Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: Justice

Hermann Cohen’s great posthumous work, Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (The Religion of Reason from the Sources of Judaism), has never been published in English translation, but here we give a second, condensed excerpt from it; the first appeared in our December 1956 “Cedars,” both selections having been translated by William Wolf. The interested reader will find a biographical note appended to the first of these two selections; for a full exposition of Cohen’s relation to German philosophy, and his contribution to Jewish thought, the reader may wish to go back to one of the earliest issues of COMMENTARY, December 1945, where Cohen’s essay “The Kingdom of God” appeared, followed up (January 1946) by his discourse on the “Sabbath.”

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Justice is the foremost of the Divine attributes: The Lord is just in all His ways and gracious in all His works (Ps. 145:17); Thy justice is an everlasting justice (Ps. 119:142). Justice is compared to holiness: and God the Holy One is sanctified through justice (Isa. 5:16). Justice is one of the features of the Messiah: justice shall he the girdle of his loins (Isa. 11:5). An end to warfare is the negative criterion of the Messianic era, its positive side is the knowledge and practice of justice: Neither shall they learn war any more (Isa. 2:4); The inhabitants of the earth learn justice (Isa. 26:9). Justice thus becomes the sign of the Messianic Age. The Pentateuch makes justice an absolute command: Justice, justice shalt thou follow (Deut. 16:20). It is therefore the foundation of the state.

It is true that the Hebrew word for justice and righteousness (Tsedakah) also denotes piety, but the added meaning only testifies to the basic force of justice. It is not that righteousness is weakened into charity, but that, through the communal virtue of charity, righteousness becomes a broader piety. As in the case of humility, justice, too, is transformed into piety through social considerations.

As justice is the basis of the state, and the core of social ethics, so is it also the first principle of civil legislation and the foundation for the so-called Noachic laws. The complaints of the Prophets are largely concerned with false judgment, and they see in God the advocate of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. The whole concept of theocracy is made possible through the idea of justice, since without it religion could not be identified with a constitution, and God could not be King, either of Israel or of mankind. All the objections raised against the idea of a theocracy fall away when the religious principle of justice is adopted for the state. Through justice, every state becomes a theocracy, the principle of religion is realized in the state.

It is significant that Samuel—the personified theocracy, combining the role of judge with that of prophet—had to yield to the kingdom, in which the two were separated. It is equally significant that when taking leave of his people and giving an account of his past administration, he called attention to the qualities of justice and righteousness: Whose ox have I taken? or whose ass have I taken? or whom have I defrauded? or whom have I oppressed? or of whose hand have I taken a ransom to blind mine eyes therewith? (I Sam. 12:3). . . .

How are we to explain that, on the one side, Tsedakah, justice, is connected with love and thus becomes the universal term for piety, and on the other, it is identified with the rather limited concept of charity, which again is subordinated to Gmillut chassadim, lovingkindness? . . . We recognize in this apparent contradiction the idea that the absolute virtue of justice must be complemented by a relative one which is based on love rather than on honor. Therefore in God as well as in man love and justice go together: I the Lord speak justice, I declare things that are right (Isa. 45:19). I am the Lord who exercise mercy, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight (Jer. 9:23).

Nevertheless justice, as laid down in the legal constitution, remains the absolute foundation of the state and of the community. Therefore the Prophets base their legislation for the underprivileged not on love and mercy, but on justice. Even for the criminal, justice is the true love, restoring to him responsibility and human dignity. On the other hand it is justice which, by testing a man’s state of mind and its susceptibility to the world around him, discovers the idea of Shegagah, error, which in turn leads to atonement. . . .

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Here we must mention the strange thought which means so much for Messianism: the concept of the Servant of the Lord, who takes the sufferings upon himself. . . .

The whole mythology of original sin and of suffering as punishment can only be abolished through a bold social insight. If suffering was to be regarded always as the visitation of Divine punishment, then the innocent would be under Divine punishment. The true bearers of human suffering are the poor; thus Divine punishment cannot be identical with suffering in general. Suffering is not punishment. Human suffering—mainly suffering of the poor—is in God’s hand. And God is the God of justice as well as the God of love, justice and love are interchangeable with Him. The sufferings of the poor are based on God’s loving justice. Justice is love, and not only punishment. . . .

Sufferings become “sufferings of love” (yissurin shel ahavah) . This relation is in the Prophet’s mind when he considers his people’s history, and it implies the transfiguration of the suffering of the Exile. In Messianism, patriotism becomes a philosophy of history. Here, too, is revealed the great share of reason in religion. Not only do individuals suffer for their age, but nations are chosen to suffer, among them Israel. Amos had already mentioned that the election of Israel meant suffering. It was a new insight of Isaiah’s that this apparent punishment was vicarious suffering. Thus all suspicion connected with the election of Israel is removed. Being chosen to teach the doctrine of the One God means being chosen for vicarious suffering for the idol worshippers and for all those who have not yet attained to the recognition of Him. Nor does this meaning of election violate God’s justice, which has now to prove itself in the history of all mankind. Also, even polytheism has its cultural value, though it nevertheless remains sinful. For if the idolaters were punished for their idolatry, they would be deprived of the vital energy which they need for their creative role in history.

And is it not Israel’s greatest happiness, a happiness which outshines their entire martyrdom, that they dwell [est] in the covert of the Most High, and abide [st] in the shadow of the Almighty (Ps. 91:1). All apparent victories of pessimism over optimism, of shadow over sun, of ill luck over good, are, theoretically as well as morally, vanities. Human relations, at all times and in all places, are conditioned by the events of history, and the Prophet could not have found a better way to account for his people’s fate than by holding justice, manifested as vicarious suffering, responsible for it. Israel suffers the martyrdom of monotheism. This martyrdom is certainly not punishment . . . the mission brings happiness. . . . Vicarious suffering therefore does not present an exception in Divine or human justice, but rather a profound confirmation of the fact that suffering is not simply a form of Divine punishment. Justice is not redeemed by punishment, but in the suffering which man recognizes in his historical mission, while submitting himself to the yoke of God whom he acknowledges as the One God of mankind.

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