Justice in a Time of Madness

To call for justice is at the same time to rail against its opposite. From Jewish prophets to contemporary public interest groups, from democracy seeking citizens of Greek city-states to national liberation movements, those who pursue the creation of a … Read More

By / January 1, 2008

To call for justice is at the same time to rail against its opposite. From Jewish prophets to contemporary public interest groups, from democracy seeking citizens of Greek city-states to national liberation movements, those who pursue the creation of a more just way of life necessarily seek to remove injustice. In their call for better treatment of themselves or others, in their fearless critique of (in Marx’s bold phrase) “everything existing,” they align themselves with good and oppose the bad; they support a change for the better while resisting forces that make things go from bad to worse.

Since the concept of “justice” requires us to think in such stark alternatives, how can we proceed if we ourselves are afflicted by a kind of sweeping madness? How, to be specific, can we seek environmental justice for all of life when even the best of the prophets among us are unable or, more often, unwilling to only be on the side of justice?

How Justice is Pursued

The conceptual structure of “justice” involves, at least, the following: identifying an action or type of action, whether of a person, a group, or an institution; and describing the action in terms of its moral characteristics—i.e., in terms of familiar moral concepts like right/wrong, fair/unfair, just/unjust, proper/improper, decent/indecent, honest/dishonest and the like. Also, while the variety of contexts in which injustice arise will make the assignment of responsibility more or less easy, it is also necessary to decide who is responsible for these actions.

Finally, along with identifying, describing, and ascribing responsibility, we need to be able to distinguish the reciprocal positions of profit and loss. Who benefits from injustice and who suffers from it? And what is gained and what taken away?

This conceptual structure is clearly as present in ancient biblical criticisms of a self-satisfied and corrupt elite as it is in Marx’s classic economic theory. In both accounts there are the unfair and the fair, the unjust and the just. In Leviticus we are told that the laborer must be paid at the end of the workday. If you hold his wages, he will suffer (19:13). We are also cautioned against favoring any class of people in law courts (19:15). The prophet Isaiah denounced the McMansions of his day: “Those who join house to house, until there is room for no one but you” (5:18). In a remarkable reversal, the Jews are instructed not to to be “ruthless” to the poor (Leviticus: 25:43), with the same word being used to describe how the Jews were treated when they were slaves in Egypt (Exodus 1:13). Thus anyone can act justly, and anyone unjustly. It depends on how you live, and not who you are.

As the many authors of this book make clear, the Jewish tradition is filled with such clarion calls for justice. They echo in all our sacred texts, and have been equally present in secular Jews’ abundant presence in a very wide variety of progressive political movements.

What is perhaps less clear, not only to the Jewish tradition but to all of us, is how to understand justice in the face of madness.

Illogical Injustice

We will come to the environment. First, however, a detour is required to the foundational experience of modern Jewish life, the Holocaust. Now it is certainly true that if ever there was a paradigm case of injustice, the Shoah is it. The actions involved? Legal and social degradation, theft of property, consignment to slave labor, and mass murder. The injustice involved? That the Jews were innocent. The victims? The Jews. The perpetrators? The Nazis and the collaborators. The benefits to the perpetrators? Among other things, billions of dollars of Jewish property and political power from scapegoating.

The Holocaust, in other words, can be properly seen as a context in which one group unjustly (to say the least) benefits from what it does to another.

But what about that aspect of the Holocaust in which the perpetrators did not benefit? What about actions which, while devastating to the Jews, were also damaging to the Nazis? What happens when injustice is bad for those committing it?

To take two cases in point : The death camp complex Auschwitz-Birkenau was not only a site of mass murder, but also a number of factories, some which made essential war material such as ammunition. The factory workers were Jews, condemned to produce the weapons for their own killers. The situation of these workers approached the ideal of capitalism—it cost virtually nothing to keep them alive; and if they died, no one would be held responsible. The cost of producing their labor was virtually nil and there were plenty more where they came from. Yet even in this context some workers were better than others, and it would be more efficient—and thus better for the German war effort—to have experienced workers who knew what needed to be done rather than have to train an endless supply of new ones because the old ones had dropped dead from starvation or been killed.

