Shoftim - on tzedek, on Torah law, and on trees

This is a very well-known parasha, partly because it is so popular with Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Shoftim, judges, outlines a system of justice that keeps all levels of leadership in balance. The text says that judges should be appointed to ensure justice, that these judges should be restricted in their power (they must be objective, must not take bribes, must pursue justice). The system of governance outlined is remarkable for its forward-thinkingness. Religious, political, and judicial authorities are all required to ensure that none has ultimate authority – they keep one another in check. The rule of law is established; the people can choose a king, but the king must adhere to the law and to the religion (Note: the Torah says that a king should not take too many wives (17.17) and Rashi agrees, clarifying: “Only eighteen.”)

Towards the very beginning of the parshah is the famous line “tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“justice, justice shall you pursue) (16.20), which has been interpreted as the roots for the Jewish commitment to social justice and ethical behaviour on the part of religious and cultural Jews alike. Is it fair to suggest that Jews are more ethical than others, or is this simply a reiteration of chosenness? Recently I attended a lecture by Limmud founder and philanthropist Clive Lawton. Limmud is an international organization that promotes cross-denominational Jewish learning on just about any subject. Learning, Lawton feels, is central to Jewish culture. But so, he suggested, is ethical behaviour. The entire point of learning our tradition and celebrating our peoplehood, he suggested, is to create a better world.

Humanistic Jews often cite the legacy of Jewish social responsibility as one of the reasons we are proud of our Jewish heritage and choose to remain part of the Jewish people. Our communities engage in social action/justice work whether it is service or advocacy, and we are proud of our contributions. Indeed, Shoftim gives us that warm, fuzzy feeling that our people have a long history of pursuing justice. We deserve to be proud of that history and of the significant contributions made by Jews as individuals and communities. By the same token, it is useful to consider that texts like this have sometimes been overblown. Think of some Haredi communities who treat women deplorably and then call it “justice.” Think of the unethical Jews we can think of, whether in our business or social worlds, who might be able to recite “tzedek tzedek tirdof,” but whose actions do the opposite. One of the aspects of Humanistic Judaism that we are proud of is the integrity that comes with believing what we say, and saying what we believe. We choose not to pray in our communities because such prayers assume that there is a personal God who will answer those prayers, and, if we do not believe in such a God, it is inauthentic to recite prayers that presuppose him. We should be mindful, however, that if we quote lines from Torah such as “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” that we similarly adopt an approach of being true to those words. Do we profit, whether through our work, our investments, our governments, from environmental destruction, class stratification, the oppression of others? If so, what are we doing to address those problems. Do we take seriously the task of tzedakah – both charity and justice? Do we give freely and willingly to causes we believe in, but also try to challenge the social and political causes that create the need those causes address? Is there more we can do? This is the challenge of this parshah.

While we laud this parshah's concern for justice as a concept, many of its examples are unjust to a contemporary reader. Someone who transgresses by worshipping other gods must be stoned. However, at least two witnesses must corroborate the accusation, and there is to be due process. We do not agree with the charge or the punishment, but we do agree in the sort of due process that the text calls for. Similarly, this parshah revisits the concept of “measure for measure” (e.g. “an eye for an eye”). While we do not believe this is the highest form of justice, it is important to understand that these rules were for crimes against a person. Crimes against property can be compensated for financially, while crimes that injure a person cannot. This principle shows that there is empathy for people and a value placed on human life that cannot be assigned a monetary value. These concepts are at the heart of the jurisprudence of the Torah. Even if the conclusions are not those we can accept in modern society, the Torah provides a philosophical approach to law-making that with which we can grapple. An example is in the case of manslaughter. The Torah gives an example of a man whose axe handle flies off while he is cutting a tree and ends up killing someone. The Torah says that three “cities of refuge” should be set up where this man can live without fearing the dead person’s kinsman will be able to find him and avenge the accidental death. Modern legal systems impose different charges and penalties for murder vs. manslaughter, and the issue of intent is of extreme importance when deciding on legal matters. It is fascinating that the Torah, and therefore the scholars who have studied it for generations, have pondered the legal questions that still inform our systems of justice today.

One final point of interest in the parshah is that there are an awful lot of references to trees. There is the example of manslaughter when a man is cutting down a tree. There is also the rule that “sacred posts” (see commentary on Parashat Va-Ethannan), or asherim, not be worshipped. The Goddess Asherah was represented by trees and statues of her made from wood. Canaanite Gods in general were often worshipped at the site of trees, and so this parshah suggests that new trees not be planted on the Temple Mount, lest people be tempted to worship them. Another reference to trees is in the laws concerning holy war. The people are told that they cannot destroy the trees of the people they are conquering, but must leave them in tact (20.19). This final rule is the proof-text for the rule of “bal tashkhit,” or the rule not to destroy/waste natural resources. Jewish environmentalism uses this rule to promote environmental justice – another kind of justice that falls under the rubric of “tzedek,” Natural resources, such as trees, are hugely valuable to human and other forms of life. The anxiety on the part of the writers of the Torah, is that paganistic ritual that worshipped the natural world (or worshipped gods through praising the natural), would find their way into Israelite/Jewish practice. It is notable that the tree appears in many places in the parshah, when the people are being given instructions for how to administer themselves once they have (re)claimed the land. We are the people of “ha-aretz,” our relationship with the land (of Israel and also the earth itself as the source of life) being inextricable from our cultural practices. As we consider justice and tzedek in all of its forms, we should consider how “the land” – politically and ecologically – is the source and site of both injustice and justice. We should consider too how to address those issues. The Torah itself is referred to as “etz-chaim” (the tree of life). Our tradition’s writings and thinking are likened to the sustenance of the earth, a sign that both “feed” us. The earth provides material sustenance for our physical bodies, and Torah (by extension, I would include all Jewish thinking, history, philosophy, and literature) feeds our minds and hearts.