Shaya Cohen -


What is Justice?

I don’t think there is a civilization on earth that does not at least pay lip service to the ideal of a just society. I think this is in part because even despotic rulers know that in order to keep their reign intact, their people need to somehow feel that justice has been done.

And while definitions of what constitutes Justice differ radically between different ancient and modern laws, there actually is not that much of a distinction between humanists and Catholics, atheists or Jews.  This is because, as far as I can tell, the Torah requirements for justice have been widely adopted and even taken for granted.

Swept away, for example, is the ancient idea of Greece and Rome that there are (at least) two bodies of law: one for the native and one for the “other,” the barbarian or heathen. Instead, the modern world assumes that everyone should receive justice under the same body of laws. “Decide justly between any man and his fellow and a stranger.” (Deut. 1:15) Similarly,  though capricious and “might makes right” despotic regimes certainly exist – and I count “cancel culture” among those – reasonable people the world over share the ideal that justice should be blind to the status of the petitioner: “You must not pervert justice; you must not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the rich; you are to judge your neighbor fairly.” (Lev. 19:15), and “You shall not be partial in judgement: hear out low and high alike.” (Deut. 1:17).

But what IS the foundation of justice? I’d like to make a radical argument: in the Torah, justice is not necessarily underpinned by a code of law, not even a Torah one. Sure, there are the principles we have already repeated: justice (as opposed to tyranny) is a critical building block for any righteous society, and it requires equality under the law.

But when you look at the use of the word “Tz-D-K”, the Hebrew for justice in the Torah, you discover something quite surprising. The first time it is used is to describe Noah, a “just man in his generation,” and the second refers to a king-priest who greets Abram after his victorious battle. His name was Malchi-Tzedek (the second half of the name forming the root word for “justice”.) And although Abram’s allies don’t perceive a divine hand in the victory (we see, after all, what we choose to see), Malchi-Tzedek immediately credits G-d: “Blessed be the most high G-d who has delivered thy enemies into thy hand.”

What do these two people have to do with Justice? Why is Noach called just and Malchi-Tzedek has the word for justice in his name?

I think the answer is clear in the text: Malchi-tzedek was able to see things from Abram’s perspective. He could see things from the point of view of the other person.

And Noah? The very first thing we know about Noah through his actions was that he was able to hear G-d. THIS is what made him “righteous in his generation.” Noah heard G-d’s voice.

Which beautifully explains to us for both within the Torah and for all time immemorial what justice actually means: it means hearing each person, making them feel valued and appreciated. A good judge is someone who cares about people, who is sensitive to their feelings and need for respect. That is the single biggest prerequisite for justice to be done.

I am not saying that a justice and a society do not also need laws (the Torah certainly gives us the principles for a detailed set of laws), but I am saying that the laws are ultimately only worthwhile if justice is seen to be done, if petitioners feel that they have been heard fairly.

That is why “justice” in the Torah is not given to us in the name of a Torah scholar. Instead, the two people associated with justice, Noah and Malchi-Tzedek were not even Jewish. The lesson in this is incredible to me: the Torah is not only telling us that we have to treat fellow-Jews and non-Jews the same under the law. It is also telling us that the torch-bearers of the concept of justice were indeed themselves not Jewish.  This is a shockingly egalitarian revelation to me, both for the ancient world and for the modern one. The Torah credits not G-d and not the forefathers for inventing justice, but two outsiders, thoughtful and empathic men, men who could hear a non-corporeal voice and who could see a situation through the eyes of other people.

Justice may be codified in a body of law, but that body of law is worthless unless people validate it and feel valued within it. This is why Moses commands that his justices “hear out your fellow men and decide justly… hear out low and high alike…. And any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring it to me, and I will hear it.”

Within the Torah, judges were hierarchically assigned, with the first tier judge hearing all cases within his local cohort; just ten men formed that unit. That judge was not a legal giant; he was instead a man who wanted and needed to peacably coexist with his cohort. So his first goal would have always been to try to find a compromise, a settlement that minimized resentment. Doing his job well meant taking the time and energy to truly listen to the petitioners, hear them out, see their point of view, and even (as Noah did) to hear what may not be spoken out loud. Only after someone feels they have had their day in court can a just decision be reached. 

Listening is the foundational aspect of justice: being able to hear G-d and man alike, being able to truly see things from the perspective of the other person. The Torah tells us that this is a critical virtue, one that we learned from non-Jews and in turn must apply it zealously within our own society as well as seeking to make it a universal virtue across all the lands and peoples of the world.

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