Remarkably quickly, it seems, we’ve marched through the traditional Torah reading cycle and are several parshiyot into Deuteronomy. This week’s traditional cycle takes us to parshat Shoftim, which starts us off with the appointment of judges and the necessity that they blinker themselves as to the status of the parties before them.
Like many other parshiyot, Shoftim has lots of little verses (or parts of verses, anyway) in it that are often cited as grounding the principles of liberal Judaism in the Torah. And I and many other lawyers have often pointed to Deut. 16:20–“Justice, justice shall you pursue”–as a lodestar. (I put that verse in my law school application essays, and Mrs. Secular Jew gave me a gift with that verse on it–it’s one of the Mickie Caspi pieces.)
But perhaps we’re too quick on the draw.That phrase–“Justice, justice shall you pursue”–is more troubling put into context. (The translation is mine.)
You shall appoint judges and officers for yourself in all the settlements [lit., “gates”] that YHVH your god is giving to your tribe, so that they may judge the people justly. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not take into account the identities of those who appear for judgment; you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds even the eyes of the wise; and you shall not distort the words of the just. Justice: you shall pursue justice, so that you may live and take possession of the land that YHVH your god is giving you.
The text then goes on to discuss some of the other things you can’t do when you enter the Land of Israel: setting up shrines to Asherah alongside YHVH’s altars, or setting up monuments that YHVH hates, or sacrificing bulls or rams with any kind of blemish (Deut. 16:21-17:1). (Yes, I translated “Justice: you shall pursue justice” instead of “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” It’s my bloggy and I’ll scribe how I want to. And note that the issue of administering justice reappears in Deuteronomy 17, when the laws governing how a king should act are set forth.)
I quote this material at more length because it is so easy to fall into the trap of drawing inspiration from a text by taking it out of context. Note what it means to do justice: it is not only the things moderns generally appreciate as just, like equity and disinterestedness of judges. There are assumed end-points of justice that many Americans would not share with the biblical text. Many Americans today would think it odd to erect an Asherah next to an altar to God, but they wouldn’t call it against the law. (Some would, of course, but I’m talking liberal Judaism here.) And we’re squeamish, we moderns, so the idea of sacrificing…well, anything is foreign. Many Americans would not subscribe to the idea that the purpose of justice is to take possession of land by means of inheritance from God, let alone that your compliance with laws having no apparent connection to substantive justice should play a role in that determination. (Yes, I know, there are many who would argue otherwise–but again, not in the circles of most forms of liberal Judaism.)
My point? When we interpret texts, we need to be cautious about importing our own assumptions into the reading. It’s inevitable that we will do this. But it is problematic when we read back into a text something unintended by its authors and treat that reading as if it’s part of the original.
That is what we do with fragments of text like Deuteronomy 16:20. Modern notions of justice intersect with the notions of justice represented in Deuteronomy; but they don’t entirely overlap, and they certainly aren’t identical.
When we point to Deuteronomy’s instruction to pursue justice, what kind of justice do we mean? Is that a form of justice we can locate in the classic texts of our tradition without twisting those texts beyond their meanings even under the most superficial readings? Or, to salvage a positive value in classical religious texts, do we need to come to terms with the idea that we will selectively read texts, take from them what we will, and dispense with–or at least minimize–the rest?
I don’t have an answer to this. But as we look to texts that are in many respects from a different world, we need to recognize that our own notions of apparently similar concepts may really be drastically different. We thus should read and adopt those texts with care, and realize that we may find that an honest interpretation of our traditions may lead us to an uneasy relationship with previously inspiring words from the past.
That may be uncomfortable. But we may find there’s no other way to honestly move forward to create the kind of world we wish to see, because words matter.