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.