Segal: A Just World, or Just a World?

Rabbi David Segal
Guest Column

During a White House news conference last week, a reporter asked President Barack Obama to comment on the situation in Baltimore and respond to critics who say he isn’t doing enough. He said, in part: “If we are serious about solving this problem, then we’re going to not only have to help the police, we’re going to have to think about what can we do — the rest of us — to make sure that we’re providing early education to these kids, to make sure that we’re reforming our criminal justice system so it’s not just a pipeline from schools to prisons, … but I think we all understand that the politics of that are tough because it’s easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law and order issue, as opposed to a broader social issue.”

Without condoning the violence of rioters, Obama urged us to consider the systemic roots of unrest. Social context matters. The environment in which children are raised affects their outlook. Their universe of choices is shaped by their parents’ and communities’ choices. No one develops or exists in a vacuum as an atomized individual.

Some critics of Obama’s message have been sharing a Ronald Reagan meme on social media, bearing this quote from the former president: “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

Of course, we have to hold people responsible for their actions. No society can function without the fundamental principles of autonomous moral agency and personal ethical responsibility. They are pillars of our criminal justice system.

These two angles — focusing on systemic root causes and emphasizing individual responsibility — appear to be in conflict. On the one hand, you are buoyed or burdened by your past and your surroundings. On the other hand, you alone answer for your actions.

This paradox has haunted humanity for a long time. In the Bible, the Book of Exodus says that God “visits the sin of the parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:7). The text does not mince words — children will suffer because of their parents’ behavior.

However, the Bible does not speak in one voice, and we hear a different message from the prophet Ezekiel: “A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone” (Ezekiel 18:20). Enough of generational sin, declares Ezekiel. Everyone shall stand in judgment as individuals, responsible for their own actions.

But Ezekiel was prophesying about the future, when this principle of individual justice would be fulfilled completely. Ezekiel expresses an ideal; Exodus describes our reality.

Ultimately, how we judge people’s actions depends on how we see the world. Many religions teach that the universe is just, and it’s tempting to believe it. But something strange happens when we believe in a just world: we tend to judge the less fortunate as if they’ve earned their hapless fate.

As Nicholas Hune-Brown explained in Hazlitt Magazine (Jan. 22), “People believe in a just world because it is too much to dwell on the capriciousness of the universe. A belief in a fundamentally fair world — a place where you’re unlikely to be killed unless you’re a gang member, unlikely to go bankrupt unless you’re a fool, unlikely to be raped unless you’re ‘asking for it’ — is a comfort. It’s a way of maintaining the vital illusion that we, the healthy and prosperous, are not just lucky, but somehow deserving.”

In arrogance and denial, we forget the harder truth of human experience, articulated poignantly elsewhere in the Bible: “I have further observed under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant; nor is bread won by the wise, nor wealth by the intelligent, nor favor by the learned. For the time of mischance comes to all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

Life is unfair. Its randomness should humble us; when it breaks our way, it should fill us with gratitude. But let us not be fatalistic, for we are not powerless in the face of injustice. Are we sophisticated enough to hold wrongdoers accountable while simultaneously striving to create the conditions for a more equitable society? The ideal of a just world will become less of an illusion when we see it as our shared responsibility to bring it about with our own hands, working together.

Rabbi David Segal of the Aspen Jewish Congregation can be reached at 970-925-8245 or He blogs at, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.