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Shoftim - Authority

Sometimes it feels like a parsha was made just for you, just for now. That’s how I felt reading Shoftim this past Shabbat. At school, I’ve been reading George Orwell’s 1984 and learning about the US Government (in different classes). The totalitarian government in 1984 aims to eradicate freedom at every level, down to individual thought. The US, on the other hand, was designed to protect individual freedom from totalitarianism. In 1984, the highest virtue is obedience to authority. For the US Constitution, the highest virtue is independence. In 1984, the government has no formal laws, neither for itself nor for citizens, as all of life revolves around it. In the US, the government is limited in its power by laws, and the citizens are limited in their independence only by laws. Laws, when they are the sole medium of legal power, limit government power and protect the people from authoritarianism. When there are no laws, the will of the government reigns supreme. In 1984, the government regularly propagates blatant lies to the populace (e.g. yesterday rations were cut, today the government says they were raised), which is brainwashed/intimidated into believing those lies. In the US, of course, that is not the idea.

I went into Shabbat with these ideas in my head. I heard Parashat Shoftim at shul. I went home after shul. The rest of my immediate family is not Shabbat-observant. They had all left the house and come back while I was at shul, meaning the only reason I could be let into the house was because they had transferred a key from the public domain to the inside of our house (no eruv in my ‘hood). I was faced with a choice. I could spend the rest of Shabbat (about 6 hours) in the backyard, with the heat and mosquitoes and the thermos of water I had put out there in the morning. Or I could enter the house and benefit from the “work” of a Jew, with access to plenty of food, water, and air conditioning. I ended up choosing to stay outside, for the most part. It was certainly less pleasant than if I had chosen to stay inside. I felt like an extremist. Was I blindly following the Rabbis? Is that a good thing?

Now, back to Shoftim. If you don’t remember or haven’t learned the contents, I’ll give the relevant info. In Shoftim, Moshe instructs the people to appoint judges and officers over themselves to render justice and not to stray from the rulings of those judges at all. With JPS, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that your God יהוה is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deut. 16:18) and “You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left” (Deut. 17:11). Rashi comments on this last verse that even if these judges pronounce that left is right or right is left, you have to accept their verdict. This sounds an awful lot like 1984 to me. And the scary part is that this verse is most often cited as being the origins of the rabbinical system. Rashi seems to be saying that the Torah commands us to follow the Rabbis completely blindly, even when their rulings seem obviously wrong. Also in this Parsha is a provision for the people appointing an Israelite king over themselves once they are established in the land. The king must not have an excessive amount of horses (most prominently used in war), wives, or gold and silver. He must write himself a Sefer Torah and observe its commands scrupulously. JPS’ Deuteronomy 17:20 has “Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.” This sounds an awful lot like the Constitution–a check on the government’s power by the laws of a document. But then one wonders, is the king subject to the shoftim? Can shoftim strike down a royal decree as “unconstitutional”? Or is the king the only citizen who can interpret the Torah for himself? Or - here’s another possibility - all lawsuits go to the shoftim, but otherwise, an individual interprets the Torah for themselves in regard to their own conduct? That of course is not the way Judaism is today, at least according to most Orthodox Jews. According to most Orthodox Jews, rabbis can both settle disputes and determine how mitzvot are fulfilled. It’s almost as if we the people don’t have any engagement with the Torah - all of our Judaism comes through rabbis. Add to this a system of shotrim, of officers who can enforce rabbinical rulings, and you have a totalitarian rabbinical society. Is that what the Torah envisions, what God envisions? Well, in later books, say Ezekiel 36:27, “and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules” by JPS, argues Dr. Christine Hayes, prophets put forward a vision of a world in which Jews won’t have a choice in observing the commandments; it will be built into their nature. Is that really what God wants? Sounds a lot like 1984.

Let’s take it back to my experience in the backyard. Nobody was forcing me to stay outside and observe a Rabbinic rule against benefiting from the work of a Jew (that’s my understanding of the halacha; the point is that I was doing this out of commitment to halacha). In fact, my family would have much rather had me inside. So what was keeping me out there? Yirat Shamayim? Frankly no. Fear? I hope not. Commitment to halacha, the rulings of the rabbis? Yes, but what is behind my commitment to halacha? Is it those verses from Deuteronomy? No. Is it a belief in rabbinic infallibility? Certainly not. Is it a desire to have my choices made for me? I certainly hope not. I hope I am not becoming willfully blind. Is choosing halachic observance in today’s world like choosing to put a blindfold on? That’s a scary thought. I really don’t believe God wants us all to have blindfolds on. On the contrary, I believe God wants the Jewish people to be united by laws and a common pursuit of justice. It is a balance, though, between totalitarianism and anarchy. We can’t disregard the Rabbis and Jewish law; the Jewish people fall apart and injustice runs rampant. We also can’t accept rabbis and their laws blindly; we are then nothing more than sheep at the mercy of possibly corrupt shepherds. That is why it is imperative to appoint rabbis wisely and to observe their rulings with a critical eye.

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