Friday, 19 July 2013

On Law and Justice - Rabbinic and Civil Legal Approaches

I’m just back from the inaugural meeting of the Masorti Lawyers group, and it was great to see so many New Londoners there. Sir Michael Burton, known to lawyers as a High Court Judge, and known to me, ahem, as my father-in-law and I were debating the nature of Law and Justice from religious and secular perspectives.

For Mr Justice Burton, to give him his official title, law is not really about justice. It’s about the application of the law. The civil law is the law, is the law. And that’s why I left civil law having spent 3 years studying the thing at Cambridge. I want a legal system that is not opaque. I want a legal system I can look at and see through to the values it codifies and controls. I want to look at a legal system and see the justice - the holiness. The classic tale is told of the poor widow with many children and no money who holds a straggly chicken before the Rabbi, ‘Rabbi is this chicken kosher?’ The answer, of course, has something to do with the chicken but also something to do with the woman – that is to say that Judaism doesn’t dream of an objective purity of legal clarity. It dreams of a genuine engagement with human beings and their individual circumstances, as they stand before God. Certainty is not, I argue, a religious legal goal.

But what of the need for economic certainty in ‘arms’ length’ corporate contractual dealing? Indeed that that is surely important, but for so many centuries it was a meaningless dream for Jews, living in exile, subject to non-Jewish law which, for so much of this time offered no such certainly to Jewish money lenders and the like, tolerated at best and kicked out whenever we proved ‘too expensive.’ But more than that is the religious idea that there is nothing, on earth, more important than humanity and human dignity. There is no transcending the human in search of some other value – such as certainty – Judaism prefigured the great Kantian categorical imperative of not treating any human as a means to another end with its claim that human beings are created in the image of God. Ultimately there is no legal principle more important than human ethical behaviour. Jewish law means nothing if it is not just. If you are interested in future meetings of the Masorti Lawyers group, please drop me a line.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy


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