Sermon given by Jason Lever
19th August / 2nd Elul
When I put myself down to prepare this Shabbat’s drasha, I did think Parasha ‘Shoftim’ seemed very familiar.
I found that I’ve actually done two sermons on this Parasha before. One most recently, invoking that well-known sage – Rav Harry Potter – when I focused on the prohibition on forms of magic (soothsaying, divining, and the like), that could be a slippery road to idolatry. And that was covered in today’s reading that Roger leined.
It then dawned on me that this was not such a big coincidence, as Rabbi always takes his holiday this time of year and I’m always around in August! So, nothing all that mysterious or the result of sorcery!
Which parts of the Sedra, then, am I going to talk about? The earlier section on ‘dat’, law. Where Moses entreats them to put in place ethical and administrative norms for the new society that’s in store for them in the land of Canaan. What did this mean in practice and why?
If the setting up of government and justice systems are carried out in the spirit of the Torah, then – in Rabbi Plaut of our Chumash’s words – ‘Israel will have come closer to the ideal of being God’s kingdom of priests’.
And I want to offer some reflections on how this plays out in the current, major conflict across Israeli society, with the Government’s so-called Reasonableness Bill, its attempt to reform the powers of the Supreme Court.
If this does not sound a very familiar Torah passage to you – I suspect most of you will have heard its clarion call:
“Tzedek, Tzedek, teer’doph”
“Justice. Justice, shall you pursue”.
So important, it’s repeated. Why? It’s not just one of the highest ideals or core values in Judaism, it’s about the pursuit of justice being carried out in just ways.
Explained as: ‘Justice (in) Justice (in just ways) – as Rabbi Pinchas Peli says.
This is broken down into stages.
Part one is the people were told they must “appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes… and they shall govern the people with due justice”. How?
I like Robert Alter’s translation, “You shall recognise no face and no bribes shall you take, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the innocent”.
Part two is what should happen after justice has been dispensed – when a decision is made by magistrates or the priests. Then, “you must not swerve from the word that they tell you right or left”.
Part three, which is easy to miss and I have done so up to now, is what then is the effect on the people. They “shall listen and fear, and they shall no longer be willful”.
And this brings me 2500 years forward to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens acting ‘willfully’ on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, week after week all year. Protesting ‘against’ or ‘for’ their Government’s judicial reforms.
I would argue that this willfulness is for a positive purpose, to maintain and save a balance of executive and judicial power in their country, and in line with the message invoked by Moses that we just learned:
“Justice. Justice, shall you pursue”.
In fact, this goes on as:
“… so that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you”.
At a political level in Israel, the country is being polarised around whether Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reforms are judicial ‘overhaul’ to ensure government policy is not struck down (in its defenders’ eyes) or represent an undemocratic, judicial ‘coup’, threatening the Court’s independence (according to its opponents).
In my view, through the lens of Torah, the protestors have the valid concern that these measures are not a just one – in terms of the dangers of how justice would be administered in the future.
As set out in this Parasha, it’s about justice being safeguarded as the basis for thriving in the land of Israel.
The administration of justice – impartially, even-handedly, and able to withstand the whim of any government of the day – is one of the conditions of Israel’s existence as a nation, whether in Biblical or modern times.
As Isaiah said, “The Holy God is sanctified by justice”, which is therefore akin to holiness. Without the conditions for justice, we have ‘a negation of religion’, as our old friend Rabbi Hertz put it.
Two thousand years ago, a supreme court of the times – the Sanhedrin – was set up to deal with really difficult cases and to ensure justice for all.
It seems rather ironic to me that the right-wing, national religious parties, supported by many Charedi, now resent the modern-day Supreme Court (or Sanhedrin) for what they feel is daring to supplant the Rabbis after centuries as the lead authority for Jews in all the diaspora communities.
So, to finish on, and quoting Lenin out of context, ‘what is to be done’?
We can learn from the Talmud (Rav Ashi, in Sanhedrin 32a) that if it is not possible to impose a clear decision, then the judge should impose a compromise on both parties. In Hebrew, a lifnim meshurat hadin approach.
In Israel today, this is what is being urged from the state President. By much international opinion. And a sizeable proportion of its people.
Can there be redress of this ever-deepening rift across Israeli society, mahloket l’shem shamzim – translated as constructive disagreement for the sake of Heaven.
What is the Holy work to repair seemingly irreconcilable differences?
One of my great teachers in Israel, Yiscah Smith, shared in our Zoom class recently some perspectives that offered some hope that they can pull back from the deep cleavages or potential chasms in Israeli society. Last month, there were big rallies being held for the reforms in Jerusalem and against them in Tel Aviv. Yet, as the crowds were taking the new fast train line between the cities in opposite directions, TV coverage showed people waving to each other and shaking hands. And, in Jerusalem, where there was a women’s tent encampment of anti-government protestors, several Charedi women came by, started talking to them and ended up staying for several days! (Sounds like it would make a good episode of Shtisel!).
I’ll conclude with a quote from one of the creators of the State of Israel, and Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.
He advocated the ‘tenet of Jewish solidarity which demands mutual respect on the part of all Jews’.
Let us hope this comes to pass for the conditions of justice to prevail and the people to thrive across Israel.
And let me wish you now a forthcoming happy new year, as I shall be away in Israel for a month studying the Talmud’s teachings that I drew on this morning and that that I hope to have shown are as vital as ever for Jews in Israel and Brighton & Hove today, in the approaching year 5784 and beyond.