“Jewish Justice & Jewish Leadership”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, opens with a command to the people of Israel to establish courts of justice in every city in the land of Israel.

Not only must a Sanhedrin, a high court, be established for each tribe, but in addition to judges, the Torah requires the appointment of officers of the court. These officers are to enforce the decisions of the judges, establish standards of honesty in the marketplaces and summon violators to the court for justice.

In Deuteronomy 16:18, the Torah declares, “Shoftim v’sho’trim tee’ten l’chah b’chol sh’ah’reh’chah, ah’sher Hashem eh’lo’keh’chah no’tayn l’chah lish’vah’teh’chah, v’shaf’too et ha’ahm mish’paht tzedek,” You shall appoint in all your cities which the L-rd, your G-d, gives you for your tribes, judges and officers; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. Two verses later, in Deuteronomy 16:20, the Torah forcefully declares, “Tzedek tzedek tir’dohf, l’mah’ahn tich’yeh, v’ya’rahsh’tah et ha’ah’retz ah’sher Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah no’tayn lahch,” Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the L-rd, your G-d, gives you.

The primacy of justice is a theme that reoccurs throughout the Torah, but receives its greatest emphasis here in parashat Shoftim. In fact, Judaism’s “obsession” with justice led the great German poet, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856, born a Jew, Heine converted to Christianity) to write, “since the time of Abraham, Justice has spoken with a Hebrew accent.”

The Torah not only places great emphasis on justice, but actually instructs the people on how justice is to be implemented. In Deuteronomy 16:19, the Torah demands that a judge not show partiality, not accept bribes or gifts for which something may be expected in return, even if they are not given with dishonest intentions, for bribes and gifts blind the eyes of the discerning. That is why the Torah concludes, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” repeating the word, to emphasize that justice, and only justice, shall be pursued.

Commenting homiletically on the opening verse of the parasha (Deuteronomy 16:18), Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your cities, the Shela (Rabbi Yeshaya Hurwitz, 1560-1630, one of the leading Torah scholars in the early 17th century, Poland, Frankfurt, Prague and Jerusalem, whose most important work is entitled, Shnei Luchot Habrit, literally the “Two Tablets of the Covenant”) notes that the Hebrew words, “b’chol sh’ah’reh’chah,” translated here as “in all your cities,” literally means “in all your gates.” The Shela argues that those who aspire to be righteous must station guards at the gates of their souls, their mouths–to make certain that they do not lie or speak malicious gossip, their ears–that they not be eager to hear malicious gossip, and their eyes–that they not form the habit of seeing the worst in others.

The commentaries also point out that the Hebrew term “Tir’dohf” –-“pursue” in Deuteronomy 16:12,”Justice, justice shall you pursue,” implies great effort and eagerness. It is not enough to simply respect or follow justice, it must be actively pursued. Rabbi Simcha Bunam (1765-1827, R’ Bunam of P’schis’cha) maintains that this verse also teaches that society must pursue justice justly, that it must never employ unjust means to achieve a just goal.

It is the verse “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” that has greatly influenced the Jewish people to pursue the Torah’s vision of a just society. In addition to containing the Jewish people’s history of living as a mistreated minority, the Torah’s repeated emphasis on justice has served as the inspiration for Jews to constantly appear in the forefront of struggles for social justice.

The long Jewish tradition to fight for the downtrodden has become a particularly urgent priority of the Jewish community, especially during the last 200 years. So much emphasis has been placed on the struggle for social justice that articles regularly appear appealing to Jewish leadership to tone down the emphasis on “Tikkun Olam,” a phrase that comes from the Aleinu prayer and calls on Jews to “repair the world under the reign of the Al-mighty.”

One of the most recent of these frequent appeals was published on July 27, 2011, as an op-ed piece in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency by Joel Alperson (Click here to read the article), a past national campaign chair of the United Jewish Communities. Mr. Alperson warned that “by [Jewish leadership] overemphasizing ‘Tikkun Olam,’ we can ultimately, through lack of Jewish knowledge and experience, lose the very impetus that put us in the ‘Tikkun Olam’ business in the first place.” Mr. Alperson emphasizes that “distancing from Jewish religious (i.e., G-d-based) teachings and ritual experiences inevitably leads to a distancing from Jewish purpose.” Because of this, argues Alperson, “We’re losing Jews, and the commitment of Jews, far too quickly to think that we can afford to continue on as we are.” He concludes, “We’ll be severely weakened if we don’t acknowledge that we must repair ourselves far more urgently than we must repair the world.”

Within the week, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of Reform Judaism, responded forcefully to Alperson’s essay with his own op-ed (Click here) entitled, “Judaism is always ‘Tikkun Olam’–and more.” Rabbi Yoffie strongly rejects Alperson’s predictions that non-Orthodox Judaism will not long survive unless they change their emphasis. Argues Yoffie, “Jews do not observe Torah in order to survive; they survive in order to observe Torah.” He then cites Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, the great Talmudist of the 19th century, who defined the rabbis’ task as follows: “to address the grievance of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” Rabbi Yoffie maintains that social justice is required as part of the Jewish religion and inseparable from our religious mission. He goes on to declare that “Social justice is not a secular pursuit meant to compensate for the absence of G-d based Jewish experience. Social justice is G-d mandated in precisely the same way that Shabbat observance and Torah study are G-d mandated.”

As I read these two essays I find that there is much agreement in both their statements. Rabbi Yoffie, however, is put off by Mr. Alperson’s dire predictions of the wasting away of the non-Orthodox movements, because of lack of education and Jewish ritual practice. While Rabbi Yoffie seems to also support placing emphasis on the ritual aspects of Judaism, he tries to put a favorable spin on the American Jewish reality. Rather than playing the “survival card,” which he feels rubs young people the wrong way, Rabbi Yoffie insists on focusing on the positive. Let’s give the young people a positive reason to practice their Judaism, says Yoffie, rather than harping on the great losses.

While Rabbi Yoffie may be correct in his assessment of young people’s negative response to threats of a Jewish meltdown, Jewish leaders themselves must not use this as an excuse to deny the frightening demographic realities that we face today due to unprecedented illiteracy among young Jews and lack of positive, joyous Jewish experiences. Mr. Joel Alperson was correct in raising the alarm, though Rabbi Yoffie may also be correct in arguing his case for teaching Tikkun Olam and emphasizing Jewish education and Jewish ritual practices using positive rather than negative approaches.

Unfortunately, without a sense of alarm and urgency among the Jewish leaders, little will happen that will change what seems to be a rather foreboding future for the young Jewish generation. Hopefully, Mr. Alperson’s article will serve as an effective wake-up call, which will impact on Jewish leaders and Jewish reality as well.

May you be blessed.