Justice Redefined (or Predefined)

November 7, 2011

Ten years ago, I had the honor of being asked to speak at the 2001 Jewish Deaf Conference. I researched and wrote this speech on the Jewish concept of Justice, and to this day I consider this among the best speech I’ve ever given. I think I already posted this years ago, either here or on another (now defunct) blog – but I wanted to share this again.

As a side note: the English / Speech Communication professor I refer to twice in this speech passed away on Valentine’s Day, 2011. She was also a close friend and mentor. I miss her immensely. My uncle, who I also mention in this speech, passed away several years ago; I also miss him and still hold a great deal of admiration for him.

Here ’tis.


A Different Concept of Justice

Jewish Deaf Conference Speech
Delivered on August 15, 2001

When Debbie Sonnenthal and Steve Brenner asked me to be the co-keynote speaker, I felt a sense of panic over several things.  How dare I speak to you, when many of you have lived much fuller lives than me?  What could I tell you, that some of you haven’t heard already from me over and over again?  How will I appear, speaking with Lee Meyerhoff Hendler, who’s well known through America and especially in the Jewish circles, and with whom I’m extremely flattered to share this opportunity?  And, most of all, how could I stand here in front of my speech teacher from college, Barbara Boyd?  She’s sitting right there.  I feel like she’s grading me at this very moment.  I feel her analyzing my poise, my stance, my signs, and my every word.  At the end of this speech, I will have to ask her in private how I did.

Anyway, after I accepted the offer to be co-keynote speaker, I went to work thinking about what I could discuss with you.  And I went home and had dinner and cleaned up the dishes, and thought some more.  I wanted to talk to you about something that means much to me.  And, suddenly, I began thinking about a story that my uncle David told me.  He’s an Orthodox Rabbi, with a beard down to here, and who lives in Israel with his family. Struggling with his limited knowledge of sign, here’s the story he told me many years ago:

There was a successful lawyer who won all of his cases.  He worked for a big private law firm, and he had all the money he needed.  He had a big home in a nice part of town.  He had a hard-working wife and three wonderful children.  He had memberships to the best clubs in town, and his name was known all over town.  It seemed as if he had gotten everything he wanted in life.  Yet, he had this feeling, a feeling that something was missing.  At first, this feeling was very small, but as this lawyer won more and more of his cases, this feeling grew and grew.  Finally, this feeling that something was missing became so bothersome that he brought it up with his wife.  Of course his wife took it personally, thinking he was criticizing her.  ‘Not so,’ he assured her.  ‘There’s something missing, and I think it has to do with what I do as part of my job.’  But, being so interwoven in his life, his wife could not help him with this.

So, he went to his boss, asking if she had ever experienced this feeling as if something was missing.  His boss said, ‘What’s wrong?  You’re our best attorney.  How could there be something missing?’  So, getting no answers from his boss, the lawyer went to his old professor from college and asked why he felt something was missing.  The professor told him, ‘You were my best student.  I taught you well.  How could you feel like there’s something missing?’  The lawyer asked his friends.  They all told him, ‘What do you mean, there’s something missing from your life?  You seem as if you do have everything.  Just accept the fact that life is not perfect.’  The attorney knew that that was not the right answer, either.  He even asked people on the street.  And he couldn’t find the answer to exactly what was missing.

Finally, this lawyer went to see his rabbi.   And the lawyer explained that he’d been feeling as if something has been missing from his life.  The lawyer explained how successful he is, winning all his cases, having a wonderful wife and three wonderful children.  He told the rabbi how he felt he had all these pluses in his life, and asked why he felt unbalanced, as if there was something important and vital that was missing from his life.

The rabbi smiled and said, ‘Ah, I think I see what is missing.  You win all of your cases, no matter whether you know the person you are representing is right or not.’  The rabbi continued, ‘You constantly take one side or another, and you win that side in court.  It appears that you do not work to make sure compromise is reached, only that you win for the side that had hired you.  You’re left without a sense of balance.  You’re left without a feeling of tzedek.  You’re left without a feeling of justice.’ When the lawyer heard this simple word, justice, he knew that that was exactly what was missing from his life.  He had kept winning his cases without regard to whether it was the right thing to do or not.  Even though he worked within the justice system, he still felt unbalanced from his single-minded pursuit of winning just for the side by whom he was hired.

So, the attorney began weaving in justice throughout his life.  He taught it to his children.  He practiced it with his wife.  And, he tried to work more toward justice at work rather than toward winning every single case.  His co-workers noticed that the attorney took a different approach toward his cases.  He began to encourage negotiation and mediation, and his reputation grew and he became more successful.  But success was not what was important to this man anymore.  Instead, he felt more balanced; he was now working toward incorporating more justice in his life.

Now, I suspect the wise character at the end of this story depends on who is telling this story — and since it was my uncle, this wise character was a rabbi.  But the point of the story lingered in my mind — justice.  A simple word, justice.  But what is justice?  When I think of justice, I thought of the blindfolded woman holding up a scale.  I knew that represented a neutral justice system, free from outside influence.  That still didn’t define just what justice is to me.  I looked justice up in the dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and two of the entries on this says that justice is ‘the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action,’ and ‘conformity to this principle or ideal: righteousness.’  But, to me, those were just a bunch of fancy words that did not quite express just what justice is.

