Wise Words: ‘You Shall Not Judge Unfairly’


SHOFTIM, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

The opening words of this week's portion instruct the Israelites to "appoint magistrates and officials," judges and judicial administrators "in all [your] settlements … [to] govern the people with due justice." Twenty years ago, my daughter spent her 13th summer chanting these verses, over and over, as she prepared for her Bat Mitzvah.

In the past month, we Americans have fulfilled these ancient words. We empowered our elected officials to appoint a new judge to the highest court in our land. Just as my daughter has no memory of a time when becoming a Bat Mitzvah was an impossibility, American grade-school students will not question the right and the justice of the ascension of a Latina working-class daughter of the Bronx to the Supreme Court.

The second sentence of the portion directs the behavior of those who are appointed to serve: "You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just." As we read these words today, we hear echoes of the recently concluded Sotomayor hearings, and we marvel at the insight and wisdom of our sacred text.

The next sentence is one of the most quoted from our Torah: "Justice, justice shall you pursue … ." In a 2007 speech, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared with her audience that these words, in Hebrew, are on the walls of her chambers. "These postings," she said, "serve as ever-present reminders of what judges must do "that they may thrive." (www. supremecourtus.gov/publicinfo/speeches/sp_10-21-07.html) Ginsburg reminds us of the second part of the sentence, and that our behavior has consequences.

For some modern readers, these words raise a range of questions about justice for whom and where: "Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that your God, the Holy One, is giving you." Considered in the context of this final biblical book, we are reminded that Deuteronomy imagines an ideal society. Shoftim sets out explicit direction for building that society.

"A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses," and "if a case is too baffling for you to decide … you shall appear before the … magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem."

These safeguards, against an erroneous judgment based on inadequate testimony, and establishing a system of higher courts, as well as the direction to establish courts in every place that people dwell, serve as guidelines for the continued pursuit of justice. The portion concludes with directions for the just conduct of war, and how to respond to and deal with an unsolved murder, reflecting that just behavior extends into every aspect of people's engagement with one another, from individual encounters to conflict between nations.

We who are blessed to live in a time when there is greater justice for many in both Jewish and American society, know that the power to effect justice is not only in the hands of Supreme Court justices. When each of us treats those we encounter fairly — regardless of gender, background, class or race — then perhaps we, too, will thrive.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the Worship Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: slelwell@urj.org.


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