Shabbat Shoftim: You Too Are a Judge, and Must Be

The beginning of parashat Shoftim calls for us to ensure justice in the communities in which we live.

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

Set up judges and officers in all your gates, everywhere that you are privileged to live by G*d’s grace. The judges must judge the people righteously.

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

There must no manipulation of judgment, neither by bias nor by bribe. There is no one, no matter how righteous, who can truly withstand the influence of a gift.

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.  {ס}

Justice, you must pursue justice, if you want to live and thrive on the earth which is a gift to you from HaShem your God.  (Devarim 16.18-20)

These verses have attracted much commentary:

1. What are “your gates”? The “gates”, and the implicit “city” to which they belong, symbolically represent the individual; your “gates” refers to your eyes and your ears. They are the gates through which all influences and information enters, and we are, each one of us, to “set up judges” (this is written in the singular) to monitor all that enters our minds and hearts.

2. What does it mean to “judge…righteously”? First, judge yourself in the same circumstances, and consider what you would do; then perhaps you will come closer to judging “righteously”. 

3. Why are we told to pursue “justice” twice? Because the means and the end must both be righteous. 

These verses are aimed at judges, but our tradition internalizes them to refer to each one of us – this is a common interpretive technique in Judaism, and it expresses a fundamental truth of our perspective: everything belongs to everything else, everyone is part of everyone else. A dishonest judge does not simply ruin the lives of those s/he condemns unjustly; that injustice scars not only the victim but everyone linked to that victim. And then everyone who hears about the dishonesty in the system who is demoralized and turns away multiplies the injustice, and then the trauma of the injustice causes the entire system to rot, a little at a time.

Many of us live in an environment in which we resist judging and being judged – who has the right to judge me, or you? But Jewish ethical teachings insist: we must all ensure that robust judgement does exist and is expressed at the highest standard – because it is, in the end, what allows us to live

“You must pursue justice if you want to live”. Here are the two sides of the interdependent balance: justice, and life. We are surrounded with examples of how the lack of one leads to the end of the other; at our peril we believe that we can turn away and enjoy life apart.

In this month of Elul we are encouraged to judge ourselves, and each other, and the world of which we are a vital part. May we come closer with each attempt to be righteous to a world where justice flourishes, and may we know ourselves to be part of the righteousness our world starves for.

Advertisements

Ferguson, and here: What Is a Jew To Do?

It was Monday evening when the news was announced: that there would be no indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr, in Ferguson Missouri. An indictment does not assume guilt; it merely declares that there’s reason to go to trial to ascertain guilt or innocence. 

According to the path of Jewish law, we are commanded: Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live. (Deut.16.20) Why, the Sages asked, was the word “justice” repeated? Because, they answered, one must pursue justice justly. In Ferguson on Monday justice was denied, in the denial of a fair and open trial.

What are we, as Jews who are obligated to work for the prosperity of the country in which we live, to do? How shall we respond? what is the next step? We are also commanded to use our best learning to ascertain how best to fulfill a mitzvah, in this case the mitzvah of you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. (Lev. 19.16) 

For that purpose, yesterday afternoon I attended the rally downtown at the Justice Center called by the Albina Ministerial Coalition and others, to respond to the news. There I heard a call to action toward those of us “who identify as white” to “use your privilege to further justice.” As local coverage put it:

Bring in a special prosecutor when deadly officer-involved shootings happen, to keep the case unbiased. And after at least four controversial minority deaths that resulted in no charges against Portland police over the years, they want a review of the deadly force policies here, too.

“The killing of Michael Brown has also brought to light many of the unfortunate blemishes – criminal justice disparities, volatile police-community relations, unemployment and economic inequities – that tarnish our nation and that prevent us from being the best of whom we can be,” said Dr LeRoy Haynes, Chair of the AMA Coalition. “This tragedy has exposed the persistent state of emergency that grips not only Ferguson, but our city and our nation as a whole.” (see the complete report here.)

There were no Jewish speakers at the rally. It was an absence I felt painfully, for it speaks of the gap that has widened between Jews and African-Americans in the years since Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr Martin Luther King Jr walked hand in hand over the Selma Bridge. Much bitterness has passed under that bridge in the meantime, but we cannot let the distance fetter our efforts to fulfill the mitzvah of working for the prosperity of our country. To be Jewish is to hope, and to work, for a better world. It’s in our prayers and our ethics.

Pray for the peace and prosperity of the city in which you live. (Jeremiah 29.7) For Jews, to pray is to imply action based on the prayer. 

But for those of us who identify as white, our collective white liberal guilt, as it is called, can blind us to the best way to take action. We can’t simply approach an African-American of our acquaintance or in the street and offer a hug and a statement of support. That might make us feel better, but it’s not about us. There is real anger in Portland’s minority and disenfranchised communities, as we saw demonstrated when some of the marchers last night turned violent.

Listen carefully, then, to what the leaders of the Ferguson press conference said. Watch for the small acts that we can effectively do to work toward equal justice. Most of all, as one speaker pleaded last night at the Portland rally, “don’t go back to your routine.”  