That is why a number of times the commandant of Birkenau protested the extreme starvation and frequent random selections and killing of his workers. It simply did not make economic or military sense. Yet it went on. The goal of genocide, that is, had become an end in itself. It was no longer solely about killing Jews to get their property, or their slave labor; or even to scapegoat the Jews in the pursuit of political power. Death of the Jews had become its own reward.

If this is not madness, what is?

Another case: by 1944 the German Army was struggling in a two-front war. To the east, the Russians had proved surprisingly resistant to a final collapse. In the West the American entry to the continent placed extreme demands on German resources. It was necessary, in the face of this extremity, to be able to move German troops and material as quickly and efficiently as possible. Yet several times trains were not available—they were occupied carrying Jews to the gas chambers. Complaints, demands, and beseeching by army commanders accomplished nothing. From the highest circles of the Party, from Hitler himself, a stark and simple directive appeared: nothing, nothing, was to take precedence over the Final Solution. Nothing—not even the attempt to win the war.

To sacrifice one’s most needed goal—military victory—in order to kill: is this not madness?

When madness sweeps a social setting, at least one of the typical structures of claims of injustice are removed. We can no longer say “You are oppressing us in order to get….” for in this bizarre setting oppression is its own reward. Injustice is swept aside, and what is called justice remains—but it is a justice without logic or sense.

So, in Nazi Germany, the Nazi party put forth the belief that eliminating Jews was in itself a good: a moral imperative, a goal worth sacrificing for. That is to say, from the perspective of the Nazi leadership it made sense. Clearly, however, from the standpoint of military commanders and munitions makers, it did not. Moreover, to the crazy person, his or her madness always seems reasonable. That is part of the very definition of madness. In this case madness is precisely that distortion of decency and empathy, in which millions of human beings can be murdered with impunity. Within the realm of such madness, no claim of injustice will be heard or understood.

A World Gone Mad

In the environmental crisis the world now faces, we are swept up in a madness that encompasses killer and victim, polluter and pollutee. In the Holocaust, the distinction between perpetrators and victims remained all too clear. Mad or not, all the Nazis were killers, and all the Jews, victims. Now, as in Elie Wiesel’s prophetic observation that “The whole world has become Jewish,” even that distinction is at time strained to the breaking point.

Of course, some people pollute more than others. Some people benefit from the environmental crisis more than others. Clearly there is a great deal of money to be gotten from selling pesticides, even if they are carcinogens and degrade the soil. Building weapons may lead to enormous pollution, from waste products of building nuclear weapons to the toxic chemicals used to protect tanks and airplanes from rust; but weapons provide power. On a more individual level, non-organic produce is cheaper, non-hybrid cars have more storage space, and some people really do like their thermostats set to toasty in the winter and chilling in the summer. There are a lot of short-term, self-interested reasons to contribute to our non-sustainable form of life.

This is also not to say that everyone’s responsibility for the environmental crisis is equal. The peasants who deforest hillsides to cook dinner do not share the same moral culpability as executives of oil companies who obstruct governmental action on global warming. The woman who has to commute many miles to work to support her children is not as complicit in our energy crisis as the lobbyists who convince legislators to keep car fuel efficiency standards pathetically low. The migrant workers who die from pesticide poisons are not the same as their manufacturers. There are some who are more clearly victims than victimizers, some who benefit more than others.

And yet, there is also an element of madness in all this as well.

When we learn, for instance, that of ten randomly selected newborns the average number of toxic chemicals in their placental blood was one hundred and ninety, might we not wonder if the manufacturers of those chemicals, or the people who sell them, or the lobbyists who seek to keep them legal, or those of us who buy them—do all these people, ourselves included, not want to have children born with bloodstreams free of chemicals which cause cancer, neurological defects, and lowered immune systems? Why would we poison our own children if we were not a least a little crazy?

When the government of China refuses to cap its global warming emissions until the average income of their country reaches $10,500, and this despite the fact that with its generally low technological resources and lengthy coastline it is extremely vulnerable to the effects of global warming, might we not wonder why these powerful men think that more cars, tvs, and meat-based diets will make up for floods, droughts, and searing temperatures?

