By Eliana Fischel, HUC Student in Jerusalem and Women of the Wall Intern
Parshat Shoftim, the parsha that we read this week, the week in which we have welcomed Elul, is a parsha about justice. In the middle of the Israelites receiving the laws about how to live in the land of Israel, there is the statement that has become one of the bases for Jewish obligation towards social action today: tzedek, tzedek, tirdof –“Justice, justice, shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20).
The wording of this statement alone expresses the importance of the mitzvah. “Justice”-not once, but twice-“JUSTICE shall you pursue.” This pair of justices could be a repetition for emphasis sake, or there could be another meaning. There could be two different types of justice.
The parsha continues with the laws of warfare, laws for a time when the line between justice and violence can become blurred. For example, “when you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace” (Deut. 20:10). There is a moral standard when one is pursuing another nation. The larger picture of land and nationality does not pardon a people from acting justly. Similarly, there needs to be a moral standard when pursuing justice. Justice cannot be an excuse. The “greater good” cannot be a reason to act immorally on the ground. Yes, pursue Justice-the larger goal, Justice-but it must always be accompanied by justice, by acting in terms of Jewish ethics and morals; by acting with decency.
I welcomed the month of Elul this week with Women of the Wall, a group of women who have actively been pursuing justice each month for the past 25 years. Their Justice, the larger picture Justice, is the right to pray at the Kotel with a Sefer Torah. Their justice, the means to which they are accomplishing this goal, is through prayer. Prayer is never immoral. Prayer cannot hurt a being. Prayer is a means towards and ethical life.
Their counter parts are Haredi men and women who believe that women praying with tallitot and tefillin at the Kotel will de-sanctify this holy site. This is their Justice. This is an ideal that they believe in and although I don’t agree with it, as a pluralistic Jew who believes in the right to believe, I cannot say that they are fundamentally wrong. However, their justice, their means to this larger end is wrong. Drowning out prayer with whistles and a loud speaker is immoral. Shouting profanities at women and men because they are acting in terms of their beliefs is immoral. This is not “calling out for peace;” this is not justice.
As we enter this month of teshuvah and reflection, these words and different meanings of justice could be a base for our repentance. When have we acted in the name of Justice? When have we not acted in terms of justice? When did we use Justice as an excuse? How can we make sure these different types of justice are not separated in the future?
Lastly, the parsha ends with another law of warfare that I cannot let go unnoticed: when you are at war with a people “you must not destroy its trees” (Deut. 20:19). Again, justice is present; don’t destroy more than you need to. Trees bear fruit and supply sustenance; it would be unjust to take that away.
The “tree” has other significance in Judaism, most importantly the Tree of Life, the Torah. The Israeli Government has denied Women of the Wall this right. They have cut down that tree and denied a group of people the sustenance of Torah. Hopefully, this month of teshuva will be one of reflection for all and the year 5774 will be one in which all people can learn and thrive off the words of Torah, wherever they choose to do so.