Sermon: Ma Tzidkoteinu – what is our Justice?
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 4 July 2020
Last Shabbat I found myself drawn to a section of the Birchot HaShachar, the morning blessings, that – for reasons of time – I most often omit.
I hadn’t really planned to include it, but for some reason this passage has been calling out to me over the last few weeks, demanding to be read: the series of questions early in the service – Mah anu, meh chayyeinu, meh chasdeinu… and so on
This text is first found alluded to in the Babylonian Talmud, in the tractate which deals primarily with Yom Kippur. And that speaks to its probable origin, or at least first liturgical use – as part of the neilah service at the end of that day. We ask these fundamental reflective questions as we make the transition into a new year of behaviour.
And for the best part of a thousand years they have also been part of our liturgy as we wake up each morning – making the transition into a new day of behaviour by asking questions that have us focus on who we really are, what is important to us, how we are going to be in the world.
These questions feel particularly important in the extraordinary times in which we find ourselves – the last few months have presented real challenges to identity, to who we are, to our priorities, and to our sense of personal resilience, power and control.
And one of these questions has also gained an additional resonance: Ma Tzidkoteinu – what is our justice?
Over the early summer we have had to confront our understanding of what justice really means.
The protests following the death of George Floyd; understanding the real lived experience of Black and Ethnic Minority communities in the UK, including the disproportionate impact on them of Covid 19; the question of how we address historical injustice, brought to the fore in this country by the toppling of a statue in Bristol; revelations about the effect the pandemic has had on gender roles, and women in the home. I could go on.
With all of this, this question resonates for us today more than ever –
Ma Tzidkoteinu? What does it mean to speak of justice as a Jew?
It is not just an important question, but also a particularly appropriate one for this Shabbat morning.
The first, and perhaps most important thing for us to appreciate is that, as Jews, justice – however understood – matters, cannot be ignored. And one of the places in which this is expressed most clearly is in our haftarah, our additional reading from the prophets, which we heard read this morning.
The haftarah for Parashat Balak, from the prophet Micah, ends with a summary of what God really wants.
God, it states “has told you, human beings, what is good, and what the Eternal One requires of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
It is one of a number of biblical statements that emphasise the centrality of justice in our lives. Similarly, Isaiah states: “Thus said the Eternal One: Observe what is right and do what is just” (Isaiah 56:1). And, famously, we read in Deuteronomy ‘Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice, you shall pursue’.
In part this reflects an idea that a just society is a divine ideal. Justice is one of God’s attributes. One of God’s names in rabbinic literature is Ba’al HaMishpat – the ruler of judgement. Psalm 119 states, “You are just, Eternal One, Your laws are right” (Psalm 119:137). So one of our tasks as human beings is to imitate God’s attribute of justice in our lives. To live with injustice is dissonant with our understanding of what God wants of us.
We also find in our texts a broader political idea – that injustice is not just wrong but bad for society as a whole.
One of the chants we’ve heard at the protests against racism in our society is “No Justice, No Peace”. This is sometimes heard, especially by newspapers of a particular leaning, as a threat. But it is perhaps better understood as naming an important truth, that to be truly peaceful society needs to be just for all of its members.
In Pirkei Avot, a collection of statements from the early Sages, we find this idea: “The sword comes into the world,” it states, “Because of justice delayed and because of justice perverted” (Pirkei Avot 5:8). In other words, the rabbis are telling us, wherever we are, whatever the apparent logic behind our political structures, a society which contains injustice, or a system of law that is not implemented justly, will always be at risk of toppling into instability. As Martin Luther King put it, more positively, “Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention”.
Now I use the word ‘justly’, but I could also have used the word equally. Underpinning so much of the debate of the last few months is how we respond to inequality: inequality of experience and inequality of outcomes – inequality in health care, inequality in education, inequality in the eyes of our legal systems.
And fundamental to our understanding of Jewish justice is a belief in equality – justice has to apply equally to all.
I don’t want to overstate this idea. Our texts contain many different voices, including ideas and statements that we find uncomfortable and offensive. We should not pretend that these voices are not also part of our history.
But as Progressive Jews, the voice that we privilege is the one that speaks to the equal value of each and every human being. As the prophet Malachi stated: “Have we not all one divine Parent? Did not one God create us?” (Malachi 2:10). It’s an idea expressed in multiple places in our tradition – each of us is made in the image of a divine parent.
For us as modern Progressive Jews, the demand of these texts is an absolute commitment to equality. This expresses itself in our work – never finished – to create equality and challenge inequality in our synagogues and movement. But it is also to recognise a broader responsibility for working towards equality in our society – that the systems we build should treat people equally and fairly.
And this is stated explicitly in the Torah. In Leviticus it says “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favour the poor or show deference to the rich, judge your kinsman fairly” (Leviticus 19:15). The Torah demands that the system should treat people equally, whatever their level of wealth, power and influence. To which we would add – though our predecessors did not –ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability.
Again, we can look to God for the best example of this. Psalms 96 and 98, which we sing as part of Kabbalat Shabbat, both describe God as judging “the world with justice and the peoples with equity” (Psalms 96:13, 98:9).
And when we encounter inequality, when we encounter injustice, our responsibility is to confront it. One of the most powerful of all rabbinic texts is the following from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b:
“Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of his family.
Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his community and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of his community.
Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of the entire world.”
We may well disagree about the methodology, but protest against injustice – including that experienced by others – is a Jewish act.
Mah anu, meh chayyeinu, meh chasdeinu, ma tzidkoteinu
What are we? What is our life? What is our love? What is our justice?
Every day, as we wake, our liturgy encourages us to also ask these questions about who we are and our role in the world.
Among them ‘ma tzidkoteinu’ – what is our justice? To reflect on our role in the society that we build. As Jews we face a clear challenge – a challenge which especially resonates today, as those of us with power and privilege reflect on how we can help to shape the world around us.
How do we respond to the divine demand to create a just society?
We know what God wants of us, we heard it this morning, “only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with our God”.