This week, Jews around the world will read the Torah portion known as Shoftim (Judges). This particular section of Deuteronomy instructs the Israelites to establish judges and officers in their communities, and includes the famous injunction, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
Like many, I have long been fascinated and perplexed by this command. Why is “justice” repeated twice? And why are the people instructed to pursue justice rather than to achieve it? The answers that immediately spring to mind — the second “justice” is for emphasis, and the command to “pursue” a nod to the idealism of the rule — do not fit comfortably with the larger text of the Torah. The direct repetition of a word, for example, is not common in Biblical text, and traditional exegesis demands that the second use carry a separate and independent meaning. Over the years, I have heard and read many thoughtful takes on the issue. Perhaps, for example, the repetition of “justice” captures substantive and procedural justice, or justice for the individual and for the community, or social justice and justice under the law.
The term “pursue” is equally difficult. Granted, it is impossible for any society to actually achieve perfect justice; perhaps dogged pursuit is all that can be expected of us. But the Torah includes other commands that are equally inconsistent with human nature. “Do not covet,” for example, is an impossible task for mere humans to adhere to, yet it comes with no qualifying language. So why say “pursue” here?
These questions pop into my mind every year around this time, a natural consequence of reading Shoftim around the start of the new law school year. But this time, there was another reason to take a close look at the Biblical injunction to pursue justice. It came in the form of an extraordinary recent episode of Bari Weiss’s new podcast, Honestly. In this episode, Weiss and guest podcaster Kmele Foster examine the “Central Park Karen” story from last summer. They reveal that the simple, straightforward story that was presented to the public is in fact complex, nuanced, and oftentimes messy. And it raises all sort of difficult questions about how our society metes out justice, both in and out of court.
As many readers are keenly aware, on May 25, 2020 an altercation took place in New York’s Central Park between a dog owner named Amy Cooper and a birdwatcher named Christian Cooper (no relation). Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper to leash her dog, as required by city law in that section of the park. When she did not do so, he pulled out some dog treats and offered them to the dog. Amy Cooper responded, “Don’t you touch my dog!” Christian Cooper then began recording Amy Cooper with his cell phone, at which point she threatened to call the police, saying “I’m gonna tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” Amy Cooper did eventually place a 911 call, telling the dispatcher “There is an African-American man–I am in Central Park–he is recording me and threatening myself and my dog.” After Amy Cooper communicated with the 911 dispatcher, Christian Cooper stopped his cell phone recording and left. Amy Cooper was met by the police at the edge of the park. Later that day, a video of the incident from Christian Cooper’s cell phone was released on social media, and quickly went viral. Amy Cooper faced brutal criticism on social and mainstream media, received multiple death threats, was terminated from her job, and was charged with filing a false police report. She eventually went into hiding.
On the podcast, Foster does terrific investigative work to provide the fuller context of the encounter. He reveals, for example, that the argument between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper occurred amidst an ongoing, multi-year feud between birdwatchers and dog owners in that area of Central Park. He further reminds us that the encounter came in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in New York, when everyone was generally on high alert and encounters with other people were seen as particularly dangerous.
Certain details of the encounter, not captured on the video, also add critical context. After the incident, for example, both parties recalled that Christian Cooper had told Amy Cooper, “You do what you want to do, and then I’ll do what I want to do” — a phrase sharpened in its effect by the physical power imbalance between Amy and Christian, the isolated location within Central Park, and the fact that Amy Cooper had been sexually assaulted as a teenager. Foster also tracked down the 911 tape of Amy Cooper’s call, and learned that the 911 operator could not hear Amy clearly — perhaps an explanation as to why Amy repeatedly said that “an African-American man is threatening me.”
The most important piece of context, however, is the timing of the encounter, which coincided almost exactly with the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Suddenly the two events — more than a thousand miles apart and occurring under different conditions — were inextricably linked in the eyes of the public, with explicit encouragement from the media. As Weiss and Foster put it, the poetic truth of privileged whites generally exerting their privilege over black men was more important and perhaps more desirable (at least to some) than the actual truth of a complicated and messy encounter between two New Yorkers, each of whom was emotionally primed for an altercation that morning.
The criminal charges against Amy Cooper were eventually dropped after Christian Cooper refused to press charges or cooperate with the police. There is little doubt that the charges never would have held up in court. But in some ways, a full-blown trial would have produced a better result for the parties and the public. Both sides could have presented evidence about the encounter, revealing it to be far more complex than what the media presented. The public would have learned about the audio problems on the 911 call, about Christian Cooper’s ongoing frustration with unleashed dogs in that section of Central Park, and about the conditions of Amy Cooper’s psyche that would have led her to feel afraid during the encounter. To be sure, in trials both sides often try to present their respective sides in glowing, simplified terms. But the beauty of the trial is that all the evidence can be laid out on the table — not filtered by a media searching for poetic truth — and both sides can challenge and contextualize the other’s evidence.
Societies are prone to grab onto poetic truth and simple justice, often for perfectly valid reasons. Simplifying complex matters can reveal universal truths or provide moral clarity. Even the ancient Israelites, just a few chapters before being commanded to pursue justice, were instructed to conquer the idolatrous societies in the land they were about to enter. Like many people on the verge of a major transition, they needed moral certainty to establish themselves as a unique people. So, too, American history is filled with moments in which actual truth has taken a back seat to the moral truth of the time — sometimes with positive effects on civic soulcraft, and sometimes with disastrous ones.
Mature societies are able to accept poetic truth, but also to move beyond it to acknowledge the complexity of both current events and past actions. They strive to go beyond blunt judgment, make amends for past failures, and implement strategies to improve going forward. In this sense, wise and mature societies are like wise and mature people. They are not perfect, and they will continue to make mistakes, but they are more comfortable with their identity and more willing to acknowledge their failings and try to do better.
The United States is just such a society. The last year and a half have been a time of great turbulence, and the pursuit of poetic truth and justice has left some strengthened and others devastated. But actual truth and individual dignity still matter in this country. Eventually we will have a reckoning about our reckoning, and a more difficult, complicated truth about the interactions of our 330 million citizens will emerge.
So here we have another way of looking at “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” Perhaps it is meant to remind us that justice — even fueled by the best of intentions — is often incompletely served in the first instance, and that the passage of time requires us to reflect on what we did well as a society and where our work was unfinished.