NiSh’ma: EmetBy :
Can we truly be both pursuers of peace and pursuers of justice? Several years ago, I bumped into my colleague Rabbi Meesh Hammer-Kossoy and told her about a track of courses on peace and conflict I was developing to augment her teaching on justice at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. I was stunned by her response: “Well, it looks like you and I are going to have some conflict!” For me, mediation and peace-building went hand-in-hand with justice work. For Meesh, as she later explained, justice and peace were more often than not in opposition with one another.
I later learned that this was an ancient disagreement. While I believe, in certain circumstances, we must take a stand on what is right in order to advocate for justice, I often seek to identify the conflicting perceptions of justice in order to pursue a deeper understanding. Then, we can try to balance between these conflicting perceptions in order to bring about peace. The psalmist writes, “Loving-kindness and truth meet (nifgashu); justice and peace kiss (nashaku).” (Psalms 85:11) A midrash uses this same verse to describe the significance of the loving encounter between Moses, the ultimate pursuer of justice, and Aaron, the paradigmatic pursuer of peace, when they meet for the first time after many years and kiss. (Exodus 4:27, Exodus Rabbah 5:10)
Another way to interpret this verse, however, is found in a powerful midrash on Creation. Rabbi Simon employs it to describe the fierce debate between the angels in the heavenly court regarding the Creation of humanity. The angels Loving-kindness (Chesed) and Justice (Tzedek) argued that humans should be created since they would do many acts of loving-kindness and justice. But the angels Truth (Emet) and Peace (Shalom) objected, asserting that humans would be full of lies and conflicts. This midrash interpreted the word “nifgashu” in the verse not as “meeting,” but rather as Loving-kindness and Truth opposing one another; the word “nashaku” was translated not as a “kiss” but as a clash between justice and peace. (Genesis Rabbah 8:5; Commentary of Rabbi Moshe Alshich on Psalms 85:11) This midrash understood how these values were opposed to one another and therefore interpreted the verse to reflect that relationship.
Today, with the sharp rise in clashes between people’s perceptions of justice, there is an even greater need for people to be pursuers of peace — to embrace both of these values even when they conflict with one another.
NiSh’ma: EmetBy :
First, allow me to substantiate the claim that my colleague Rabbi Daniel Roth attributed to me: The ideals of justice and peace often conflict with one another. Indeed, the Talmud sets up a sharp dichotomy between them: “Moses would declare ‘Let justice split the mountain.’ On the contrary, Aaron loved peace, pursued peace, and negotiated peace between people.” (Sanhedrin 6b) Justice is understood here as an act that splits mountains, or, in other words, something that unyieldingly separates things — right from wrong, winners from losers. Peace, on the other hand, is negotiated between people through compromise, who must relinquish a deeply held value in exchange for ending a conflict.
As a further example, the Torah details a bombastic, uncompromising, utopian plan for egalitarian justice — the redistribution of property represented in Shabbat (which commands universal rest), the sabbatical year (which demands loan forgiveness and land sharing), and Jubilee cycles (which legislate a return to ancestral plots of equal portions). And this is where I want to acknowledge Daniel’s claim that, sometimes, working for justice demands settling peacefully. The problem was, it didn’t work. The rich simply refused to lend to the poor. And without credit, the poor confronted even greater challenges because of the sabbatical legislation meant to empower them.
In trying to solve the credit crunch, the rabbis charted a middle ground between justice and peace, and, in doing so, reconciled themselves to incremental justice. In the name of tikkun olam, Hillel permitted lenders to circumvent the principled biblical call for loan forgiveness, thus making credit available to the poor. (Gittin 4:3) Absolute justice? Not exactly. But it was Hillel’s best effort to achieve economic opportunity for the poor, which was one of the ultimate goals of the sabbatical year.
NiSh’ma: EmetBy :
Psalms 85:11 lays out four of Judaism’s highest values: loving-kindness, truth, justice, and peace. Rabbi Meesh Hammer-Kossoy and Rabbi Daniel Roth explain how peace and justice are often at odds. But must truth also act as a foil to loving-kindness?
Our rabbis teach that truth belongs to God and must literally fall from heaven: “…a note fell from Heaven upon which ‘Truth’ was written. Rabbi Hanina said, ‘Learn from it that the signature of God is Truth.’” (Yoma 69b) Truth is so much God’s arena that Rabbi Hanina could not understand how perfect, flawless Truth could possibly have come from anywhere but the True King Himself.
In contrast, loving-kindness is entirely human; it acts as a conduit for the above-mentioned, otherworldly truths. When Jacob asks Joseph to bring his bones up from Egypt, the task is labeled as one of “loving-kindness and truth.” (Genesis 48:29) The medieval commentator Rabbi David Kimhi (known as RaDaK) explains that “loving-kindness” is what we might call “the extra mile” — a sympathetic move, an act propelled by the heart, a clear expression of humanity.
While such pure humanness and pure godliness might thus appear as opposites, the rabbis tell us that when truth and loving-kindness combine, they “atone for sin.” (Brachot 5b) To balance accuracy with sympathy, to acknowledge truth while allowing space for loving-kindness, is to come to a place of forgiveness — it is to be able to move on.