Tag Archives: Justice

Retributive Justice and Restorative Justice

Most Americans are clearly rejoicing over the death of Osama bin Laden. And in listening to what people are saying, I think that sense of joy is based on the feeling that “justice has been served.” But what kind of “justice” was it? Why did that justice feel so good? And where do we go from here?

It’s important to remember that there is a difference been retributive justice, which gives us a primal sense of pleasure, and restorative justice, which is about our responsibilities as we try move forward from this moment on.

Retributive justice was the source of our pleasure or joy when we heard about bin Laden’s death, and those positive feelings are deeply rooted in human nature. Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment where subjects watched interactions between two people, some of which involved one person wronging another (for those know it, the experiment was the Prisoner’s Dilemma). As Lehrer says:

According to the data, when men (but not women) watched a [“bad person”] get punished, they showed additional activation in reward related areas of the brain…that same highway of nerves that also gets titillated by sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Apparently, we are engineered to get pleasure from punishing those who deserve to be punished.

So the pleasure people were feeling over bin Laden’s death was immediate, emotional and instinctual. But things that are pleasurable are not always good for us or for society. After all, sweets feel good — and that’s what led to America’s  obesity epidemic. Similarly, those pleasurable feelings resulting from retributive justice are not the most important things to consider as we try to move forward.

Instead, we should also be thinking about restorative justice — which is about asking “what do we do now?” This is a harder, but more important question. There is no restitution for the lives that bin Laden took. There is nothing that can be done to bring those loved ones back. So how do we move ahead to create a better world?

I was particularly taken by the words of Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, of Rabbis for Human Rights, who argued:

Repairing the broken world is not about what someone else might do, it is about us and how we bear the responsibilities given to us. Treating every human being as created in God’s image is difficult. Feeling compassion for the stranger, because we were strangers, is not an easy choice. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) insists that the responsibility for healing is in our hands, if only we could overcome our own limitations: “Raba said: If the righteous desired it, they could be creators of worlds, as it is written, “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God [Isaiah 59:2].”

Indeed, the goal of justice is not to get rid of evil people — it is to get rid of evil. There is a story in the Talmud about a group of hoodlums who were terrorizing the town where Rabbi Meir lived. He prayed to God that these men would be killed. His wife Beruriah told him: “Do not prayer for the death of sinners, but rather for the death of sin. Then, sin having ceased, there will be no more sinners.” (Talmud, Berakhot 10a)

Yes, bin Laden is dead. But as many have noted, al Qaeda still poses a threat. There is still the possibility of retaliation. And that simple fact reminds us that our world is still far from whole. And so may we have the strength and wisdom to rid the world of wrongdoing and evil — not by focusing on the death of those who propagate it, but instead, through our ability to restore a sense of justice and peace to the world.

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Why Asking “Do You Believe in God?” is the Wrong Question to Ask

Recently, blogger Andrew Sullivan put up post called “The Scientific View of Man.” He ended it with an aside, saying, “If I could disbelieve in God, I would,” and two days later, one of his readers wrote back: “Funny, I’m the exact opposite; if I could believe in God, I would.”

But what does that phrase mean, “believe in God”? I’ve most often heard it framed in terms of existence — people will often say to me, “I don’t believe God exists,” or “I have seen no evidence for God,” or “I often question whether there is a God.”

But here’s the thing: either God exists, or God doesn’t. And we have absolutely no control over that fact. And so because there’s nothing we can do about whether there is a God or not, I’ve never found that question to be a particularly interesting one to ask. After all, when the question is framed in that way, there are really only three answers people can give — “Yes, I do,” “No, I don’t,” or “I’m not sure.”

But there’s an even deeper reason why that question is the wrong one to ask. In my experience working in the religious world, the people who tend to ask the question, “Do you believe in God?” are the ones who hope the answer is “yes,” while the people who tend to be asked are the ones who are more inclined to say “no” or “I’m not sure.” When you’re asking a question with an expected answer — and that answer is the opposite of what you hope it will be — there’s no constructive dialogue. Instead, when someone asks “Do you believe in God?”, it simply comes off as a judgmental attack.

In fact, Rabbi David Wolpe recently wrote a piece on Huffington Post asking “Why Are Atheists So Angry?“, and while he made some accurate statements, I think he missed the main reason why atheists have problems with religion — they feel like they are being viewed as “less than,” and are being judged in a harsh and negative light.

So because asking “Do you believe in God?” prompts primarily closed-ended questions, and is often experienced as a condemnation, I instead prefer to ask two other questions that I have found to be more valuable to explore:

1. “How can we bring more justice and kindness into this world?”

Regardless of whatever particular worldview we hold, we have a responsibility to find ways to improve ourselves, our society and our world. Now, reasonable people can certainly disagree about the specifics of how we do that, and our personal outlook will obviously affect our ultimate decisions, but most people I have met are striving to create a more just and more kind world.

So by focusing the discussion around how people act more than on what they believe, we can now have a more productive dialogue. Yes, we may all be coming at this question from different ways, but now, the arguments stop being attacks and counter-attacks about who is right, and instead, become an exploration about the ways we need to work together to create the kind of world we hope for.

In many ways, author (and atheist) Sam Harris got it right in his book The Moral Landscape when he argued that human and societal well-being are directly related to the state of the world and our own mental state, and that “morality” is about how we improve those two states. And so by emphasizing the myriad ways we can explore how to bring more justice and more kindness into this world, we can also recognize and accept the different belief systems that can all ultimately lead to the same end.

