Social Justice – In Memory of Mr. David M. Warren (Menachem Dovid Ben Harav Yosef Z’L)
“Do not show favoritism in judgment, like a small individual a great individual shall be heard.” (Deuteronomy 1:17)
On the verse “like the poor person is heard so shall you hear the rich,” Rashi (1040 – 1105) offers the following parable, explaining a judge shouldn’t say, “This is a poor person and his friend is rich and it is a mitzvah (Torah commandment) for the rich person to provide a parnassah (livelihood or sustenance) to the poor person. I will find merit for the poor person and he will be sustained cleanly (i.e. without shame).”
Although we can understand the judge’s desire to help the poor person, what would be the judge’s legal justification? Granted, the poor person is entitled to receive charity and the rich person is obligated to give charity, but charity is not grounds for rendering a legal decision in a court of law.
Or is it?
Let’s carefully examine Rashi’s exact words. “It is a mitzvah (Torah commandment) for the rich person to provide a parnassah (livelihood or sustenance) to the poor person.” If it’s a mitzvah for the rich person to help the poor person then that is the law. A judge could certainly reason that it is within his discretion to uphold the laws of charity just as it is within his discretion to uphold other Torah laws.
In modern parlance, this would be called “social justice,” forcing others to act charitably in a manner determined by the ruling authority.
Yet, the Torah says, “Do not show favoritism.”
But why would it be wrong for a judge to enforce what the Torah desires, that this rich man should be charitable to this poor man? Because the Torah, in its infinite wisdom, has not granted judges the power to give charity with other people’s money. On the contrary, the Torah has expressly forbidden such judicial activism. “Do not show favoritism in judgment.”
G-d has commanded us to be charitable and kind but nobody is entitled to demand our charity and kindness. And no judge may abuse his authority to compel us to be charitable and kind to any specific individual.
A judge has extraordinary powers and, with those powers, extraordinary temptation to right the wrongs he sees. Therefore, the Torah commands him to use extraordinary restraint. “Do not show favoritism.”