s so much to distract, delude and debase us.  We live in an era when folks choose their news, facts get beaten and relativized into oblivion, unfavorable news is called fake, and perception and politics are tribal.  We have more tools than ever to surround ourselves with people, images, ideas and things that mainly reinforce who we (think we) are and what we (think we) know.

Genuine justice – and particularly the Jewish spiritual justice of this season – isn’t about any of that.  Genuine justice, both outside and inside, calls us to strip away surface appearances and habitual impressions so that we can perceive and discern accurately.  So it’s fitting that Lady Justice wears a blindfold over the eyes – and that Jewishly the blindfold always was there.

It’s worth temporarily not recognizing who we already think we are.  It’s worth not falling into the rut of seeing people who hurt us only as People Who Hurt Us.  In our personal lives and in community, it’s worth attempting a vision beyond mere appearance and habit, a higher vision that might even dare to transcend human limits.

And it’s worth reminding ourselves and each other that justice is a pursuit – not a race but a way of life.  There are good reasons that sometimes “the gears of justice grind slowly”: we must not lurch based on first impressions or surface appearances, and discernment takes time.  Similarly, there are good reasons that our spiritual justice journey is one we must take together, collectively, so we can help each other resist the temptation to lurch to conclusions, to see ourselves either through rose-colored glasses or a distorting fun-house mirror.

As our nation surfs headlines about justice and its (dis)contents, we prepare inwardly for our own season of true justice – recognizing, reckoning and repairing within and among us.  The time, it seems, has come.

Originally published at Shir Ami. 


Rabbi David Evan Markus, a founding builder at Bayit: Building Jewish, brings extensive experience as pulpit rabbi, lawyer, public official, educator and nonprofit leader.  He is rabbi of Congregation Shir Ami (Greenwich, CT) after thirteen years of serving Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY); faculty at the Academy for Jewish Religion; past past co-chair of ALEPH and faculty in spiritual direction for the ALEPH seminary; and blogger for multiple platforms (AJR Faculty BlogMy Jewish LearningThe Wisdom DailyThe ForwardJewish Week / Times of Israel.) A fellow of Rabbis Without Borders, David publishes widely on governance, management, liturgy and spiritual development in Jewish contexts, and has an active spiritual direction practice specializing in clergy development.  By day, David presides in the New York courts in a parallel public service career that has also included presidential campaigns, all branches and levels of government, and graduate faculty in government and public administration for Fordham and Pace Universities.