President Obama and the Many Meanings of “Justice”

President Obama declared this past week, “Justice has been done.” I work for an organization that throws around the word “justice” every day, and also none too lightly. The juxtaposition left me uneasy.

At AJWS, we speak about justice in many different contexts. Sometimes the context is our work, for example, on “food justice,” described by Gottlieb and Joshi as “[a movement seeking] to ensure that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed and eaten are shared fairly.” Sometimes the context is specifically Jewish, as reads the oft-quoted line from a commandment-heavy section of Deuteronomy, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” That, however, does not quite help me understand what the President meant by “justice.” I think this is because the President’s “justice” translates in Hebrew not to tzedek, but to din.

Din” is used to describe God’s attribute of order and control. In modern Hebrew, it signifies law and the legal system. In the Jewish calendar, it is closely associated with the High Holidays, the days when, traditionally, God determines the fate of every living being for the upcoming year. Din is perhaps best translated as “judgment.”

Din, I think, is what was executed against Osama bin Laden. This is a justice that attempts to keep world order, keeping the bad guys in check. It is a concept that is, in traditional Jewish sources, generally administered by God. Whereas tzedek is generally doled out by people.

I truly do not mean to enter the heated conversation about if/how to celebrate the death of an enemy. I have my opinions and am unsure if I believe them entirely, like so many others. At minimum, I believe that each person has the right to commemorate the historic events of this week however that person sees fit. And at maximum, at this stage all I can do is try my best to draw a distinction.

Pursuing judgment (din), in the form it took this past week, was an act of retribution, relief and closure. To use High Holiday terminology, it sealed. It did not construct a new possibility; it delivered on a promise and at best paved a symbolic path for healing and strength.

Pursuing justice (tzedek), in the way I have come to understand it, is about constructing. It is about providing sustainable and long-lasting opportunity for life, liberty, and equality. It is about deep respect for all people and proactive concern for their rights.

These are not contradictions. They are, I believe, both forms of justice. But I sincerely hope that, in the eyes of all people, every moment of judgment is coupled with – and eclipsed by – healthy models for moving forward. That we celebrate retributive justice primarily for its potential to facilitate constructive justice. Otherwise, the justice we seek stays exclusively past-focused, and we may risk pursuing in the wrong direction.

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10 Responses to President Obama and the Many Meanings of “Justice”

  1. Warren Snaider says:

    Thank you very much for the distinction you drew between at least two types of “justice.”

  2. Gilberte says:

    This really is some thing I must do more research into, i appreciate you for the posting.

  3. Harvey says:

    There is also ‘Tzion B’Tzedek Tepadeh or ‘Zion will be redeemed with Justice’(righteousness), in the sense that Bin Laden was a definite threat to Zion (and all mankind) his execution was redemptive.

    • Ilan Caplan says:

      That is a fascinating example of a verse, Harvey — thank you so much for sharing that thought!

      If we are talking about the same verse (Isaiah 1:27), I think it reads fully “Tzion b’mishpat tipadeh v’shaveha bitzdakah,” which can be translated, “Zion will be redeemed with law (mishpat) and her returners with righteousness (tzedakah).” With their own nuances, “mishpat” is essentially “din” (law, judgment) and “tzedakah” is essentially “tzedek” (constructive justice).

      I think you are right that the elimination of a threat is redemptive, and I think the verse speaks to that. I wonder though about the verse’s second half – it seems to be picking up on the same dichotomy. Redemption may come through judgment, but returning and rebuilding may require a different model of justice.

      Thank you again for posting! Lots to think about.

  4. It is not a matter of sympathy for anyone, it´s about deliver the right information, the complete information of how things are developed and why did developed the way it did,people have to obey laws, that is why the sistem works you like it or not, 120 people of a 5000 living in this island, going agaist the law, thinking that they can do whatever they want is a human right violation agaist the rest of us that want to live in peace, that´s why we have a goverment, so dont give me that crap of "use of guns on a civilian population" because they are not a part of the civilian population in this place.get better informed in the first place

  5. topsongs says:

    He who taxes the gold makes the rules. – Robert Kiyosaki, creator of “Wealthy Dad, Poor Dad”

  6. quem (or quos) Deus perdere vult, dementat prius.

  7. FREE says:

    The extra you recognize, the more you recognize you do not know.

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