Systems Must Change to Accommodate Societal Shifts

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The parshah contains several thematic sections: regulations regarding the judicial system and public officials (judges, kings, Levitical priests, prophets true and false); special aspects of the judicial system (cities of refuge, property boundary markers, witnesses); rules for war; and dealing with unsolved murders.

Parshat Shoftim
I can’t remember when the Constitution got as much attention as it has during the past month.
Even before Khzir Khan’s challenge — which put pocket editions of the U.S. Constitution on Amazon’s best-seller list — it was on the minds of citizens concerned about the appointment of Supreme Court justices, the separation of powers, immigration and trade issues, voting rights, the outpouring of money into political campaigns and more.
Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) can be understood as a nascent biblical constitution, replacing in a way the “articles of confederation” that came before it. It’s always dangerous to draw parallels between ancient texts and modern situations (circumstances always differ and cherry-picking verses is all too easy). Even so, there is something to learn from examining today’s political and social issues in light of Shoftim.
The parshah contains several thematic sections: regulations regarding the judicial system and public officials (judges, kings, Levitical priests, prophets true and false); special aspects of the judicial system (cities of refuge, property boundary markers, witnesses); rules for war; and dealing with unsolved murders.
Most significant is one overarching, though not expressly stated, fact: In many cases the laws as stated here are different from their expression in earlier parts of the Torah. Why?
A little history: Though said to be Moses’ final words prior to his death, Deuteronomy, in fact, reflects the fraught political situation during the reign of Josiah (641-609 BCE). The destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel still weighed heavily on Judah. Now the whole Middle East was in turmoil: The Assyrian Empire was disintegrating, Egypt was recovering from Assyrian rule and a Babylonian Empire was beginning to form in the East. Judah, always vulnerable to larger political entities because of its location between East and West, struggled to maintain autonomy.
Deuteronomy’s major innovation was centralizing the religious cult in the Jerusalem temple. No small matter, this changed centuries of customs and required new rules to fit the new situation. Changes to laws in earlier Torah documents include sustaining Levites whose altars were shut down, establishing new “cities of refuge” to which unintentional murderers could flee and more.
Whether you believe that these changes were actually anticipated by Moses or were written later to reflect contemporary circumstances, they are examples of how systems must change in order to accommodate societal shifts. This is no call for a “return to the good old days.” And it’s a warning against ignoring changing circumstances in the hopes that they will disappear.
Shoftim opens with the words, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that your God YHVH is giving you, and they shall govern the people with justice” (16:18). What is meant by governing with justice? “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” (16:19).
Pennsylvanians and all Americans should wonder: Does the enormous amount of money spent on lobbying and, especially since Citizens United, on political campaigns make impartiality well-nigh impossible, threatening the democracy that free speech is supposed to ensure?
The next verse (16:20) starts with “Justice, justice shall you pursue … ” The repetition of the word tzedek — justice — attests to the importance of this law in Israelite society. Of course, the phrase might be seen as a truism, and therefore almost a throwaway, except that it follows the verse insisting on impartiality, which means that justice is serious, all about fairness and equality. Ancient notions of fairness were different from today’s.
But given the precedent set by Deuteronomy of promulgating laws to fit the times, it is not difficult to imagine that a modern understanding would demand careful attention to human rights, the ongoing effects of racism, xenophobia, hate speech and other contemporary social challenges.
Significantly, 16:20 continues: “That you may thrive and occupy the land that your God YHVH is giving you.” Failure to ensure universal justice has consequences, and they can be dire. The Talmud says that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans because of “baseless hatred” between Jews (Yoma 9b). In fact, the prophets had railed incessantly against inequality and the failure of leaders to uphold the law, ignoring the poor and more.
Sound familiar? Rome itself disintegrated for many reasons, among them government corruption and political instability. Can society thrive when leaders, political and religious, cause divisiveness and nurture disrespect?
Finally, Shoftim reflects a time when tribal leaders were partially supplanted by a monarch. Of special note is Deuteronomy 17:18-20: “When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll … Let him … read in it all his life, so that he may … observe faithfully every word of this Teaching …. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left … ”
If the monarch must obey the law, must that not also be true of elected officials in a democracy? One can always hope.
Rabbi George Stern is formerly a congregational rabbi and executive director of Neighborhood Interfaith Movement and most recently the executive director of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN). The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. 

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