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    Justice & truth – Shof’tim

    tzedek justiceThe famous verse, tzedek tzedek tir’dof, comes at the beginning of this week’s portion (Deut. 16:20).

    The translation of tzedek is usually “justice”, so the verse reads, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue”. But the Targum has a different view. Instead of tzedek, it says kushta, “truth”: “Truth, truth shall you pursue”.

    The Netinah LaGer (Nathan Marcus Adler), in commenting on the Targum, makes no distinction between justice and truth, apparently approximating one ethical concept to the other.

    The prophet Zechariah, however, like a number of other writers, does make a distinction. In a verse (8:16) quoted in Pir’kei Avot 1:18, Zechariah says, “Judge with truth, justice and peace”.

    Truth indicates trying to get to the true facts: “What really happened?” Justice looks at motives: “Why did each person act as they did?” Peace is the interests of society: “What verdict is best in all the circumstances?”

    All three are immensely difficult to achieve, which is why the verse in Parashat Shof’tim tells us to pursue them (tir’dof) even if in the end they prove elusive.

    By way of postscript let me add that I taught Jewish law for many years at university and tried to impress on my students that there is never likely to be an open-and-shut case in which all they need to do is to look up a law textbook and quote a precise dictum. No jurist can ever be certain they have found the 100% right answer to anything, but they are never exempt from trying.

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