Sunday, October 28, 2007

Religions of Justice

"Neither Islam nor Judaism is a religion of love; both are religions of justice.”

These were (approximately) the words of Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem (pictured), as he spoke to a group of students over dinner a few nights ago. I must admit, I was struck at first by this sentence, as I certainly tend to think of such love-related sentiments as hesed (Hebrew for "compassion" or "loving-kindness") as cornerstones of Judaism. The more I digested Dr. Abu Sway’s words, though, the more they made sense. Though I cannot cite the exact passage, I have often read or heard the idea that G-d’s justice is a balancing act of mercy and judgment: too much judgment, and we will crumble under the weight of G-d’s punishment, yet too much mercy and we may sow our own destruction through misdeed. Love is therefore an integral part of justice, and it is channeled so as to be most effective.

Speaking of justice, however, I must voice a discomfort with a topic popular in “peacemaking” circles. When dealing with coexistence one often hears of Golden Age Islamic Spain as an example of the potential for living together in harmony – indeed, this era was the subject of Dr. Abu Sway’s speech at the Divinity School (which I admit I could not attend). I, too, have made use of this idea: I bought a T-shirt in Cordoba, Spain with a 3x3 square of mixed-up crosses, Stars of David, and crescents, and writing that reads, “The secret is the mixture.” I get way more (positive) comments when I wear this shirt than for any other article of clothing – and I don’t think that’s just due to my lack of fashion sense. The problem I have with citing this or any other example of Jews living in peace with others between the years 70 and 1948 CE is that the best one can say about these periods is that the non-Jewish rulers treated their second-class Jewish citizens better than other rulers did. My knowledge is limited, but I am sure Jews did not enjoy complete equality or universally-good treatment in Golden Age Spain. I do appreciate the value of stories or examples to give hope, but mentioning those years to support the idea of Jewish-Muslim coexistence thus seems similar to arguing that since Arabs in Israel have more rights than they would in almost every other Arab country, they should stop complaining (I am guilty of using this argument, as well). The problem with everything I’ve just described is that all these circumstances demonstrate relative justice. But I believe the justice of which Islam and Judaism speak is absolute justice. The Torah commands, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20); it does not say, “Pursue being just a little better than the guy next to you.” We must seek to be just on an objective scale.

But while justice is justice is justice, humans are merely human – we do not have the omnipotence it would take to fully comprehend absolutes. Nonetheless, Jews are instructed to “be holy, for I, the L-rd your G-d am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Though we are flawed, we still must try to be as absolutely just as humanly possible…perhaps more so. And since only G-d is truly able to judge right and wrong, we would do well to stick to what we know we can do and err on the side of hesed and mercy. This, I believe, will lead us closer to the justice Dr. Abu Sway described.


Andy McKenzie said...

Your idea of relative vs. absolute justice is an interesting one. While absolute justice (striving for accountability for its own sake, not just to be "better than the other guy") might be a little bit detrimental in the short run, I think that in the long run maintaining standards of justice will be advantageous because they may reduce corruption.

What are ways to increase absolute justice instead of a relative kind? I would say that more transparency of action would certainly help. I don't know how to apply this to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but perhaps if both governments were more public and open about why they made certain actions, it would be of service towards peace.

Mahdi Sabbagh said...

I agree that Justice 'as defined in religion(s)' is probably an absolute one. The question I guess would be:
-Do we tend towards a somehow Utopian absolute justice, or do we do our best to improve justice and make it 'better' than other 'justices'?
Also, I am not too knowledgable of Jewish Muslim relations in Islamic Spain, but I wouldn't necessarily dismiss the idea that Jews enjoyed privileges (that Muslim citizens themselves did not enjoy) and good treatment. Being an optimistic person, I would like to believe that an 'almost total justice' was reached at some point in human history and that it is something we humans can work out. I am off course not implying that this specific situation constituted a 'perfect justice'...

-Also, even though this wasn't the subject of the post, I would like to point out that Palestinian citizens of Israel do not enjoy more rights than their fellow Arabs living in Arab countries. Israel is indeed a democracy, but unfortunately not a democracy for all its citizens.

Taha said...

I really enjoyed your discussion of love, justice, and mercy in the first half of your post.

In Islam, in my opinion, we have a similar conceptual balancing act between justice and mercy with one significant distinction: Mercy always predominates over justice.

As Charles Le Gai Eaton writes:

"There is therefore a principle which over-masters justice and this is Rahmah, Mercy... All but one of the chapters of the Quran opens with the words: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Dispenser of Mercy", and, among Muslims, these same words initiate all human actions.

It is said that the instrument of creation was the "breath of the Merciful" and therefore that existence itself is a mercy for which we have a duty to be grateful. Indeed, ingratitude and unbelief are almost synonymous in the Islamic perspective..."

jjew said...

Mahdi, it might be possible to demonstrate inequalities in Israel between Jews and Arabs, but we would have to be aware of that reality's connection with the unfortunate situation that since Zionism began Arabs have assumed that Israel was a temporary entity. By the way, I live in Israel and I see many well-off Arabs and lower-class Jews as well - the picture is not so simple, although I'm not claiming that you made it out to be. Thanks...