How do you know when your zeal for righteousness has veered into the realm of self-righteousness? How do you know when you have become so enthusiastic about what you believe that you have closed yourself off from every opinion but your own?
Our nation’s politics have moved from partisanship to hyper-partisanship. It has become too easy for people on all sides to confuse the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of just winning. It is hard to remember that there is a difference. It is hard today for us to remember to listen to what people who disagree with us are saying.
But we have to try. Partisan extremism is actually leading to violence. (I am thinking about the killing of a counter-protester against white supremacists this month, and also the shooting of Republican members of Congress on a baseball field in June.) We need to consider how vehemence can lead to hatred, and how hatred can drive some people to terrible action. Rational arguments and facts are the best way to counter ideas we don’t like. They are not only more persuasive than insults and innuendoes, they are actually healthier for our society and our world.
This week’s Torah portion (Shoftim) includes a verse that is a favorite of Jews who are committed to social action: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live and inherit the land which Adonai your God gives you” (Deuteronomy 16:20). This verse is read as a clarion call for doing everything in our power to fight for what is right and to deplore evil. What could go wrong with fighting for right over evil?
Plenty. We should be careful about our certainty that we can tell the difference. In our zeal, we sometimes forget that even the pursuit of righteousness must be conducted with righteousness. No argument or position is so just that it justifies a hateful response to its opponents.
Rabbi Zev Wolf of Zbaraz, a 19th-century Ukrainian hassidic leader, had a novel interpretation of the verse to remind us of this truth. He read the doubling of the word “justice” as a sign of self-righteous zeal. He said:
There are many ways that our evil inclination conspires to ensnare us. Just as we sometimes trick ourselves into acting maliciously, we sometimes also entice ourselves into sin by being excessively righteous. We try to be “holier than thou.” This is why the Torah warns, “Justice, justice – meaning, excessive justice – you will pursue.” You must chase away that inclination, for sometimes that, too, is the way of the evil inclination. Do not be too righteous. (Itturei Torah, vol. 6, p. 110)
Be careful with your zeal. Remember that your rivals also are human beings who believe that they are pursuing justice. The moment that we cast ourselves in the role of the holier-than-thou exemplar of justice and righteousness, we become victims of our desire to win and to be right, rather than servants of what is truly just.
Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Cranston. He is the author of the blog “Reb Jeff,” from which this d’var Torah is adapted.