In many parts of the world justice is in danger.
One sometimes hears Judaism referred to as ‘a religion of justice’ in derogatory tones, as if justice were inferior to love and could be summed up in the supposedly vindictive formula ‘an eye for an eye.’ But it’s a false comparison. Justice is the basis for love even in the closest of personal relationships. It is the foundation of equality and mutual respect across societies and between nations. Without justice, love and companionship cannot thrive. Justice is something to be proud of and defend, as the Torah teaches, ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ (Deuteronomy 16:20)
But in many parts of the world, including, sadly, Israel under its current government, the integrity of the judicial process is in peril.
This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which means ‘Laws.’ It opens with the words ‘And these are the laws…’ (Exodus 21:1) Being careful readers, the rabbis paid close attention to that ‘and’. They understood it as connecting all the Torah’s detailed rules with the revelation at Sinai described in the previous chapter. Just as the Ten Commandments were given by God, so the laws needed to govern a just and compassionate society are equally sacred.
A striking Midrash goes further. God is supremely powerful, yet God loves justice, as we affirm in every weekday prayer when we bless ‘God who loves righteousness and justice.’ Only tyrants seek to bypass the judicial system. Justice, administered with impartiality and humility, is how God’s will is made manifest in the world. (Yalkut Shimoni to Mishpatim)
The Torah insists that judges must be God-fearing, honest and incorruptible. They must ‘hate bribes’ which presumably includes not only financial but also political inducements. (Exodus 18:21)
An ancient rabbinic principle prefigures the separation of powers between government and governance: ‘There are three crowns: the crown of sovereignty, the crown of priesthood and the crown of Torah.’ (Sayings of the Fathers 2:10) No two crowns were ever to be worn by the same person. The role of Torah scholars, the rabbis and judiciary, was to ensure that society was ruled according to the principles of justice and compassion. Their responsibility was, and remains, to tell truth to power and hold it frankly and bravely to account.
These are the very issues about which hundreds of thousands are demonstrating across Israel today. One can criticise some of its decisions, but Israel has rightly been proud of the independence, integrity and courage of its supreme court. That independence is now under threat of politicisation and marginalisation by a government which wants to control its composition and undermine its authority. It’s a government which has little desire for true equality among all Israel’s citizens, which has racist minsters in its ranks, and which fails to recognise that democracy means not just the rule of the majority but respect for minorities and their views. In the frank words of Israel’s Attorney General:
Giving unlimited powers to the government is a sure recipe for infringing both human rights and proper governance. The principle of the separation of powers requires an autonomous, nonpartisan and independent judicial system… The results of [suggested changes to the Judicial Selection Committee] would damage the independence, the professionalism and the non-partisan autonomy of the Judiciary. (Issued 2nd February)
These proposed measures, which threaten Israel’s democratic foundations, have met with massive resistance across Israel and the Jewish World. Ron Kronish, who has worked long and tirelessly for understanding between the different faiths in Israel, reported:
I attended the massive demonstration against the current insane government in Jerusalem on Monday, February 13th, along with over 100,000 Israeli citizens from all over the country. It was an amazing experience…. The sane, rational, caring majority of Israeli citizens have woken up from their apathy! …Many groups in Israeli society are involved: high-tech workers, lawyers and jurists, professors and their students, teachers and their students, retired people, reservists from the army and many more… It was inspiring. A moment of hope. (The Times of Israel)
I’m writing about these matters, not eagerly, but because this is not a time to keep silent. Millions of Israelis, and others, Jews and non-Jews, have devoted their lives, and tens of thousands of Israelis have given those lives, for a country which has striven, and continues despite its difficulties to strive, to be ‘based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as taught by the Hebrew prophets.’ (Israel’s Declaration of Independence) These principles lie at the heart not just of Israel but of the Jewish religion through the ages.