Parashat Shoftim

Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue

Justice, expressed in Parashat Shoftim, is one of the eternal religious obligations of Judaism.

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Whereas sacrifice could only function while the Temple stood in Jerusalem, justice and righteousness were essential during the biblical period and are no less mandated today.

Whereas sacrifices could only atone for unintentional, accidental sins, acts of righteousness and justice atone even for intentional sins.

Whereas sacrifices are offered only by humanity, even God is obligated to practice justice and righteousness.

Whereas sacrifices are significant only in this world, righteousness and justice will remain a cornerstone in the Coming World.

For all of these reasons, the midrash affirms the centrality of justice as a Jewish calling. We cannot consider ourselves pious Jews without a firm commitment to making the world a more just and righteous place.

How we treat the weakest in our midst (the "widow" and "orphan," to use the Torah's language) is still the irreplaceable core of our identity. None of this should imply that the other mitzvot are not important. All mitzvot, both ritual and ethical, reflect the commandments of God as understood by the Jewish people throughout history. All of them play an essential role in lifting us above our own self-centeredness and the despotism of time. All of the mitzvot act to refine character and to mold piety. All of the commandments express our passion for God and for our brit (covenant) with God.

That having been said, it remains to assert--as a matter of Jewish integrity and a rebuttal of those who would tailor Judaism to fit a Christian mold--that ethics and a passion for justice remain the engines driving the entire Jewish enterprise. Rituals are essential and beautiful, but they remain frosting. Goodness, justice and decency form the base. As the Torah insists, "Justice, justice shall you pursue."

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.