The Middle East: The Perplexity of Din and Rachamim

I find such positions as the one recently voiced by Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to be, more than anything, most bewildering. What does she expect Israel to do? Hezbollah indiscriminately fires rockets at population centres in Israel while Israel makes great efforts to attempt to limit civilian casualties as it focuses on military targets – yet it is Israel that she attacks? To be honest, answers, sadly often filled with rhetoric, are abundant. There are those who would contend that such comments reflect a veiled anti-Semitism. Others would argue that these words are offered within a context of a fear of the economic clout of Arab oil. For a variety of reasons, such answers have never left me satisfied. In connection with Ms. Arbour, they are further problematic. It is truly most bewildering when a person as intelligent and principled as Louise Arbour makes such statements – and it is incumbent upon us to identify the root of this misperception and respond appropriately.

Louise Arbour is a former professor of mine at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto where she taught criminal law before following a path towards the heights of the Canadian judiciary. I refer to her as intelligent and principled because that was what, as a student, I saw. She was clearly opinionated but her views were always supported by clear, rational arguments. That is what is so bewildering about her recent comments – comments, I should add, echoed by so many others in the media and in politics and government. I am not willing to dismiss these remarks with the brush of anti-Semitism but neither am I willing to give them credence. What could cause intelligent and principled individuals to adopt such perspectives? It was actually refreshing to hear Glenn Beck on CNN Headline News, not only describe the problems in the Middle East in a manner, I believe, to be correct – but more so, enunciate that this perception is most obvious. What was most enthralling to me, in fact, was that Mr. Black echoed, with similar frustration, the concern that I actually find most perplexing and that I am now addressing – how could any unbiased individual see the situation in Israel otherwise?

The simple answer is that we are, of course, correct; an unbiased individual could not view the crisis in any other manner. The fact is that these people who criticize Israel are indeed biased – but what exactly is the nature of this bias? Bias, while often limited to solely describing a preconceived notion that one may maintain in relating to set others, actually reflects a certain predisposed position in thought. For example, when, in the 19th century, scientific evidence began to challenge Newton's Theories, there was a bias in the scientific community to attempt to explain these difficulties in a manner that would uphold these theories. Einstein developed his theories of relativity because he rejected this bias. But then again Einstein himself also had a bias – "that God does not play dice with the universe" -- and thus could not accept randomness in the Bohr-Rutherford model of the atom. In reality, bias is not necessarily a "bad thing." Without bias towards our theories of life we would not really be able to live. We must have some method of approaching the world, with some yardsticks by which to make decisions – and we are biased to maintain the views that we have rather than constantly being in transition, flux and instability. Yet we can also not let our bias demand of us never to change, never to see a different perspective even though it may challenge or demand a re-evaluation of an important personal yardstick of life. It is precisely within this context that the events in the Middle East present a problem to so many. Viewing the conflict in a manner favourable to Israel would seem to challenge a fundamental perspective on life of many individuals. Evidence the continuous portrayal of the Palestinian population as victims, even as they support terrorism, and the continuous presentation of pictures intended to elicit sympathy for the "weaker" party, even as this weaker party is the one which continues to initiate the cycle of violence and reject any legitimate offers for a resolution. There is clearly a bias but of a different nature than most may think – with repercussions even beyond the conflict in Israel.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal), Da'at Tevunot devotes much discussion to the inherent conflict between rachamim, mercy, and din, justice. On their most basic levels, these two constructs represent yardsticks that reflect different methods of evaluation. The question thus emerges: how can mercy and justice both co-exist in the same venue? This question is generally asked in terms of human decisions. Can a court yield a just decision that is simultaneously a merciful decision? The simple answer to that question would seem to be "no", for the two systems reflect differing views with different criteria for decision making. A paradox of commitment thus exists within the realm of Torah which promotes the simultaneous value of both systems and calls upon us to be just and merciful, to merge rachamim and din, and create a realm of co-existence for these two conflicting systems. While many may give lip-service to such a co-existence, in reality, within the depths of Torah thought, it is clearly recognized that this objective is actually not easy to achieve – and may actually be beyond us. Within Torah thought, it is often better to speak of these two realms as independent entities than to try to reconcile them. But still, within Torah thought, we are called upon to apply, within our lives, these two realms. Reconciliation may be impossible but duality with a goal of reconciliation must still be a significant part of our life path.

The great motivation for this reconciliation, and the conclusive evidence that such unity must ultimately exist is, actually, God Himself. In that we describe God as both Merciful and Just, we effectively emphatically are declaring that rachamim and din must somehow find a synthesis. Yet, as is often the case when we consider the Almighty, the reality of the Oneness of God often only further indicates the difficulty of the challenge. Ramchal effectively offers an explanation as to how justice and mercy can co-exist within the human perspective, yet in doing so he raises a greater paradox in understanding the God-human connection. It is the former, though, that is our present focus.

Ramchal explains that din and rachamim are not descriptions of Divine attributes, per se, but rather reflect two distinct methods by which God relates to the world. More so, they reflect the inherently contradictory essence of the God-human interaction. Avot 3:19 states, in the name of Rabbi Akiva, that everything is foreseen but choice is given. On one hand, human beings are the masters of their own destiny. On the other hand, God has perfect knowledge and thus knows what will be; this implies that there is a limit on the mastery of the human being. Ramchal extends this concept further. It is not only that God has perfect knowledge; by definition God is also the Master of creation, the Master of destiny. The challenge to free choice does not solely emerge from God's perfect knowledge. The challenge to human free choice emerges from God's mastery of creation. The paradox moves to the level of our understanding of our relationship with the Divine yet the co-existence of feelings of rachamim and the demand for justice can now be explained if one recognizes and accepts these two contradictory models of the God-human connection

