What is the most difficult principle of Judaism? In my view, it is holding the belief that the same God is simultaneously just and merciful, punishing and forgiving, strict and kind.
We have to grapple with the idea that the ultimate justice is when every transgression is followed by appropriate punishment, yet the ultimate mercy is when every sinner is given a chance to repent.
This struggle is expressed in the core Jewish prayer: “Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One (Adonai) is our God (Eloheinu), the Eternal God is One.”
In Judaism, there are many names for God. The most common names are Elohim and YHVH (pronounced as ‘Adonai’).
Elohim is the God of justice: behave well, and God will reward you; cross the line, and God will punish you.
When the Torah refers to God as Adonai, God is often demonstrating kindness and forgiveness.
Therefore, the Shema can be understood in the following way: Hear, O Israel, God is both kind and just.
Judaism teaches us that justice is not the only criteria for a fair and good society.
Perhaps there are two questions we should ask ourselves before we make a decision: is it a just decision? Is it a kind decision?
When I read about the deportation flight to Jamaica, I asked myself these questions. Was it a just decision? Perhaps. Was it a kind decision? Unfortunately not.
Many of those people arrived in the UK as children and do not have any connection with Jamaica. They have families in the UK, some even served in the British army, and all of their life is here. This deportation is arguably just in formality, but surely not kind in essence.
As a Jew, I cannot be indifferent to the unfair treatment of the vulnerable. As a Jew, I am commanded to pursue justice and believe in teshuvah (repentance).
I cannot look at this decision without remembering the verse: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). This was the beginning of the story of enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. Rashi points out it could be understood it was the same king, but he made new edicts. In other words, where there is will there is a solution.
As a Jew, I believe the world should not only be just, but kind and compassionate too.
- Rabbi Igor Zinkov is part of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue rabbinic team