Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) 5776-2016 Argument 101: Ground Rules

This week’s Torah portion begins with a directive for judges to be scrupulous in upholding the law. The Torah expresses this mandate in a peculiar way.

Justice, justice you shall pursue so that you will live and take possession of the land that G-d… gives you (ibid.16:20)

The discerning reader will be bothered by the redundancy of “justice.” The Torah could have simply instructed us to pursue justice; what benefit is there in repeating that word? This question is asked by many commentators; here’s what one of them answers.
The pursuit of justice must also be pursued with justice. We are not merely being taught to run after justice, we are told to pursue it; that means running after justice with justice. How is this accomplished?

A person might pursue something he considers fair (or even righteous); he is convinced that his goal is to ensure that what is right prevails. Many of us have fallen into this line of reasoning and by telling ourselves that the ends justify the means. We may overlook a fact in order to accomplish our goal, maybe we are insensitive or perhaps we have to step on a few halochos (Jewish laws) here and there but it does not really matter because in the end we will do what needs to be done and “justice will prevail”.
History is replete with examples of the pursuit of justice being carried out in unjust ways. The message in the verse above is that we may not overlook unscrupulous methods to achieve lofty goals. Achieving justice in any other way is not justice, it’s just pursuit of one’s vested interests. This message has meaning in our lives in micro and macro ways.

The concept of holy war is crucial in understanding the history of the Middle Ages. The stated raison d’etre of the crusades was to purge the Holy Land of Infidels, yet along the way many Jews and others we murdered and pillaged-even though they lived thousands of miles away from the Holy Land. The crusaders deceived themselves into thinking that they were doing something holy-pursuing justice-when in actuality they had other motives.
In The Myth of Religious Violence, Professor William Cavanaugh argues that that the term “religious wars” is a largely Western dichotomy because wars that are called “religious” always have economic or political ramifications and therefore are not actually religious at their core.

On a micro level, the concept of pursuing justice-i.e. doing the right thing-is in our daily lives. Professor Deborah Tannen’s book, I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Siblings, and Kids When You’re All Adults, gives numerous examples of how we deceive ourselves into thinking that our only motivation is helping someone else, when in reality that’s not the case and the person whom you choose to help doesn’t interpret it as a kind gesture. For example, a mother who precedes a statement to her grown daughter with “I only say this because I love you” is getting ready to say something that the daughter will interpret as intrusive and critical, but the mother merely sees it as an attempt to help. One women quoted in the book says that whenever she hears that phrase from her mother, “I know she’s going to tell me I’m fat.” The mother thinks she’s expressing love and concern for her daughter’s health or well-being, but the daughter hears something more like “There’s something wrong with you.” The same goes for statements disguised as questions, such as “Do you really need another piece of cake?” or “Did you notice they also have salmon?” asked by a wife who claims she’s “just watching out” for her husband. The book gives many examples of weighted phrases that are so automatic that we probably don’t even hear ourselves saying them. A seemingly innocent “I’m counting on you,” for example, might send the message that the request needs special reinforcement because the person being asked to pitch in cannot really be trusted.
How do we do this with justice? It is inevitable that people living together (spouses, families, roommates) will have different ideas of how to perform certain tasks and/or how to maintain the mutual living space. Our default (yetzer hara-evil inclination) tells us to argue and we justify it by telling ourselves that this is truly what is best for everyone. By doing so we create an unsafe environment and don’t listen to what the other person says, even if there is validity to it.

How can we prevent slipping into this default mode of argument? Instead of having an argument, make an argument for your position BUT once you have made your case, LISTEN to the other person. If you are sincere about wanting to help the other person or make your living space better for everyone, you must listen to how others understand your case. Making an argument is much harder than having an argument but by doing so you will learn to flex “muscles” -humility, sensitivity, and being a good listener-you might not be used to using. Imagine how much better your relationships will be when you discover your new “muscles,” or perhaps some old ones that have atrophied due to lack of use.

Whether its wars fought by countries or battles fought at home, ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that we must be suspect whenever there is a conflict and use our minds, not hearts, in determining whether or not it is a holy endeavor. The only way to pursue justice is with justice and we are all capable of doing that. If you truly want justice, be sure to make a personal moral inventory, which might be another atrophied “muscle,” before you endeavor to ensure that it is justice you are after and not your own personal agenda or vendetta.

Good Shabbos.