For there to be justice, the human being must be perceived to be responsible for his/her actions. For the human being to be responsible there must be free choice. See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 5:4. In maintaining that all is from the Will of God, one is thus maintaining that the human being is not responsible for his/her actions and thus not subject to din. Indeed this is precisely how Ramchal understands the realm of rachamim. Mercy is demanded because the human being is simply acting as directed by God and thus not culpable for his/her actions.. It is precisely for this reason, Ramchal explains, that the Name of God, Yud-Kay-Vav-Kay, which reflects the Omniscient nature of His Essence, is connected to rachamim. Din ensues because we declare the human being to have free choice and thus be responsible, Rachamim ensues because we declare the human being to be subject to God's Will and thus not responsible. In the realm of din, the human being is thus culpable; in the realm of rachamim, the human being is thus not culpable – and it is this restraint from punishing the human being, as a result of his/her lack of responsibility, that we call mercy. The paradox does continue – but on a different level. All comes from God; all that exists can only exist pursuant to the Will of God – how then can we declare the human being to have free choice? Yet it is a fundamental principle of Torah that the human being has free choice. We can now understand how mercy and justice can co-exist. They reflect two, very real views of how we look at human beings and their actions – and indeed we can now understand how it can even be just to be merciful.

If we extract these concepts from the Divine realm, in which Ramchal introduced them, we can begin to understand how a distinction in perspective, based generally on these principles, can ensue in almost all human realms. Do we see the human being as a "subject" or an "object"? Do we see individuals as being in control of their destiny or as being affected by others or by circumstances and thus not in control? The more we perceive the human being as responsible for his/her actions, the more we advocate for justice. The more we perceive the human being as not responsible for his/her actions, the more we advocate for mercy. It is within this outlook that we can begin to understand the variant perspectives – and misperceptions – of the Middle East.

From whence does evil emerge? From the perspective of justice, evil emerges from within the individual who, in exercising free choice, decides to act in an evil manner. The person is thus responsible and culpable. From the perspective of mercy, evil emerges within an individual as a result of outside influences that has caused this person to act in an evil manner. The person is thus a victim of circumstances and thus not really responsible and culpable. There is some merit in both perspectives and thus the continuous debate over the response we should have to criminals. Should we see them as responsible, stress justice and demand appropriate punishment or should we see them as victims of circumstance, stress mercy and demand appropriate methods of rehabilitation, even compensation, as we attempt to remove the outside influence that is the real culprit in regard to the crime? The interesting corollary of this dilemma is that the more one can easily identify an outside influence as the motivation for the crime, the more one will lean towards mercy. The evaluation of good and evil thus is, often, tied more to the surrounding circumstances than the deed itself.

Herein lies the essential bias of people such as Ms. Arbour and others who share her opinions. We all have leanings in regard to justice and mercy. Some individuals are more inclined to see the world through the eyes of mercy; others are more committed to justice. As such, some individuals are more ready to explain negative behaviour through the mechanics of external forces; others are more ready to hold the individual himself/herself accountable. For individuals with a more merciful perspective – which, politically, is the essence of the liberal agenda – there is an inherent bias to attempt to explain evil through external forces rather than through the responsibility of the individual. This, in turn, leads to a bias in viewing any conflict between individuals for the one deemed subject to harsher external circumstances will always be deemed the one less responsible for his/her actions. In regard to Israel, the bias expressed by Ms. Arbour in her comments now is able to be identified. Given the oppressed conditions of the Arab population in this conflict, it is now deemed understandable why they commit even acts of terrorism. They are not responsible for their evil but act in this manner because of the external pressures upon them that cause this result. If there is a call for justice, it must be made against those who foster these negative forces that impact upon these individuals. Almost by definition, the one with greater strength is deemed to be in the wrong.

Why one is in a position of strength and one is in a position of weakness becomes irrelevant. That fact that Israel's pioneers and citizens worked hard to achieve their positions of strength becomes irrelevant. The fact that Israel acts with consideration, and even compassion, also becomes irrelevant. Israel must still be the culpable one because the Arab population, existing in their weakened position, cannot be. The Arab population within this conflict cannot be the culpable ones for look at the external forces that act upon them. Deemed to be the victims of these forces, they cannot be seen as responsible. The question is never asked as to why these conditions exist, especially with any intent to find inherent responsibility and thus culpability. The conditions of their lives and even their very acts of evil are seen as the very evidence of their need for mercy. This is the bias that we must challenge – a bias of rachamim misplaced. A bias that the weak must always be in the right; a bias that will, in these circumstances, always find an external reason for this evil.  For such individuals, the method by which to determine right and wrong is not by evaluating the events and actions themselves. The method used to determine right and wrong is through evaluating the overall external conditions that are deemed to have led to these actions. Pursuant to this yardstick, even considering the terrorist attacks upon it, Israel will never be seen in the right.

Of course, rachamim has its place and there is some truth in recognizing how external forces can shape one's destiny. In any interaction between a stronger party and a weaker party, there is an additional call to be concerned for the weaker party. This is found throughout Torah and Halacha. Yet such bias can also greatly distort the truth and even yield incorrect manifestations of mercy and gross distortions of justice. Sometimes one is simply responsible – for their evil and for their conditions. In the very least, din cannot be totally ignored because of rachamim. Furthermore, we must be doubly cautious of the situation whereby one will elicit feelings of rachamim to use as a sword to further his/her intentions. To those with a predisposition for din, I often find myself calling for the application of rachamim. To those with a predisposition for rachamim, I now find myself calling for an application of din. Even more so, given the great value of rachamim, I am asserting that it can also be a great source of bias, a bias that can greatly distort the truth and yield great harm – and that we must be aware of this bias and challenge it.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

2006 NISHMA