Truth and justice

Truth and justice

Shoftim — Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

The things that matter most we rarely know for sure. Among them are the great issues of truth and justice. They go together, as we all know from the long-running TV series Law and Order. In the first half of every episode, the police seek out truth; in the second half, the courts establish justice. Readers of Torah could have gotten that message also from this week’s portion, which calls on the Israelites to establish “shoftim v’shotrim,” “judges and officials.” The officials are the police, the truth finders; the judges allocate justice.

This interdependence of truth and justice comes through also in the blessing that follows the haftara. “All of God’s words,” we are assured, “are true and just.” But only God is absolutely trustworthy regarding either. The human condition presupposes doubt on both. The S’fat Emet affirms, “It is impossible to arrive at absolute truth”; and Drashot El Ami acknowledges, “From a human perspective there are many kinds of justice, just as there are many kinds of truth.”

We seem, therefore, to be in absolute need of truth and justice but absolutely unable to arrive at either of them absolutely. This is not to say they are relative; we must differentiate the way things are (“ontology,” in philosophical language) from the human capacity to know the way they are (“epistemology,” as the philosophers say). It is only our ability to know them (epistemology) that is flawed.

So here’s our dilemma. How do we run a society that requires public policy based on truths and rooted in justice when we can know neither for certain?

To begin with, we can take seriously the lesson that “there are many kinds of truth.” Realities about such evils as war and poverty are known not just through quantitative data, but from the stories people tell, whether biographical or purely literary. The old TV show Dragnet featured detective Joe Friday eliciting “just the facts.” But “just the facts” are never enough. Take Stephen Crane’s Civil War masterpiece, The Red Badge of Courage: Its empathy for wartime suffering transcends statistical comparisons of battle casualties. Read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and you understand poverty in ways that “just the facts” will never reveal.

Judaism captures this sort of complexity with the term yosher — neither truth nor justice, but a third category: a “feel for” equity, righteousness, and the “rightness” of things. Budgets, for example, should be more than “just”; they should also be “right” — a response to the overall situation, including mitigating factors beyond what the letter of the law understands as “just the facts.”

It is rightness that we have in mind on Rosh Hashana when we picture a courtroom with one seat of justice and another of mercy and ask God to occupy the latter before passing judgment. There may be mitigating factors that a Stephen Crane, John Steinbeck, or Victor Hugo might pick up but that a “just the facts” attitude would overlook.

The nuanced nature of truth and justice is the overall theme, generally, of these seven weeks of transition from Tisha B’Av to the High Holy Days. It emerges from the haftara readings (known collectively as “the seven portions of comfort”), which constitute a serialized dialogue with God on the possibility of renewal following exile. The stage is set on Shabbat Nahamu, “the Sabbath of comfort,” when God urges Isaiah to “comfort, comfort my people.”

But what comfort can there be if truth is one-sided and guilt not modulated by matters of rightness? Technically, Israel has sinned and deserves punishment. So one week later, Israel responds, dubiously, “But Adonai has forsaken me!” God, however, knows human nature, understands human weakness, and through our prayers (spoken and silent) hears the stories we have to tell about why we acted as we did. So the third week, God reiterates the promise: “Unhappy storm-tossed one, I will give you foundations of sapphires.” And now, this week, God underscores the fact that “I, it is I who comfort you,” a reminder that God’s insight (unlike ours) is perfect: God gets at the rightness of things; God tempers justice with mercy in a manner toward which we can only strive.

But strive for it we should. Hence, the accent on “pursuit” in this week’s admonition, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” Whether personal quarrels, organizational planning, or matters of congressional debate, the sides involved would do well to remember that they are not God; that there are many roads to truth; that fullness of understanding arrives through people’s stories, not just the facts; and that justice should be tempered by “rightness.”

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