D’var Torah – on Compromise (for Laura)

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 November 2011

A d’var torah in honour of Rabbi Laura Janner-Klasner on her last Shabbat as a Rabbi at Alyth

On the door to the office that I have had the pleasure and privilege of sharing with Laura and with Mark for the last three and a bit years is a small plaque. On it is a quote from Deuteronomy It reads: tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue.

It has become one of the best known maxims of Jewish life – an emphatic call for us, as Jews, to pursue social justice, to work to create a better world.

Except that, in its context, it is not actually concerned with social justice but with legal justice – in Deuteronomy the text comes in the context of the setting up of courts and appointing of magistrates who are to be clean and impartial. And in rabbinic literature, too, this is understood as a text about legal process – on the fair operation of courts and Batei Din.

To the early rabbis this phrase, ‘tzedek, tzedek tirdof’ as well as being very powerful, also contained a problem. They understood Torah as being full of intent, that nothing in it is redundant.  So if something in Torah is repeated it must be intended to teach us something. So why Tzedek tzedek? What does this repetition come to teach us?

One explanation – one with real resonance for our time – is that the redundancy teaches us the importance of proper process. It is not enough that merely the outcome is just – in pursuing legal justice we must also ensure that our methods are just.

The redundancy is also understood in another way.  In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, each tzedek is understood to refer to a different way of resolving a conflict. The first Tzedek is Din, law, judgement – making the correct choice But the second Tzedek refers to P’sharah – to compromise

Compromise is very problematic in a religious system – because it can be seen to be in tension with truth, with rightness.  How can we compromise when there are answers, when there is law, there is a way.  When there is truth, one way is right. So it is a great insight of the Talmud – that sometimes it is not enough to be right to reach a good outcome.

The example the Talmud gives is of two ships in a narrow channel or two laden camels on a mountain pass – A court might find reasons that one or other should move, but ultimately if neither ship or camel has to give way – then neither can move without compromise.  And if both try to move, both insist they have the right, they are right, then both might sink; both might fall from the mountain.

It is an important lesson not only for the legal process, not only for judges, but also for community… What enables us to learn together, to make decisions together, is that we make space for one another – that even when we are right, or think we are right, we hear the voices of others. What enables us to live together is our willingness not to be right but to be community.  Our ability to make compromises so that we may not be doing absolutely the right thing in some of our eyes, but at least we can go forwards without sinking or falling from the mountain.

It is a great aspiration for any community that we should represent this maxim:  Tzedek tzedek tirdof.  That we emphatically pursue that which is right… But that we also pursue the compromise, for it is that which enables us to live together.