“Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue:” Finding Hope in Justice-Seeking Movements. by Ivy Helman

20140903_180423For the past few weeks, there has been a lot of discussion about racism in the United States and rightly so. It is clear from the lack of charges and the repetition of similar crimes across the United States by different members of various law force communities that some people because of the color of their skin are immune to the consequences of their actions and others, also because of the color of their skin, are often the victims of such actions. Criticism, here, in the forms of protests, federal inquiries and outrage are essential.

I am reminded of oft-quoted part of the Torah: Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:20, one that I saw on some of the signs Rabbis carried with them in the protests. “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you,” (from the JPS translation). G-d tells those early Israelites that justice is a requirement not just for their survival in the Promised Land, but also if they want to have good, long lives. Later tradition, from the Talmud to Rashi and beyond, interpret this passage as a call for a just court system within Jewish society.  Likewise, all who use the system should have the principle of justice in mind.  There is also a lot of conjecture as to why justice is said twice. Many modern scholars call attention to the way in which religion and state were considered one in same for this time period and much of human history. They remind us of the mindset of the time; people understood that justice was decreed through judges appointed by their religious community. This might seem problematic to scales-of-justice-logothe secularism of today.

Nonetheless, this quote still carries weight in modern Jewish life. For many Jews today this quote means that to be a Jew is to seek justice in the form of just relationships, just actions and just living. Hence, ending racism is a religious duty because it is unjust.

Therefore, this Torah pasuk (verse) calls us to task. We need to live just lives, sustain just relationships and behave justly. When justice fails, legal systems need to step in and provide just consequences. No society is just, if that society inculcates, perpetuates and justifies racism.

For Jews, there is another important motivator behind seeking justice: our history. We have experienced anti-Semitism in various forms for far too long. We survived a systematic plan to eradicate our people. Even today, anti-Semitism is alive and well. Racism is too. Rather than pretend we are over it or above it, we need to be critical about ourselves and others and do something to end it.

I propose ending injustice requires three steps that repeat in a spiral pattern until we arrive at justice. (Many feminists discuss various kinds of spirals for analysis, critique, healing, doing theology, etc.  As far as I know, the spiral pattern I suggest here does not come from any one particular author. Rather, I’m employing a common methodological approach of feminist liberation theology and modifying it to address this particular situation.) The first step is acknowledgement of an injustice. Second, we critique the injustice. This step must include solutions. Third, we change. Of course, the cycle repeats. Perhaps we see an angle of the injustice we didn’t see before or recommend a better solution to the problem. We could also initiate another step towards a more complete justice. Then, we spiral again. Eventually, if we spiral enough, if we make enough change, then we arrive at justice.

spiral-2For the spiral to work, change is critical. Likewise, we must recognize the changes made, the steps on the road toward justice. If we don’t, then we can’t circle again. It is not productive to get stuck in critique mode. When we do, we not only lose hope but also we are no longer pursuing justice.

Let me offer an example of the demoralizing nature of constant critique. I once had a job that inculcated within its framework a consistent method of individual critique. Monthly observations, constant consumer feedback and frequent requirements for self-critique worked together for the expressed purpose of making me a better employee. On a weekly basis, I was bombarded with information about what I needed to change, what was still wrong about my technique and where my weaknesses were. And, the worst part of all of this was that I was making progress. Each month, I had been consistently doing better, but it was never enough. After four months of weekly assessments, I had lost all hope of improvement because no matter how many positive responses I was receiving from consumers and evaluators alike, no matter how much I had improved from the month before or even the week before, the company culture was set-up in a way that only highlighted what I was still not doing well enough. I quit because I could not see how this cycle would end. I also could not see how the company would ever be able to see me for the valuable, loyal hard-working employee that I was, or I, at least, had the potential to be.

As I could not see an end to the constant criticism, I did not know how to find that point which one could call justice in their system. This was not only unproductive, it was also demoralizing and often made me depressed.

What I’m trying to say is twofold. First, moving towards justice as a society requires the three steps I mentioned earlier: identification, critique and change.  Each of these must be balanced.  Second, individuals require a similar process to stay motivated for the various justice-seeking work.

Both the individual and the larger society need to know that justice is possible. In other words, we need hope. Hope comes, first, by not getting stuck in the rut of constant critique and, second, by recognizing societal and individual progress on the way to justice. Hope is vital to keep justice-seeking movements plodding ahead. Without hope that justice is possible, we might as well pack it in and call it a day.

Maybe that is why G-d, through the speech of Moses, uses the word justice twice in Devarim 16:20. G-d highlights the probability that we can create justice in our world. Now that is a good source of hope!

Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D. is a US feminist scholar currently living abroad in Prague in the Czech Republic.  Her most recent publications include:  “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).