Digging deeper, I did some research on the Jewish concept of justice. I found out that the Jewish word for justice and righteousness, ‘tzedek,’ appears in the Torah 120 times.  That shows that the Torah put a high emphasis on justice.  I discovered that the ideal of tzedek was not that of the blindfolded woman holding up a scale, but more like a connection with and relationship with ourselves, with our family, and with society.

We are more familiar with ‘tzedekah,’ which means righteous giving in an attempt to help balance out the injustice elsewhere in society.  A concept that is similar to tzedekah is ‘tikkun olam,’ or repairing the world through social justice.  This repairing could happen through our own volunteerism and activism, or by things being set straight or put into order.  Things being put into order.  Something may have happened in the past, some injustice, which put things into disarray.  The concept of tikkun olam made me think of what I have done to put things back in order.  And I remembered something that I did that I think was perhaps my greatest tikkun olam without knowing it until later.  Here’s the story.

My grandmother had always been very proud and supportive of me.  But, when I told my grandmother I was planning on going to law school, she warned me it would be difficult, that I might fail, that I might not find a job.  I was surprised at her response, when in the past she’d always been supportive.  And I thought, maybe she’s afraid because I’m deaf; maybe she thinks law school is too difficult for a deaf person.  In spite of her concerns, I went to law school, struggled, and got fair — not great — grades.  Two months before graduation from law school, my grandmother asked me to sit down with her.  She asked me if I knew my grandfather used to be an attorney.

I was amazed; I thought my grandfather was always a psychologist who studied under Carl Jung and then moved to Los Angeles to set up his practice.  No so, explained my grandmother.  She told me that my grandfather was an attorney in Germany before World War II.  And then, in the 1930’s, Hitler declared that Jewish people could no longer practice as attorneys in Germany.  My grandfather could no longer work as an attorney, and so he studied to be a psychologist.  He was later put in concentration camp, for several months, before he got out with his family on a visa to England and then to the United States.  I had never known that he was an attorney, and I was stunned by the news.  It was because I was Jewish and going into law school that she was afraid for me, not because I was deaf.

Two months later, on my law school graduation day, the most precious gift I received was from my grandmother.  She gave me my grandfather’s 1930’s diploma from law school.  I was so moved by this gift that I cried.  From this gift, I knew my grandmother was saying two things.  First, that she was very proud of me for finishing law school.  And, two, that she considered what I had just done to be my attempt at tikkun olam to balance out the injustice that was done to my grandfather by Nazi Germany.  By graduating from law school, I had done my part to put things into order, to correct the injustice done to my grandfather 60 years before.

So, after remembering my grandfather’s law degree, I began to understand a little more just what justice is.  It’s not just deciding what is right and what is not right.  To me, the Jewish concept of tzedek — a connection with and responsibility for other people, was what really defined justice.  It meant doing tikkun olam, or repair of the world.

Here’s another story that shows how justice is not just neutrally deciding on the right thing, but also involves working toward responsibility and repair.  Many, many years ago in Italy, back before the Roman Empire, in a small town named Atri, a king set up a great bell with a rope hanging from it.  He declared that any person feeling he or she has been wronged should just ring this bell, and a group of wise men will assemble and decide on what justice should be done.  For many years, people came and went, pulling on the rope and ringing this bell, and the wise men of the town of Atri would hand out justice.  After many more years, the rope hanging from the bell withered away, and a farmer attached vines to the bell so that people could still ring the bell.

In that town, there lived a soldier who used to love hunting with his many horses and his dogs.  However, as the soldier became older, he loved gold more and more.  He sold off all his dogs and all of his horses except for his favorite horse.  However, the soldier did not want to spend money and effort to keep his favorite horse in a stable and feed him.  So, the soldier just let the horse wander around, becoming thinner and thinner while the soldier stayed in his home planning how to save his gold.

One hot afternoon, after being chased by dogs and being stung by thorns, the horse hid behind the thick vine leading up to the bell.  Being famished, the horse began to tug at the vine to eat it.  The bell rang, again and again!  Because it was a hot day, the people of the entire town were at their homes, asleep, but when the bell rang, they all woke up and ran to see who was ringing the bell.  The wise men immediately recognized this poor, starving horse and knew he was the soldier’s horse.  And they all agreed that the poor horse was starving for justice.  They called the soldier up, and asked why the soldier had neglected his horse.  The soldier made excuses, and he thought the whole thing was a joke.

The wise men conferred with themselves, and then declared with grave faces, ‘This horse had served you, the soldier, well in youth.  And so you shall serve him well in his old age.’  They then ordered the soldier to provide food and shelter for the horse for as long as the horse lived.  And the soldier, being very embarrassed, did just that.

Remember when I told you my speech professor is sitting right there? She was also my English literature professor.  I’m certain she was waiting for me to throw in some reference to a poem or literature.  Barbara Boyd, I’m sure you’d be happy to know that this is from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Bell of Atri.’

But I didn’t tell you this story just to make my former professor happy.  To me, this story shows how we work toward repair of the world, toward balancing out injustice elsewhere.  I understand that without justice, without tzedek, I would feel like something is missing from my life.  Just like the attorney in my wise uncle’s story, or the horse without food and shelter.  Every day, as I work as an attorney at the Department of Justice, working with civil rights, I try to keep a sense of tzedek, and of how my relationship with others affect them.

I think I have said enough.  Go out and work for tikkun olam.  Keep tzedek, justice, in your heart and in what you do.

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