When all of us, the author of this essay no less than any of its readers, continue our lives more or less as usual, turning our minds to all the other Very Important Things we have to do, and allow governments, schools, businesses, tv weathermen, universities, churches and synagogues and mosques, the PTA, and the Knights of Columbus to act as if this a global environmental crisis isn’t happening, or as if enough is being done about, or as if some mystical “They” (the EPA, the U.N., clever engineers, brilliant scientists, or—God help us—“the market”) will take care of it—might we not reflect and see that we, no less than any junkie on the corner, have been led by addiction to our “way of life” into a kind of madness?

The Problem is Partly us, Including Me

And so we must ask: What is justice in an age of madness? How are we to call for justice when, along with a fully authentic moral critique of the powerful, we must turn an accusing finger at our own selves? If Isaiah also oppressed the worker, if Marx had been a rich capitalist, what then?

As difficult as our moral situation is, I belief that our tradition has some resources that can empower us to face both the crisis—and our complicity in it.

We find, as we look to the Jewish tradition, the resources of t’shuvah, renewal, and, oddly enough, self-righteousness.


Collectively, at least, the Jewish religion has a long history of moral self-examination. What is the month-long period of tshuvah [repentance] preceding Yom Kippur, after all, but a time to look closely at our own failings? If the practice has been ignored or trivialized, that does not mean it cannot take on a new and vital meaning tomorrow. Surely environmental tshuvah is called for. Similarly, we are not without our self-critiquing prophets today. From Arthur Waskow and Art Green to Michael Lerner and the staff of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) Jews are telling other Jews (as well as the population at large) to examine their lives, repent of their sins, and change their ways.

Traditionally, of course, T’shuvah was meant to be an examination of our own guilt and no one else’s. Yet a plethora of writings and sermons have expanded the traditional notion to a collective process. And in this context the prophetic call bears a distinct and disturbing mark. For even Arthur Waskow plugs his computer into the same greenhouse gas emitting power grid as everyone else. Even Michael Lerner damages the ozone layer by flying around the country to promote his vision of a sustainable society. Even Roger Gottlieb uses countless pages of paper in rough drafts to craft his eloquent environmental manifestos.

To the extent that we participate, we are all at least a little guilty. To the extent that we are guilty, we are also a little crazy.

– – –


An important element of tshuvah in Jewish practice is its second step, renewal. We turn back to look at our past deeds, but also forward to how we may improve. Judaism as a religion and as a morally oriented culture has renewed itself many times in this way.

What was the Talmud, after all, but a drastic shift when history demanded that we abandon a Temple cult in favor of the Near East’s first portable religion? What are Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionism, and even in some ways the Modern Orthodox, but shifts in our understanding of Judaism in response to our liberation from the ghetto, our achievement of equal civil rights in modernized societies, and our realization that most of us will not live in Israel? What is Israel itself but a response to the historically unprecedented reality of the Holocaust?

It is in this spirit that we can note the position of Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who helped create the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, an interfaith coalition with a wide range of educational programs for faith groups and society as a whole. Schorcsh, for many years the chancellor of Conservative Judaism’s leading educational institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, is not hesitant to take Jewish tradition to task and advocate a fundamental transformation. It is a mistake, he argues, to use Judaism’s rejection of paganism to propel Judaism into an “adversarial relationship with the natural world.” When that is done “the modern Jew is saddled with a reading of his tradition that is one-dimensional. Judaism has been made to dull our sensitivity to the awe inspiring power of nature. Preoccupied with the ghost of paganism, it appears indifferent and unresponsive to the supreme challenge of our age man’s degradation of the environment. Our planet is under siege and we as Jews are transfixed in silence.” This statement is all the more significant because Conservative Judaism was, as much as any other form of Judaism, a longstanding adherent of the very “one-dimensional reading” of tradition that Schorche is criticizing. His claim, then, suggests that Jews have been theologically and ethically misguided. We have been participants in injustice, and not known it.

