Q. In the famous verse about justice (Deut. 16:20), “Justice, justice shall you pursue”, why is the word “justice” (tzedek) repeated?
The first principle is law. Judaism is scathing about societies where people say let din v’let dayyan, “there is no law and there is no judge”. This, according to Targum Yonatan (Gen. 4:8), is what Cain said to Abel before killing him with impunity. The Bible is also scathing about a society where ish hayashar b’einav ya’aseh – “everyone does what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Thank God, that is not and never has been the way in democratic nations – but there are always people who do not respect the law or the dignity of others, and even in decent countries there are times when no-one feels safe any more.
Can you ignore it when people shoot people, rob them, bribe them or accept bribes, advertise falsely, defraud others or the tax office, or target members of other races or religions? Isn’t this “everyone doing what is right in their own eyes”? Isn’t this Cain saying there is neither law or judge?
Every moral tradition rises up in protest. Lo zu haderech, we proclaim: “This is not the way!” If you do not like the law, or a particular law, democratic means are available to make your point. But the condition of living in and benefiting from a good society is that you honour its law. And if some people act in a certain way because they think they are not getting a fair go, their problem has to be addressed appropriately in the interests of everyone.
The second major principle is lifnim mishurat hadin, “even more than the law”. This is a moral concept – as Boaz Cohen puts it, “obedience to moral principles which have no legal sanction, obedience to the humanitarian impulses of the heart, obedience to conscience, to a sense of justice and to a feeling for fair play” (Law and Tradition in Judaism”, p. 220).
Lifnim mishurat hadin is what Lord Moulton, in an essay called “Law and Manners”, called obedience to the unenforceable. It is a good phrase. It suggests that good people will willingly, when appropriate, forgo their rights.
The Talmud says that God Himself sets the example by treating human beings better than he has to, better than they deserve (B’rachot 7a). A good citizen does likewise, treating others – a tenant, an employee, a customer, whoever it happens to be – better than the mere law requires, because we are human and they are human and we are all children of one God.
The Talmud is replete with examples. It praises litigants who are decent people and agree on a compromise (B.B. 99b). It recognises that according to law one can push one’s rights to their furthest boundary, but recommends that we hold back and limit our claims and rights out of sheer human decency.
Business life throws up so many situations where lifnim mishurat hadin would be the more honourable course. Take just one instance, the closing of local bank branches that is presumably lawful but may not be moral because it puts ordinary citizens at a disadvantage. The question should always be not merely, “Is it allowed” but “Is it decent” to do what is proposed?