In Search of Compassion and Justice

These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the ADONAI ELOHIM made the earth and the heaven. (Genesis 12:15)

Why does the creation begin with the Divine Name as the Creator and end with two Names, ADONAI ELOHIM when concluding the creation story?  The Midrash explains: This may be compared to a king who had some empty glasses. The King wondered: “If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if, however, I pour cold water, they will contract (and shatter).”

What then did the king do? He poured in a mixture of hot and cold water so the glasses would remain whole. So, said the Holy One: “If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be oppressive; on the basis of judgment alone, how would the world be able to exist? I will create it with justice and mercy together and then, maybe, it will be able to endure!”  (Midrash Genesis Rabbah)

Ever since Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announced the release of convicted Pan Am bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi this past Thursday, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the precarious balance between justice and mercy.

As you are no doubt aware by now, Scotland went ahead and freed the terminally ill Megrahi on “compassionate grounds” over the furious objections of the American government. Whatever your opinion of this incident, you have to admit it has made for some pretty fascinating reading.  I can’t say I ever recall reading so much about the ethics of compassion vs. justice in the op-ed pages before.

Here’s a taste from the American press:

The United States was right to complain to British and Scottish authorities, who now have a great deal of explaining and investigation to do in order to demonstrate the integrity of their handling of the entire matter. At the very least, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who granted al-Megrahi release on compassionate grounds, ought to lose his job. Probably he is not the only one.

Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 killing 259 aboard the 747 passenger jet and 11 people on the ground. Libya and its leader, Moammar Gadhafi were blamed and, ultimately, Libya gave up al-Megrahi. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

This gives us the first reason why the release was wrong. The man was sentenced to life. He served eight years. MacAskill ordered the release on compassionate grounds because the prisoner had terminal prostate cancer. People die in prison all the time, which is, in theory, what phrase life in prison means. Even compassion has its limits and it is warranted in this case only for the victims’ families, the victims themselves having been denied it by their murderers.

Compare that to this British editorial from The Guardian:

MacAskill could have washed his hands of this issue and simply had a terminally ill man spend the few remaining days of his life in a Greenock prison cell. Few, beyond the masters of the British petroleum industry, would have demurred. Certainly not Downing Street, whose haunted incumbent would have been praying for such a verdict, and certainly not America whose default position on justice is: “When in doubt, hang them from the neck… especially if they are poor, black and uneducated.” In the Arab world, there would have been desultory protests but nothing more. Baghdad, Helmand, Kabul and the West Bank are of far more pressing concern than the final resting place of a man they all wished to forget.

But this unprepossessing minister of justice sought to ignore all the serried interests of the global supermen. Instead, he found refuge in the fundamental principles of a judicial system that has served Scotland soundly for more than 400 years. For 16 years now, our statutes have given us leave to release from prison anyone who is deemed by competent medical authority to have three months or less to live. It was a concession rooted in compassion, pity and forgiveness. Few in the United Kingdom have ever taken issue with it. It is a good and just law. MacAskill simply applied it.

Regardless of what we might think about MacAskill’s judgment (I’m personally struggling with this myself), I don’t think it is fair or accurate to claim that his actions were politically motivated. I’m familiar with the “terrorist for oil” theories, but based upon everything I’ve read about MacAskill’s decision so far, it seems to me that he simply acted upon what he considered to be values of compassion and decency. When was the last time we could say that about the actions of a politician?

PS:  Couldn’t help but notice that Megrahi was freed on Rosh Hodesh Elul. (I’m not sayin’,  I’m just sayin’…)

10 thoughts on “In Search of Compassion and Justice

  1. Vic Rosenthal

    Midrash [Kohelet Rabah 7:16]: “He who shows compassion for the cruel, will end up being cruel to the compassionate.”

    When we set these murderers (cf. Samir Kuntar) free to go home to a hero’s welcome, we abet those who promote terrorism as a policy.

    By the way, Kevin McKenna’s anti-American hit piece (which was not a Guardian editorial) was disgusting. “America bows to no one in the art of political expediency” he writes, from Britain!

  2. Eric Selinger

    Is there any evidence that this particular line from Kohelet Rabah is true? I can’t think of any. It’s rhetorically persuasive, but that’s a function of its chiasmus, not of its actual logic.

    “He who takes nothing from those who have much will end up giving much to those who have nothing.” –Tax-Cut Rabbah, 7:16

    Or, more spiritually: “It’s in birth that we die, and in dying that we are born.”

    I’m persuadable that this was the wrong decision, but not by this particular midrash.

  3. Vic Rosenthal

    I gave two examples in my comment. The ‘prisoner exchange’ in which Kuntar was released in return for some bones was particularly egregious.
    In general, I think the midrash tells us that misplaced kindness encourages cruelty, because the cruel often simply ‘pocket’ our kindness — which they take for weakness — and continue their cruelty.

  4. YBD

    I think you misunderstood the Midrash that Vic brought. It is not simply word games, it is talking about corruption of morality. Someone who is “compassionate” to those who don’t deserve it is, ultimately, not working from some sort universal standard of compassion, but is moving in the direction of accepting and “understanding” of the criminal acts the “cruel” perpetrated. Thus, when it becomes time for the compassionate one to show a similar attitude to a truly just, innocent person, his corrupted personality will lead him to abuse this person in ways he would never think of doing to the original “cruel” person.

