This week, we witnessed two remarkable, passionate, and contradictory responses to acts of horrific violence.
Our country was awestruck to hear the families of the nine murder victims in Charleston face the unrepentant murderer saying, “You have taken something precious from me. And I forgive you.”
A few days later, many victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and their families spoke with derision at the sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Still feeling the pain of their loss, many refused to accept his words of apology. Several reiterated their support for the death sentence.
How can some people be so forgiving while others are not?
Is it possible to seek peace and justice at the same time? Can we love those who hate?
Rev. Norvel Goff gave a resounding answer to that question last Sunday at Emanuel AME Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last Sunday, saying, "In order for us to begin the healing process, we must forgive as we have been forgiven. That does not mean that the process of justice does not continue."
What I heard in his moving embrace of these seemingly contradictory values was the foundation of building meaningful relationships, even with those who hate us. When we stop to open our hearts to forgiveness, we do not release the criminal from his own responsibility. But we do everything in our power to prevent hatred and violence from entering our own hearts. We do everything in our power to stop hatred and violence from spreading.
Last week, Ali Abu Awwad and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger spoke to a crowd at Temple Israel about the Roots project, working to bring together Palestinians and Israeli settlers and building trust between Israelis and Palestinians in a process Awwad calls “Painful Hope.” The former Palestinian prisoner and the settler rabbi each spoke authentically and openly about their backgrounds, their beliefs, and their prior attitudes about the people who had been their enemy. We were moved by their ability to speak their truth and at the same time to hear the other’s truth. We were inspired by the growing respect and love that resulted from their painful work together, despite their prior hatreds and fears.
In all of these examples, justice and love are bound together to seek peace.
Justice is a foundational concept in Judaism. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof—Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut.16:20) demands that we be vigilant in our pursuit of justice. Judaism is a religion of laws, built on a vast system of rules and an emphasis on scrupulous judicial fairness, compounded by centuries of interpretation and practice. I firmly believe in justice.
Interestingly, the word tzedek is not commonly found in the words that Jews repeat regularly in our liturgy. If the words of prayer are intended to penetrate our consciousness and frame our thoughts and behavior in the world, then we should note which words do repeat: ahava (love) and shalom (peace). Whenever we end the main prayer of every service, the Amidah, we pray for peace.
In addition to the verse cited above, demanding that we pursue justice, the Rabbis urged us to pursue peace, as the Psalms say “bakesh shalom v’rodfehu, seek peace and pursue it" (Psalm 34:15). The Rabbis who established our liturgy believed in the power of love and compassion, and understood that love and mercy are often at odds with justice. They taught that rachamim, compassion, trumps din, judgment.
Pursuing justice is essential, but it is not the ultimate goal. Forgiveness is also essential, but is not the ultimate goal. Both are tools that temper one another in order to bring peace. Our goal is to create a different kind of society where, on the one hand, we honor the dignity of the individual and, on the other, offense leads to a just pursuit of justice. Our ultimate goal is, as Micah teaches, for all of us to live peacefully and authentically beneath our vines and fig trees (Micah 4:4).
As we contemplate our congregation’s response to the Charleston massacre and to the racism that pervades our society, as well as the other conflicts we witness in our world, it is essential that we consider these values, despite the tension between them. On one side: love, compassion, forgiveness. On the other, justice, action, integrity. Together, we hope and pray, they move us closer to a non-violent, peaceful society.