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Judges, Judgements, and Justice

08/21/2020 10:30:29 AM


            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Shoftim, which is unlike much of Deuteronomy in that it actually introduces some new laws rather than being primarily recaps of previous Moses speeches. This parasha is concerned with the leadership of the Jewish people, how we are to govern ourselves, who to trust as prophets, judges, and kings, and what the limits of their power should be. In the ancient world, Kings were often considered gods on earth, so Israel was radical in its understanding of human fallibility in even its top leaders. Now, in an increasingly authoritarian world, we are again reminded of how important these laws and precepts are. Within this portion itself and drawing from it, Jewish law makes clear the importance of a fair and equitable justice system, of checks and balances, of transparency, witnesses, and consensus. Rabbi Shai Held teaches in his modern commentary, “The Heart of Torah,” that these laws of justice and leadership are revolutionary, stating: “It is a lesson as powerful as it is easily forgotten (even in a democracy): No one is above the law.”

            I believe much of Western ethics and how our “value systems” have been established and upheld are based in these ancient sacred texts. And yet, it’s clear that it has been as consistently difficult for us to uphold them in the modern democratic United States of America as it was for Kings Solomon and Rehoboam, whose greed and poor leadership led to the division of the Kingdom of Israel. A truly just society, according to Torah and Talmud, would have no extrajudicial killings by officials of the state. A truly just society would never put someone on death row if there were any doubt to their guilt. A truly just society would not pour excessive money into its military while other parts of society flounder and fail. A truly just society would not allow wealth hoarding or corruption to go ignored. These are not my radically progressive values condemning the shortcomings of our (and others) nation. These are explicit commandments in this Torah portion for how humans, or at least how Jews and any people who claim this scripture as part of their own, ought to conduct themselves and their governments.

            The third line of the parasha, given after we are instructed to appoint judges and law-keepers who shall be expected to judge fairly and honestly at all times, but before we are given the more extensive laws regarding the limits to the executive office or the need for special care and multiple witnesses in a capital case, is one of the most famous in the Torah: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof; Justice, justice you shall pursue. If we are to pursue justice, that means advocating for reforms in our criminal justice and legal systems that further marginalization of some peoples and allow for favoring of others. It means pressuring officials to get tough with their colleagues who behave corruptly, who take bribes or lie about matters of their office or embezzle or otherwise use their positions of power to put money into their own pockets. It means voting more than once every four years so that your representatives at every level reflect your values and can help rally for your just causes in higher halls of power. The call to pursue justice is a precursor to the rest of the laws of this parasha. Just as the Israelites up to this point have had a hard time keeping their faith and following the rules, this early commandment in the Torah portion serves as a reminder that the parameters God is setting will likely not be well-followed, and we will have to reset the course time and again throughout history to keep trying to get it right. May we maintain our strength and endurance to continue ever pursuing justice, and may we reach it someday. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.        

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781