The Injustice of the Cross

Last updated: 5/12/2024

Thesis: Atonement represents not an affirmation of justice, but rather instead its unraveling.

Note: This essay is a work in progress.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. (Isaiah 53:3-8 KJV)

Like a lamb to the slaughter. When Christ was being dragged onto the cross, he was helpless like a lamb, blameless like a lamb, and wearing the blame of another’s sin, just like a lamb.

A man who committed no crime (Luke 23:4) nailed next to a thief, all while a murderer walks in his place. He who spoke the Scriptures (Matthew 5:17) branded a heretic by the very same priests and scribes who preached Messiah. The one child of God to have never sinned against God forsaken by God (Matthew 27:46). The blood of the faithful shed so the faithless may live (Jeremiah 3:6-10, Ephesians 2:4-7).

Nowhere in this portrait of Calvary can we speak of justice as we know it.

Where was “justice before the law” when the Roman state chose to wash its hands (Matthew 27:24) of an affair it carried out? Where was the justice of religion when lies were allowed to prevail over truth? (John 12:42) Where was God to right these wrongs, and lift away his son from the altar the way Abraham lifted away Isaac?

God was on the cross. God – the Divine, the Transcendent, the Eternal, the Truth – stood not above this predicament but directly in the midst of it. God – the Invisible, Timeless, Formless God – the one who said unto Moses “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14), the one who stood in opposition to the sculpted and graven images grasped by the hands of men, stood here in a historical moment among men.

The contradiction of Incarnation stands at the center of Christianity. This perfect God – so completely and utterly removed from how we live, what we experience, what we are capable of – taking the very form most familiar to us.

In doing this, what Christ did becomes an example for what we are to do (1 Peter 2:21), what Christ experienced becomes our experience (John 15:20), and the question of what he represents is quite literally a matter of life and death for us.

To do as many Christians have done, and simply write off atonement as a settling of debts, is to neglect the revelation present in the process of its realization.

Until we tackle the question of Calvary, it will continue to haunt over us like a spectre. Any Christian can tell you that the redeeming work brought about resolution, but what is the substance of that resolution? What is it’s nature? Does salvation mean things continuing on as they had before? What is preserved? What is fulfilled? What is dissolved?

The events of that night do not stand in some remote “dispensation” tacked onto an arbitrary timeline. This scene is a microcosm of the larger drama that continually, cyclically plays out in human history.

The same questions of justice, politics, theodicy, morality, which we never seem to fully resolve loom over that night all the same.

The conceit of both the traditionalist and the progressive is to overstate the uniqueness of historical periods.

No amount of philosophical, scientific, cultural, or technological progress will ever change the fact that we are men and our institutions are brick and mortar. We cannot so completely advance past our position or degenerate below it that these fundamental questions to being — how we are to live among other beings and what we are to make of our eventual demise — will cease to bear relevance.

If turning to the past was enough, there would be no need for God – this ultimate religious crystallization of tradition – to be put to death. Yet if the present holds the answers, there would be no need for God to resurrect.

The process is the same irrespective of whether we are talking about morality or politics or religion. We must first put to death the notions of the old, as they represent attempts by man to define righteousness on his own terms. And at that precise moment the old has been done away with, in that brief moment of uncertainty, we discover that contained within the carcass of the old notion is a higher essence, only realized through its negation. Christ said he came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17), but the nature of this fulfillment is that it realizes itself through destruction.

Or to put it in simpler terms, the failure of the Romans and Jews that night was not just the failure of specific peoples in a specific historical period, but symbolic of something much larger.

Each figure is ultimately an archetype, representing the responses men have taken to making sense of their fallenness. In the Pharisee we see the religious man, the one whose gaze is so fixated on the heavens he forgets his own existence on Earth. Whereas the Roman is emblematic of the secular man, the one so preoccupied with managing and living with men’s fallenness, that the concept of a righteousness which exists beyond his line of sight appears absurdity. Yet, despite how familiar these tropes are to us, what we will see as we dig deeper is that they aren’t so mutually exclusive: one always has a tendency to pass into the other.

By studying the Roman, studying the Pharisee, one will see how God was crucified not by a people, but people: their virtues, their institutions, their practices all falling apart before God’s presence.

1. The Failure of Roman Justice

If we are to read Scripture purely as a historical document, as an account of things past, we inevitably relegate its relevance to that of relic. Yet this is what we continuously do as Christians. The fundamentalists and modernists wage their war primarily over the historicity of various Biblical events, but what unites them is the implicit relegation of Scripture to this status of document, each word to its own dispensation. Both the apologist and the historical-critical scholar, in their attempts to reconcile Scripture with “history”, place themselves in a position of pure retrospect, s sort of distant analysis.

Yet to do this — to speak of Rome purely as that state which existed from 509 BC to 395 AD — is to sever the personal connection between the Gospels and the reader. As I see it, such a perspective is limited; it prevents us from properly being able to identify and see ourselves in the situation, the crisis faced by Christ and Israel throughout the Scriptures.

The progressive conceit is to believe that history is linear; that it continually advances from barbarism to civilization. The Bible tells us otherwise, time is cyclical: one generation passeth, and another generation cometh, but the Earth abideth forever. (Ecclesiastes 1:4). The marks of our mortality, our inability to do good (Romans 3:10-11), means that humanity is continually destined to repeat it’s mistakes, as a dog returns to its own vomit. (Proverbs 26:11). And in history we see this: ideas and institutions may take new forms, but every new idea bears the heritage of a previous tradition. The fundamental motifs and attitudes underlying the Roman Republic leave their footprint all over our modern secular civilization. The blood of the Roman runs through liberalism.

When the artists of the Renaissance were rebelling against the religious dogmatism and stagnation of the Middle Ages, what did they turn towards? The humanism of the Greeks and Romans. The valorization of reason, a concern for the mortal, and an increased belief in science over the superstitious. Machiavelli prided himself on reviving the Greco-Roman spirit in politics. Even in art and architecture one could see the Roman influence all over. This continued into the Enlightenment, with the arts once again finding their prime influence in Classicism. Politicians and philosophers began to look to Cicero, and we see this influence how we run our democracies even today. Separation of powers, codified citizen rights, republican government, all of these have their roots in Rome. One need only look at the volume of Latin used across our legal system to appreciate the legacy.

