It is always a pleasure to encounter “Torah’s Greatest Hits.” You know them: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” “You shall have no other gods before me,” “Go forth from the land of your ancestors,” and so many others that feel like the motherhood and apple pie of our tradition such as this week’s, “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.”
The Greatest Hits give us the multiple pleasures of instant recognition (I know that verse in Torah!) and tribal satisfaction (look, that is something worth still repeating and contemplating millennia later!) Yet the very familiarity that we have with such verses also minimize the probability that we challenge ourselves on what the verses and words mean, and even more importantly that we are willing to look at them completely differently. Perhaps this is a great opportunity, as there are only three, words, and two of them are repeated: “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof.”
The first challenge is actually the repeated word itself. “Tzedek tirdof” would mean “You shall pursue justice,” but the repetition of the word is an intensifier. Different attempts to express the intensification of the thought include a simple direct translation: “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” to the more classic, “Justice shall you surely pursue,” and “Justice and only justice shall you pursue.” The double makes us sit up strait and pay attention. “Listen, everyone, tzedek is important and I am going to repeat it until we notice that there is something to contemplate here.”
And hey, who doesn’t love the word “justice?” Like mercy, love and holiness, “justice” pops out as good and relevant. Would we rather be just or un-just? I will choose “just,” thank you very much. But this is where we have to challenge the word itself. Tzedek doesn’t mean “justice” any more than rachamim means “mercy,” ahavah means “love” and kodesh means “holy.” Tzedek means tzedek. With our “Greatest Hits,” part of the challenge is that we move into a place of projecting the English translation onto the statement without asking if the connotations of that word in our vernacular truly encompass the subtleties of how tzedek was understood by the writers of Deuteronomy between 2800 and 2400 years ago. If I say, “we need to pursue justice!” from a soapbox in the town square and have a crowd riled up to follow me, I could be talking about either “leave” or “remain” as in this case “justice” is a matter of perspective and rhetoric rather than reflective of some a priori metaphysical ethical reality. But yet both groups would absolutely claim their perspective to be the one pursuing justice and the other side to be unjust. Is that the “tzedek” to which Torah refers?
Part of the problem is there is really no such thing as translation in an objective sense, there is only interpretation. We can never work with “a=b,” especially in more distantly related language groups, as languages contain with them subjective cultural baggage that renders “quite” in American English to mean “very” and “quite” in British English to mean, “Not so much, but let me be polite.” How could we forget George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote: “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Kal v’chomer (how much more so) a Germanic language with partial Romance vocabulary and a Semitic language, and even more than that, with cultural concepts divided by more than two millennia of societal evolution?
So, in the act of “translation” we work with a semantic set rather than the assumption of absolute meaning, but then must have the humility to admit that our choice of “b” if tzedek = “a” will come from our own personal experiences, needs and biases. The semantic set for tzedek, for example, includes, “righteousness, justice, virtue and equity.” Does our experience of “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” change at all if we render it as, “You shall surely pursue virtue?” How about, “Equity and only equity shall you pursue?”
The beauty of “Torah’s Greatest Hits” is that we think we know them so well, that it is these verses and phrases that can most transform us if we allow ourselves only a few moments to step into dialogue with the complexity and multiplicity of our tradition. If we lock a word to mean “justice” and we define “justice” solely as “that which represents justice to me,” then we close ourselves off from what seems to be one of the most consistent underlying purposes of Torah: to move us to constantly examine, study, and reinvigorate our relationship with something we think we understand by assuming there is always something more to learn. One could even say that this is a virtue that we should surely pursue.