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Shoftim

Dvar Torah: Judges and the Pursuit of Justice

Dr. Jane Kanerek, Associate Professor of Rabbinics and Associate Dean of Academic Development and Advising, Hebrew College. 
CY 1999-2000, 2003-2004

It has become commonplace to read the phrase צדק צדק תרדוף-justice, justice, you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20)-as counseling us about the imperative of social activism. We are not supposed to stand idly in the face of injustice but rather to chase after a more just world. Yet, when the Talmud reads this phrase, it does so within what we might think is the more mundane and staid world of judges, courts cases, and the study hall. The Bavli (B. Sanhedrin 32b) provides four different interpretations of צדק צדק, תרדוף. The first interpretation is given by the sage Reish Lakish. According to Reish Lakish, the doubling of the word “justice” indicates that the verse refers to the extra care a judge must take when judging a case where one of the litigants is known to engage in fraud. The second interpretation is found in a baraita quoted by the sage Rav Ashi: the first mention of the word “justice” refers to judgment while the second mention of the word “justice” refers to compromise. That is, in a case where it is not possible for a judge to reach a clear decision in favor of one party, the judge should impose a compromise on the two parties. The third reading, from an anonymous baraita, contends that “justice, justice, you shall pursue” teaches us to search out the best available court. The doubled words instruct us to not be content with an average court. The fourth reading, again from an anonymous baraita, shifts the focus from the courts to the sages. “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” instructs us to follow the sages to their respective academies. It is possible to understand this last reading as teaching us that the sages embody justice and therefore, if one is to learn justice, one must follow a sage and learn Torah from that sage. Alternatively, it is Torah itself that embodies justice and therefore one must follow a sage to learn that Torah.
For the Bavli, Deuteronomy 16:20 is not a call to abstract justice, but a summons to care and knowledge within the judiciary. In order to render a just judgment, a judge cannot simply assume the good intentions of all parties involved; he must be careful to take precautions against fraud. A judge must also know enough to understand when she cannot reach a clear judgment in a case and must instead resolve the dispute through compromise. In addition, the Bavli cautions that not all courts are created equal; some are better than others. Finally, the Talmud teaches,just action is something that must be learned; it is not instinctive. For this reason, the Talmud tasks us with following a sage and learning Torah.
These four interpretations of, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” need not undermine a call to activism. Rather, they should be viewed as presenting us with a reminder that we can carry out the call to justice in a number of different ways and through a number of different institutions. The courts can be a force for justice, but only when the judge recognizes that laws are not always just-a fraud can abuse the law-and that sometimes a right and wrong does not exist. A judge must know when to step back from judging. In reminding us that not all courts are equal, the Bavli challenges us to confront the inequalities in our judiciary framework and to ask how we may ameliorate and mend those inequalities. Ultimately, this sugya returns us to Torah, pushing us to chase after and study its teachings as a source of justice.
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