Shabbat Shoftim: How To Be Judgemental

“Whoever studies the Torah for its own sake [l’shmah] merits many things…[among other things] it gives the individual sovereignty and dominion and the ability to judge.”  – Pirke Avot 6.1
By an interesting coincidence, it was on this week of Shabbat Shoftim (“judges”) that our weekly Talmud study class contemplated this teaching. At first glance we are, perhaps, not sure what to do with it. Sovereignty and dominion? Surely Rabbi Meir, the Talmudic sage to whom this saying is attributed, didn’t mean that those of us who study Torah will all become queens and kings.
Jews who study are best served by remembering the four levels of interpretation we bring to bear on any given verse, teaching, or story: Peshat, Drash, Remez, and Sod, known by their acronym (slightly out of order): PaRDeS, or “orchard.” Applied to the opening verse of our parashat hashavua, our parashah of the week, we can begin to see what “sovereignty and dominion and the ability to judge” one might gain through the study of Torah.
You shall set judges and officers in all your cities (Devarim 16.18)
* peshat, the simple, surface layer of meaning: Jewish ethics both ancient and modern require courts so that justice may be upheld in society.
* drash, the “midrash” layer of thinking more deeply about  meaning:  notice that this is said in the plural: one must not judge alone. (Pirke Avot 4.8)
* remez, the “hinted” meaning: “The human body is a city with seven gates—seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth.
It is incumbent upon us to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out,
and “officers” to enforce the judges’ decisions . . .”  (Siftei Kohen)
* sod, or, the “secret” meaning: we cannot know this meaning easily or right away, if at all, or ever. It may remain secret from us, a useful reminder of the limits
of our understanding.
Now what can we do with “the one who studies Torah for its own sake will merit….sovereignty, dominion, and the ability to judge.”?
* peshat: immersing oneself in Torah creates a rich inner world for oneself, even as children create such meaningful worlds of play for themselves, in which they are fully in control.
* drash: the mystics teach that focusing upon the mitzvot (the heart of Torah and our relationship with it) allows us to become sovereign over our own impulses and desires.
* remez: when one studies Torah l’shmah, “for its own sake,” one will come to understand something about judgment.
This hint is especially important for us, who spend much of our time in ill-considered or uninformed, emotional judgment of others. Whether we read it or hear it, our yetzer hara’, our evil inclination, races to believe the worst of others. To study, or in the Hebrew verb to hear, l’shmah, means without emotion and without any motive other than to learn, with openness to learning and to having our convictions sometimes upset and overturned.
For example, have you heard something about someone else and assumed a position of judgment about that person, a position you defend against new evidence, as a result? If you judged based on one hearing, you have violated the drash level of this mitzvah. No one of us can judge alone.
As for the sod level of this mitzvah, the mitzvah of setting up justice in our gates to be judged and carried out, we may not discern it yet, but looking all around us, we see indications of the horrors that we court when we do not take care with this mitzvah. We may not have complete sovereignty or dominion, yet to the extent that we have some capacity, may our judgments of each other be l’shmah, that we might contribute to that ethic in the communities we influence by our every act.

Shabbat Shoftim: Yes, Be Judgmental – Justly

Parashat Shoftim begins with the description of the necessary supervision of an ideal community. First one must have judges, then those who carry out judgments. And of course, judgements must be just – as just as human beings can manage to be. Nuances of law, circumstances of context, and our own internal biases must all be clearly illuminated by careful and thorough thinking, listening, and testing.
Our tradition has developed fantastic teachings for our own every day judgements. On this Shabbat, the first in Elul – when we attempt to become more aware judges of ourselves – I offer you a few guidelines from Jewish ethical teachings:
1. Judges and officers you shall place at all your city gates (Deuteronomy 16.18) 

The human body is a city with seven gates—seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. Here, too, it is incumbent upon us to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out, and “officers” to enforce the judges’ decisions. (Siftei Kohen)

This insight reminds us to judge ourselves and our impressions justly. Are you about to condemn someone’s words or behavior? have you investigated justly (as you would wish to be investigated?
2. Judges and officers you shall place at all your city gates . . . (16.18)