  5. Eric Selinger

    Actually, YBD, I think I do understand it. I simply don’t agree with its analysis of human behavior.

    In my own experience, and from what I’ve read, those who are “compassionate [without inset quotes] to those who don’t deserve it” are, in fact, ultimately working from a universal standard of compassion. I have not seen examples of the subsequent distortion and abuse that you describe.

    Can you point me to any particular cases of this? I’m willing to be convinced, but so far, I’ve only seen this Midrash deployed as if it were self-evidently true, rather than an empirical proposition to be tested against facts.

    A particularly important discussion to have in Elul, this. If God behaved toward us as the Midrash suggests, we’d all be in a fix, at least according to the liturgy.

  6. Eric Selinger

    Oh–my apologies. About the example of Kuntar for bones. How was this a compassionate release? Rather, as an exchange, it was a simple matter of caving to blackmail (or, at best, of free market economics).

    It set the price for Israeli bones, with or without a living person attached. We shouldn’t be surprised that future criminals responded.

    I’m not sure it’s a good comparison, or a test of the midrash.

  7. Eric Selinger

    My apologies again for filling up the comments list, but I found it fascinating to see this context for the line we’re discussing from Kohelet Rabbah (I believe–this is found on-line, and I will have to go and get the actual text):

    “Be not righteous overmuch: nor make thyself overwise” – be not righteous overmuch more than your Creator who spoke to Saul, as it is written, “And Saul came to a city of Amalek, etc.” (I Samuel 15:5). Rav Huna and Rav Benaya say: He began negotiating against his Creator and said, The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Go and smite Amalek.” If the men sinned what is the women’s sin and what is the children’s sin and what is the sin of the cattle, the ox and the donkey? A heavenly voice (bat kol) emerged and said: “Be not righteous overmuch” – more than your Maker. And the rabbis say that he began discussing in terms on the beheaded calf and said: The verse says “And they shall behead the calf in the ravine” (Deuteronomy 21:4) – he kills and she is beheaded, if man sinned, what is the animal’s sin? A heavenly voice (bat kol) emerged and said: “Be not righteous overmuch.” R’ Simon ben Lakhish says: One who becomes merciful instead of cruel will ultimately become cruel instead of merciful, as it is written, “And Nov, the city of priests, he smote with the edge of a sword” (I Samuel 22:19); is Nov any worse than the descendants of Amalek?! And the Rabbis said: “One who becomes merciful instead of cruel will ultimately be smote by the Divine Attribute of Strict Justice (midat ha’din), as it is written, “So Saul died and his three sons”(Ibid 31:6).

    The context here is a commentary on Saul’s initial refusal to slaughter innocent Agagite livestock and his subsequent killing of innocents in the Israelite city of Nov.

    R’ Simon ben Lakhish concludes from this that it was the initial compassion (to animals) that ended up turning Saul cruel (to people). One might just as easily see other morals to the story, for example:

    1) One who begins by untroubled slaughter of the Enemy Other will end by being untroubled by killing his compatriots; or,

    2) One who accepts God’s command to kill his fellow human beings indiscriminately without even an argument (contrast Saul to Abraham here!) will end by turning against the priests of such a deity; or,

    3) One who is reproved by God (or God’s representatives) for being too righteous will end by being not righteous enough.

    Am I right that ben Lakhish is the amora who had been a bandit and / or gladiator? That past might have some bearing–direct or ironic–on his authorship of the dictum in question.

    1. Vic Rosenthal

      Saul’s disobedience was more likely due to his desire to take the cattle and women as booty than compassion.
      Maybe “be not righteous overmuch” means “don’t be a bloody hypocrite, Saul, do what you’re told.”
      Simon Ben Lakish may have simply been saying that ignoring God’s commands is a slippery slope.
      By the way, it’s beginning to look like Megrahi’s release wasn’t done for compassionate motives either.

  8. Vic Rosenthal

    I saw the release of Kuntar as a compassionate act even though the motivation was something other than pure compassion. But let’s take a different case.
    I think parole of convicted criminals is an example of a compassionate act with a compassionate motives. Phillip Garrido was out on parole for a prior kidnapping conviction when he kidnapped Jaycee Dugard in 1991. So the original act of compassion to someone who didn’t deserve it enabled him to be cruel to an innocent victim.

  9. Eric Selinger

    Thanks, Vic, for these responses. They’re very helpful to me.

    I think that I’ve been reading the Midrash as saying that there would be an actual change of heart in the (formerly) compassionate person. The example you give points to a different issue: what looks and feels compassionate in the local case can have unintended consequences that are very cruel indeed.

    Thus, my conscious desire to be compassionate to the person in front of me may actually be accompanied by an unconscious indifference to others. That’s certainly true.

    It’s also true that, as you point out with Saul, my desire to act compassionately may also be quite self-centered. I may do it to feel good about myself, rather than out of any actual motive of compassion. (Although I don’t know whether this applies in the Agagite instance, and it may be better to do something good for a bad motive than not to do it at all.)

    I still think that this Midrash has been used too often recently to justify a lack of compassion, and the accompanying pleasures of feeling tough, a realist, a hard-ass. But you’ve clarified it for me quite usefully–thanks!


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