Yet for all of these traits, the common theme is separation: separation of one branch of government from another, separation of the spheres of life in which government may or may not intrude, separation of authority into democracy. Separation is the essence of secularism. It is a myth that a secular society need necessarly be anti-theistic, or even atheistic. The secular society tolerates religious beliefs, insofar as it keeps to its own realm. The religious sphere mustn’t mix with the government, mustn’t mix with the workplace, mustn’t mix with public life.

Likewise the Romans also bestowed their own form of religious tolerance: their ire was reserved for those who were not content with a place in the pantheon, those who posed a threat to the political balance.

So when we read into the role of the Rome in Scripture, what we are really being given an insight into is the justice of secular society. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17), because the law of Caesar is the law of “each to its own sphere”. And it is the language of justice which precisely formed the bedrock of Roman society: the grounds on which they define justice and the grounds upon which they claim authority are one and the same.

For Romans, justice was the value that most legitimised their right to rule other peoples. Internally, it was a leading political principle that justified the power entrusted to emperors and senatorial, equestrian, and decurional elites… Yet, it nonetheless addressed elites, city-dwellers, land-holders and peasants from widely different ethnic, cultural, and social backgrounds as stakeholders of a social order governed by law and justice. Remarkably, many genuinely believed they were. The ‘rule of law’ imposed by Rome was eventually—if not initially—accepted as legitimate by the vast majority the empire’s inhabitants. During the first centuries of our era up to a quarter of the entire human race expected justice from Roman authorities or Roman backed local authorities and arranged their lives accordingly. (Verboven and Hekster 2017, 1-2)

Justice existed not purely as some lofty ideal for the Republic to realize, but as synonymous with the Republic itself. To be Caesar was to be a god in the world. To appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:11) is to put one’s faith in him as the embodiment of Justice. Low-level jurists may fail you, but ultimately Caesar will see what is right.

Roman religion had many gods and spirits and Augustus was keen to join their number as a god himself. This was not unusual: turning political leaders into gods was an old tradition around the Mediterranean. There was also precedent in Roman history – Aeneas and Romulus, who had helped found Rome, were already worshipped as gods. (PBS, “Augustus”)

The relation of the emperor to the law and to justice is one of the more central themes of this book. The emperor was guarantor of justice, source of statutory and precedent law, the highest judicial authority, and the ultimate enforcer of distributive and corrective justice. Emperors were judges who received petitions and issued rescripts on paper involving litigants who wanted a ruling on a legal point. Emperors also heard lawsuits or prosecutions themselves and issued verdicts (decreta). This was mostly but not exclusively on appeal. Fergus Millar famously summarized this as the petition-and-response model, showing how emperors were expected to be approachable by their subjects and guarantee justice. Emperors were also legislators of general laws, holding extraordinary legislative powers from Augustus onwards, ultimately even allowing Ulpian to argue that princeps legibus solutus est. (Verboven and Hekster 2017, 4)

As the law of Caesar is said to be the law of God, so the law of the world becomes the law of God. All men in their separation are united under Caesar, but only insofar as he continues to act as their mediator. In the moment Caesar may hold the crown, but authority ultimately rests with the people: Vox Popli, Vox Dei.

1.1. Law De Jure

As history progressed, we found we no longer needed an emperor: a Republic alone proved sufficient. But where democracy meant an end to Caesars, it would still build itself upon halls of marble. The buildings of Washington D.C. would be deliberately modeled after a Roman temple: no longer honoring a man, but procedure itself (Architect of the Capitol, “Neoclassical”)

A law of procedure exists for men, among men. It is by definition interpersonal, as it derives its authority from the bottom-up, as opposed to instating it top-down. Every democracy envisions itself as a social contract, an agreement between individuals as to how they can cooperate in a society.

Before the social contract, people relied upon a “primitive” (or more accurately, intuitive) conception of justice. To carry out justice was to live by Hammurabi’s famous words: an eye for an eye.

In traditional societies, this justice would be realized either personally or through the extended family unit in blood feuds. If you or someone within your kin has been slighted or hurt, it is your moral duty to exact vengeance. An attack on my brother is an attack on me, blood can only be repaid with blood. To turn the other cheek would not be an act of mercy, but of weakness.

Honor is a kind of status attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by anyone. Honor in this sense is a status that depends on the evaluations of others, and members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them (Cooney 1998:108–109; Leung and Cohen 2011). Accordingly, those who engage in such violence often say that the opinions of others left them no choice at all…. In honor cultures, it is one’s reputation that makes one honorable or not, and one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing, such that “in honor cultures, people are shunned or criticized not for exacting vengeance but for failing to do so” (Cooney 1998:110). Honorable people must guard their reputations, so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights (Cohen et al. 1996; Cooney 1998:115–119; Leung and Cohen 2011)… Cultures of honor tend to arise in places where legal authority is weak or nonexistent and where a reputation for toughness is perhaps the only effective deterrent against predation or attack (Cooney 1998:122; Leung and Cohen 2011:510). Because of their belief in the value of personal bravery and capability, people socialized into a culture of honor will often shun reliance on law or any other authority even when it is available, refusing to lower their standing by depending on another to handle their affairs (Cooney 1998:122–129). (Greer 2021)

Under this conception, the essence of justice is retribution. But what is retribution but a form of balance? An eye is to be exchanged for an eye, no more, and no less. To go too far is tyranny, to go not far enough is cowardice. It does not matter if the loss is unrecoverable, my loss can be made right if someone else is there is someone else’s loss to balance it out.

Among these traditional societies were Ancient Greece, Ancient Israel, the Antebellum South, and most notably the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages, from beginning to end, and particularly the feudal era, lived under the sign of private vengeance. The onus, of course, lay above all on the wronged individual; vengeance was imposed on him as the most sacred of duties … The solitary individual, however, could do but little. Moreover, it was most commonly a death that had to be avenged. In this case the family group went into action and the faide (feud) came into being, to use the old Germanic word which spread little by little through the whole of Europe—’the vengeance of the kinsmen which we call faida’, as a German canonist expressed it. No moral obligation seemed more sacred than this … The whole kindred, therefore, placed as a rule under the command of a chieftain, took up arms to punish the murder of one of its members or merely a wrong that he had suffered. (Greer 2021)

If we are to speak of the Enlightenment as a response to the supposed “barbarism” of the Middle Ages, then what we see is a move away from the highly personal, punitive justice towards a cosmopolitan, procedural justice.