“You have broken our hearts, but you have not broken our backs.” So said Rev Al Sharpton Tuesday at a press conference in Ferguson. There is an ongoing Federal investigation; let’s stay focused. Watch for ways to be supportive. Raise your voice; write a letter; don’t go back to your routine. 

Selikhot meditation: justice is not enough

The days grow fewer until we reach what our tradition calls The Great Day of Judgement. On this Motza’ey Shabbat, as the Shabbat concludes, the Ashkenazi community begins daily midnight prayers of Selikhot, asking for forgiveness. In these prayers we consider: how are we to be judged? in other words, how are we to best do G-d’s will? and what is the highest expression of that will?

 

On Shabbat Shoftim a few weeks ago we read in the parashat hashavua “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Dev. 16.20). Justice, tzedek, is often considered the highest end of an ethical Jewish life, and this verse, we are taught, comes to tell us that we must pursue the ends of justice using just means. The ends do not, in Judaism, justify any means to that end. We must pursue justice in just ways. That is true. But it is not enough. We must also pursue justice in kind ways.

 

It is possible to be just and unkind. It is possible to be right, and unkind. It is even possible to be righteously angry – it may be within your rights – but in that case, certainly, there will be a lack of kindness.

 

Justice, in Jewish tradition, is not the highest good in life. You have probably heard of the Jewish song which tells us what is:

 

על שלושה דברים העולם עומד: על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים

al shlosha devarim ha’olam omeyd: al haTorah, al haAvodah, v’al Gemilut Hasadim 

Upon three things the world depends: on Torah, on Service, and on Loving Kindness. (Pirke Avot 1.2)

 

We understand this Talmudic teaching to be offering us a vision, of a three-legged stool if you like – one strong enough to sustain the entire world. Consider these three pillars; each one offers us a way into the repentance we must discover and practice if we are to grow past the current version of ourselves that we struggle with, the way Jacob struggled all night by the river.

 

Torah, which is to say, study, and more than that: learning. If you would have a stable world, your own and that of the entire planet, there must be openness to learning. Learning is not only about maintaining good brain health; “brain exercises” for their own sake are just one more form of American narcissism. 

Learning cannot take place outside of a context of repentance, for repentance is the posture of humility, of NOT knowing it all. Without a repentant heart, a heart that repents of its desire for protection, one never learns anything that might actually be painful enough to lead to growth. Have you learned that you caused pain to someone? Can you learn how not to do it again? Can you be open enough even for that painful growth? This is true on the highest scale: the best teacher is the one who is not personally pained, or threatened, by the student who learns more than she; and the entire world is better off when that student makes the next breakthrough in the understanding of our world, and how to care for it. 

 

Torah in this sense – the learning that leads to your own improvement, and makes you a better person, capable of giving your best – this is the learning upon which the world literally depends for stability.

 

Avodah, “service”. It is a natural human desire to want to be of use, to be of service to others, and to a great cause. This Hebrew word refers to service in the highest sense: service to G-d. Originally that service consisted of giving back to G-d that which we had received, in order to keep the world balanced, and to keep the flow coming. When we were shepherds, we gave lambs; when we were farmers, we gave first fruits of our orchard. Now that most of us derive our sustenance in different ways, what is the equivalent of that lamb, that first fruit? How do we give it to G-d in a way that keeps the world balanced?

Repentance offers us the chance to consider the true worth of our service to G-d. Or, as the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovich pointed out, to realize that it is actually only ourselves that we are serving, since we only act when we feel like it, when we have time, when it’s a cause that “speaks to me”, when we’re not busy saying we’ve already done enough, or when we feel thanked.

 

Avodah is the service that can never be thanked, in which we all do what is required to honor the essential worth of our own offering, and its necessity to the world, and when we understand that only that is enough.

 

Gemilut Hasadim, “loving kindness”. All of this – all the learning in the world, and all the service – will not stand unless it is done in kindness. This is a higher level than justice, for justice is what is expected of us. Loving kindness is a higher level, and it is the level at which we are expected to function in the world. 

When do you forget to be kind? when are you afraid to be kind? when do you feel too personally attacked to be kind? When do you, G-d forbid, feel that it is okay to be unkind?

 

The world will be stable and dependably firm on its foundations only when we manage to support all three of these pillars. Torah learning is not enough (there are mean Torah teachers) and Avodah is not enough (there are people who insist on their right to resent the service they undertake in the world). It is all empty unless it is accompanied by that most precious and elusive of qualities: kindness.

 

As we move through the last days of Elul and toward Yom Kippur, think of someone it is hard for you to be kind to, or a situation that brings out the worst in you. What can you do to remind yourself to be kind? Repentance is not some moment of grace that falls on you from above; it takes work, devotion, and time to change those neural pathways that cause us to act out of habit. But with a little bit of the humility that allows you to believe that you, even you, can improve, you might.