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What is Justice?  - Maureen Grossman

My reading is very restricted.

I do not like to read about violence, definitely no torture, no cruelty and no war. I am particularly squeamish about eyes. This means many modern novels have passed me by, many classics and indeed parts of the Bible. So why was I in the library picking up the latest in the violent Millennium Series of novels about Lisbeth Salander? I saw the title “The girl who takes an eye for an eye” - a quote from today’s Parashah so of course I did read it, maybe skipping a bit, and for Salander “an eye for an eye” was justice, give as good as you get, show no mercy.

Mentioning justice and mercy, it is difficult to ignore “The Merchant of Venice”

I first read The Merchant of Venice in my teens and was in no doubt that Shylock was wrong demanding justice at all costs; I will have my pound of flesh. Portia was the epitome of a modern woman and her speech extolling mercy, which was then perceived to be a Christian virtue, was beautiful even if it proved unsuccessful.

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath.

These are probably the few lines that everyone can quote, but it has been argued that words chosen by Shakespeare were actually influenced by the Torah, by the Song of Moses, just before he died  (Deutonomy 32.2)

May my discourse come down as the rain

My speech distill as the dew’

Like showers on young growth,

Like droplets on the grass

Despite her beautiful words, ironically Portia showed no mercy towards Shylock. He left with nothing.

Earlier this month I read a newspaper article about two families sorting out justice. The senior members arranged for both families to be equally dishonoured so their idea of justice was achieved. No mercy was shown to the younger members of the family, the pawns manoeuvred to achieve the “ideal situation,”  families equally dishonoured. Too sad to go into details. I am still carrying around the newspaper cutting and I do not know why.

So what is the Jewish idea of Justice?

What does the Talmud say about Justice, surely the Rabbis of the day were not happy about literally taking an eye for an eye? The Torah allows for “restitution” for animals, giving the owner of the dead animal an equally good beast or the appropriate amount of money. The rabbis extended this interpretation to humans. Slavery was accepted and slaves had a value, so discussions were centred around finance.

There were typical Talmudic arguments. What is an eye worth? Can one put a price on vision? If it is your only functioning eye losing it makes you blind and so considerably reduces your value as a slave. What if you are only partially blinded? Is an eye more or less valuable depending on one’s occupation? What if you lose a leg as well? There is no end to this kind of discussion. But it was important to Talmudic rabbis that  recompense was just and their arguments for finding ‘like for like”  certainly seem more merciful than gouging out eyes.

Reverting to this week’s Parashah, we read about a half-Israelite who is stoned to death for blasphemy. It seems that a blasphemer is not a person to whom one shows mercy, but later, in Deuteronomy, a hint of mercy appears.

In Deuteronomy officials are appointed who will govern the people with true justice. The phrase “Justice, Justice shall you pursue” occurs. There are many interpretations of the repetition of the word “Justice” Is it repeated to mean justice in both words and deeds, justice to all, Israelites and others, or is it simply to emphasis that Justice is important? Maybe justice should be done and to be seen to be done?

So where does the hint of mercy appear? There is a case of an idolator, a worshipper of false gods, who is sentenced to be stoned to death, but the likelihood of the sentence being carried out is greatly reduced How? Two or more witnesses required, they have to start the stoning and the rest of the people (men and women?)have to finish the killing. Not very likely, is this mercy creeping in?

It is time for a story - a Midrash based on a verse in Genesis

(Midrash Genesis Rabbah 12:15)

The Eternal God [made earth and heaven]. (Gen. 2:4)

This may be compared to a king who had some empty glasses. Said the king: 'If I pour hot water into them, they will shatter; if cold, they will contract [and shatter].' What then did the king do? He mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them, and so they remained. So too, said the Holy blessed One: 'If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of judgment alone, the world cannot exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of judgment and of mercy, so it can endure.

The midrash 'works' on the use of ADONAI ELOHIM it is not just "the Eternal" or "God" who creates the world, rather "the Eternal God". ADONAI is understood as representing God's attribute of mercy whereas ELOHIM represents God's attribute of justice... and so the world is created with both

Demanding justice (and an apology) has become the cry of people who know something has gone wrong somewhere in their society and someone must be blamed. How often do we hear “This must never happen again”

We all know our society is far from perfect but, if we remember the king’s glasses and have justice and mercy in just the right mix, at the very least we should keep our society intact and maybe as the king’s glasses became cleaner so will the world we live in.

Maureen Grossman



Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781