Less than you Can. All that you Should.

We’ve just concluded the High Holy Day season.  On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke to my congregation on the topic of Justice.  Here are some excerpts from my sermon.  Click here to hear the full sermon.

Less than you can. All that you should.

…A better year, a better world, means more of us taking less than we can but all that we should. Today I want to talk about justice. Not abstractly. Not a vague concept we call tikkun olambut a concrete mission statement that can inform how each of us, in countless contexts big and small, might increase equity, fairness, godliness and love. I’m talking about justice in our homes and relationships, justice in our schools and urban institutions, justice in our country and in our world.  Less than you can. All that you should. 

…There’s a concept in Jewish law (halacha) that has always baffled me: Lifnim m’shurat hadin, which is usually translated “beyond the letter of the law.” But…what does it say about halachato claim it’s not enough, …that you need better than the law, to mete out true justice in society?

…Each community or society has a set of norms that define its existence, that contain and constrain it. That line is what we are due, what we are fully entitled to under those set of norms, rules or laws. When I drive my car, by law I may go 65 miles an hour on the highway. I don’t have to, but I may. If I go 55, though, I know (because I’m from Illinois, not Maryland) that I should drive in the right lane so that those who exercise their right to drive faster, can pass me.  We all exist within that circle called a speed limit, and each of us chooses how much of that space we claim, how close to that line we come…. “Beyond the letter (or line) of the law” would be speeding.

…And this is my point: the parameters of justice are not the totality of justice, just like an orange is more than its peel. And that’s good because, guess what? Lifnim m’shurat hadindoesn’t actually mean “beyond the letter of the law.” Each of us (our families, our city, nation) exists within an imaginary circle (shurat hadin), our circle of justice…. Lifnim m’shurat hadin, means within the line of justice, within the circle of what we’re due, what we’re entitled to. Less than you can. (see C. Hayes, “Legal Truth, Right Answers and Best Answers: Dworkin and the Rabbis,” pg. 113-114).

Which brings me to the second part of my 5779 bumper sticker mantra: all that you should. People with power and access are good at taking all that they can. Which is, not always, but too often, more than they should. But taking less than you can is only half the equation, because societies aren’t made whole through paternalism. It requires a partnership, a contracting by some and an expanding by others.

…It wasn’t men who made woman suffrage possible in 1920, as Beth Am’s own Elaine Weiss explains in her wonderful new book The Woman’s Hour. It was women and the male allies who worked with them. And it’s African American protesters…who brought about the beginning of police reform in Baltimore through the Consent Decree, immigrants who talk about being separated from their children, women who say enough of being overlooked, underpaid and objectified, and teenagers who say they’ve simply had enough of gun violence in their schools. And, it wasn’t the British or even the United Nations who made the State of Israel. It was the Jewish people who did that.

…This is Rosh Hashanah, but another name for it is Yom HaDin, day of justice. This year…let’s consider the nature of justice. What sort of communities do we want to work toward this year?  What kind of nation do we want to support this year?  What sort of world…do we want to pass along to the next generation?

(A version of this post will appear in the October issue of Jmore).

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