The societies of old structured themselves in a highly localized fashion. One’s concern was one’s own family, one’s own village, one’s own immediate surroundings. The strength of these communities are built on exclusion: one is compelled to participate because one has no other choice. Outsiders cannot be held to these obligations, and therefore outsiders cannot be trusted.

By contrast, our image of a modern civilization is (just like Rome) one where we continually come into contact with “outsiders”. Your family could be different, your culture could be different, your values could be different, and your interests could be different: we still meet in the market, in the schools, in the streets.

This movement from the particular towards the universal warrants a rethinking of justice, as when these groups experience conflict, their intuitions also conflict. We have seen the destructive trail left by lynchings, pogroms, and blood feuds, and recognize them as having no place in a civilized society. We recognize how when we cannot speak of a common justice, the only language left is the language of power: might makes right.

So the secular society derives common justice from common law. Every citizen is afforded the same rights, the same boundaries others may not violate, and the same procedures when those boundaries are crossed. Justice is to be identified with neutrality and consistency, towards the aim of cooperation. Or to use the words of the renowned Roman philosopher Cicero, justice is “an attitude that assigns each person their due and thus preserves the cohesion of human society. Our nature is endowed with an innately civic and social character.” (Wolfe 2020)

Justice is no longer identified with honor, but the underlying principle of balance still remains. But as opposed to a balancing of loss, we now speak of a balancing of interests.

If a crime is committed against me, I don’t immediately lash out because I trust that the State (which enforces the contract) will properly balance things on my behalf. The State might value process, but at the end of the day, what I am paying attention to is whether or not the one who offended me gets the due retribution.

On the flipside, criminals are deterred from acting out because they also have that confidence that if they do, they will receive appropriate and just harm due to due process. He may not like or comply with it, but he recognizes it as legitimate anyways.

This brand of justice is considered procedural because it finds its definition not in punishment itself but in everything surrounding it. Trials, constitutions, rights, appeals, all of these form the basis of procedural justice.

Legitimacy is ultimately a collective perception, and as long as it exists people should be willing to peacefully cooperate, even if begrudgingly. Individual men may have their own short-sighted impulses, but in the long-term the wiser judgement of the State and its process should prevail, and people should have enough of a share of satisfaction to preserve order and balance.

After all, cooperation is the ultimate aim of the social contract, and its ultimate source of moral legitimacy. The secular man knows murder is wrong, because murder is an infringement upon another person’s boundaries. To undermine boundaries is to undermine the balance which keeps peace and order. If everyone murdered everyone, society wouldn’t function, so murder is wrong. If nobody paid their taxes, society wouldn’t function, so not paying your taxes is wrong. The entire system is self-regulating.

Even criminals have their own system of cooperation and order. Criminals don’t exist entirely dispersed as lone-wolves, but rather instead form gangs and organizations with their own rules and expectations for cooperation. Once again, there is a set of restrictions: it’s wrong to snitch, it’s wrong to defy orders, it’s wrong to unnecessarily start fights. All of these laws once again, are based upon what is necessary for continued cooperation and stability. Or to put it more concisely: a godless society privileges not anarchy but equilibrium.

1.2. Vox Popli, Vox Dei

As such, the language of the contract becomes the language of justice: cooperation, consent, freedom, boundaries, fairness. We are no longer dealing with empirical concepts but moral ones. The neutrality of this balance, the neutrality of the institutions underpinning liberalism is in reality a false one.

A contract by definition requires two independent actors. If they aren’t independent, they cannot enter or exit the contract of their own volition. For a choice to be free, it has to be independent of external influence, therefore each sphere of society must be strictly segregated. It must assume equality, not just in some abstract quantitative sense but in a qualitative one. If every man is to be granted the same rights, same due process, etc, then there must be commonality. All people must foundationally have the same approach to resolving conflict, the same desire for cooperation, the same social organization which allows for independence, etc. Diversity is only conceived in terms of detached icons (cuisine, language, fashion, etc) but never in the terms that are actually relevant to the stability of such a balance: communal structure, religion, political inclinations, etc).

We are no longer dealing with a contract which finds its neutrality in “unbiased, objective” judgements regarding human nature (as secular society claims) but rather instead an ideology which merely assumes the universality of its applicability. Ironically, the modernists return back to the medieval logic — dogma derived its legitimacy from church authority and the church derived its authority from dogma. Now, the Humanist philosophy points to civil society as its proof, whereas institutions are to be defined in relation to Humanist ideals. The logic is circular, but the conclusion is clear: Society is Truth, Society is Justice, Society is God. This transcendence afforded to the social realm in order to self-justify its ideology is what Marxists have long termed reification.

The foundation of justice according to liberal thinkers from Hume to Locke to Hobbes is derived from the laws of property and commerce: both entirely social constructs which have taken radically different characters at different points in history. Even many socialists took to arguing capitalism’s injustice based on capitalism’s own premises.

Justice éternelle was Proudhon’s principal category of judgment, which he used to decry the glaring inequalities of the present, so Marx singled it out for special abuse… Later, in Capital, Marx repeated this point:
Proudhon creates his ideal of justice, or justice éternelle, from the juridical relations that correspond to the production of commodities. He thereby proves, to the consolation of every good petite-bourgeois, that the production of commodities is a form as eternal as justice. Then he turns around and seeks to reform the actual production of commodities, as well as the corresponding legal system, in accordance with this ideal. What would one think of a chemist who, instead of studying the actual laws that govern molecular interactions, claimed to regulate such interactions by means of eternal ideas such as naturalité and affinité, etc.” Reversing cause and effect, Proudhon tried to transplant the ideological superstructure of society onto its material base. (Wolfe 2020)

Because procedural justice claims not just a pragmatic, but a moral authority, it implicitly is assumed the development of institutions must lead to the progression of outcomes. However this “must” is a normative “must” as opposed to an empirical one. There is no iron law of nature which states that institutions will magically conform to this Platonic ideal of procedure which perfectly balances everyone’s outcomes. That is why, even in a 21st century America — one which has undergone countless reforms, progression, and upheaval — we still see widespread discontent with the state of the contract.

