The Justice/Peace Paradox

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 24 December 2023

In the Alyth Chavruta Project over the summer, in preparation for Yom Kippur, we made an in-depth study of the Book of Jonah. We usually focus on Jonah’s running away from his prophetic calling, and of course the storm and the moment when he is eaten by a humongous fish (not a whale!). But equally important is the way in which he responds when finally he goes to prophesy against the city of Nineveh, the people repent, and God decides to forgive them, and not destroy them after all.

Jonah is mightily disappointed when the city of Nineveh is not flattened and the people destroyed before his eyes – partly because, he complains to God, it makes him look like a rubbish prophet! He has spent all this energy telling the Ninevites that they are going to be crushed for their injustice, and now God is sparing them.

But also partly, it seems, because Jonah really does have a desire to see justice done.

In his rage, Jonah mockingly quotes God’s words back from the Book of Exodus:

Adonai Adonai, El rachum v’chanun erech apayim v’rav chesed (Exodus 34:6).

I am ‘a God merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in kindness’.

This version of the classic phrase is incomplete as Jonah throws it out in his anger. The original ends rav chesed v’emet – ‘abounding in kindness and truth’.

For Jonah, God is kind, merciful, seeking peace, but lacking justice and lacking truth.

In Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of our Sages, written around two thousand years ago, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is quoted teaching a paradox that al sh’loshah d’varim ha-olam omed: al hadin, v’al ha-emet, v’al hashalom – ‘the world continues to stand on account of three things: justice, truth and peace’ (1:18).

I say it is a paradoxical teaching, because of the challenge with which Jonah presents us: how can the world stand both upon truth and justice, and at the same time on peace.

It is a paradox that comes up in our prayers as well – as we expressed in our community prayers, when we said: ‘Help us to be good citizens, working together for justice and peace at home and abroad.’

Shimon ben Gamliel was the nasi – the leader of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel in the first century CE – during the time in which the first Jewish-Roman war broke out – a war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, particularly of innocent Jews. He knew firsthand what it meant for the Jewish people to be oppressed, for them to experience injustice, and he knew what it meant to be at war. For him, war and peace were not theoretical concepts. And he demanded peace, alongside justice.

In this week’s portion, that Alexa just read and explained to us so brilliantly, Joseph decides to forgive his brothers. Despite what they have done to him – first seeking to kill him, then compromising and selling him into slavery instead. Despite all the suffering they have caused him, after some deception and after accusing them of being spies in Egypt and then framing them for stealing, Joseph decides to put their differences aside.He chooses peace over justice.

Indeed, in the part of the story we shall read next week, the story becomes even more complicated when the brothers lie to Joseph about what their father said to them before his death. They worry that it was simply the presence of their father in Egypt that was stopping Joseph from taking his revenge upon them, and so they tell him that before his death, their father expressed a desire for him to forgive them. And the midrash tells us that their bending of the truth – and their putting words into their father’s mouth – is excused because it was for the sake of making peace.

The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash were great exponents of the virtue of peace. We are encouraged to be like the figure of Aaron, who also dissimulated and bent the truth in order to achieve peace between individuals. When two people quarrelled, he would go and speak to both parties, saying to both of them, you know, the other guy is really sorry and wants to make up with you, but is just too embarrassed to say so… Even though this was not strictly true, and did nothing to address the original cause of the hurt, the rabbis saw this as virtuous because it encouraged the parties to make peace with each other, and reduced strife in Israel.

In our haftarah this morning we are reminded of the imperative to seek peace, wherever you are – not just amongst those who are like you, but even in the lands of exile. Peace is of the utmost importance.

We often speak about Judaism as a religion of justice. We speak about our role in the world as a people who pursue justice. Tzedek Tzedek tirdof we read in the Torah – justice, justice shall you pursue. We speak about social justice, and the imperative to stand up for the needs of the vulnerable in our society. As Progressive Jews, we often speak about the need to tell truth to power in the face of injustice. Sometimes this is at the expense of peace and concord.

Justice and truth demand a lot from us, and cause us to demand a lot from others as well. Sometimes pursuing justice – what we perceive as justice – can lead to destructiveness, even though the end goal is wholeness and healing.

Justice is potentially just too harsh a measure by which to treat others. In the Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah), in an account of how God spends each day, the rabbis speculate that, having spent the first three hours studying the Talmud (just like they do), the Almighty sits on the Throne of Judgment, with the aim of dispensing justice on everyone in the world. But when God realises that everyone is deserving of destruction (that justice would only truly be served if everyone was handed a capital sentence), God purposefully moves from the Throne of Judgement to the Throne of Mercy.

At the same time, peace is not always such an easy concept either.

Shalom is not simply ‘peace and quiet’ – not simply a cease in fighting. The Hebrew root of shalom is not simply the absence of conflict, but a sense of wholeness. That wholeness – the deeper idea of peace – cannot be achieved by the simple laying down of arms. Although that may be a start or the process.

As we have read in every service since 7 October, from the prayer book of the IMPJ, from the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: ‘may all who dwell on the earth recognize and understand the basic truth: that we have not come into this world for strife and division, nor for hate and jealousy, contrariness and bloodshed.’

The pursuit of peace is, ultimately, the pursuit of a fundamental form of justice. But this is far from easy.

The rabbis of our tradition are constantly negotiating these two divine attributes – midat hadin (the attribute of judgement)and midah harachamim (the attribute of mercy). There is, ultimately, a time and place for both of these. They have a kind of constant symbiotic relationship. That God is both caring, giving, loving, but also harsh, judgmental, demanding the price we pay for a good life.

And if we are created in the image of God, we also have to struggle to balance these two attributes in ourselves. Our anger, our desire for revenge, our desire to take what is ours. And our need to live among others in peace and friendship, to extend the hand of generosity and love.

So it is not that peace is better than justice. Being Jewish is to hold that tension, between the desire for justice, and the need for peace.

Like Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (who said that the world stands on justice, on truth and on peace), we today are not dealing with these as abstract concepts. The lives of our friends and family may depend on whether people far away decide to pursue justice or peace.

Our role as a synagogue and our job as rabbis is not necessarily to advocate for a particular political or strategic position, but to ensure that when we talk about what is happening, that we do so in a way that is deeply informed by our Jewish tradition. That we never lose sight of fundamental moral values. That the goals of peace, justice and truth are not obscured by anger, vengeance, or the desire to win at all costs. As our rabbis knew very well, it is impossible to achieve everything we want. We have to sometimes think very carefully about what are the things that are most important – those things upon which the world stands and is maintained.

It doesn’t mean that we necessarily have any answers. What we can do as a religious community is to find a way in which to speak about these things, to think about these things, to exert the power that we have in the world, and to pray.

So I end with a prayer as we go into a new secular year:

May we pursue Justice wherever we can, and may we seek peace wherever it can be found. But may we find the wisdom to know the true cost of justice and may we ensure that the peace we find is whole. May we have the strength to hold both peace and justice in tension in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom