The rule of the jungle is might is right. Whether due to limited food and water or other factors, the
weakest among the wild perish. There is no system to protect the weak. Human beings must be governed by principles of justice, hence one must be just to be spiritual.
Justice is a pillar of Judaism, as is stated in Ethics
of the Fathers (1:18). It is true that other peoples also
have a system of laws, but the concept of justice as taught by Torah is substantially different, because justice in Judaism is based on unalterable principles of Divine origin that are not subject to manipulation by society to meet its own needs. History has examples of systems of law that were anything but humane, such as the legendary corrupt laws of Sodom, or, in our own time, the laws adopted in Nazi Germany, which not only deprived Jews of social rights, but declared their very right to live null and void, leading to the atrocities of the Holocaust which were far more decadent than the behavior of brute beasts.
Torah authorities must execute justice within the limits provided
by the Torah, but may not abrogate Torah law, regardless of what may be thought to be advantageous to society. No court and no legislature can legalize anything forbidden by the Torah.
Although being governed by law is a uniquely human trait, it cannot be considered a spiritual trait when it is centripetal, and it is of little account whether the self toward which a behavior is directed
is the individual or society. Whatever is primarily centripetal in nature is lacking in spirituality.
We do not have to go back to Biblical history or even to several decades ago to see distortions of justice. This very day legislatures and courts across the country are legalizing behaviors which were abhorrent just a short while back, and this system of justice, which would be
impossible under Torah law, can hardly be said to contribute to spirituality.
The Torah repeatedly stresses the need to look after the needs of
the poor, the weak, and the underprivileged. Regardless of what the majority of people may prefer, Torah law cannot condone euthanasia, deviant behavior, or abortion unless the latter is to save the life of the mother.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein points out an
important difference between punishment in secular law and punishment in Torah. The law punishes a criminal primarily to deter him and others from harming society with their criminal behavior. This is why rehabilitation efforts in prison have been repeatedly fraught with failure. The purpose of imprisonment never was to help the person become a better person, but to protect society. Hence, the person who cares little about the rights of others when he enters prison is apt to feel the same way when he is released, and will return to his previous ways. In Torah, however, the primary purpose of punishment is to help the person realize that his behavior was wrong so that he can
become a better person.
The character of Torah-based justice may be seen by citing just
one example of Torah law. Suppose a poor person were to sue a very wealthy person, and when the two appear before the beis din (rabbinic tribunal), the poor person is dressed in very simple clothes, whereas the wealthy man is wearing a custom-made suit, a monogrammed shirt, alligator leather shoes, and is sporting a diamond ring. He is instructed, Either you buy the poor person clothes equal to those you are wearing, or you dress in simple clothes like him. If one of the litigants appears more impressive than the other,
this may cause the judges to lean toward him in their judgment.
On the other hand, the law may not be circumvented out of consideration for the poor, and if the verdict should favor the wealthy person, the judge may not reason, What difference would a paltry few hundred dollars make to this multi-millionaire? For this poor person, it may make the difference between having something to eat or starving. The law must be
applied justly. It is related that when such a case came before King David, he would rule justly, and then see to it that the needs of the poor person were cared for, but not at the cost of ruling contrary to law. There are numerous accounts of similar actions by rabbinic courts throughout Jewish history.
The pivotal role of justice as a criterion for humanity is stated in the Midrash, which relates that prior to creation of man, Gd sought counsel of the heavenly angels. Some discouraged Gd from creating man,
because man would be prone to lie and to quarrel, whereas others favored creation of man because he would be just (Bereishis Rabbah 8:5). It is
thus evident that justice is considered an essential component of humanity, hence also of spirituality.
The Torah attitude toward justice is illustrated in a story I
heard from my father.
In a town in Easter Europe there were two prominent Torah
scholars. One was Rabbi Chajkel, the religious leader of the community, and the other, Rabbi Azriel, served as the dayan (magistrate). The two were bosom friends, and spent many hours together in Torah study.
One time the two were learning together when a woman came in
and asked Rabbi Chajkel to please hold 500 rubles for her in safekeeping, since she was leaving town for several days and there was no other place in town where she felt her money would be safe.
When the woman returned for her money, Rabbi Chajkel was unable
to locate it. He searched all the drawers and cabinets in the house, and went through the pockets of every article of clothing he owned, but to no avail. The money was gone. He asked Rabbi Azriel whether he had seen where he had put the money, but Rabbi Azriel said he had been engrossed in his study and had not paid any attention.
It occurred to Rabbi Chajkel that several weeks earlier Rabbi
Azriel had mentioned that he was most distressed because he had a daughter of marriageable age, but he was encountering difficulty in finding an appropriate husband for her because he could not provide a dowry. Rabbi Chajkel knew that Rabbi Azriel was honest to a fault, but he was obsessed by the thought that Rabbi Azriel might have been so overwhelmed by his compassion for his child that he could not resist taking the money.
With a heavy heart, Rabbi Chajkel said to his friend, My beloved friend, I know that this is absurd, yet you and I were the only two people in the room. I know that you are beyond suspicion, but the woman is demanding her money, and since you were the only person who could have had access to it, the halachah requires that you take an oath that you did not take the money.
Rabbi Azriel turned pale. Rabbi Chajkel, he said, please let me think about this a bit. That evening Rabbi Azriel came to Rabbi Chajkels home and said, Here is 275 rubles. That is all I have.
Rabbi Chajkel, knowing that Rabbi Azriel did not possess that sum, had his suspicions reinforced. Where would Rabbi Azriel have amassed such a sum otherwise? With a firm tone he said, Im sorry, Rabbi Azriel. The amount is 500.
Give me one more day, Rabbi Azriel pleaded. The following day Rabbi Azriel brought an additional 125 rubles. Rabbi Chajkel became stern. I must have the entire 500, Rabbi Azriel, he
I do not have a single kopeck more, Rabbi Azriel said. Please ask the woman to accept a promissory note. The woman
agreed to do so.
Rabbi Chajkel did not speak to his formerly bosom friend again,
and if he met Rabbi Azriel in the street he would turn away. He was deeply grieved that his trusted friend had been unable to withstand temptation and had resorted to theft.
Eventually Passover approached, and in cleaning his study for the holiday, Rabbi Chajkel moved the shevisi (a plaque reminding one that Gd is present everywhere), and out fell the bundle of money! This is
where he had placed it that day, but it had not occurred to him to look for it there. Realizing how cruel he had been to Rabbi Azriel, he emitted a loud shriek and fainted.
When he was revived, Rabbi Chajkel wept bitterly, tore at his beard, and beat his head against the wall. What had he done? He had accused the saintly Rabbi Azriel of being a thief! He could not be consoled. He ran to the synagogue where the townsfolk had gathered for Minchah (afternoon prayer), stepped to the pulpit, and while crying profusely shouted, Dear people! I am no longer your Rabbi. I do not deserve to be even your janitor. I am a scoundrel! I have aggrieved a tzaddik! I do not deserve to walk on the face of the earth! He then ran to the Ark, threw open its doors, and shouted, Only You, Gd, can forgive me.
Just then Rabbi Azriel entered the synagogue. Rabbi Chajkel ran to him, fell to the ground and took hold of his feet. Forgive me, holy friend. Please find it in your heart to forgive me! Given the circumstances, I was bound by halachah to require you to swear. But I was so wrong. I should have known better!
Rabbi Azriel helped his friend to his feet and warmly embraced him. Rabbi Chajkel, he said, there was never any need for
forgiveness. You merely did what halachah required you to do. You had no other recourse.
I have never, in all my life, taken an oath, Rabbi Azriel said. When you told me that halachah required me to swear, I shuddered. I therefore took the 250 rubles I had borrowed for my daughters wedding, and sold whatever trinkets my wife had for another 25
When you told me that was not enough, I sold my library for 125 rubles. I am so grateful to you, Rabbi Chajkel, that you prevailed upon the woman to accept my promissory note for the balance. I am so grateful, because I do not know what I would have done had she not done so. To swear, even when you know you are swearing the truth, is awesome. You spared me the anguish of taking an oath, and for that I shall forever be grateful.
Yes, we had spiritual people. Rabbi Azriel was a magistrate, and when the Talmud states that Gd is present in the
beis din, we can readily understand why. Gd must have
profound pleasure when He observes judges like Rabbi Azriel implementing the law of the Torah.