Shabbat Shoftim: No Justice, No Peace

This parashat hashavua offers us so much of the guidance we need for our community relationships – the parashah begins with three perfect verses that cover so much ground.

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.

You must have judges and officers in all your gates which by the grace of G-d you have, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

לֹא-תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים; וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד–כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.

You shall not show favoritism; you shall not respect individuals; you shall not take a gift – for a gift blinds the eyes of the wise, and twists the words of the righteous.

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

Justice, justice you must follow, that you may live, and inherit the land which ‘ה your G-d gives you.  (Devarim 16.18-20)

Consider these few of the centuries of interpretations of these three verses, and in how many situations of your every day life they might guide your own words and acts:

1. “Judges” – in the plural. Do not dare to judge alone, for no one can judge alone but the One.  –  Pirke Avot 4:8 – Get a second opinion before you make a decision about someone’s character or behavior. Maybe you’re wrong.

2. “in all your gates” – The human body is a city with seven gates, that is, seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. We must learn to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what goes in and what comes out. – Sifte Kohen – The best advice I ever got was to “put a seven-second delay” on my mouth.

3.”Bribes blind the eyes of the wise” – As soon as [the judge] accepts a bribe from [a litigant], it is impossible for him not to be favorably disposed towards him. – Rashi – Bribes are not just money or other kinds of material gain. One can be bribed in a much more subtle way, without any malicious intent, as in this story from the Talmud:

Bribes twist the words of the righteous” – A person once brought Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha the “First Shearings” (one of the 24 gifts given to a kohen – Rabbi Ishmael was a kohen by lineage and could accept such gifts). Said Rabbi Ishmael to him: “Where are you from?” Said he: “From such-and-such a place.” Said Rabbi Ishmael: “And from there till here there was no kohen to whom you could give it?” Said he: “I have a matter of litigation, and I said to myself: as I’m coming here, I’ll give it to you.”

Rabbi Ishmael refused to accept it from him, and said to him: “I am disqualified to serve as a judge in your case.” Instead, he sat two Torah scholars to judge his case. While still going to and fro [and overhearing the litigation], Rabbi Ishmael said to himself: If he wanted, he could argue thus and thus [to better present his case]. Said he: “A curse upon the takers of bribes! I did not accept anything from him. And if I would have accepted it, it would have been something that is mine by rights. Nevertheless, I am inclined in his favor. How much more so one who accepts a bribe! – Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 105b

4. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” – Why does the verse repeat itself? Is there a just justice and an unjust justice? Indeed there is. The Torah is telling us to be just also in pursuit of justice — both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just. – Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa

5. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” – By virtue of three things the world endures: law, truth and peace. – Pirke Avot 1:18 – Law, truth and peace; the three are one and the same: if the law is upheld, there is truth and there is peace. – Talmud Yerushalmi, Taanit 4:2

Our third verse concludes with the warning that only when justice is upheld with righteousness can we expect to “inherit the land”. That land is the place of your life and that of your family and community. The Torah is telling us that aren’t enough security systems and armies in the world to protect us from the consequences of our unethical choices. Unless we establish real justice, for all, in the land of the living, none of us will feel secure upon it.

What would our lives be like if we truly believed that the best insurance for a safe and happy life was bought by ethical insurance, and not just the homeowner’s or renter’s policy you wouldn’t dream of not having?

Shabbat Shoftim: Who are You to Judge?

“Who am I to judge?” When did those words last come out of your mouth, or at least formulate in your mind? It’s a common way for us to dodge involvement in the world.

It is, however, a stand which is not very Jewish. One of this week’s messages from our parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week, is that one must judge – and judge justly. The opening words of the parasha are: “Appoint judges and magistrates in all your gates, tribe by tribe; they shall judge justly.” (Devarim 16.18)

To judge justly is a mitzvah – a command. It is a necessity for a participatory society if it is to have any chance to function justly. That is why it is a mitzvah to serve on a jury. But Jews are held to a very high standard when it comes to judging, whether in our everyday lives or having been seated on a jury. What is that standard? The Torah itself provides it. As often happens in our Torah, the declarative command “you shall judge justly” is followed by the details of just what that means. The next verses specify:

1. No “coercing judgement”: to judge justly is to refuse to let evidence be manipulated, to insist upon proper process, to work to ensure that no one has been silenced. You are being coerced when you let a sound bite on television, or an videotape, or the lack of a good argument against your supposition, moves you to judgment. You are always to remember that each person is accorded the benefit of the doubt until it is proven otherwise.

2. No “recognition of a face”: you cannot judge someone if you have personal feelings that cause you to be pre-disposed either to trust or distrust that person. If you believe it when you hear that so-and-so did such-and-such, because they’ve done it before, you are “recognizing faces” and your judgment is not trustworthy.

3. No “gifts”: obviously, bribery is wrong. But there are much more subtle “gifts”: the story is told in the Talmud of a Rabbi who was due in court as a judge. A tenant farmer who rented his field brought him the fruit due him as rent a day early that week. When the Rabbi asked why, the farmer mentioned that he had to go to court for a legal matter, so he brought the fruit early on his way to town. The Rabbi realized that he would have to recuse himself. The fruit was his due, the payment of rent that he expected regularly; but in his judgment it fell into the legal category of a gift, and he could not serve as a truly impartial judge as a result.

Judging is a very difficult challenge, even for those whose daily responsibility is to do their best to judge what is truth. One example that will surprise you, I think, is presented here: Ask yourself, when this photo was first published with the incorrect caption, did you accept that incorrect information as truth? after all, it was in the New York Times!

I’m not accusing the Times of deliberate falsehood. This is merely an illustration of the fact that you cannot ever completely accept second-hand information as factual. Just judgment is more difficult than that, and requires a lot more caution and willingness to remember that there is more than one side to EVERY story.

On this Shabbat, as you are presented with opportunities to judge what you see and what you hear, and you consider how to respond justly, may you remember to take a breath before you believe what you see or hear, and run it through your Jewish ethical filter. We are called upon to judge, and to act upon that judgment – and we are called upon to be very careful that our acts are based upon true, and just, judgment.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for good in the coming year,