The Witness of Conscience

The Witness of Conscience

Our tradition tells of a certain rabbi with a strict sense of justice. Far and wide he was known as an incorruptible judge. One day his own wife raised an outcry because she believed that the housekeeper had stolen a piece of jewelry that was of great value. The servant, an orphan, tearfully denied the accusation. The mistress of the house was very angry. She declared,”We will let the beit din–the judicial court of rabbis–settle this!

When the rabbi saw his wife preparing to go to court, he immediately put on his best suit. “Why do you do that” she asked in surprise. “You know it is undignified for a man of your position to come to court with me. Besides, I can very well plead my own case.”

“I am sure you can,” answered the rabbi, “but who will plead the case of your housekeeper, the poor orphan? I must see that full justice is done here.”

A person who believes deeply in justice will surely be concerned that it not be limited to any given group. If we accept the principle of a universal G!d, then we must apply G!d’s moral laws to all humankind. The observance of these laws brings us fulfillment, for life is truly lived by those who accept the rules and demands of conscience. As Josephus wrote, “The reward of such as live according to the laws is not silver or gold…but is content with the witness that their own conscience bears on them.”

In this particular moment in time–

  • when many, perhaps most, watch within a particular bubble of misinformation and disinformation,
  • when people eagerly dismiss plain facts in favor of theories lacking any,
  • when science is often dismissed,
  • when the status quo allows the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer,
  • when the well-being of not only orphans but many groups of people (women, the poor, LGBTQ+ community, people of color, et al) is often denigrated,
  • where the idea of the common weal has become unappreciated,

at such times, it becomes especially important that we come together in community, as community, and for community. We need to remind ourselves of the importance of the rule of law, laws based on the well-being of all, and laws compelling us toward at least a minimum level of moral living. Of course, we can and should rise above this minimum level, so that we can become content with the witness that our conscience bears.


Rabbi J.B. Sacks