Two Justices (listening to many readers on a famous verse)

Like the previous blog, this is an experimental digression from one of the pieces of work I’m doing – on what I’m provisionally calling ‘evaluative injustice’, the phenomenon of some people being subject to moral judgement when others aren’t. I’ve been trying to get into it via the biblical texts on ‘partiality’/ ‘respect for persons’/ ‘favouritism’ – which comes up in Deuteronomy 16:19 – and was distracted by an adjacent text.

Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live (Deuteronomy 16:20).

It starts with the same word twice. Why?

The translators into Greek and Latin and English all add some interpretation at the beginning of that verse; the Septuagint and the Vulgate went for ‘justly you shall pursue justice’. Which makes sense to me in my current headspace, because I’m asking questions about how the whole moral space, the space of judging and speaking of justice, can be distorted from the start, so that although we’re talking about justice we’re not doing it justly.

But the Hebrew says ‘justice justice’. The interpretations take you into how difficult justice is, when it’s not only an idea on the page, when it’s something you have to pursue in order to live….

…when you’re building the institutions for it, which is what this section of Deuteronomy is about. So, the sages of the Talmud say, on one reading the two justices are the just person and the institution; if you want to find justice, you follow the best judge to the court where they sit, because one person with the right ideas won’t get anywhere without an institution and without social recognition of the importance of justice. Conversely, if as a community you want to do justice, you find righteous people and make them judges. The people and the institutions, you need both.

If you want to know about justice, pursue it, get out there, go and see where it’s happening. It’ll be different in every age, say the teachers. Seek it wherever you are. Follow the righteous judge to the court.

Good luck with that, says Calvin, maybe thinking about his experience of setting up institutions. It says ‘justice justice’ because in practice people are really bad at doing justice, and need to be told many times more than once. Judges show favouritism; that’s how it goes. Another text (Deut 10:17) says ‘God doesn’t take bribes’ just to show you how different God is from human beings. Jerome adds : and it’s also the case that people often turn from justice because they prefer their own version of the truth (Against the Pelagians 2.3).

In an unjust world we might simply have to keep on saying it – justice, justice.

But for all that, Ashi says, we don’t have the luxury of pessimism. This is a text about how to live in the real world. And the two justices are strict adherence to principle, and the compromises we always have to make to get things done. If we don’t recognise both, we can’t live. (And not everyone likes this interpretation. Compromise is dangerous ground).

You could say that the double justice is about how difficult the judge’s job is, and how it’s supposed to be difficult because it matters so much, and how we can’t get away from the difficulty. If anything worries you about the trial, you need to double check – is that justice? You need to pause between judgement and sentencing. You need to call someone back for an appeal.

Humans will always need second-guesses, backups, time to change, a pause between the first and the last judgement. A space for doubt but also for hope. Justice… justice.

You’ve been assuming this text is addressing people in power, says Ibn Ezra. But it’s about all of us, and if we want justice we have to be careful what we wish for. Justice justice, two equal sides, the balanced scales – you take it whichever way it goes. Or look at it another way – it’s easy to pursue justice before you know what the outcome is; but we have to tell you again to accept it once you think it might go against you. Justice – yes, even that justice.

Nachmanides says, the gap between the two justices is the gap between the justice you execute in the courts and the justice you fear.

Everyday acts of judgement and the justice of God. Divine justice calls to everyday acts of judgement, challenges them, provokes them; justice, justice shall you pursue. We reach out across the gap.

Justice imitates God, says Jerome in his homily on Psalm 14/15 (at least we think it’s him). There’s an old proverb that ‘justice knows no father or mother, it doesn’t respect persons, it only knows the truth’ – that’s divine justice, mundane things can’t sway it. That’s why the just person is the most deserving. The text is uncompromising, says Wesley, that’s the point of the repetition; justice at all times, in all causes, to all persons equally.

You’re back to the ideals, say a chorus of interpreters. We’re trying to run a society here. We’re trying to live.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg steps forward with the plaque from her study wall. The point, she says, is to pursue justice through the institutions of justice. We can’t stop at the justice we have, but this is where we start.

Two ends of the long arc of history as it bends.

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