Justice in the City – A how-to?

I am not really the kind of person who recommends books. I periodically review them, but that’s different. They get on the queue, I read them, I eventually get around to writing them up (Sorry, Aryeh, it did take a while this time), but I don’t usually go around suggesting books to friends. But this book is different.

So, let me begin by saying that I have recommended this book to just about anyone who might have the slightest reason at all to read it. First, I recommended it to all my colleagues at Occupy Faith DC, because, while few of them are Jewish, this book is an incredible map to creating justice in the kinds of urban settings that Occupy has dwelt in. Then, I recommended it to several people who work in specific social justice fields – not necessarily economic justice, although that too, but across the spectrum.

This book is different than any of the -now an entire genre- books of Jewish social justice. I have to admit – I’ve pretty much stopped reading them. I read a few at the beginning. I read one for review purposes not too long ago. I can get through most of them, and for people who like reading that sort of thing, that’s just the sort of thing they’ll like, and I recommend it. There are lots of good reasons for Jews to read these books, sometimes because it will pull them in to understand their Judaism better. More rarely, because I think it will make Jews who are already well-embedded in Judaism be better at thinking about justice. But few books in this genre are worth reading by people because they lay out a game plan for genuine social change that Jews can be part of, and even fewer would I suggest that non-Jews read.

But this book is different.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen’s book, Justice in the City, (you can also read his blog, by the same name, here) is a beautifully (i.e. clearly) written (and since I assume it will someday be available on ebook, do get it hard copy, the book has a nice feel and layout, too), compelling, easy-to-read discussion of how rabbinic texts, primarily the Babylonian Talmud, lay out a vision of justice. Rabbi Cohen himself states his aim as slightly lower – what a just city should be- but in reading the book, there is merit in thinking of it as a broader picture than that. In fact my only minor quibble with the book is that it uses endnotes rather than footnotes (although they’re located after each chapter, but I still think endnotes are an abomination).

When I first picked up the book, I was a little concerned because Cohen lays out his project as as a dialogue between the Talmud and the modern, French (in my opinion pseudo-) philosopher Levinas. But I needn’t have worried; in fact, he uses Levinas almost as a foil, to craft questions shaped by Levinas’ methods to be more pointed, and the answers clearer.

Without giving anything away, the first half of the book (roughly) is dedicated to overall themes laid out by the rabbis ( he characterizes them as “Be like God and not like Pharaoh;” “the obligation of dissent;” and “the boundaries of responsibility”). The second half of the book lays out specific cases: homelessness, labor, restorative versus punitive justice. It is very clear how these can be applied to contemporary life, and this is what makes the book so valuable, not just to Jews, but to any people of faith seeking to create a better world.

Take chapter two. In a discussion of one of my favorite sugiyot (little sections) of talmud, in which the obligation to rebuke is elaborated, he does not begin with the famous quote, (that comes in a little later) that ends with “All who can protest wrongdoing even up to the entire world, if he does not protest, he is held accountable” Instead, he begins with a discussion of the cow of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah. In bringing the story, he takes apart the oddities of the story, exactly as the rabbis themselves are wont to do, to point out how the discussion and what it does and does not say, leads us to consider what one’s obligations to stop another’s bad actions are. He walks us through three stories to bring us back to his thesis: that the city is a locus for interactions with anonymous others – and that part of the work is to be responsible for justice in these interactions.

He closes with a section discussing “getting to even, rather than getting even.” Many Jews know that the rabbis rejected lex talionis as a literal repayment of an eye for an eye, instead substituting monetary compensation. But Cohen also notes the rabbis feeling troubled with the idea of reassaulting the victim by assessing their worth monetarily, shifting the assessment to that of the offender in order that “a free person cannot be assessed as a slave would be.” This is a fascinating discussion of human worth and how to develop a judicial system that may ultimately even evaluate the perpetrator in a healthier way.

The strength of this book is that it identifies the rabbinic move to make a community responsible (rather than individuals alone, such as the American conservative’s view of charity) based on rabbinic ideals of group identity. Although American Jews are indeed very American in our ways of living, somehow, that group identity has persisted in our voting habits – recent studies of these habits show that we still largely see ourselves as responsible towards those not as well off as ourselves. Every interaction that we have is part of a network of interactions.

Throughout the book, Cohen continues to expand these interactions and define them, ultimately leaving us with a balanced, coherent and workable way to view our ties to others and to develop our notions of community in the framework of a world where we will never meet many or most of its inhabitants, and yet must feel some responsibility for them nevertheless.


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