Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the Great Synagogue, Sydney.
Some think it presumptuous of the clergy to preach sermons to the judges, practitioners and teachers of the law, even though here and there the preacher, as in my own case, is not entirely a stranger to the legal realm.
Is a preacher entitled to judge the judges, to teach the teachers, to counsel the counsellors? In one respect, yes: for there are Biblical verities about justice, truth and peace that can never be sufficiently restated, and it is possible that these can lift the sights of the professional lawyers from case books and casuistries to the higher questions of aims, ends and ideals.
Yet there is a wider, even more insistent message that needs to be spoken on a Law Shabbat: a message not to the professionals but to the public.
For every citizen needs a Law Shabbat, an occasion to be reminded that the well-being of every one of us depends very largely on our own attitude to the law and our own respect for the rule of law.
All sorts of people try to evade, undermine, mock and infringe the law, and some seem to succeed. And this cannot be good for society. The Bible has a command for lawyers, v’shaf’tu et ha’am mishpat tzedek, “They shall judge the people with righteous judgement” (Deut. 16:18) – and one for every citizen, tzedek, tzedek tir’dof – “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20).
At a time when there is so much concern for citizen rights, we ought to be emphasising citizen duties, and this one ought to be highest on the list – “Justice, justice shall you pursue”.
Why is the word “justice” repeated? Perhaps it implies just ends and just means. But it may be telling us that there are two dimensions to justice or law – there is din, law, and lifnim mishurat hadin, “even more than the law”.
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 Australia – but there are Australians who do not respect the law or the dignity of others, and even in decent Australia there are times when no-one feels safe any more.
Can you ignore it when people shoot people, rob people, bribe people or accept bribes, advertise falsely, defraud others or the tax office, or target aboriginals, Asians or Islamics or whoever? Isn’t this “everyone doing what is right in their own eyes”? Isn’t 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 (Berachot 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 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?
The more that some disdain the law, the more must responsible people uphold it. The more that some stick to the laws that are enforceable, the more must decent people obey even unwritten laws that are unenforceable.
This Law Shabbat may we all, lawyers and lay people alike, rededicate ourselves to both din and lifnim mishurat hadin, and determine to play our part to ensure that our land, our law and our lives will ever stand for order, stability, truth, justice and compassion.