Author: Ivy Helman, Ph.D.

Jewish feminist scholar, activist, and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic and currently teaching at Charles University in their Gender Studies Program.

9 thoughts on ““Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue:” Finding Hope in Justice-Seeking Movements. by Ivy Helman”

  1. Ivy, I cannot help but notice the double meaning of the passage you discuss. On the one hand, there is the reading you choose to emphasize, that Jewish life is meant to be based in justice. On the other hand, the God who demands justice is allegedly engaged in “giving” a land that already has inhabitants to “his” people.

    The injustice embedded in this passage continues in Israel’s settlement of occupied lands, and of course it was basic in the founding of America, in the notion that God gave a new promised land to the Puritans and other Europeans.

    What do you do with that part of the passage?


  2. Let me suggest that “justice” is said twice because it refers to both sides of every conflict.

    Otherwise, this argument appears to exist in the context of a lack of Knowledge that the Torah (Deuteronomy 28) implies a Doctrine of ‘Rebirth’, later referred to by Isaiah as “the resurrection”; the significance being that men may be ‘raised from the dead’ as women, Jews as Arabs, Muslims as Christians. That one Doctrinal Truth is the BASIS of “do unto others”; because, in your future lives, you may very well BE the “other” yourself.



  3. Thanks Ivy, Interesting and challenging, your thoughts.

    “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you,”

    This quote from scripture has also had much discussion in ecology and eco-spirituality. It is possible to interpret it as developing a profound respect and loving care for Nature, and where “occupy the land” means not so much to “take it over,” by driving out the previous tenants, but to “to take it on” as one’s responsibility by way of stewardship for the environment and as a sort of ecological rightness or justice.

    No one is saying that the ecological meaning is what was meant when the text was written, but the Word is a living Word and the meaning can change and evolve according to the needs of the people who study it, deepen into it, and follow it.


    1. Hi, Sarah, To me it is much more pressing than this. The dualistic doctrine of a metaphysical existence of rewards & punishments has perpetuated the illusion that there can be an *escape* from the space-time reality of planet earth; and, for that reason, no one really needs to take any specific *responsibility* for preserving the ecology of the planet. Earth is looked upon as merely a ‘rental property’ rather than a place of permanent residence life after life after life. Were people to understand that “future generations” also includes THEM when they are ‘raised from the dead’, I suggest that their attitude toward preserving earth’s ecology would not be so cavalier. In other words, those who destroy the planet’s ecology will themselves suffer the consequences of those actions in future lives.



  4. P.S. There is a a very fine website on Ecological Judaism called AYTZIM, which works with Jewish tradition and teachings from the Bible as guides to environmental action. I just want to quote some of the scripture they work with at their site as regards environmental concerns, including the Deuteronomy 16:20 citation we’ve been discussing. This is from aytzim.org/rce/rceinitial

    “Jewish tradition tells us that all of humanity is part of a great Order of Creation (Psalm 148) and that it is our role to protect that Order from damage and destruction (Genesis 2:15). As Jews we are also commanded to seek justice and equity not only for present generations but for future generations as well if we hope to live peaceably upon the Earth (Deuteronomy 16:20). But the Earth, as the most visible and active agent of God’s ongoing Creation, is threatened by humanity’s failure to remember that we are not owners but rather passing tenants on this planet (1 Chronicles 29:15).”


  5. Ivy, your post came at a particularly opportune moment for me. This morning my Unitarian Universalist minister offered an interesting sermon on the devil myth in Judaism (not so much) and Christianity (much more so), how it developed and how it still “bedevils” us in the U.S., specifically as regards the demonization of African-Americans. It was well-researched, well-written, and well-delivered, but I felt that it lacked something vital. I told him that for me as a pagan, what was missing was “reverse-engineering,” i.e. going back (really going forward) to non-dualistic understandings of life in order to offer alternate myths, rather than just critiquing the one that is giving us trouble. I like your 3-part justice-making scheme and even more so, I like the understanding that it has to be iterative to work properly. I sent a link to this post to my minister so he could see it as well. Thanks!


  6. Thank you for your comments. Carol and Sarah, I’ve written before on the understanding of land, patriarchy and Israel on this blog, so I didn’t want to just repeat myself here (You can read it at: https://feminismandreligion.com/2012/12/09/peace-land-and-patriarchy-not-peace-love-and-happiness-by-ivy-helman/). What I wanted to concentrate on here is racism, the legal system and Jewish concerns about both instead.

    Thank you Nancy for passing this along. I’m a pretty optimistic person by nature and if I can’t find the hope (and I’ll look for it too long sometimes), then I don’t see the point in constant critique. Critique is meant to bring about change otherwise you are just complaining.


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