Saturday, April 18, 2009

Chapter One

It is customary during the counting of the Omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot, to study one chapter of Perkei Avot each week.

So ...
RABBAN SIMEON, SON OF GAMALIEL USED TO SAY: ON THREE THINGS DOES THE WORLD STAND: ON JUSTICE, ON TRUTH AND ON PEACE

Of course this contradicts an earlier verse in the same tractate:
SIMEON THE RIGHTEOUS WAS ONE OF THE LAST OF THE MEN OF THE GREAT SYNAGOGUE. HE USED TO SAY: THE WORLD IS BASED UPON THREE THINGS: THE TORAH, DIVINE SERVICE, AND THE PRACTICE OF KINDLINESS.

It has been explained (perhaps not so convincingly) that Simeon T.R. was talking about the means needed to sustain the world, while Simeon B.G. was talking about the ends to which the world is created. I prefer to think that these are simply two different opinions about what really "counts" and there is no need to jump through hoops to reconcile them. These Rabbis simply had different priorities, and the editors of the Mishnah found both worthy of inclusion.

But what of Simeon B.G.'s dictum itself. Is it not internally self contradictory? Is not "Justice" (Absolute Justice anyway) often incompatible with peace. Justice may demand that I receive 40 lashes (or whatever punishment) but it may also so embitter me that I will long seek to get even with my accusers. And of course the problem is compounded when the truth is not 100% clear. And the truth is rarely (maybe never) 100% clear.

But the Talmud deals with these cases too. In tractate Sanhedrin, when discussing the merits of mediation (vs strict legal judgment) in dispute resolution, the majority recommends that mediation always be tried first. And in response to the minority, that argues that compromise and mediation is always unjust (and should be banned (!!) since one of parties is pressured to give up what is RIGHTFULLY theirs in order achieve an agreement), R. Judah b. Korha says:
Settlement by mediation/compromise is a meritorious act, for it is written, Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates. Surely where there is strict justice there is no peace, and where there is peace, there is no strict justice! But what is that kind of justice with which peace abides? — We must say: Mediation and Compromise. So it was in the case of David, as we read, And David executed justice and righteousness [charity] towards all his people. Surely where there is strict justice there is no charity, and where there is charity, there is no justice! But what is the kind of justice with which abides charity? — We must say: Mediation.

And what to do when, despite everything, mediation fails, but the truth of the case is not clear cut? Again the Talmud (in the opening of tractate Bava Metiziah) has an answer.
TWO [PERSONS APPEARING BEFORE A COURT] HOLD A GARMENT. ONE OF THEM SAYS, ‘I FOUND IT’, AND THE OTHER SAYS, ‘I FOUND IT’; ONE OF THEM SAYS, ‘IT IS ALL MINE’, AND THE OTHER SAYS, ‘IT IS ALL MINE’, THEN THE ONE SHALL SWEAR THAT HIS SHARE IN IT IS NOT LESS THAN HALF, AND THE OTHER SHALL SWEAR THAT HIS SHARE IN IT IS NOT LESS THAN HALF, AND IT SHALL THEN BE DIVIDED BETWEEN THEM.
Note that we are not told who is telling the truth. The court has no way of knowing, and indeed both parties may legitimately believe that they found the garmet first, and are entitled to the whole thing. Presumably (in the "objective" world of "pure truth") only one is right, but the court (and perhaps even the litigants) have no way of knowing 100% for sure.

So the court orders a compromise: divide the property equally. But note the court does not force either of the parties to admit that it is wrong. Each can go on claiming that it was entitled to 100% of the find. But they must accept the courts ruling and give up half. They can grumble if they want, continue to tell everyone of the justice of their claim. but they still must give up half.

* * *

I note that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's is demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people as a condition for renewing peace talks. He is demanding not only that the Palestinians agree give up much more than half the land of Israel/Palestine (indeed he has been deliberately unclear about what - if anything - he is willing to offer them) but that they also agree, in advance of further negotiations, that the Jewish claim to the Land is just.

Would that the Israeli government studied more Talmud.

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