For many, perhaps most, American Jews today, the words that open this week's Torah portion stand at the center of the their understanding of Judaism. "You shall judge the people with righteous judgment" we are taught; "Justice, justice, you shall pursue." If one pursues how these lofty words are applied in our social lives, one finds great disagreement.
Over the past 20 years or so, it seems that the consensus in the Jewish community as to the contents and means of social justice has fractured. On such domestic issues as affirmative action, world Jewish issues such as Israel and the Palestinians and foreign policy issues such the war against Islamic aggression toward the United States, there is no "Jewish view" -- not among the populace, and not among intellectuals and leaders. What is "righteous" and "just" is a matter of contention.
This contention about the contents of justice has led some to believe that there are no moral absolutes (whatever that means), and to affirm what is supposed to be the opposite of moral absolutism. Sometimes the opposite of moral absolutism is supposed to be moral relativism (what is moral is relative to the culture or society in which the matter is discussed) or moral subjectivism (what is moral is highly subjective or personal; each individual decides for him/herself).
I find that all three stances, moral absolutism, moral relativism and moral subjectivism, are, generally speaking, not in accord with the Jewish notion of justice. All three teach important lessons about justice, but none can serve as the foundation.
The foundation of a Jewish notion of justice is expressed, in my opinion, by the moral theory called "moral realism." The strong version of moral realism holds that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions; the weaker version (the one I personally uphold) is that there are, at least, better and worse answers to moral questions.
Neither the strong version nor the weak version holds that we always, or even usually, can find the answer to moral questions with certainty, or that we even know with clarity what our moral questions are. What moral realism does uphold is that moral questions are real and some resolutions really are better than others, and that our difficulty in finding answers does not mean that there are no answers, or at least better and worse ones for now.
The greatest teacher of moral realism in the Jewish tradition is the dialectics of the Talmud. Talmudic debate is characterized by different sides holding and staking out firmly held positions, and the final editor of the Talmud advancing each position carefully in opposition to the other. The opposing sides use analysis of biblical verses, the statements of earlier sages, understandings of human nature, popular opinion, appeals to reason, etc., all as ways of advancing their arguments. The first time one reads a sustained Talmudic debate (called a sugiya), especially if one is not an experienced Talmud student, one has no idea how the debate will end, which position will achieve pre-eminence. And even then, some debates end with the word "teyku" "let it stand" -- meaning that neither side has adequately shown its view, in the eyes of the final editors, to be sufficiently provable as correct at the expense of another.
What is prized in the debate of the Talmud more than anything else is cogent and respectful conduct of the argument. Finding the answer might not be easy, but the path toward righteous judgment is best paved with civility, truth, respect and especially conscientious dialogue with those with whom one disagrees. If we actually take the time to sit with another to clarify the premises, the facts and the policies that are at stake, we might find our way to righteousness. Perhaps the worst thing we can do, from a Jewish perspective, is to say that all truth is subjective, and there is no right answer, or for a person to be so convinced of their rightness, that they don't want to be confused with facts or another way of thinking.
I am at least partially speaking here about a climate of defamation that has clouded the upcoming presidential elections. Politically, I consider myself a passionate centrist. That being the case, I don't have a default position on hardly any political issue. I have to find out the facts, understand the premises and examine the ramifications of recommended policies. I read the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the New Republic (among others). I also have to read the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the National Review (among others). It's like reading the Talmud; I have to examine all sides of the debate to find my way to righteous and truth.
In Ronald Brownstein's column in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 9, his appeal for civility and dialogue as we craft our social polices through the choice of a president is rooted in Jewish and other traditions that prize process as much as answers.
Justice is not ready made. It must be pursued, and its pursuit is characterized by respectful dialogue and debate. If you really care about justice and truth, find someone with whom you disagree and enter into dialogue. From a Jewish perspective, only together, in each other's presence, can we find justice and truth. We might even find a third Presence that appears in those deep dialogues from time to time.
Mordecai Finley is rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation and is provost at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.