Do not judge alone, for no one can judge alone but the One. (Pirke Avot – “Ethics of Our Ancestors,” 4:8)

Nothing in Judaism can be judged without two witnesses. In Jewish law, you can’t even turn yourself in. No one can be trusted to testify without corroboration.
3. Justice, justice shall you pursue (16.20)

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 the pursuit of justice—both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just.  (Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa)

Our tradition insists that the world can be perfected, and that there are no short cuts, no exceptions, and that no one will be left out.
Jewish tradition urges us that our learning must be followed with action. On this Shabbat may we remember that action is also internal: before we can reach out to work on the world, we have to work on ourselves. May you find the support for the work you yourself must do among all of us, doing our work together to make the world, and ourselves, better.
Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

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.

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,

Shabbat Shoftim: לא אנחנו ולו אנחנו

the Hebrew phrase in the title of this message is a play on words: lo anakhnu with an alef means “not we ourselves” and lo anakhu with a vav means “we are His”. This play on words comes from Psalm 100. In verse 3 it is written: “G-d has made us and not we ourselves”, but in the oral hearing of it, it can also sound as if we are saying “G-d has made us and we are His”. What does lo and lo have to do with the Torah this Shabbat, which, by the way, is the first Shabbat of the month of Elul?


Lo and lo, spelled lamed alef and lamed vav, are the four letters which spell Elul in Hebrew. “Not ourselves” and “we are His”. The Torah offers the same insight, as explored and interpreted by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (the Rabbi of the Sefat Emet, also known as the S’fas Emes in Eastern European Ashkenazi Yiddish inflection). We turn to it now, with one preliminary disclaimer:


Sorry about the gendered pronoun for G-d. It’s impossible to get around in this instance – but not impossible to rise above, which I invite you to do with me now.


This week’s parashat hashavua is Shoftim, “judges”. The first verse reads “appoint for yourselves judges and officers throughout your land.” The Sefat Emet suggests that we see these two terms as qualitatively different. A judge is one who thinks, considers, applies knowledge, and comes to a careful decision. Nothing is done by rote; each judgement is unique, even though we apply precedent to guide us. An officer is different; officers uphold law by enforcing it, often coercing a person to stand before a judge. Officers create the conditions for judgement, but they do not judge. 


This is a wonderful lesson for the beginning of Elul, the month of reflection and of preparation for the Days of Awe which conclude with Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgement. Here we are at the beginning of Elul, and the Torah command to “appoint for yourselves judges and officers throughout your land”, applied to our own efforts at self-improvement (repentance, said in Jewish) means this: appoint, or create, within yourself two types of inner control, throughout your land, that is to say, your life. The two types of inner control are lo anakhnu with an alef, the officer that forces us to turn away from the material distractions of our lives, and lo anakhnu with a vav, which links us to G-d, the Source of all Life.


The more a person can negate the self (“not ourselves”) the closer that person can draw to G-d (“we are His”). These are the two parts of the service of G-d. First we have to negate [discipline] the body and the corporeal world. For this, we need officers who can force the body to change its ways, to “turn from evil” (Psalm 34.15). Then one can draw near to the Creator “and do good.” For this we need to be judges, to take hold [of G-d] with our minds…. Sefat Emet 5:72, trans. Rabbi Arthur Green


Yes, you can freely choose to eat all the ice cream you want, but that is not really free will. It’s the powerful control over us that the body has. Those who are recovering from abuse must be similarly careful not to give the body undue control over their lives as they recover; from either direction, privileging the body causes us to risk sinking into narcissism. Disciplining the body so that one can learn, consider, and hear the mind’s careful thinking, we reach the lo anakhnu, the true place of service to G-d, where we use our G-d-given brains to their fullest and best extent.


The month of Elul comes to remind us every year: not because of ourselves, but because we are G-d’s, we are precious, unique, and irreplaceable: when we set officers and judges over ourselves, we can fulfill our potential of being, truly, G-d’s gift to the world.