Engage All Texts
At a time when Jewish influence has increased, how do we approach unethical commandments?
Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.
Parashat Shoftim should be one of the easiest Torah portions to write about for AJWS' Dvar Tzedek. The parashah begins with the command to appoint judges to execute mishpat tzedek, righteous judgment (Deuteronomy 16:18). Two verses later comes the biblical principle perhaps most frequently cited by activists: "Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof - Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gave you (Deuteronomy 16:18)."
It's not only judges who are responsible for maintaining an ethical judicial system. Shoftim also delineates the rules of legal testimony, which presume innocence and seek to ensure that witnesses be corroborated and accountable. The Talmud expands upon these laws and views this area of social/civil justice as a matter of concern for the divine. "Three the Holy One hates: him who says one thing with his mouth and another in his heart; him who possesses evidence in favor of his neighbor but fails to testify on his behalf; and him who, seeing something improper in his neighbor, acts as the sole witness against him (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 113b)."
Parashat Shoftim goes on to describe other laws meant to facilitate ethical society, laws that protect people from the capricious use of violence and power.
Dealing with Enemies
In a ruling often cited by progressive Jews, Parashat Shoftim, in its laws of war, commands the Israelites to offer its enemies the opportunity to surrender peacefully before the attack. But a thorough reading of these laws of military engagement reveals a problem with a pacifistic interpretation of Parashat Shoftim: What happens if the enemies of the Israelites accept the terms of peace?
"If they respond peacefully and let you in, all the people present there shall serve you as forced labor (Deuteronomy 20:11)." Turning your enemies into forced laborers may be a better alternative than killing them, but it can hardly be deemed progressive.
Additionally, the mandate to extend terms of peace only applies to so-called "optional wars." When it comes to "commanded wars," including the conquest of Canaan, no offer of peace is to be extended, and no living person--man, woman, or child--is to be left alive (Deuteronomy 20:11).
Difficulties in the Text
The call for a just court system at the beginning of the Torah portion is also far from simple. While the Torah articulates clear guidelines in support of judicial impartiality and fairness--for example, explicitly prohibiting judges from giving preferential treatment and taking bribes--there is no indication that the Torah extends "tzedek tzedek tirdof - justice, justice you shall pursue" beyond the courts to social justice.