And where procedure diverges from outcome, that is when the detached neutrality of procedural justice gives way to social justice. The impulse underlying social justice is an explicitly normative one, it doesn’t just simply assert that the institution is aligned with the ideal, but actively seeks to make the institution align with the ideal. It emerges where procedural justice fails. Some of the common issues brought up by proponents of social justice include:

  • For every 1000 incidents of sexual assault in the US, it is estimated that 25 will actually lead to any form of incarceration (RAINN). This is only among reported incidents, as victims are often discouraged due to both long been not having been taken seriously by authorities and fear of retaliation (an example of this is how 62% of those (Rhoad 2015) who report their own abuse in the military experience some form of retalitation).
  • Going off of exonerations, African-Americans make up approximately 14% of the population, but 47% of all wrongful convictions (Gross et al., 2022). In other words, an innocent black person is seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than an innocent white person, 3.5x more likely (Rosenfeld 2023) to be killed by a police officer while unarmed. Accountability is difficult, especially since reports are handled internally, settlements are paid with tax dollars, most union contracts have provisions which undermine disciplinary action (Olson 2020).

This isn’t even to get into the other myriad of issues surrounding race, gender, class, etc. which were the focus of the bulk of social reform efforts over the past century. Regardless, these sorts of questions point to failures of justice not in some abstract moral sense, but also in the practical terms upon which procedural justice grounds itself. Affected groups do not trust the state and civil society to satisfy their end of the contract, and in turn seek justice extrajudicially. This could be rioting (such as with the Watts Riots), protesting, forming communal self-defense units (such as with the Black Panthers), or through media campaigns (such as MeToo). In each of these cases, we see a return to the more vigilante, intuitive senses of justice which is to be delivered from one’s own community. Whatever the cause of these concerns, or how valid we assume any one concern to be, it’s ultimately irrelevant: perception is king. As mentioned before, legitimacy in the social contract exists not as a transcendent truth, but as a collective decision. Polarization is up (Pew Research Center 2014), faith in institutions is low (Jones 2022), and political violence (Bergengruen 2022) is on the rebound: this is ultimately what is relevant.

Of course, a secular society is perfectly capable of admitting its own injustices, but the failures never lie with the contract itself, merely our implementation of it. “Not enough accountability”, “systemic bias”, “insufficient representation”: these are the sorts of critiques liberals will level at injustices in the status quo, whether we’re talking about the market, policing, or even media. But what these critiques share in common is that rather than undermining the system, they reinforce its necessity. Progressives are reformists at heart: regulation, representation, and oversight all involve further expanding and refining institutions to ensure everything is functioning as “intended”. A failure is not an indictment of the ideal, but rather instead an indictment of reality for its failure to conform to the ideal.

This is the trap many fall into when critiquing liberalism: it’s a complete motte and bailey. To point out disconnects between procedure and outcome (the keystone of liberal justice) is to level an attack against the current-justice, not the ideal-justice. The shape of that ideal-justice is always nebulous, discursively insulated from any questions of what its reality would actually mean. When one discusses the virtues of the system, the ideal-justice comes out, but when one discusses the vices we now speak of the current-justice. So comes the great irony that leftists (such as Proudhon) critique liberalism on grounds of being insufficiently liberal.

So one can critique the current-courts as unfair, the current-markets as unequal, or our current-government as un-democratic, but the values themselves go unquestioned. But why should that be the case? Just as we can’t take for granted that insisting upon our current institutions will lead to just outcomes, who is to say that there exists such an ideal configuration of institutional parameters where everything balances out? Who is to say that we can even speak of a society built on a universal independence, a universal fairness, a universal equality, when we can’t even consistently define these terms?

Even take a concept such as foundational as “neutrality”: what does it mean to be neutral? Obviously, on a basic level we can say it means to not arbitrarily discriminate, but that isn’t the only form we see in our society. In contrast to traditional taste-based discrimination (for example, denying a job to someone because you take personal issue with their race), economists have also widely noted the existence of statistical discrimination in our society. In scenarios where information is limited, economic actors (employers, lenders, university admissions) may take to incorporating demographic statistics in order to assess risk. To cite an example:

Suppose there are two cases of discrimination (C1) and (C2).
Case (C1): The employer of a company rejects a female applicant because he receives and believes the statistical evidence from company research showing that the average productivity (measured by output) of female employees is lower than that of male employees.

Case (C2): The employer of a company rejects a female applicant because the sacred text of his religion says that God does not want women to work outside of home.

Both employers in (C1) and (C2) engage in discrimination against women. The employer in (C1) engages in statistical discrimination according to our definition, but the employer in (C2) does not. The main difference between statistical discrimination and non-statistical
discrimination is in the third condition spelled out at the end of 2.1, namely, the role of evidence. While statistical discrimination is motivated and grounded by belief in statistical evidence about the correlation between social group membership and particular attributes, non-statistical discrimination is motivated by other attitudes, such as hostility towards certain social groups or belief in the inferior moral status of the groups.

…[S]tatistical discrimination is arguably less likely than other forms of discrimination to involve an intention to disadvantage the members of the group in question. It is true that, as Pauline T. Kim points out, statistical discrimination can be intentional, as when the agent relies on algorithms to make decisions because “it knows the model produces a discriminatory result
and intends that results to occur” (Kim, 2016, p.884). However, usually, the agent engaging in statistical discrimination does not intend to disadvantage the group. Given the same statistical estimation of productivity, the employer in (C1) might be equally willing to hire female as male applicants. In fact, one reason given for using statistics in employment is to reduce intentional discrimination in decision-making. (Sun 2021, 3-4)

On paper, sounds rather neutral: an employer with limited information has to make a probabilistic judgement, and consider all sources of information. As long as the statistics are objective, then shouldn’t that remove the bias? After all, this should mean that opportunities writ large will go to the groups deserving. But once again, we run into another divergence between procedure and outcome, this time manifest in the vicious circle: a phenomenon in which the results of this process inadvertently reinforces the initial statistics which caused the problems in the first place.