In a considerably milder example, but one which is still in a self-reflective mode, there are suggestions by the Vancouver chapter of COEJL as to environmentally sensible gifts for the eight nights of Hanukah. For example, “turn down the thermostat, “skip a car trip,” “recycle your paper,” etc.). These have a certain cuteness about them, but they also have a deeper meaning. For how many Jews, after all, has Hanukah been a celebration of consumerism; or at least a way to make their own kids feel less left out for not getting all the stuff other kids get at Christmas? The implicit import of the Vancouver COEJL list is, then, a challenge to consumerism—and a reminder that Jews, despite our admirable history of commitment to social justice, may be just as much participants in this addictive displacement of human energy and hope as anyone else.


Even deeper than our attachment to consumerism, there is what is perhaps an equally pernicious attachment that honest self-assessment must prompt us to challenge: our venerable addiction to self-righteousness. After 2000 years of conscienceless victimization by the non-Jewish world, and even more after the horrors of the Holocaust, we may be more than a little entitled to this addiction. We have been brutalized for no fault of our own, all the while teaching a powerful and influential set of moral values. And so we tend to believe that we are (with a few exceptions, such as those “other Jews” who after all aren’t being Jewish in the right way) godly, chosen, special, good—the others are, well, “goyim”: a terms whose literal meaning of simply “nations” should not obscure its frequent at least slightly pejorative overtones.

When it comes to the environmental crisis, however, our free and easy participation in the environmental practices of our society implicate us as much anyone else in its environmental crimes: its astronomical cancer rates, ferocious eradication of species and indigenous peoples, and vastly disproportionate production of greenhouse gases and consumption of energy. No appeal to the saintly values of Chasidic masters or the bold calls for justice of Amos can save us from the realization that we are as mad, and as harmful, as everyone else.

What then should we do?

Let us turn self-righteousness to some good use. For example: Self-congratulating synagogues must be asked about their environmental practices. How is the shul heated and cleaned? Are paper goods used as if they come from and go to nowhere? What environmental values are taught in religious school and stressed in sermons? Thankfully, resources both theological and practical have been created to enable us to give positive, helpful answers to these questions. We can do energy audits, use organic cleaners, and refer to Jewishly authentic ecotheology.

Beyond individual temples, we can demand (as pleasantly and politely as possible) that environmental sanity be part of our national and international agenda.We can commit our institutions to environmental politics with at least as much fervor as we have to the struggle against anti-Semitism racial or equality. Let Rachel Carson and Chico Mendes be heroes for our children alongside Martin Luther King and Golda Meir.

Sanity in Humility

Above all, to escape from the closed circle of madness, the Jewish environmentalist who raises these questions must reflect that the Jewish environmentalist, probably not all that much less than the unawakened rabbi or religious school teacher, is part of the problem as well as part of the solution.

There is therefore a way to be an environmentalist that is morally appropriate to the issues at hand. It is with deep humility, with compassion for the weaknesses of others as well as our own complicity, with a large dose of self-deprecating humor and no dose at all of thundering denunciations of all those sinners out there. Doubtless there are sources for this attitude in the tradition. Just as Jewish ecotheologians have created Green readings of Torah and Talmud, so Jews much more knowledgeable than myself must find those sources. We have countless examples of Jewish wisdom, courage, self-sacrifice, intelligence, and (often biting) wit—doubtless we can find some examples of humility, moral self-awareness, and compassion for shared limitations as well.

This does not mean that we should stop calling a spade a spade. Pollution, anti-green lobbying, and covering up environmental crimes are what they are—and all the humility and self-effacement in the world should not keep us from saying so. Indeed, we might even think of considering the environmental record of the Big Givers who have enormous power in our communities. Would we welcome a millionaire, no matter how generous, who also funds Hamas or the American Nazi Party? It would, to say the least, be a contentious issue. Why then should we allow a polluter to be on the board of trustees?

No doubt all of these moves, especially questioning the Big Givers, will cost money. We environmentalists will be told that we just can’t afford to go Green in any meaningful way.

My simple and intolerant response to this is “nonsense.” It is never an excuse not to do something “because it costs money.” Doesn’t it cost money to teach Hebrew, support Israel, and counsel the bereaved? Of course, we will be told, but those things we have to do, they are what we are.

And if we are not equally, and at times more, about no longer being in full and unchallenged complicity with an environmental structure that is murderous to non-human and human alike, what are we?

Are we not party to a monstrous injustice? And are we not more than a little mad?

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