31 March 2010

Omer 1: Justice

Omer Day One

Zion shall be redeemed through justice, and those that return to her through tzedakah. --Isaiah 1.27

"The most striking phenomenon in the evolution of the Judaic concept of justice is the recognition of the injustice inherent in both divine and human justice." So wrote Haim Cohen in his essay on Justice for Arthur Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr excellent collection, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (1987). The immediate corrective that the Jewish system put into place was to mediate the pure attribute of "justice" with the attribute of "mercy." True justice needs to reflect both characteristics in order to approximate its Divine origin.

Cohen concludes his essay with questions: "Might it be that true divinity, of justice as of all else, is a description of quality rather than of origin? That God in his wisdom instilled in every human being a sense of justice and a sense of injustice to serve as the test to which all justice and injustice must be put?"

I thought of this essay this morning, when reading a harrowing story by Nina Bernstein in the Times about Jerry Lemaine, a legal Haitian immigrant who is facing deportation for the offense of having a joint in his pocket. Arrested in New York, sent to an immigration court in Texas, where the Texas and Louisiana federal district interprets immigration law differently than in New York, Lemaine has faced solitary confinement, racial prison beatings, and untreated depression, only to be saved (temporarily) by a young pro bono attorney up in New York who decided to take his case (an amicus brief on Lemaine's behalf has been filed in a Supreme Court case that will soon decide his fate.)

I read this story as a Jew and a rabbi and come down unequivocally on the side of mercy. I find it mind-boggling that a federal law can be interpreted two completely different ways, depending upon where one gets sent in the unpredictable maze of US immigration law. I was complaining about this to my wife this morning when she reminded me of something we heard said by the amazing attorney Stephen Bright last week at the EJI dinner. Quoting an Alabama judge who presided over a death-penalty case, Bright recounted, "This judge said to me, 'The Supreme Court has over-turned me twice in my life but I overturn the Supreme Court every day.'"

No naivete here. I get how the battle for justice, and whose justice, will or should prevail.

But one reads a story like this and it seems to me, from the perspective of Judaism's reckoning, mercy should be shown to Jerry Lemaine.

In the counting of the Omer from Passover to Shavuot, we might ask ourselves anew what it means to receive Torah on Shavuot and to orient our sense of justice to Judaism's classic rendering: "The most striking phenomenon in the evolution of the Judaic concept of justice is the recognition of the injustice inherent in both divine and human justice."

Its inherent imperfection calls upon us for mediation whenever and wherever necessary.

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