Statistical discrimination adds to the existing injustice suffered by the subject group. This is realized through a dual mechanism. First, statistical discrimination contributes to existing injustice directly through causing disadvantageous outcomes for the group. For example, statistical discrimination in the workplace increases the difficulty for members of minority groups to get employment, salary raises, and promotion, preventing them from moving out of poverty and improving their living conditions. These consequences, in turn, reduce their access to good education and skill training, which then worsens their performance in the workplace,
creating a vicious circle. Statistical discrimination in education, housing, and services also exacerbates the quality of life of minority groups. Besides the material disadvantages, statistical discrimination causes reasonable feelings of powerless, stigma, resentment, hatred and other traumatic experiences. (Sun 2021, 18)

So, what are we to make of a system which reinforces the problems which it punishes groups for? Is it systemically unjust? Is it not neutral, since the spiral only occurs to previously discriminated groups? Even if we were to run these judgements through an algorithm (whose entire purpose is to process data and identify quantifiable trends), we still see questions regarding their objectivity be raised:

The use of algorithms is transforming the workplace. Many employers rely on algorithms to determine who gets interviewed and whom to hire or promote (Kim, 2016). Algorithms learn based on the data on which they are designed. Unable to distinguish correlations that represent causal connections from correlations that are not themselves causal but can be explained by a third-party cause or other underlying causal process, algorithms treat
instances of prejudice in training data as valid examples and simply perpetuate these injustices in its outputs (Hayes et al., 2020, p.12).

For example, suppose an algorithm is trained on a data pool including gender and occupational information of a county’s population over the past ten years, and it is asked to predict whether a candidate is likely to succeed in a leadership position. The algorithm can easily detect that being male is correlated with higher possibility of becoming leaders and make decisions favoring male candidates over female candidates. The algorithm is not able to distinguish the situation where females are intrinsically unsuitable for being a leader and therefore have lower rates of taking leadership position, from the situation where there are third-party factors that unjustifiably make it more difficult for women to get a leadership position. (Sun 2021, 17-18)

So clearly this isn’t just a matter of “bad actors”, but a larger crisis of definition: should one define neutrality with respect to the procedure or with respect to the outcome? Regardless of whichever side one takes on the issue, the implications end up raising a great deal of ambiguity regarding what exactly these concepts mean. And because these are normative concepts, there’s no reason to assume this ambiguity will ever be resolved.

It’s precisely because the entire framework rests upon such a quixotic foundation that it takes upon an absurd character. Vox popli, vox dei fails because the people are not God. How can the State stand as a neutral mediator above men when all these institutions are directly the product of men? When one speaks of systemic bias as the root of political evil, are they not implicitly positing that their Platonic system requires the complete absence of humanity to function? But then what is a political system if it have nothing to do with men?

This question holds not just on a level of practical implementation, but even the foundational ideas, which is why “well it can’t be perfect, but we can try” is not an argument. It neglects the fact that even the ideals against which all things are calibrated are in and of themselves immanent in their character. Which is why liberals struggle to define things like justice, why a line such as “equal is not equal” can be said without a hint of irony, and why we are called to have faith in institutions in order to protect the health of said institutions.

It should come as no surprise then that a writer like Hobbes can first describe society mechanistically, and then come to the conclusion that the State must act as a sort of secular god, lifting men above the state of nature (O’Flynn 2009, 27-31). A machine is fully within our control, it’s parts can be swapped and optimized at will. The machine carries with it a dual-definition: design and implementation, problem and solution. This separation paves the way for a politics of reform and rational choice. However, this analogy ignores that machine operates according to the laws of physics: laws which stand true across time and independent of human relations.

But the language of the social scientists remains just as mathematical regardless. Policymakers, economists, and planners understand their goals numerically: indices, targets, and investments. The goal precedes practice, and preceding the goal is the terms of said goal. Filtered through the goal, practice can only be a matter of accounting: to direct human behavior as one would turn a wrench, human beings must be reducible to an objective dimension. We may mistake the narrowness of individual questions (resource allocation, crime rates, consumption patterns, etc.) for the objectivity of the endeavor, but taking a step, we begin to see the patterns. If society is god, then equilibrium becomes not just a base question of survival or stability, but the pursuit of justice itself. The activist and the wonk end up in the same place: performing social alchemy in the hopes of synthesizing ideals into reality.

Either way you look at it, to appeal to such an ideal requires one to appeal to an authority outside of men and things, to what is functionally a god. But this god has to define himself in concord with the ideals of property, justice, and right: all concepts which have their roots in social organization. This god in harmony with society is in reality defined by society — it becomes more accurate to say society becomes god. Mankind sees itself in the position of god.

In striving to become god — to conform to this ideal law that has been erected — limitations become all the more apparent, and the drive towards perfection becomes a drive towards purging humanity. So it is that personal forms of domination and social organization give way to domination by abstract forces. No longer is there a king, but a bureaucracy. Legal and political systems become increasingly byzantine to navigate and absurd. One in theory is given class mobility, but the market renders all labor fundamentally alien. Men no longer find themselves oppressed by other men, but by the products of their own creation. The aforementioned ‘qualitative equality’ has the effect of stripping all men and things of their sense of agency and individuality. This purification of mankind is indistinguishable from its annihilation. Or, to put it short: if society is a machine, then what can men be but its cogs?

Capitalist society, as the latter saw it, had made everything equal by subjecting it all to indiscriminate exchange. “One man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour,” Marx explained. “Time is everything, man is nothing; or else, he is but time’s carcass. Quality no longer matters, as quantity alone decides everything; hour for hour, day for day. Yet this equalizing of labor is by no means the work of Proudhon’s ‘eternal justice.’ Rather, it is simply a fact of modern industry.” In other words, far from conflicting with the norms of capitalist production, the “eternal justice” championed by Proudhon instead hypostatized them. (Wolfe 2020)

This is ultimately the conclusion of secular justice — far from overcoming religion, it finds itself hopelessly trapped within it.

2. The Failure of Jewish Justice

But it was not just any place in Rome Jesus was arrested, but right within Jerusalem. Not just anywhere he started his ministry, but within the midst of Galilee. Just as he could trace his lineage all the way back to Jacob, so his context inseparably became that of Israel’s.

And it was in his time Israel found itself in the midst of an identity crisis: with no more temple, no more independence, the nation now had to grapple with the question of what it meant to be God’s chosen people. How essential is the temple to worship? Is there an Oral Torah? Can Jewish identity only be realized through political independence?

