Friday, August 24, 2012

Shoftim (Wanderings)

“Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue”

This parashah, devoted to a variety of social institutions, begins with those of law and justice—courts and magistrates. It occurred to me that the words צדק צדק תרדף —“You shall surely pursue justice”—with which the first section concludes, is a bit odd. It is as if to say: Justice is elusive, it needs to be actively pursued to assure its existence. There are always forces opposing it, people who stand to benefit by injustice and oppression, robbing the weak and helpless, as in the old folk song, “Some rob you with a pistol, some with a fountain pen.” This idea is further suggested by the verses that immediately precede it, which so to speak list all the obstacles or barriers to justice: “Do not pervert justice; do not favor ‘faces’ (i.e., important people); do not take bribes, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts the words of the righteous” (Deut 16:19).

No person is safe from self-interest, the temptation of easy gain at the expense of the other. Even the wise man, who knows full well when he is doing wrong or “bending” the rules to his own or his friend’s unfair advantage; even the righteous man may fall prey to temptation—as if to say, no man is “righteous” as a fixed quality of his being as a person. Justice, truth, righteousness, integrity, are all the results of a daily struggle to do good and not to be influenced or tempted to depart from the straight and narrow. There may be people who are called tzadikkim, but they have the same inner struggles as everyone else, and at times they fail (albeit hopefully less frequently), just like the next person.

That is why the person who truly practices justice—particularly the judge, who is supposed to be the guardian of justice for society, using his authority to protect the weak and helpless from those who would oppress them and deprive them of what is rightfully theirs—is called a partner of the Almighty. Thus, when Rabbi Akiva sat as judge he would say to the litigants, ”You are not standing before Akiva ben Yosef, but before He who spoke and the world came into being.”

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Parshat Shoftim was chosen to open the Torah readings of Elul, “the month of forgiveness and compassion,” the month devoted to teshuvah. One of the areas in which most people, both individuals and communities, in most places and times, need to examine themselves, is that of justice. Indeed, we are told that one of the three questions asked of a person after he dies and his soul is called before the Heavenly tribunal is נשאת ונתת באמונה—“Did you behave honestly in your business dealings?” Our tradition poses high demands in this area. It is unfortunate that the term teshuvah (repentance, turning towards God) has been hijacked by the pietists and identified in the public imagination with becoming religiously observant. As Rambam says in Chapter 7 of Hilkhot Teshuvah, it is much more than that: first and foremost, it involves rectifying one’s character faults and one’s ethical behavior.

Some weeks ago (HY XIII: Mattot-Masei) I discussed the first six blessings of the middle section of the weekday Amidah; at the time, I promised readers that I would return to discuss the second group of six, something I still hope to do. In the meanwhile, I would like to mention one important point, germane to this discussion. The main theme of these six latter blessings is the redemption of Israel; the first stage mentioned, after the ingathering of exiles, is the restoration of true justice. This includes the restoration of the Sanhedrin as an institution, but more than that, the Sanhedrin and the other courts are seen as embodying a pure, holy, upright, God-inspired system of justice. Until that happens, we cannot go on to the restoration of the Davidic monarchy, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the indwelling of Shekhinah. There are those in Israel who sometimes talk as if Messianic fulfillment were just around the corner—but they are “jumping the gun.” Israeli society, beginning with its leadership, has a long way to go to become a society that manifests justice, righteousness and caring loving-kindness to all—and it is that which must be our highest priority.


EKEV: “Make a Wooden Ark”

Two weeks ago, in our discussion of the retelling of various historical events in Sefer Devarim, we mentioned the manner in which the story of the Golden Calf is related there. Perhaps the most striking point, which I somehow failed to mention : in its retelling in Parshat Ekev, Moses’ entire dialogue with God, in which he asks to “make known to me Your ways” and “show me Your glory” is omitted, as is the Duvine response, in which God places him in the cleft of the rock, covers him with His hand, shows him His “back” but not His “face”; and reveals to him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy—all these details, pregnant with profound if mysterious and ambiguous theological significance, are absent.

Instead (?), God instructs Moses to make an ark of wood, and to place therein the two stone tablets on which He will write, a second time, the Ten Commandments. All this seems very different from the commandment in Exodus 25 to make an ark of wood inlaid and overlaid with gold in the larger context of building a tabernacle. The only coherent explanation I can think of is that the ark is a reminder to the people of the sin of the calf and of their culpability and, most of all, of God’s forgiveness, symbolized by the giving of the second tablets. This may also explain why the revelation of the thirteen attributes of mercy are omitted; the ark of the covenant is a kind of sign of the same act of Divie forgiveness, albeit in a far more muted sense. (On this entire subject see my essay at HY I: Ki Tisa= [Torah]).

RE’EH: On Leviticus and Deuteronomy

Last week I conducted a comparison of the laws in Re’eh with their counterparts in the earlier humashim. I noted that the laws in Deuteronomy, generally, whether those dealing specifically with religious institutions, such as the Temple, tithes, festivals, etc., or those dealing with other aspects of societal life, seem far more socially oriented, This tendency continues in this week’s parashah, Shoftim, and in the one thereafter.

A thought that occurred to me during the course of the Torah reading last Shabbat: since time immemorial, it would seem, there have been two basic approaches to religion, within Judaism and in the human community generally. The one sees religion as a distinct realm of life, “holy” and “sanctified” in the sense of being separate and isolated insofar as possible from the mundane realm; a place to which, as it were, man may escape from the chaos and tensions of “real” life to find solace for his tormented soul. (Is that why so many religions insist on segregation of the sexes in the realm of the holy?) The holy is perceived as a realm complete unto itself, almost hermetically sealed-off from the rest of life by a series of rules and rituals, inter alia symbolized by the physical walls of the Temple or synagogue (kedushat mehitzot; or those of the church, mosque, monastery, place of “retreat,” etc.) This approach is epitomized by the attempt to apprehend what Rudolph Otto has called Der Ganz Anders—God as the “Wholly Other,” the mysterium tremendum.

The other approach is one which sees religion as integrated within and guiding life, as attempting to sanctify life by teaching human beings how to live with themselves and with one another as beings created betzelem elohim, in the Divine image; through the study and practice of Torah as embodying ethical values and ideals; through the halakhah, which is seen first and foremost, as an instrument for teaching decent and upright behavior, thereby sanctifying everyday life. Or, if you prefer, one might speak of these as the “priestly” and “prophetic” approaches.

The point is that neither of these is “right” or “wrong”; each one reflects a part of the desired path to be followed by the religious human being. (In much the same way, God is described as both “transcendent” and “immanent,” neither one exhausting the mystery of His Being—a point particularly strongly articulated in Hasidic thought). Thus, one might argue that, by presenting us with both these codes of law, the Torah ends up, in its totality, giving us a rounded, more complete picture of how things should be than if we were to have had only one or the other.

Another point: there is an enigma in the section concerning kosher and unkosher birds in the kashrut code of Chapter 14, verses 11-20. This section begins with the verse כל צפור טהורה תאכלו (“You may eat every pure [species of] bird”), and ends with the almost identical phrase, כל עוף טהור תאכלו (“you may eat every pure winged creature”). In ordinary Hebrew usage, the words tzippor and ‘of are virtually synonymous, being used almost interchangeably to refer to birds. Indeed, the Even-Shoshan Dictionary defines ‘of as referring to vertebrates which have a beak, feathers, and wings—in other words, a bird; the word tzippor refers to the smaller members of this group. But it occurred to me, half in whimsy, that with some stretching this could be read as alluding to locusts and other winged insects which the Torah permits in Lev 9. Ibn Ezra supports this interpretation.


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