By Mark Dov Shapiro
I’ve just had a delightful experience teaching about Judaism. The students were enthusiastic. There was a real buzz in the room. Lots of questions, comments, and energy.
The topic was “Justice in Judaism,” and I had been given about an hour to present how Judaism approaches the challenge of justice.
It was actually an easy topic because Jewish sources on justice are so plentiful. I had very little trouble creating a list of great biblical passages promoting justice. They ran the gamut from Amos declaring, “Let justice well up as waters and righteousness as a might stream” to the bold demand of Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
I explored these two verses and others from the Bible and then introduced some less familiar comments on justice that come from the rabbinic tradition.
One such commentary notes that the Torah commands “pursuing” justice rather than loving or perhaps admiring justice. The teacher suggests the “pursuing” is the verb of choice because justice is not achieved easily. “Pursuing” justice is expected because effort and persistence are required for the hard work of justice.
Another commentary asks why the word “justice” is said twice in the verse. Why doesn’t the Torah simply say, “Justice shall you pursue.”
The answer: Justice is written twice because it is too easy for someone to become so consumed with his pursuit of justice that he tramples others who get in the way. “Justice, justice” is required to remind us that justice can only be advocated in a just and tolerant way.
As I said, the students in the justice class were very responsive. As the saying goes, “we were cooking with gas!”
What I haven’t told you, however, is who the students were.
They weren’t members of a synagogue. They weren’t Jewish kids at a youth retreat. They weren’t members of Hadassah.
No, they were Christians. In fact, the group was composed of about 30 nuns who study regularly in Holyoke.
And, as has been my experience on other occasions, these Christians loved what Judaism had to say. Most of them, by the way, were pretty well versed in Bible. So they didn’t really need me to provide them with verses on justice. They mostly knew them. What they didn’t know was how a Jew might string the biblical verses together to make sense of them as a whole. What they also didn’t know was how our rabbinic tradition amplifies the search for justice and makes it a cornerstone of Jewish values.
And what left me a little disappointed is that I bet most adult Jews don’t know the complexity or fullness of Judaism’s traditions either.
It turns out that Judaism isn’t just charming and historic. Judaism isn’t only a matter of traditions like challah or dreidel-spinning.
The real “wonder” of it all is how our tradition never stops asking profound questions about life and living. Search our texts as an adult and you’ll find conversations about whether or not justice can ever be achieved at all, whether it matters if we are moral, and whether or not God is really there for us.
I’ve been at this Torah stuff for decades and I’m still learning (sometimes relearning) how deep and wise our tradition is.
It makes me want to suggest how you might treat yourself to an unexpected Chanukah gift this year.
Forget shopping. Don’t spend a cent. If you’re Jewish, you already have your gift. It’s Judaism. Open up a book or a text. Read what’s there. Ask fabulous questions. You’ll be amazed…and very proud that this tradition really is yours.
Mark Shapiro is Rabbi Emeritus Sinai Temple in Springfield.