Contrary to the assumptions of many Christians today, the Jews of Jesus’ time were far from united in their answers to these questions. As much as we love to joke about church infighting today, the environment in which Jesus found himself was not so different. Among the factions (Abramson 2020) you had:

  • The Sadducees (Abramson 2022b), who traced their heritage back to the priest class of old. Their practice was at the heart of the temple, keeping the old rites, hierarchies, and scriptures. But in order to maintain their aristocratic status, they favored assimilating to the surrounding Roman culture politically, culturally, and spiritually. They held to the written Torah but not nearly as strongly to the Oral Torah. By extent, they also rejected a lot of the supernatural beliefs present in Jewish tradition: resurrection of the dead, angels, etc.
  • The main foil to the Sadducees were the Pharisees (Abramson 2022a), revivalist leaders who often represented the Jewish masses as opposed to the priestly elite. They saw the Sadducees as having compromised Jewish identity through their assimilation. Whatever claim they had to the temple and ritual was compromised by their capitulation. As a result they separated (their name, פרושים, literally means “to separate”) from the grounds of the temple, from Roman culture, and from “impurity” into the streets. They preached the oral tradition, putting an emphasis on halakha not just in the temple but in daily life. They saw this tradition as instrumental towards preserving Jewish identity and separating it from the surrounding Roman culture.
  • And then you had the Zealots, revolutionaries who resented Roman rule and believed Jewish identity could only be maintained through political sovereignty. They were a loose group, for whom political and religious motivations often blended. They believed Roman rule had to be overthrown at all costs, and a Messiah would come to lead them in their liberation. To them, the position of the Sadducees and Pharisees did not go far enough, as even the Pharisee separatism did not directly challenge Roman rule.

2.1. The Sadducees

Of course, despite their disagreements, no matter how bitter the fighting got, they were still all Jews in the end: bound to the same God and bound to the same promise. The God of the Zealots, Sadducees, and Pharisees was still — unlike the Roman gods — wholly perfect, wholly indivisible, wholly transcendent. They disagreed on the meaning of identity, the meaning of approach, but neither of these factions questioned the link between Jewish identity and Jewish law. The hope of the Zealots, the tradition of the Pharisees, and the lineage of the Sadducees all found their roots in those fateful words spoken unto Moses. Israel was to be a “treasure unto [God] above all people”, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. (Exodus 19:5-6 KJV)

The laws delivered upon Sinai — which comprise the heart of the Torah — weave together notions of law, justice, and identity. When it is declared “justice, and only justice you shall follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20 RSV), it is done so right in the middle of Moses’ delivery of the law. Similarly in Leviticus, we see how God ties the keeping of his commands to Israel’s own separation (Leviticus 20:22-24). You are not to eat the same food as the others, not to marry their women, not to spend the seventh day as they do, not to worship their Gods. But you are also to not take bribes, not bear false witness, not make use of dishonest scales. Israel’s justification is to be in its separation, and its separation defined in terms of its pursuit of justice. To the Jew, the Law is the expression of the connection; under a system of halakha, tradition, guidance, and law all become synonymous.

Where Israel failed to keep these commandments, one need only turn to the Book of Judges to see how easily adopting the customs of the surrounding nations became losing identity, losing the law, and losing God. (Judges 2:10-19) But no longer would there be any judges to rescue the people. No more prophets. No more kings. Israel had no sovereignty under Rome, neither did it before Rome. Neither this generation, nor their fathers’ generation, nor the generation before that could remember anything resembling national sovereignty. The throne went not to a David, but to a Herod: a puppet of Rome rather than a King of Jews. The old temple was reduced to rubble, the construction of the new one dependent on the patronage of Israel’s conquerors. So in this period — where even the moment of crisis, the time of Lamentations — had long been forgotten, where is the Jew to find his grounding?

For the Sadducees, the answer was the temple. As long as Israel had its temple, the temple they worked so hard since the time of Cyrus to rebuild, then that site in the center of Jerusalem could stand as the center of Jewish identity. They had the law, they had the rituals, they had the authority all of which they could insist upon: and as long as they kept it within the temple walls, they need not worry about the Romans giving them grief. Because of this logic, Israel’s own priests felt un-threatened by the forces of Hellenization. They readily accepted the Roman rule, culture, and ways of living because through doing so it would ensure good relations and thus the preservation of the temple. As long as Israel maintained its rituals, its Levitical laws, and its hierarchies, the tradition would carry. They took great pride in their lineage and connections, seeing themselves as the heirs of the Maccabean revolt which liberated Israel from the Greeks all those years ago.

Their identity, their religion, their status, all stood upon the rock of the temple. But even the most solid rock finds itself gradually eroded by the forces of war and decay. What is to happen when this temple — said to be the dwelling place of God (1 Kings 8:12-13, Exodus 25:8) — can no longer house him?

It was the Romans who granted protection to the temple, and the Romans who took it away. The purpose of all of the Sadducees’ appeasement was to to maintain favor; so it only followed that when Israel lost favor, the Romans would ensure they lose everything else too. The Sadducees, cloistered in their chambers, continued to ignore the voices of the Jewish masses who felt humiliated and erased in the face of Roman rule. With their kapos incapable of keeping a lid on the revolts, the Romans took matters into their own hands and set Jerusalem ablaze.

No more temple, no more scrolls, no more rituals, no more Sadducees. So completely and thoroughly annihilated that our only records of them come from their enemies. Even the picture I painted here — the picture history paints — is one framed by Pharisees and Christians. We’ll never fully know their perspective or see them speak for themselves, but to an extent the silence speaks for itself. We’ll never hear for ourselves the Sadduccees in their own words, precisely because whatever rock they stood upon was lost to the sands of time. Israel was to be a treasure unto the Lord, forever and ever (Psalm 135:4, 2 Samuel 7:12-16), so how can we speak of its soul in terms of wood and stone (Deuteronomy 4:28)? The only conclusion we can come to is that the Sadducees were wrong: wrong about identity, wrong about eternity, wrong about God.

