Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Where do we look for justice?
The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, the 19th century work of Jewish law by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, teaches that “it is prohibited for a person to appeal for judgment from Heaven (i.e., Divine retribution) against his fellow who wronged him. This prohibition applies only if he has recourse to attain justice here on earth. And anyone who cries out to Heaven about his fellow, he is punished first” (29:14).
The lesson we take from this law is that while it is true that there is an ultimate judge after this life, during this life we must do the hard work to make peace and pursue justice in the here and now. Throughout history, there were times where we had no access to fair procedural justice, but today we live in a different era. We have religious courts, secular courts, and effective grassroots justice potential.
However, there are times when even wise people in authority make the wrong decision. There is a tragic Talmudic episode where the sages decreed after the destruction of the Temple that Jews should no longer marry, since it was the end of the Jewish people. The people, however, ignored this decree and were insistent on continuing to build their families (Bava Batra 60b).
There are other times when we must defy decrees because they do not represent true justice. The Talmud tells a story about how Moshe’s sister Miriam convinced their father, Amram, to have children with her mother, Yocheved, in spite of Pharaoh’s decree that all Hebrew male children were to be killed at birth. Amram had insisted that they should have no more children to avoid more death. However, Miriam rebuked him, saying that even worse than Pharoah’s decree was a decree that children should not be given life at all (Sotah 12a). The government was extremely unjust, and the Hebrews were determined to win out in this world over that injustice. This concept was expressed in the modern era by Henry David Thoreau, in his 1849 essay on civil disobedience, who wrote that if injustice “is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law.” From Mohandas Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence to civil rights struggles in the United States, millions have been stirred by this idea in the fight for social justice.
In the United States, racial segregation was the law of the land for over fifty years starting in 1896. During the last century, courageous people on multiple levels, from lawyers working within the system to nonviolent demonstrators who were arrested, beaten, and even murdered, worked to change the law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eradicated many of the obvious abuses; however, the recent election, in which voters in predominantly black areas had to wait up to 8 hours to vote due to state government efforts to discourage them from voting, illustrates that the struggle is far from over. In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, he cited the case of Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old black woman from North Miami, Florida, who endured a wait of 6 hours to vote in 2012, and then proudly wore a sticker that said, “I Voted.” She attended the President’s address and received a standing ovation for her determination to stand up for justice. Today, we look to our government to uphold the right of all Americans to vote, but we reserve the right to challenge a government that does not respond to demands for justice.
The “Torah is not in heaven” (Torah lo bashamayim hi), and the sages taught that we must accept human responsibility for law and ethics in our lives (Bava Metzia 59b). When the Hebrews arrived at the sea, there were four choices: 1) Go back and become slaves again; 2) fight; 3) commit mass suicide; or 4) pray to G-d for salvation. None of these were the right answer; Nachshon ben Amminadav’s response, “go forward, into the sea!” was the right one. From G-d’s response to the Hebrews’ prayers, “Why do you cry out to me?” (Exodus 14:15), we see that this was not the right course, and we learn the important lesson that we must take human responsibility and go forth with courage.
We take responsibility and pray for strength from our Creator, but we do not cry out to G-d for justice. We must take issues of justice to our religious courts and secular courts, we organize on a grassroots level for change, and we do the hard intellectual and spiritual work to take courageous responsibility for injustice in our society. Sometimes that is in line with law and sometimes it is acting against the legal system. In either case, pursuing justice in this world today is the value that wins out.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"