Thursday, 01 Feb 2024

Written by Martina Loreggian

During my last visit to Milan, I had to go to the Palazzo di Giustizia. It is a huge building built during the fascist regime in ‘Stile Novecento’, an architectural style created by Jewish art critic Margherita Sarfatti. An imposing stairway leads to the main entrance. On its frontispiece a Latin inscription welcomes the visitor: iustitia (justice). At the top on the left, it is written: ‘Jurisprudence is the science of divine and human affairs, of just and unjust facts.’ At the top of the main entrance: ‘The precepts of law are these: live honestly, do not harm the Other, attribute to each his own.’ At the top on the right: ‘We are called to justice from the moment we are born, and on nature the law is founded, not on opinion.’ Everything aims to put the person entering the building in a state of awe and reverence, and I can assure you that it works.

Inscriptions on the frontispiece tell us that justice, as administered in court, is based on facts, has a divine and human nature, it should be objective and is based on a simple ethical principle that we find also in Shabbat 31a in the words of Hillel: ‘That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.’

Yet, law is anything but simple. The means through which we try to administer justice are complex, rendered by multiple codes and laws and codicils. Judges face every dispute in court needing to keep in mind that every case is unique, and that law should be, at the same time, equal for everyone. This balance and this contradiction guide them to make decisions and do justice, if possible. Quite often, those who come before the court are never fully satisfied by its decisions, a sign that maybe the judge acted in the correct way. This is because full justice is an abstract ideal, while law is the imperfect and concrete means that we use to try to shape our societies in a just way.

Law is not ethics and ethics is not law, and societies that tried to make them fully coincide have become often horrifying regimes. There are things that we can consider immoral but are not crimes; and laws that were immoral and nevertheless have been enforced for a long time: apartheid, homosexual acts condemned as illegal or honour killing, just to give a few examples. Law is not ethics also because it always contains an element of violence and coercion that cannot be easily reconciled with an ethical ideal of righteousness. Yet, that element of violence and coercion is essential to law.

In our portion, we see Yitro, a gentile man, a Midianite, father-in-law of Moses, guiding him to establish shoftim, judges, in order to deal with cases and disputes arising among the Israelites, a sort of Palazzo di Giustizia of ancient times. The word shofet comes from the same root as the word mishpat, plural mishpatim. Mishpat can be translated as justice, but in the Torah mishpatim are often the laws or statutes that God has given to the Jewish people through His Torah. If we think about it, this looks very simple: appoint judges (shoftim) because you are going to receive soon laws (mishpatim) that someone has to understand and use in order to deal with and resolve disputes and beyond that, to build a just society. But there is always a but…

Torah does not coincide with law; its meaning is teaching. And in Torah we are not asked to pursue mishpat but tzedek, another kind of justice: ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.’ (Dt. 16.20). To pursue justice, we often need to act beyond the strict letter of the law. That means that we must try to act not only in a legal, but in a right and moral way, according to ethical principles on one side; and act with compassion and understanding when dealing with other people’s mistakes. We are not angels, we are human beings, we are frail creatures, we commit mistakes and some of us even crimes. This element of compassion is chesed or rachmanut, is what we expect from God, when we ask to be forgiven by Him during the Days of Awe. And it is what should guide us, together with law and ethics, when we deal with other people’s acts and mistakes in our communal and personal lives. Chesed, compassion, is so important that it has been incorporated into many legal systems. One example is the notion of mitigating circumstances, such as taking into consideration that it is the first time a person committed a crime, or that a person has been moved by financial difficulties or has confessed their crime spontaneously. Not doing to others what is hateful to us means also acting in a compassionate way towards them, because what we want for ourselves is to be treated in a fair way, which includes compassion and human understanding.

As Jews, we should frame our Jewish lives and make our decisions basing them on halakhah – Jewish law; tzedek – our ethical and righteousness ideal; and chesed – compassion and understanding. We try every day to find the right balance between these elements in order to fulfil Torah, the teaching that was given to us by God and that we find in our texts.

Law can be rendered a means for intimidation, brute power, revenge or persecution, as it happened during the fascist regime in Italy, when law became the very opposite of the content of the Latin inscriptions on its Court. Justice should aim for a complex balance between law and compassion, divine and human expectations, rigour and understanding, if we want it to be a living ideal, as depicted in our Torah, and not just a mute idol, like a building made of stone.


Martina Loreggian LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.