2.2. The Zealots

Nothing I have said so far is new or the product of hindsight: this exact debate and these very ideas were actively going on at the time, perfectly within earshot of those involved. Echoing those criticisms of the Sadducees were the Zealots: revolutionaries who took the exact opposite approach to Rome. For them, the Jew could not co-exist with Hellenic society, much less integrate into it. The very fact of Roman rule was the threat: for what good was a temple when its people did not even own the ground upon which it stood? The Jews may have been free to worship, but the Romans were also plenty free to bring their own statues and idols onto temple grounds. To the zealot, domination was political, and land was freedom: not just merely the freedom to occupy, but to freedom to rule. If the Jews were to live in Jerusalem, it had to be on their own terms. For a Jew to be a Jew, he needed political independence, a nation to call his own. And to this end, the Zealots were willing to make any sacrifice of themselves and their own people.

They set fire to the country’s food stockpiles in order to induce starvation and revolts. They invited Israel’s enemies into her borders so that their opponents could be purged. (Eisen 2014) They inflicted a great deal of suffering, but no price is too high for independence. Once they won, it would all be worth it.

So, they continued time and time again to wage war against the Romans, each time finding themselves ruthlessly crushed. But they would pick themselves back up again, with an iron resolve and a renewed hope. Not just any revolutionary hope, as raw math gave them no chance against the world’s greatest empire. No, instead, it was a messianic hope. Isaiah spoke of a hero that would restore Israel. To stand in the midst of this moment, experiencing this humiliation but also hearing these words of redemption and liberation, how could one not be moved? Feeling this, the Zealots picked their arms back up one final time.

Leading the revolt would be Simon ben Kosiba (also known as Bar Kokhba), a great military leader who claimed to be the Messiah. Under the leadership of Bar Kokhba, the Jews managed to retake large parts of the country, including Jerusalem. As they beat back the Romans again and again, the fervor only grew stronger. (Jewish Virtual Library 2017). With their newfound independence, the Jews would minting coins proclaiming “year one of the redemption of Israel”. (Lendering 2001) If the Sadducees found their salvation in pure ritual stripped of any political relevance, for the Zealots justice was politics. The Zealots avoided the Sadducee mistake of taking refuge in symbols without appreciating what gives those symbols power.

In this sense, they were ahead of their time: we have seen these motifs recur with the various modern politics of revolution and national liberation. The tale of Exodus has served not just as an inspiration to the Jews it was written about, but the various other peoples throughout history who have come to see themselves as oppressed and colonized. Religion, piety, justice, these are not concepts which can be wholly individualized or divorced from the surrounding context. God created men not as souls inhabiting an abstract plane of existence, but as bodies in a world. We engage with these concepts not just via some asetic or otherworldly sphere, but within our lives. The slave in finding freedom comes to recognize justice as something personal, and the terms on which he is raised, the terms on which he worships, the terms on which he relates to other men are all deeply tied to his historical and political existence.

But even with all this in mind, one cannot find refuge from the historical within the historical. All wars have to come to an end, all strongmen eventually die, and here was no different. The revolution died with Bar Kokhba, zealotry died when its moment came to pass. The historian who wishes to study this saga is not met with a story of divine triumph but one of mortal math. The Romans had the numbers, the Israelites didn’t, simple as that. The tales they may have thought back to — where Gideon marches with an army of three-hundred or where Jesse’s youngest son bests Goliath — were stories of redemption not because the Israelites became strong again, but the opposite. They repented, recognizing their weakness and thus dependence upon God. This is the pattern present within the book of Judges: just as we often find ourselves turning back to the parts where God continually saves Israel, equally recurring is the are the moments in which Israel is brought to destruction.

And this is the blindspot for many theologies of liberation. When we speak of justice, we are speaking of something transcendent: it is personal, but it is also eternal. Many kings, many nations, many wars have come and gone: some have had better outcomes than others. But in each and every case, none provided the guarantee or refuge of justice. There is no principle by which one can truly speak of the events of the revolts as synonymous with Israel’s redemption: the latter implies a finality, an eternity whereas the former lasted approximately three years.

When someone like Malcolm X speaks of land as the basis of all justice, it is worth asking ourselves if that is really the case:

Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality. The white man knows what a revolution is. He knows that the black revolution is world-wide in scope and in nature. The black revolution is sweeping Asia, sweeping Africa, is rearing its head in Latin America. The Cuban Revolution — that’s a revolution. They overturned the system. Revolution is in Asia. Revolution is in Africa. And the white man is screaming because he sees revolution in Latin America. (X 1963)

Speaking now years later, in these various countries across Africa, across Asia, across Latin America — countries which have won their independence and their land — have they realized these ideals? We continue to see corruption, we continue to see violence, we continue to see repression, and we continue to see inequality. The direct domination of the colonial powers has found itself supplanted by the indirect domination of the global market: independence only goes so far when the world is connected. Local elites are not inherently any less willing to exploit and abuse their people than foreign ones: national bonds only mean so much.

As soon as we hear someone mention the word “liberation” today, we must listen carefully and ask at least one pointed question. Not the traditional question, “liberation from what force, oppression, or slavery?” The problem no longer lies there. Rather, we must ask “liberate… for whose benefit?” Who will be the new oppressor, the new master? We must systematically destroy the childish ideology that follows this pattern: “Where you have a dictator and an oppressed people, kill the dictator to liberate the people. They will organize themselves and become their own masters. They will come of age and enter into their freedom” (at this point, since the unexamined goal has been attained, no reason remains for trying to ascertain what really happened). (Ellul 1979, 58)

While it is important to keep in mind how human beings are influenced by their situation, the reverse also holds true. Those systems of exploitation, domination, repression, whatever have you — are products of human nature. The fact that we can even draw a connection between what the Jews went through in antiquity and what has occurred in modernity should serve as a reminder that historical moments are not unique. Wicked governance is not the product of any one nation or period, but will exist in some form or another as long as human beings exist. Liberation theology has a tendency to lose sight of the fact that salvation is ultimately salvation from sin:

The paralytic needs forgiveness. We must not be dishonest at this point and try to transpose this term onto a sociopolitical plane. Jesus calls the others “sick,” after all (v. 12). These people do not just have the reputation of being ill: they are ill. Tax collectors are thieves and exploiters of the poor. They harm others. The issue is not only social and moral. These people are not judged just by others to be sinners: Jesus also has no doubt they are sinners.

