By Michael Medved
With the arrival of the eight day Passover Festival, I was preparing some material for our family-reunion Seder meal when I stumbled across one of the most important of all verses in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Leviticus 19:15 declares: "You shall not commit a perversion of justice: you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great, with righteousness shall you judge your fellow."
About fifteen years ago I engaged in a memorable public debate with my friend Dennis Prager in which he rightly identified this passage as perhaps the most crucial conservative verse in the whole Bible. It should, indeed, come as a revelation and a rebuke to all liberals that Holy Scripture identifies "favoring the poor" as "a perversion of justice."
As I argued in my townhall column about the essence of liberalism (posted on March 21st), the outlook of the left insists upon favoring the poor and the unfortunate—and thereby injecting unfairness and discrimination into the very core of politics and government. Favoring the poor, like favoring the rich, brings unequal treatment based on status, not actions. Justice requires rewarding good behavior, no matter its source, and discouraging and punishing bad actions, no matter who performs them.
Concerning the crucial sentence, Rabbi SchlomoYitzhaki (Rashi), the great 11th Century sage commented: "'You shall not favor the poor' means that you should not say that a wealthy man is obligated to help the poor, therefore it is proper for a judge to rule in favor of the poor litigant. Torah insists that justice be rendered honestly; as important as charity is, it must not interfere with justice."
Jewish tradition goes on to clarify the apparent contradiction between numerous Biblical injunctions to act compassionately to the poor, to the widow and the orphan, and this unequivocal insistence on avoiding favoritism. The essential point is that it's the individual that's primarily commanded to display compassion and give charity, while the government, particularly in its judicial aspect, must judge actions, not persons.
The profound significance of Leviticus 19:15 becomes apparent with the other hugely important commands that follow it almost immediately. The next verse states: "You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people, and you shall not stand aside while your fellow's blood is shed- I am The Lord." Then one verse later comes perhaps the most famous statement of all the Hebrew Scriptures (Leviticus 19:16): "You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself – I am the Lord."
Leftists should take note: "loving your neighbor" doesn't involve protecting him against the just consequences of his own mistakes, or giving him special dispensation if he's unlucky, or punishing the productive in the name of helping the less fortunate.
A just and loving society, in other words, doesn't enshrine victimhood and doesn't see a contradiction between justice and compassion. Both are attributes of the living God but they shouldn't be confused.
For conservatives who are regularly pilloried by the religious left for their harsh, un-Godly attitudes, these sentiments should feel liberating – an appropriate reminder for this holy season in the ancient Biblical calendar, when we celebrate freedom from bondage and even from well-intended mistakes.
Michael Medved is a film critic, best-selling author and nationally syndicated radio talk show host.