Turning Justice into Righteousness
“Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof:” this is one of the most famous lines from all Scripture, lines we read this week as part of Parashat Shof’tim. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misunderstood lines in all of Scripture. We commonly translate the text as, “Justice, Justice, You must pursue (it).” Justice is the rule of law. The scales of justice hang in every courthouse in the country. Justice is really nothing more than the best answer we have for any given legal situation, at any given point in time. “Justice” allowed slave ownership. The highest “Court of Justice” in the land affirmed it on a number of occasions … until it did not anymore. Then, a new standard of “Justice” was imposed. We are not seeking justice; we have it. What we need is righteousness, the better definition of “Tzedek.” We must pursue righteousness (the best moral answer available to us). Sometimes, following the law, may be “just,” but it is not righteous.
Monday, August 17, I joined in the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice; an amazing event on so many levels. As much conversation as we shared, we kept returning to the topic of the laws affirmed by government and our purveyor of justice (the courts) still allowed for discrimination and disparate treatment of minorities and women. As we walked across the Georgia countryside, we became more focused on pursuing righteousness, holding our nation’s leaders to a higher standard than the law. We marched to remind America that the Constitution of this land declared the rights to equality in opportunity and security are “unalienable.” While the law is more egalitarian than it used to be, our system of justice still has a long way to go. My 19.5 miles calling our nation’s attention to more righteous answers did not change the world, but together, our voices over 860 miles can.
Rabbi Marc Kline serves Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, NJ.