He does not say to the paralytic or to the prostitutes that they have every reason to be what they are, that He accepts their actions, etc. No: to the paralytic He announces forgiveness (which he truly needs, so that we can perfectly well use the term sin!); to the others Jesus declares He is the physician and the one who calls. And in Israel, after all, call and vocation had a definite spiritual meaning. “Sin” is not an ordinary word Jesus uses for convenience’ sake. The Bible strictly defines the term, and nothing would authorize us to claim that in this context Jesus deviates from biblical usage, since He takes the position of God, who forgives sins. In no way does Jesus transpose sin onto the sociopolitical realm. He simply declares that He forgives sin in all its dimensions (including the political and social). (Ellul 1979, 67)

Whatever virtue we may choose to assign to resistance for its own sake, whatever catharsis they may have gained by fighting back, one thing is undeniable: Israel was not restored. This cannot be the essence of an eternal justice.

2.3. The Pharisees (in-progress)

The purpose of the last section was mostly to just give historical context, because the meat of our investigation is going to be on the Pharisees. The Gospels present the Pharisees as some of Jesus’ most vocal critics, but also those closest to the people of Israel.

Historically speaking, the Pharisees were a sect who sought to chart a “middle-course” between the extremes of Zealotry and Sadducism. They understood the threat of assimilation, and that the soul of Israel lay not in the temple but its people. But at the same time, they recognized directly taking Rome to task was a futile effort. Their solution was to turn to creating a “cultural nation” apart from Hellenism, as opposed to a political one.

The Gospels speak of Pharisees as sticklers for the law, but which ones? Not the law of temple sacrifice as with the Sadducees, but specifically the laws of daily conduct. The Pharisees spoke in the streets: the task of building a national consciousness began in sanctifying the everyday world. How you spend your Sabbath (Mark 3:2), who you eat with (Matthew 9:11), how you wash before meals (Luke 15:2, Mark 7:1-10) — these are specifically the grounds on which the Pharisees throughout Scripture charge Jesus and accuse sinners.

This also sheds light on why (as opposed to the Sadducees) the Pharisees were such staunch defenders of the Oral Torah. The written Torah taken alone does not give much in the way of guidance for how a Jew is to conduct his daily affairs, but a significant portion of the oral tradition is dedicated to these matters. Also, as a living oral tradition — transmitted from rabbi to student — there would be much more room for debate, personal engagement, and application to a contemporary environment.

These are not arbitrary hangups, but — just like circumcision — outward markers to one’s identity, one’s being set apart. When Paul collapses the distinction between inward and outward righteousness (Romans 2:28-29), he also collapses the foundation of what separates Jew and Greek (Galatians 3:28). Right away we get a glimpse of the paradigm shift Christianity presents with regards to the matter of identity.

We often tend to imagine the Pharisees as these out-of-touch rabbis who scorned the common man, but in many respects they were populists. They brought revival to the streets, they postured against Rome, their rebuke was saved for those who did not fit the mold of what a common Jew should look like. What they had to offer was what the people of Israel wanted to hear: a renewed form of Jewish pride, but one which didn’t necessitate the taking up of arms. Out of all of the factions we have discussed so far, they were the ones most in tune with Israel, its people, and its history.

And the important part was that it worked. Following the destruction of the temple, we have barely a trace of a Sadducee. With the crushing of the revolts, Zealotry lost all of its relevance. Out of this period of complete tumult and destruction for Israel, only two factions would meaningfully survive: the Christians and the Pharisees.

But the Pharisees would survive by breaking from tradition; pressure from Rome meant that if the law was to survive, it would have to be written down. The preservation of Jewish identity depended on the people knowing the mitzvot, even through generations of Roman censorship. Paper ensured easier preservation but also risked losing what set the law apart: its flexibility and its obscurity (Eisen 2014a). Free to be studied, picked apart, and claimed by any literate Gentile, codified in a way where one can be tempted to treat it as just any other book (which ironically, you do see in many ultra-Orthodox communities (Blankovsky 2020) (Cardozo 2021) today). This compilation — dubbed the Mishnah — dealt with these concerns by structuring itself in a heavily dialogical fashion, so that in order to properly engage with it one would have to do so in an environment with teachers and other students.

And this pattern of crisis and careful reinvention is precisely the formula by which Judaism (through the Rabbinic tradition) came to survive to this day. Medieval Europe had its own string of persecutions, yet with the Enlightenment many Jews began to feel as if society moving past religious superstition also meant moving past irrational bigotries. Yet religious identity just gave way to national identity and the Jews found themselves under attack once more. What incidents like the Dreyfus Affair highlighted was both the readiness with which Jews would respond to their own persecution with assimilation but also how even assimilation proved to be insufficient. Europe found itself under the spell of these theories of blood and soil, and this obsession with national purification would eventually culminate in the greatest atrocity known to human history. The Nazis may not have succeeded in eliminating every single person of Jewish origin, but entire communities and centres of culture were entirely wiped out across both central and eastern Europe (Waligórska 2023).

Faced with an existential threat once more, the Jews could not live among the other nations anymore, but they could join them. In the wake of both the Dreyfus Affair and the Holocaust, the movement to form a Jewish nation — Zionism — saw a massive surge in support. Traditionally, it was held that the restoration of Israel would only be realized when God sent his Messiah. Israel through the diaspora set itself apart not as a nation one could point to on a map, but a nation of Torah. These issues led to a great deal of hesitation as it would mark yet another paradigm shift in how Jews would come to understand their identity and law. (Goldman 2009, 272-273) But waiting on God clearly wasn’t working; the salvation of Israel could only come via guns and rockets.

The Jew could not save himself individually, only collectively. No one else, neither God nor gentile, would save him; salvation could be achieved only through exodus and concentration in a homeland, in a collective effort of will, through “autoemancipation,” the re-creation of the Jewish nation, living on its own soil, in a country of its own. That country must gradually be purchased and settled; eventually the Jews would achieve nationhood and gentile recognition. Only there could Jews at last achieve equality with and independence of the gentiles. (Morris 1999, ???)

What we see then is that the Jewish approach to law is not dogmatic (as the stereotype goes), but rather instead highly pragmatic. Even the ultra-Orthodox, renowned for their strictness, were not merely passive “preservers” of millennia-old traditions (as they would like to portray), but consciously inventing new norms and traditions to meet the situation (Keren-Kratz 2021). But this, far from being a secret, is very much intentional; a recurring theme throughout Jewish literature (likely informed by Jewish history) is an understanding that life is the governing principle, not law.

3. Beyond Justice



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