Shoftim: Pursuing True Justice
Have you ever wondered how it can be true that “two Jews equals three opinions, four rabbis, and five synagogues”? How an Orthodox and Reform Rabbi can disagree on so much, and yet both be Jews? How some rabbis accept the laws of kashrut as mandatory and some do not; or, more applicably today, how one Rabbi can say that mandatory covid vaccinations are against Jewish law and another can say that they are required by Jewish law?
The understanding of how these contradictions come about stems from this week’s Torah reading, Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21:9).
This reading details a number of important Jewish values. The Jewish imperative to fight for justice is found here. “Justice, justice shall thou pursue.” (Deut. 16:20), as well as how we should act when in war. The biblical concept of “sanctuary cities” is in this reading. (It is clear that there these cities are only for cases of accidental manslaughter and no other crime.) But this week’s reading gives us the key and basis for Judaism not being monolithic in its understanding of Jewish law.
“You shall come to the Kohanim, Levites, and to the Judge who will be in those days…and you shall do according to the judgment they will say to you. You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left.” (Deut. 17:9-11) The great commentator Rashi (1040-1105) comments in detail upon these verses. He teaches that we are to go and listen to the judge of our days and community, even if he is not as wise as the Sages of old. Rashi continues that even if the judge tells us that right is left or vice versa, we are to listen to that judgment.
On the surface this makes no sense. How can left suddenly be right, or east magically become west? But it actually tells us a great deal about Jewish values and the understanding of who a judge should really be. It tells us the importance of understanding the relationship between all things.
Let us suppose that you and I were sitting across from each other, and in our little circle, you are sitting in the west and I’m in the east. But if I get up and go behind you, you are now sitting in the east of our circle without you even having moved! You have stayed still, but suddenly west has become east and vice versa.
The teaching here is that true justice is only found in relationship…in understanding the greater circumstances and environment. Jean Valjean of Les Miserables was a thief for stealing bread for his sister’s children, but was punished the same as if he had committed armed robbery of a bank. Is that really ”justice”? We are obligated to fast on Yom Kippur, yet great rabbis of history have demanded that their communities eat on this day during a plague. The law may be objective, but this week’s reading reminds us that justice is situational and unique in every case. We should never “judge” in a vacuum. There is an old rabbinic teaching that “when a woman comes to you asking if a chicken is kosher, look at the woman before you look at the chicken”. Justice must understand relationships, and be based in empathy over strictness (a talmudic concept called “svara”, “moral intuition”)…in the same way that we hope for God to judge us with compassion over rigidity.
It is because of this passage in Torah that we have so many divergent religious opinions, and because of this understanding that the Conservative and Reform movements in Judaism even exist. The Talmud teaches that “these words and these words are both the words of the Living God”.
May we all avoid rushing to judgment and base our decisions in life upon a true and just understanding of our relationship with others, with ourselves, and with God.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
August 12th, 2021
5th of Elul, 5781