Through a Mussar Lens: Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue
I visited Israel in February with a group of Mussar-niks, and high on our agenda was a trip to the tiny synagogue in Akko founded in the 18th century by the Mussar luminary, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. It was spine-tingling to have a class and discuss his work in the very place where he had prayed and taught, and that visit remains a highlight (among so many!) from that spectacular trip.
But the Ramchal shul is small and we had come all the way to Akko, so we had time to take in one of the major tourist sites in that town, the fortress built by the Crusaders. Following the First Crusade and the conquest of the Land of Israel in 1099, Jerusalem became the capital and Akko developed into the port city and the main gateway to the Holy Land. After a brief period of Muslim rule, the Crusaders retook Akko in 1191. They built an enormous structure there, much of which remains intact. It is not like a building but more like a small town built under an enormous roof, with internal streets and crossings, and interior buildings and halls. It had a water distribution system as well as a sewage system.
Despite having built such a formidable fortress, the Crusaders ruled Akko for only 100 years. By 1291, the city again fell into Muslim hands, marking the end of the Crusader presence in the Holy Land.
As I stood in the very place where all these events took place, I was struck by a key fact. In the 3,500 years that so many different groups have competed for control over Jerusalem, the single factor that has determined who has ruled is power, and military might to be exact. Whoever had the stronger army got the prize. There has never been any other dynamic at work.
But I was struck by another thought as well, which is that no power has ever ruled that region for very long before being overpowered by a competing group. The Crusaders were powerful and ruthless but managed to hold onto Israel for only 100 years. The Mamluks, who succeeded the Crusaders, lasted only 200 years until defeat by the Ottomans, who were defeated by the British, who were defeated by the founding Israeli nationalists. The State of Israel itself is now only 69 years old.
My conclusion is that a state needs military power to secure its existence, but might alone is not a good enough basis on which to build for longevity. History shows that somebody stronger eventually moves into the neighborhood. It seems to me that another element is needed to complement the power, and that is justice.
The value I am referring to here is called tzedek in Hebrew. The primary definition is, indeed, “justice,” but many shades of meaning come together in this word. It connotes charity, righteousness, integrity, equity and fairness. When the Torah wants to refer to the strictly legal form of justice, it uses words like mishpat and din. What distinguishes tzedek from legal judgment is that it concerns more than just the letter of the law. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “it is best rendered as ‘the right and decent thing to do’ or ‘justice tempered by compassion.’”
As much chutzpah as I might have, I still cannot imagine that in a few paragraphs I could offer solutions to the Israel/ Palestinian situation that much more seasoned minds than mine have somehow failed to see. What I am focused on is not the political proposals themselves but the values that ought to guide such proposals. It seems to me that the long-term survival of Israel depends on maintaining a very strong military while simultaneously committing to pursuing tzedek, which has not always been evident as a guiding principle of the state.
The masters of Mussar from the 19th century were spiritual teachers who saw pursuing justice as an integral part of their spiritual path. The Torah teaches “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (Deuteronomy 16:20), literally “Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” and they took the charge literally. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810–1884), the founder of the Mussar movement, not only said, “Another person’s physical needs are my spiritual concern,” but also lived by that principle, as evidenced by incidents from his life.
Once, R’ Yisrael was so disturbed at the rundown condition of the community poorhouse that, as a protest, he went there to sleep himself. His action scandalized the community leaders, who were shamed that their most distinguished scholar and leader was sleeping among the beggars. Indeed, provoking that response was precisely his goal, and he refused to leave until the house was cleaned and repaired.
In another incident that took place during an epidemic, he urged the community to convert the great synagogue into a temporary hospital and poorhouse. Despite great opposition from the leaders of the congregation and some other rabbis, he succeeded in implementing this plan.
His actions were not restricted to local issues. The Russian authorities passed a decree requiring Jewish youth to serve an extended period in the military. R’ Yisrael saw this as an attack on the future of the Jewish community and fought vigorously through political connections in St. Petersburg to have the ordinance cancelled. When it was finally revoked, he told his disciples that that day should be declared a Yom Tov (Jewish holiday).
He succinctly summed up the conviction that moved him in these situations and the many other social actions in which he participated, saying: “With regard to another, one should not rely on God to help him.”
These principles of social responsibility and the pursuit of justice apply to anyone who wants to follow the Mussar path. I earlier mentioned the verse “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” which is so frequently cited as the text that establishes the pursuit of justice as a core Jewish value, providing the overarching principle to guide how we treat others. The question is raised, though, as to why the Torah repeats the word tzedek (“justice”)? There have been many interpretations, including the thought of a Mussar-influenced leader, Rav Elya Meir Bloch (1894–1954) who was for 12 years the rosh yeshiva at the Telz Yeshiva. Rav Bloch draws the lesson from the duplicated word that we must not only strive for justice, but also do so in a just way. In other words, the virtuous goal does not justify acting in ways that do not embody that same value. The Torah is telling us that we must pursue justice with justice.
These are principles that I see as integral to dealing with problems faced by the state of Israel. Anyone who thinks the problems can be negotiated away without recourse to enormous military strength is guilty of ignoring 3,500 years of history in the region. But anyone who sees power as the answer, without concern for justice, is ignoring the Torah itself. The verse “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” is often quoted as if it relates to justice in an abstract way, but the verse itself actually has a more specific focus. “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” it says, and then it goes on: l'ma'an tichyeh v’yarashta et ha’aretz, “that you may live and inherit the land.” It is specifically addressing holding onto the land of Israel.
Through might, you can win the battle; through justice, the war.
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