Justice as a collective venture
Thoughts on parashat Bechukotai
Our Torah portion for this week is called Bechukotai, which can be translated as “in my laws”. It starts with אם־בחקתי תלכו (im bechukotai telechu – lit. 'if you walk in my laws’) and centers on a brief but eloquent promise of blessings for those who follow God’s ways and an lengthy series of curses for those who reject God’s ways:
If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land […] I will look with favor upon you and make you fertile and multiply you […] I will establish My abode in your midst, and will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people. (Leviticus 26:3-5,9-12)
But if you do not obey me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all my commandments and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and body to languish; you shall saw your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you; you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you […] Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. (Leviticus 26:14-20)
The entire passage of these blessings and curses is 43 verses long. The quotations above are only the excerpts that give us the general picture of what we are dealing here with. it is one more expression of the deuteronomic doctrine of the reward and punishment, which lies a the core of the oldest Jewish concept of justice, which can be summarized in one sentence: if you do good, you will be rewarded, if you do bad, you will be punished, which means that all your (moral) actions have consequences and determine your fate (in a pretty simple way). All of that implies individual responsibility for each and every action we take.
This Jewish doctrine of reward and punishment has been theologically challenged by the rabbis basically in two different ways. Firstly, it was seen through the lens of theodicy, which typically puts the human individual at its center and deals with the problem “why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer”. The answer to that question depends on who is to take a bigger chunk of responsibility for what happens in this world, God or human beings. Another way the rabbis reflected on this doctrine has to do with the question: is there an undeserved suffering? Does the fact of suffering always imply a sin committed prior to it? Is moral wrongdoing the only cause of suffering? If the answer is yes, then it results in reversing the logical implication at the core of the entire concept: not only if you do bad, you will be punished, but also if you are suffering it means that you are punished and this means that you must have committed a sin. This radical answer is sometimes called the doctrine of retribution and it is theologically grounded in the Song of Moses (The Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 32), which defines the default moral and existential position of the Chosen People as pretty low: we are corrupt, stiff necked people, and for this reason we have a huge debt to the Eternal for his great deeds and the miracles He had performed to save us from Egyptian slavery and to lift us from our spiritual misery.
But there is yet another way we can approach this passage and it has to do with how we understand the pronoun 'you’ in it: whether this pronoun denotes a human individual or whether it is understood collectively and denotes the entire group of people. As mentioned above, the rabbis tended, although not exclusively, to view this doctrine through the individualistic lens (and that’s the typical way modern people view it), and this brought them to the problems mentioned above, however, if we understand it collectively, it completely changes the direction into which it leads us intellectually. If we understand it the latter way, it leads us to the vision of what the world will be like when it truly becomes God’s kingdom, when most members of the human community would follow God’s ways. It’s worth mentioning here that the Torah articulates here the necessity to view not only the people, but also the mitzvot in a collective way:
But if you do not obey me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all my commandments and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you […] (Leviticus 26:14)
Therefore you, the people of Israel, shall observe ALL my commandments, says God, and if you do so the righteous will (always) be rewarded and the wicked will (always) be punished. Thus, this doctrine will work only if the (vast) majority of the society would observe the (vast) majority of laws (we should have said that ALL people should observe ALL the divine laws to make this happen but given what we experience and know about human beings it seems to be a pretty unrealistic idea).
Only by creating a situation like that are we able to establish a system in which justice prevails. There will still be a margin of people experiencing injustice and unjust suffering – that seems unavoidable given, for example, the general lack of widespread, fundamental and rigid structure defining what’s the proper ethical conduct and what is not. There will always be cases of premeditated evil and inadvertent evil, which will result in undeserved human suffering. But our goal is to always limit the scope of possible wrongdoings and to constantly expand the sphere of justice, Divine law and all other Jewish values – love, devotion to communal life, education, truthfulness, kindness, respect and responsibility. All of that should be done maintaining a proper balance between individual freedoms and the interests of the community, which is a theme for another d’var Torah.