President Obama and the Many Meanings of “Justice”

President Obama declared this past week, “Justice has been done.” I work for an organization that throws around the word “justice” every day, and also none too lightly. The juxtaposition left me uneasy.

At AJWS, we speak about justice in many different contexts. Sometimes the context is our work, for example, on “food justice,” described by Gottlieb and Joshi as “[a movement seeking] to ensure that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed and eaten are shared fairly.” Sometimes the context is specifically Jewish, as reads the oft-quoted line from a commandment-heavy section of Deuteronomy, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” That, however, does not quite help me understand what the President meant by “justice.” I think this is because the President’s “justice” translates in Hebrew not to tzedek, but to din.

Din” is used to describe God’s attribute of order and control. In modern Hebrew, it signifies law and the legal system. In the Jewish calendar, it is closely associated with the High Holidays, the days when, traditionally, God determines the fate of every living being for the upcoming year. Din is perhaps best translated as “judgment.”

Din, I think, is what was executed against Osama bin Laden. This is a justice that attempts to keep world order, keeping the bad guys in check. It is a concept that is, in traditional Jewish sources, generally administered by God. Whereas tzedek is generally doled out by people.

I truly do not mean to enter the heated conversation about if/how to celebrate the death of an enemy. I have my opinions and am unsure if I believe them entirely, like so many others. At minimum, I believe that each person has the right to commemorate the historic events of this week however that person sees fit. And at maximum, at this stage all I can do is try my best to draw a distinction.

Pursuing judgment (din), in the form it took this past week, was an act of retribution, relief and closure. To use High Holiday terminology, it sealed. It did not construct a new possibility; it delivered on a promise and at best paved a symbolic path for healing and strength.

Pursuing justice (tzedek), in the way I have come to understand it, is about constructing. It is about providing sustainable and long-lasting opportunity for life, liberty, and equality. It is about deep respect for all people and proactive concern for their rights.

These are not contradictions. They are, I believe, both forms of justice. But I sincerely hope that, in the eyes of all people, every moment of judgment is coupled with – and eclipsed by – healthy models for moving forward. That we celebrate retributive justice primarily for its potential to facilitate constructive justice. Otherwise, the justice we seek stays exclusively past-focused, and we may risk pursuing in the wrong direction.