2. “When have we felt moments of deep connection?”

Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel were two of the most influential Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, and both of them pushed us to recognize that our greatest source of joy and wonder are our relationships — Buber focusing on our interpersonal relationships, with Heschel emphasizing our relationship with all of creation.

Buber taught that the most spiritual moments occur when we are truly in relationship with others. His great book describing his theology is usually translated as “I-Thou,” but a better description would be “you and me.” As he claimed, our most powerful and most memorable moments occur when we truly feel “there” with and for another person. As Rabbi Dennis Ross explains in his book God in Our Relationships, “I-Thou is doing, speaking, listening and touching. Not in the I or the Thou, I-Thou is essentially the ‘-,’ the dash that connects two people.” (Ross, 53)

Heschel’s theology is often called “radical amazement” — a deep sense of incomprehensibility at the wonder of sheer existence. As he argues, “We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being. Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe…Standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight.” (Heschel, Man is Not Alone, 25)

What both Buber and Heschel have in common is that we cannot put into words our most important and most life-changing encounters. Indeed, the more we try to analyze and explain them, the less power they have. Not only that, we cannot ever expect or plan to experience these moments that elevate our soul — we can only be open to them, and hope we are aware enough to feel them and appreciate them when they arise.

These two questions, I have found, resonate with people much more deeply, and create much more interesting, much more respectful and much more valuable conversations than asking “Do you believe in God?” These questions prompt people to ask together, “How should I be treating myself and those around me?” “How can we be more open to the varied experiences of life?” Rather than thinking that those who believe in God are “better” than those who don’t, each of us can examine how we can be more just and kind, and how we can create a deeper connection with ourselves, with others and with our world.

And what do I believe? For me, I find God when I am grappling with those questions — and especially when I am learning new ways to try to answer them. And while I certainly can’t prove this, I believe that when we are seeking to bring more justice, kindness and connection into this world, we are also bringing just a little more of God into this world, as well.


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Why We Should be More Like Robin Hood

In an interview in 2010, Oscar winner Russell Crowe explained why he took on the role of Robin Hood in the movie of the same name. He felt like “there [wa]s something wonderful about a story that has lasted for so long. Its core thing, the thing that attract[ed] me, and has attracted me since I was a five-year-old kid…is that there is some guy out there who will go out and work on behalf of the people who can’t do something for themselves.”

So what is about the Robin Hood story that makes it so enduring?

Perhaps the Robin Hood still resonates for us because we have a natural aversion to too much income inequality. A recent study by economists Michael Norton and Dan Ariely found that

[w]hile liberals and the poor favored slightly more equal distributions than conservatives and the wealthy, a large majority of every group we surveyed – from the poorest to the richest, from the most conservative to the most liberal – agreed that the current level of wealth inequality was too high and wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth. In fact, Americans reported wanting to live in a country that looks more like Sweden than the United States. (“Inequality Aversion” in Jonah Lehrer’s blog “The Frontal Cortex”)

Certainly, if we are lucky enough to be comfortable, we probably feel like we have earned our success (and hopefully, we actually did earn it!). But many of us have also faced difficult and challenging times. If we live long enough, we begin to recognize that luck often plays a large part in how wealthy we are at any given moment. And when we become aware of the hand of fortune in the monetary realm, we also start to realize that there may be value in helping lessen the gap between “rich” and “poor.”

The Relationship Between Rich and Poor

The Rabbis believed that if we do happen to live comfortably, that’s wonderful – but it also entails certain responsibilities:

“In the day of prosperity, enjoy the prosperity” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Rabbi Tanchum bar Chiyya said, “In the day of your fellow man’s prosperity, rejoice with him. And in the day of adversity, reflect. If adversity confronts your fellow, consider how to do him a kindness and save him…But why does God create both poor people and rich people? In order for them to draw riches from each other, as it says, ‘God has made one for the other’ (Ecclesiastes 7:14).” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, 28 in Rabbi Jill Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy, 55)

If we are prosperous, we are certainly allowed to enjoy it. But we also know that prosperity can become adversity all too easily. And if that is the case, then we can see that helping others is clearly a responsibility we have.

But what is truly fascinating is that giving money to help others actually makes us feel better than simply having money. Author Jonah Lehrer describes a Caltech study where people were randomly selected to be “rich” or “poor” and the “rich” people were immediately given $50. They were then placed in a brain scanner and given an opportunity to give some of that money to a stranger. Amazingly, the reward center in their brains lit up when the “rich” people were giving money to a “poor” stranger! As he notes:

The scientists speculate that people have a natural dislike of inequality. In fact, our desire for equal outcomes is often more powerful (at least in the brain) than our desire for a little extra cash. It’s not that money doesn’t make us feel good – it’s that sharing the wealth can make us feel even better. (“Inequality Aversion” in Jonah Lehrer’s blog “The Frontal Cortex”)

Perhaps the Robin Hood story endures even up to today because thinking about “giving to the poor” simply makes us feel good (although certainly just “taking from the rich” is not what we should do!). So maybe we should strive to become a bit more like Robin Hood on the “giving” part of that equation — not only would it make the world more fair, it would make us feel better, as well.

As we give to others, we can find simchat mitzvah, the joy in fulfilling a mitzvah, which not only makes our world a little more whole, it elevates our souls a little more, as well.

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