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Prof. JHH Weiler’s reply to the Laudation on the occasion of receiving a doctorate Honoris Causa from Strathmore University

Honorable Assembly, Colleagues, dear students, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I pray to the God of Israel:

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my rock, and my redeemer. Psalm 19:14

I accept with humility and gratitude the honor you have bestowed upon me.  I am a son of Africa, born in Johannesburg too many years ago than I care to remember. My father served as the Chief Rabbi of that country though he left when the National Party won the elections and instituted the regime of Apartheid. His great legacy was not the 14 Synagogues he established during his tenure.  A teacher and educator in every fibre of his body his enduring legacy was the school he established in Alexandra township in Johannesburg. The National Government which came into power decreed that in such schools for black kids only crafts and trades could be taught and no academic subjects at the risk of losing any government support. As Nelson Mandela recounts in his autobiography, my father rebelled against such. Education was, in his vision, the key to liberty and equality. Above all he was committed to justice. He opted out of the government support system and raised money for the school from his congregants and others. The school exists till this day, the MC Weiler school, and has graduated thousands of students. My father left shortly after not willing to be an accomplice of that regime. I was five years old. I regret that he is not still with us, for he would have been proud that I am honored by a University which was the first in this country to break down racial barriers.

Permit me now to say a few words of science. After all, I am honored today to enter into your community of science. Given the heritage of this school and its tradition, you will forgive me if instead of referring, say, to BREXIT, or to the European Union or the WTO and GATT I refer instead to Holy Scripture and in particular to a passage from the book of Deuteronomy which encapsulates something distinct about justice without which all our legal studies are worthless. 

Justice  justice, shalt thou follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you. Deut. XVI:20

The pursuit of Justice is central to the Covenant between the Almighty and His people from his first encounter with Abraham. Who can ever forget the sublime moment when Abraham, in respectful defiance, turns to the Lord who has just announced his intention to destroy Sodom and Gemorah, and asks: 

That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Justice of all the earth do justice Himself?Gen. 18:25

Even the Almighty is subject to the imperative of Justice!

But, the legal mind immediately asks: Why do we find, then, in Deuteronomy a repetition of the command:

Justice, Justice you shall follow !

Why twice? It could of course be for the purposes of emphasis – but the sages over the centuries have seen much more in this repetition. Here, then, a little hermeneutic feast for the lawyers. I have counted at least twelve different interpretations, but today, I will confine myself to the learning of some of the great medieval sages.

Maimonides, Moses son of Maimon, of Cordoba, born in 1135 of whom it was said that from [Biblical] Moses to Moses there was none like Moses! – explains the repetition by the need in justice to consider both parties. Not only to consider them but to treat them with utmost equality. If two parties are to appear before a judge, and one is well dressed and the other is poor and simple, you either dress up the latter, or dress down the former so that even subconsciously the judge will not treat them differently. Justice, justice!

Bachya Ben Asher, of Saragossa born in 1340, takes a slightly different tack. Why Justice twice? “Justice whether to your profit Justice whether to your loss; Justice in word Justice in action; Justice whether to Jew Justice whether to a  Non Jew.” Stunning. Shades of Abraham and the Almighty.

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (Abenezra) born in Tudela in 1089 explains the repetition as follows: You have to hear one side (justice) and the other side (justice). Very  much  like the precept of Natural Justice audi alterem partem!   Or, another interpretation: Justice Justice: time after time all your life.

Nachamanides, Moses ben Nachman Girondi, a son of Gerona born in 1194 and later served as Chief Rabbi of Catalonia. Famous, among other things for his great Christian-Jewish Disputation before King James I of Aragon.

He was a great Kabalist as well as a sage and he gives a mystical interpretation. Why Justice twice? Real and absolute justice may only be found in the word to come under the direct wings of the Almighty. You seek Justice in this world, so that you may then be able to seek Justice further in the world to come.

Don Isaac Abravanel, born in Lisbon in 1437 but forced to escape to Toledo notes that the imperative in the verse is not only directed to the judges, but to those who appoint the judges. Justice, therefore, not only at the moment of judging, but the pursuit of justice as a system in the appointment of the judges – only those who by wisdom and integrity are suitable to do justice.

Let me conclude with the interpretation that I like most: When you pursue justice, you must pursue it with just means. The just end does not justify unjust means. Just means for just ends.

I believe that these precepts provide a good basis for my entry into your august company.

Allow me to conclude with a Psalm XV which you will, I am sure not object, if I read in the very language of King David its author.

A Psalm of David.

1 LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle?

Who may dwell in Your holy hill?

2 He who walks uprightly,

And works righteousness,

And speaks the truth in his heart;

3 He who does not backbite with his tongue,

Nor does evil to his neighbor,

Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend;

4 In whose eyes a vile person is despised,

But he honors those who fear the LORD;

He who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

5 He who does not put out his money at usury,

Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be moved.