THERE IS OFTEN a perception that Judaism is focused on following laws rather than being concerned with love, compassion and mercy.
Anyone who spends time studying the Torah knows how ludicrous this claim is. The Torah repeatedly commands us to love and show compassion to all we encounter, especially to the stranger.
In fact, God’s 13 Attributes of Mercy, based on Exodus 34: 6-7 and recited several times in the Jewish year, emphasize that God is loving and merciful, “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error.”
Because we are created in God’s image, we must also act in such a manner.
Justice without mercy creates a harsh, unfeeling society. Strictly following laws without compassion is not true justice.
In the early 20th century, Germany was proud of being a culture that had not only produced some of the most beautiful music, art, medicine and advanced science but was also known to be the European country that had the most churchgoing population.
So how could the soldiers in Nazi Germany carry out atrocities and go home to their families, attend church and carry on in their everyday lives ?
How could these German churchgoing citizens have quietly watched as their neighbors were taken away to be executed?
The soldiers claimed they were just following orders, and the people said they were simply obeying the law. Following “law and order” led to the massacre of 6 million Jews, including 1 million children.
Examples of injustice
There are countless examples in American history of immoral and unjust laws that were implemented with a total lack of mercy.
Thankfully, people of deep religious faith stood up and resisted these laws.
The Fugitive Slave Act, a federal law, was a horrific policy, and people like the Quakers helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, having the courage to say no to such injustice.
Segregation may have been the law, but it was an absolute wrong, and it was religious leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who led the opposition.
And today, religious organizations are refusing to participate in tearing families apart with a federal law.
Where is the compassion for people who are not violent criminals but are simply the easiest group to be swept up as they go to work or drop their children off at school?
Real life vs. faith
This is where our faith hits real life. Does what we say in our rituals and prayers have meaning, or are we repeating high-sounding words that make us feel righteous without having to act?
Pope Francis put it well: “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt and the desire to do good fades. …
“We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”
‘Religion of love’
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that “Judaism is a religion of love: You shall love the Lord your God; you shall love your neighbor as yourself; you shall love the stranger. But it is also a religion of justice, for without justice, love corrupts (who would not bend the rules, if he could, to favor those he loves?).
“It is also a religion of compassion, for without compassion law itself can generate inequity. Justice plus compassion equals tzdek (righteousness), the first precondition of a decent society.”
May we learn to temper justice with mercy and have the courage to act when we must.
Kein yehi ratzon … May it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community.